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November 1999, Week 1


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Donald Larsson <[log in to unmask]>
Reply To:
Mon, 1 Nov 1999 13:05:44 -0600
TEXT/PLAIN (102 lines)
Mike Frank wonders:

> in this case, though, i can't "not forget" that the  "car/license plate/
> new car/stolen money thing is a red herring" because that's an
> argument that either i've never before encountered [or have somehow
> managed already to forget] . . . so i'd appreciate it if edward o'neill
> [or someone else] would recapitulate the argument for those of us
> standing in the need of enlightenment . . .

I'm not sure if Ed means it this way (intention again!), but the
car/money . . . thing is the initial impetus for the narrative--Marion
steals the money to start a new life; she buys a new car with it
(although her motivation for doing so collapses with the state trooper
watching her buy the car).  Newcomers to the film are likely to see the
money as a major plot element.  After the murder, Hitchcock has the
camera tease us by drawing attention to the money--only to have Norman
(who certainly could have used the cash) toss it into the trunk
unaware.  It's one of the grandest of Hitchcock's "McGuffins."

> [warning:  THEORETICAL post script follows:    the larger issue raised by
> this conversation is one that likely haunts all of us who teach introductory
> film courses, courses  in which we try to get students to find meaning
> in features of the image [or the editing] that they tend to ignore . . . lots of
> us have had the experience of getting students to notice camera angles,
> for example, or the use of mirror reflections in the frame, and then trying
> to show them [convince them?] that these features are intentional and
> meaningful . . . all too often students, feeling empowered to READ
> details that they had previously ignored, start coming up with the most
> extraordinary [not to say extravagant] readings of the hero's shoes, or of
> the heroine's name, or of the fact that the villain's phone number begins with
> 555, which in some occult system represents the devil -- and so on . . .

555?  They must be transposing from 666!

> in principle the issue here is, of course, an enormous [and perhaps
> insoluble] problem in hermeneutics . . . but i wonder if anyone out
> there has come up with some helpful suggestion, some rule of thumb,
> that is useful in dealing with this question in the classroom, especially
> in classes where the last thing we want to do in begin a frontal
> attack on the hermeneutic circle or the intentional fallacy . . .

At the risk of exposing my formalist roots, I think that one rule of
thumb might be the internal consistency of "hidden meanings" (a term I
loathe!) within an individual film or within a filmmaker's oeuvre.  In
that case, is a "reading" of shoes, name, or 555 consistent with other
aspects in the film itself or with what we know of a filmmaker's
particular sense of playfulness?  There's no guarantee of "correctness"
in such interpretations (there never is), but it can help to give a set
of guidelines (unless you want to go the opposite direction with a
reader-response or deconstructive play in reading).

Andrew Sarris has lovingly pointed out the prevalence of staircases and
mirrors in Hitchcock's films, and I can see his point, even though
staircases and mirrors are not uncommon items in various households.
But Hitchcock established himself very early as a director who likes to
tweak the audience, to cause a gasp and then pull back the curtain to
show the man at the controls of the Machine for Making People Gasp (his
cameos being just one mechanism for doing so).  If we are tempted to
read meaning in the PSYCHO license plate, we have precedents for doing
so in Hitchcock's work.  Think, for example, of the only houehold key
that Ingrid Bergman is not allowed to have in NOTORIOUS.  Its brand
name is "Unica"--a unique key indeed!  Such play lends credence to the
report that Hitchcock and Vladimir Nabokov considered briefly a
collaboration.  Those license plates in LOLITA (the book) *do* mean
something themselves!  But sometimes, as Sigmund himself said, a cigar
is just a cigar.

Similarly, all the Catholic iconography in Scorsese's films begs for
one to assign it meaning, and similar cases can be made for the films
of dozens of other directors.  On the other hand, there are hundreds
of still other directors for whom it is much harder to find any such

One other thought: The slipperiness of interpretation is especially
marked in the case of what Bordwell and Thompson call "referential"
meaning.  A marquee in FIGHT CLUB announcing 7 YEARS IN TIBET with Brad
Pitt standing in front of it makes a clear allusion to another film by
the young star--but does it imply* anything deeper (say, that the
nonviolence of the Dalai Lama has been forsaken by the star)?  I have
no way of knowing, but it could be worth discussing (if anything about
FIGHT CLUB is worth discussing).  On the other hand, referential
meaning depends on our ability to spot the reference in the first
place.  Students have to be told about Alger Hiss and Whitaker Chambers
to get Roger Thornhill's offhand comment, "I see you've got the
pumpkin" in NORTH BY NORTHWEST.  It is only on such recognition that we
can go on to consider if (along with a newspaper headline mentioning
Richard Nixon) there is an angle to be explored.

Don Larsson

Donald Larsson
Minnesota State U, Mankato
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