Saturday, December 02, 2006

Ricoeur's Three Stages



Andy Horbal's Film Criticism Blog-A-Thon is a great and resounding success. I wish I could crawl out from under my mountain of semester-end grading and create some original content for the occasion but instead, let me do the next best thing and post this brief and interesting passage that I've been meaning to share with you for a while. It's from Tim Bywater and Thomas Sobchack's 1989 book Introduction to Film Criticism: Major Critical Approaches to Narrative Film:

Paul Ricoeur, a noted French philosopher, has described the process of immersion in a text which leads to a richer, more complete relationship with that text, as a movement through three stages. The first he calls “understanding.” This is the movement when a text makes its power clear to the experiencer. Having seen a particular film, for example, the viewer is struck by the insistence the text has in the viewer’s life of meaning. We are all aware that some films do not have such an appeal; we see them, pass the time, and forget them. When this recognition of understanding does take place, however, the text demands some “explanation.” This is Ricoeur’s second stage. Dudley Andrew, in Concepts in Film Theory (1984), says this is necessarily a reductive process, breaking down the text into its various parts to unlock its hold on us. “The text is situated in its various contexts (biographical, generic, historical) and is subjected to linguistic study, psychoanalysis, and ideological critique until the particularity of its appeal is explained as an effect of these generative forces” (p. 181). In a sense this analysis, the second stage, may remove us from the power of the text felt during the moment of understanding, the first stage. But Ricoeur goes on to say that a third stage, “comprehension,” follows. Here a return to the work, bolstered and enlarged by the explanatory process, renews, in a stronger and more comprehensive way, the initial sense that the text has importance in the spectator’s life of meaning. “Comprehension,” Andrew suggests, “is synthetic in that it listens to the wholeness of the text rather than breaking it down into parts: further it responds to cues it finds in the work, initiating a project of meaning which is never complete” (p. 182). The relationship of the text and the spectator becomes a living one. One can return to certain films again and again because they never lose their ability to yield meaning.

43 Comments:

Anonymous Anonymous said...

Wow, this is a gem, Girish! Who says academia is cold? We're all of us, whether we be adherents of Pauline Kael or David Bordwell, whether we publish in some gossip rag or in Film Quarterly, we're all of us just trying to find the words to describe what we feel when we watch movies. (Or trying to determine what constitutes a "movie." Or "watching." Or, well, whatever.)Thanks for joining in the fun!

December 02, 2006 11:06 PM  
Blogger nigredo said...

amazing quote... which sort of explains why some films (like Volver, for instance) leave me cold even though i can see that they're great... apparently, i just cannot relate to them as far as the second stage is concerned...

guess i'll just put them aside for when the right time comes...

December 03, 2006 2:28 AM  
Blogger That Little Round-Headed Boy said...

Funny, but I experience those stages he talks about much more with music than with film. For example, Coltrane's MY FAVORITE THINGS sounds different to me and sheds new "meaning" every time I hear it.

December 03, 2006 3:36 AM  
Anonymous Peet said...

I agree: Wonderful quote, girish! This explains why good criticism can feel as rewarding as it does. Thanks for sharing this little piece of wisdom.

December 03, 2006 4:16 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Andy, Nigredo, TLRHB, Peet--Thank you!

TLRHB--yes, I was thinking about music as well when I read it, and why a piece of music can sometimes seem to support many more listenings/experiences before we begin to "exhaust" it...

Great week for new releases at Netflix. I just added to my queue: a new John Cage doc, Oyster Princess, Anna Boleyn/Deception, One Arabian Night, Eyes of the Mummy (all Lubitsch), Symbiopsychotaxiplasm 1 + 2 1/2, Ripstein's Place Without Limits, The Beales of Grey Gardens, Miami Vice, Tribulation 99, The Conformist.

December 03, 2006 11:05 AM  
Blogger Maya said...

The tripartite structure of that quote seems so Hegelian!

December 04, 2006 4:07 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Hey there, Maya. The (slow) autodidact in me has, alas, yet to read any Hegel!

Just wanted to mention that I have a small entry at The House Next Door's feature "5 For The Day: Life-Changing Criticism."

December 04, 2006 7:55 AM  
Anonymous Flickhead said...

You just have to read Hegel. It's the only way to understand Gallic philosophy thus far.

December 04, 2006 2:52 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

Girish, this IS important: that Flickhead comment above is not from or by me. No, I'm not schizzing out...someone's swiped my identity.

December 04, 2006 2:59 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Don't worry about it, Flickhead.

--A wonderful appreciation of Harry Tuttle by Andy, and an equally wonderful response by the subject of the portrait in the comments.
--Kristin Thompson on the recent ruling on fair use of DVDs in classrooms.
--Richard Gibson has a post in which he's conducting a survey of the best films of 2006.

December 04, 2006 5:26 PM  
Anonymous flickhead said...

Apparently you can choose the identity of anyone and add any URL (under "other"). The two Flickhead comments above have different URLs, but if you were exceptionally mischievous you could match both the screenname and the URL of the Blogger profile, and Blogger will accept that. Why, when there's already someone with that profile who would most likely be logged in? I don't know.

As an example, I am also not Flickhead (though I share his interest in identity and security).

--tuwa

December 04, 2006 6:12 PM  
Blogger Tuwa said...

And I see I can't delete my pseudonymous comment. Oh, Blogger, you're so silly. The potential for mischief is huge.

December 04, 2006 6:13 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Geez, I didn't realize it was that easy.

December 04, 2006 6:21 PM  
Blogger Tuwa said...

Apparently the only way to prevent it is to limit comments to registered users only. But by doing that you'd prevent anonymous comments and also prevent people who pop in and comment but aren't on Blogger.

I'm not sure why they don't have an option to blacklist certain screennames from the "other" option.

Maybe I'm missing something (I hope I'm missing something! I'd never thought of this before, and always just assumed that the person I was talking to was whom s/he claimed to be.)

Here's the help page about comments....

December 04, 2006 6:29 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Lately, I've been getting spammed by "Other" users (non-anonymous) who take the trouble to do word verification etc and then post huge-ass messages with a million links. Have had to ban a half dozen IP addresses...

December 04, 2006 7:02 PM  
Blogger Tuwa said...

What a PITA. Damn spammers ruin every free speech medium they can find.

December 04, 2006 7:15 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

tuwa...is that you...or is it me?

December 04, 2006 9:04 PM  
Blogger Tuwa said...

The tuwa-signed comments (so far, at least!) have been me, and this comment is me, but this one is not. (I wouldn't know Hegel from Kant, but I could probably recognize Descartes, at least after I woke up.)

December 04, 2006 9:38 PM  
Blogger girish said...

--A discussion in the comments at Dave Kehr's on Altman..
--David Bordwell on Lewis Klahr.
--Jim Emerson on the MoMA stills archive.
--Upcoming DVD releases at Acquarello's.

December 05, 2006 6:16 AM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

Thanks for this thought-provoking quote Girish! Great stuff.
Some random thoughts on these questions :

- I wonder if the primary "appeal" (in the sense that the film sticks with us) to most viewer is generated by the intellectual "generative forces" (linguistic, psychoanalysis, ideology) or by a more direct experience and instinctual drive that is the melodrama (emotional cues). The "understanding stage" is already an active reaction to the film. To me the appeal is a passive reception (strictly emotional) and is explained by rules of dramaturgy (pathos, empathy, timing, build up, climax) rather than what Dudley Andrew says (especially concerning the reason why we remember them).

- However the 3 stages of maturation of the film experience are interesting. The audience-film relationship has a life of its own, and it keeps growing/changing as time passes, even away from the images, the film-entity keeps working in our mind. So the stages aren't instantaneous, it may take years or many viewings to coplete the cycle.

- These (demanding) stages only apply to a critical viewing I assume. I mean, this is the kind of thing that makes the general public dismiss criticism because the overanalysis kills the impressionistic experience.
And as people (like Kael) keep repeating that everyone is a critic, the audience thinks that if they don't go through this analytical process their opinion is worthless. It only perpetuates a polarizing misunderstanding. The reaction of the public is to either hate films that don't yield meaning right away, or to hate critics who find too much interpretations that escape them.
That's why I want to avoid the conflation of "critics" and "regular audience"... Watching a movie without reaching even the first stage of "understanding" is alright. In fact movies are made to be work unconsciously (that's the power of art), so appreciation (opinion) of the text doesn't require cognition.
On the other hand, criticism can hardly do without cognition and these 3 stages, because more than an appreciation, it's a judgment. The critic has to work to reach a conclusion.

December 05, 2006 7:38 AM  
Anonymous acquarello said...

"The critic has to work to reach a conclusion."

I think that this statement is the key idea as well in why criticism involves an implicit acknowledgement of, paraphrasing Jean-Marie Straub, "working through the material", much like the way an artist would. Without these "stages" of struggle (whether framed within Ricoeur's definition or something else), these viewing impressions remain ephemeral, inconcrete, and over time, even sentimental. The only way to really avoid that is to engage with the material, which may or may not even be on first viewing (although critics with a deadline are forced to make these decisions, often with compromised results).

In that sense, I'd argue that criticism is the (self) imposed discipline that anyone can do (or at least actively strive for), amateur or professional, but Criticism is something more rarefied, and just having the tools, the training, the experience, and even the passion isn't always enough. You can cultivate it, but you can't endow it.

December 05, 2006 9:52 AM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

These (demanding) stages only apply to a critical viewing I assume.

Which is what Bywater and Sobchack mean when they introduce this as Ricoeur describing the process of immersion in a text. It's a description of the stages of Acquarello's "Criticism" (with the capital 'C').

What I like about these stages, though, is that they bridge the gap between this Criticism and criticism (Kael's "everyone's a critic"). I don't think that it's possible to watch a film without reaching even the first stage, Harry. I think that it's possible to reject a film, but this is itself a critical judgement of not-understanding: This film is powerless.

Journalistic criticism and "everybody is a critic" criticism largely confines itself to this first stage, but it still has value as criticism, perhaps by setting the stage for a progression onward?

It only perpetuates a polarizing misunderstanding. The reaction of the public is to either hate films that don't yield meaning right away, or to hate critics who find too much interpretations that escape them.

Of course, there's a lot of truth in this...

One more word about these stages: I like that nothing here insists that "text" refers to whole films. Harry did a post on René Prédal the other day, consisting of notes on La Critique de cinéma focused on Prédal's "criteria for a good critic." I think this is what's meant by criteria no. 5, which Harry paraphrases (or translates, maybe) as:

"5) Sensibility : emotion. To develop affectivity even for disliked movies."

This is the ability to appreciate the existence of texts within the texts of films that are themselves of value and worthy of study. To appreciate that these texts can be considered in isolation of or in connection to the text they inhabit, just as any film can be considered in isolation of or in connection to the text of the culture or the national cinema or whatever that they came out of...

December 05, 2006 11:02 AM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

acquarello, What/who "Criticism" corresponds to exactly? (talent?)
The distinction I was making was between spectators with discipline (critical viewer) and spectators without (passive viewers Kael falsly credits as critics).

Btw, I'm sure Kael had discipline herself, but I doubt her target readership of "common people" all had her knowledge and insight.

So I agree everyone could be a critic, but it requires work/reflection, it's not an instinctive/spontaneous impression. It's decieving to let every viewer believe their Nonjudgmental opinions equate a critical assessment. That's how actual criticism gets discredited for being "out-of-touch" or too intellectual. Criticism is an intellectual discipline, as demonstrated by Ricoeur above.

Andy, yeah, I was wondering if Ricoeur wrote on films... but I realized he was quoted out of context and "text" converted into "film". Not that it's entirely inappropriate.

The "understanding" stage is defined by "its power made "clear", "meaning", "insistence", "appeal" (generative forces). To me this is not any film or any viewing experience. It says the content is worthy and the experience was positive. So films we quickly forget, we didn't like, we are unable to describe, that left us cold clearly do not qualify for this first stage apparently. I wouldn't necessarily agree with this but in their article applied to cinema, "understanding" already supposes a critical/active reception of the film/text.

December 05, 2006 2:26 PM  
Anonymous acquarello said...

HT, Andy's commented on it when he talks about bridging the gap between Kael's notion and something more akin to art form. Instead of "everyone's a critic", it's more like everyone can be (with discipline, engagement, conscious effort...) a critic. I just see capital 'C' as more of the ideal of achieving complete engagement with the film, so it's more like a convergeance of intimate knowledge of text, synthesis (struggle) of ideas, the creation of something inspired and original, as well as being able to articulate this "new" idea.

December 05, 2006 3:25 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Great ideas. Thank you, everyone!

I've had a long day in class but a plate of linguine and clams and a glass of vin rouge later, the weariness is starting to lift...!

"So films we quickly forget, we didn't like, we are unable to describe, that left us cold clearly do not qualify for this first stage apparently."

Harry, I'm not sure if this is the case.
I see the first stage as potentially making intuitive connections with the film, resonating with it, whether in a positive or negative way, sensing that the film has a place of interest and significance in our "life of meaning."

I take the word "understanding" in the title of the first stage to mean a sort of "intuitive understanding."

I see the second stage as the time when we try to make sense of our experience in some kind of disciplined manner and try to articulate for ourselves what might underpin our intuitive reactions. Why did the film affect us the way it did? Attempting to investigate this (using the tools at our disposal) and articulate our findings are part of this stage, which "may remove us from the power of the text felt during the moment of understanding, the first stage."

There are several films I have loathed over the years that I'm completely unable to forget--they provoke a strong reaction in me at the first stage. Thinking about them with some attempt at discipline (moving them beyond stage 1) is important for me to satisfy my curiosity about trying to figure out why I had the reaction I did.

"...it may take years or many viewings to complete the cycle."

I'm not sure the cycle can ever be definitively completed. As you point out, Harry, "The audience-film relationship has a life of its own, and it keeps growing/changing as time passes, even away from the images, the film-entity keeps working in our mind."

As we accrue life experience on a daily basis, our "life of meaning" is also changing, and we can continue to subject some of the films we have seen to the stage 2 process (while renewing or modifying our stage 1 responses, perhaps, by re-viewing the film....?), thus keeping the sum total of the film experience (stages 1+2+3) dynamic and growing...

December 05, 2006 6:41 PM  
Blogger girish said...

""So films we quickly forget, we didn't like, we are unable to describe, that left us cold clearly do not qualify for this first stage apparently."

Harry, just to correct myself here, I was only nit-picking with the "we didn't like" bit. I think it's possible to have a rich experience (of sense-making, etc) with a film we dislike...

December 05, 2006 8:05 PM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

I agree with you Girish, this is my belief too. But I got the impression the citation in your post said otherwise.

What's "life of meaning"?

As for the "cycle", it may be a romantic idea that a film generates new meaning for eternity... but in reality few do. If we consider these stages for the daily job of a critic, we can hope most movies (from the weekly batch) can be surrounded once for all, even if it takes a couple weeks.
Although I like your idea of re-starting the cycle at stage 1 for each new viewing ;)

December 06, 2006 2:10 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Yes, I think it's a romantic idea as well!

Re: "life of meaning," I'd never heard the phrase before, and am only intuitively guessing that it refers to the totality of values/beliefs/sensibility of a person, the complex of personal beliefs/attitudes that 'intercepts' a film as we experience it and causes us to have intuitive responses to it, before we even articulate why we have the responses that we do. That's my guess; I may be simply projecting here...!

December 06, 2006 6:04 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Beaucoup activity in the blogosphere:
--MS Smith has an article on the Toronto filmfest at The Quarterly Conversation.
--2 posts by Zach on Rossellini: Viva L'Italia and Blaise Pascal.
--Tuwa has an mp3 post on horror fiction from his Body Snatchers mix.
--At Andy Rector's: Japanese filmmaker Nobuhiro Suwa on Pedro Costa.
--Dave Kehr in NYT on Lubitsch and Johan van der Keuken.
--Sounds like a fun night: Celebrating 50 Years of Film Criticism with Sarris, Hoberman and Bresson.
--A handful of reviews at the Listening Ear.
--J. Robert Parks on Volver.
--At Jahsonic: Bretonian and Bataillean strains of Surrealism.
--Jane Dark aka Joshua Clover on Stranger Than Fiction.

December 06, 2006 6:29 AM  
Blogger girish said...

Andy Horbal has a terrific "cinephiliac moment" post on Cars, with screengrabs.

December 06, 2006 6:34 AM  
Blogger Tuwa said...

Thanks, Girish, that's kind of you. Between your link and the one from Beware of the Blog (and finding a referrer link from someone translating the post into German!) I couldn't be happier. I'd long thought that people downloaded the mp3s and skipped the rest. ^_^

That's one thing I enjoy about the readership you have--people engage with the posts, question, challenge, wonder, go off on tangents.... It's wonderful, really.

December 06, 2006 3:30 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Tuwa, I'm glad that people feel comfortable to do that here. I'm thankful for it.

December 06, 2006 5:35 PM  
Blogger Tuwa said...

Watching Casablanca for the umpteenth time. Cinephilic moment: Rick and Ilsa at the start of the flashback, in the car. Arc de Triomphe in rearscreen, and then the background (the rearscreen) dissolves to a country road while the foreground stays the same. I couldn't say how many times I saw the film before I noticed that--not the dissolve, but that it was a rearscreen dissolve.

Didn't DePalma borrow that in one of his films about psychics, or am I confusing that for another film altogether?

December 06, 2006 10:21 PM  
Blogger girish said...

I can't seem to remember now, Tuwa....

A couple of links:
--Terrific post at Mubarak's on Jackie Raynal's Deux Fois (1968) and Patrick Deval's Acéphale (1969).
--Zach on film theorist Jonathan Beller.
--David Bordwell on writing.
--Blog-a-thon warm-up postings at Unspoken Cinema.

Off to the last teaching day of the semester....

December 07, 2006 5:48 AM  
Blogger HarryTuttle said...

acquarello, thanks for the clarification, I agree with that too.
I'd say the "c"/"C" distinction is confusing too for the audience. It's confusing for me too. What we need is the restoration of a critical authority that is not based on instinct, and explain what are the differences with the regular (untrained) audience, what are the limitations of a purely emotional reading of the film (which doesn't give right to judge). Either you view films critically or you don't. "Common people" watch a DVD and think they know better than a critic because their tastes differ.

Girish, thanks for the definition. I still don't understand the context though.

December 07, 2006 12:32 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Harry, I'll try to ponder that a bit...

Both Darren and Zach are mentioned in this article on Satantango in The Nashville Scene.

December 07, 2006 6:01 PM  
Anonymous Anonymous said...

The whole "Its in black-and-white! Its seven-and-half hours long! Its in another language! Its narrative pace would lose to my pet turtle in race to Timbuktu!" briefing is becoming an irritating practice.

I guess this is how it gets attention; as if it were a carnival attraction.

I mean, they could at least give the audience a good idea of what they are in for by having dancing clowns and trapezes greeting them.

December 07, 2006 9:17 PM  
Blogger Noel Vera said...

I need to see that film.

But seven hour films aren't a novelty anymore. Lav Diaz's Ebolusyon ng Isang Pamilyang Pilipino (Evolution of a Filipino Family) follows the fate of three families through ten hours of running time, with Lav inserting documentary footage of recent Filipino history as a kind of transition device/commentary on the action (all the traditional melodrama in Filipino films has been shunted off into, of all things, radio programs, that most of the characters in the film listen to avidly, with all the reverence of Sunday Mass). Flawed but fascinating.

Heremias, his next work, is maybe even more interesting: it's about a man with the eponymous name who becomes witness to a plot to rape and kill a girl; he goes around much as his biblical namesake does, sounding out warning, but no one will listen to him because one of the plotters is the son of a powerful political figure. He makes an oath to fast for forty days and nights if God will save the girl. Another fascinating work, easily the best thing I've seen this year.

It's only nine hours long--an hour less than Ebolusyon--but it's also only part one. I've joked Lav that maybe part two will last forty days and nights. He hasn't denied the joke yet.

December 07, 2006 10:26 PM  
Blogger girish said...

--Pacze Moj points to OUT 1, available on-line.
--Mubarak on Jean Rollin.
--Part 2 of Tuwa's Body Snatchers mix mp3-post.
--Brendon at The Five Year Plan posts two catchy mp3's, from HHH's Three Times and Carlos Saura's Cria Cuervos.

December 08, 2006 7:58 AM  
Blogger girish said...

--Andy on the shortcomings of year-end list-making.
--Michael Guillen's list of his ten favorite Evening Class interviews.
--If you feel like a fun meme, here's one at Jim Tata's. (scroll down a bit)
--Acquarello on Jonas Mekas' Reminiscences of a Journey to Lithuania (1972).
--That Little Round-Headed Boy's list of favorite music of the year .
--Mizoguchi discussion at A_Film_By.
--New discovery: Teleport City.

December 09, 2006 9:26 AM  
Blogger girish said...

A review by Jonathan Yardley of a memoir by art critic Robert Hughes.

Working on something; hope to return with a post before the day is out...

December 11, 2006 7:33 AM  
Anonymous Peter Nellhaus said...

Let me know how you liked Oyster Princess. I saw it in Berlin with German titles. While I recognized Lubitsch touches, the film's humor was too dependent on dialogue. Silent Capra with Dutch titles worked much better for me.

December 11, 2006 5:31 PM  
Blogger girish said...

Peter, I can't wait to see it. I'm a huge Lubitsch fan, and caught many of his silents in a retro a few years back. Ones I remember most vividly are The Wildcat and The Doll...

December 12, 2006 8:38 AM  

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