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November 1999, Week 1


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"Edward R. O'Neill" <[log in to unmask]>
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Film and TV Studies Discussion List <[log in to unmask]>
Mon, 1 Nov 1999 21:39:34 -0500
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As usual Mike Frank asks good questions.

What I meant by saying the "car/license plate/new car/stolen money thing is
a red herring" is just what Don Larsson helpfully pointed out.  It's a
MacGuffin.  (Now we're really bad:  explaining one arcane term with another.
Maybe I should add that it's the *objet a* too....)

All I meant was that we're invited to fixate on these details in terms of
their impact on the chain of events (the hermeneutic code), if not on their
symbolic meaning.  After Marion's murder, the issue becomes not Will Marion
get caught? but rather will Norman's mother get caught?  Both of these are
there to distract us from the solution (in a way that could probably
described in terms drawn from S/Z).

But the question of what we do in teaching students to interpret is crucial.

The kinds of over-interpretation Franks refers to--looking for religious
references, e.g.--are one specific kind of interpretation:  the kind which
seeks to translate the text via a specific code.  (E.g., Dorothy's shoes are
red because red means danger or red means sexuality or red means
communism....etc.)  What needs to be argued in such cases is why this code
is more valid than another.

Formal interpretations merely strive to say how the elements of the text
relate:  Dorothy's shoes are red because the film is organized by primary
colors; her dress has blue, the road is yellow; only so many choices were
available for primary colors; the witch being green is determined by her
relation of opposition to the shoes blah blah blah.  But such
interpretations are dry because they have no semantic dimension:  they are
sheerly syntactic.

Thus in practice we often yoke these formal approaches with expressive
interpretations:  that is, we say formal patterns not only play organizing
roles but they express psychological states or traits of the characters.
Thus the "in-itself-ness" of the aesthetic is rescued by narrative, and pure
form gives way to storytelling as a value.

Both of these kinds of meaning, however, are different from intentional
meaning.  The kinds of meaning described above obtain among the parts of the
work but not between the sender and the addressee.  Intentional meaning is
tempting to apply because we rely on it so often when are reading messages
in order to get the sender's intentional meaning.  The commonality of this
situation does not exclude the existence of other possibilities.

Thus the question of the license plate is partly a question of what code to
bring to bear, with what we should link the license plate, and how far to
interpret these codes and linkages as emanating from a sender, whether A.H.
or the set dresser.

Edward R. O'Neill

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