More Thoughts on Bordwell’s Levels of Meaning

To follow up on today’s discussion of meaning, here are some additional thoughts by another blogger on Bordwell’s levels:

1) ‘Referential’ meaning. In order to make any sense of the narrative of a film the spectator constructs a concrete world out of the ‘diegesis‘ – the world presented in the film – and the ‘fabula‘ – or ongoing story – which takes place within it. The diegesis can be either ‘extratextual’ – that is, it refers to a real world existing, or which has existed, outside of the film (for example present day Los Angeles, or the 18th Century Paris) or ‘intratextual’ (a world which exists only within the film, such as  the future world of a science fiction film or the fantasy world of a mythic past). At this level, the audience draws upon their knowledge of film conventions, their fundamental conceptions of causality, space and time, and their knowledge of the real world (recognising, for instance, The Statue of Liberty and why it would be out of place rising up out of the sand of a beach). Understanding at this level is the minimum requirement for comprehension.

2) ‘Explicit’ meaning. The spectator assigns an abstract conceptual meaning, or ‘point’, to the diegesis and fabula they have constructed, and this point may be validated by specific textual cues.  A film might have a particular ‘moral’, for instance, which the protagonist learns as the fabula unfolds. The film could have an overt political message, for instance in the films of Oliver Stone or Michael Moore. At this level the film is deemed to have something to say. Again, this level would fall under the general category of comprehension.

3) ‘Implicit’ meaning. Further ‘up’ the levels of abstraction brings us to the construction of covert or symbolic meanings or ‘themes’. Meaning at this level is taken to be implied or ‘spoken’ indirectly. Implicit meaning is  more likely to be a subject of dispute between critics and spectators, and spectators may draw upon extra-textual evidence – such as interviews or references to previous films by the same writer or director – to support their claims. Generally this level of meaning is consistent with referential and explicit meaning though it could contradict those if the referential and explicit meanings are taken to be ironic (as in Paul Verhoeven‘s Starship Troopers, 1997). Where the former two levels of meaning are constitutive of comprehension, implicit meanings are the beginning of ‘interpretation’ proper.

4) ‘Symptomatic’ or ‘repressed’ meaning. Referential, explicit and implicit criticism assumes the film ‘knows’ what it is doing and the spectator is uncovering intentional meanings. Symptomatic or ‘repressed’ meanings are those the writer or director might not be consciously aware of and may be the result of the psychological (often taken to be psychoanalytical) obsessions on behalf of the creator, or the result of economic, political or ideological conditions in the wider social world. Symptomatic or repressed meaning may run counter to referential, explicit or implicit meaning but this time without irony: as such they are a site of even greater discursive dispute than the previous forms of interpretation. Symptomatic reading is the ‘highest’ form of interpretation – at least as far as critics and academia are concerned. It’s also the most open to conscious or unconscious abuse.

Again, these move from more to less concrete, and the level of the media critic really begins at “implicit” and moves outward. At that level of abstraction, the critic must make an actual argument supported by evidence, as opposed to simply describing what we see in front of our eyes. It also will likely require reference to and incorporation of materials beyond the text: other articles, readings, sources, and sites that help support the argument the critic is making and clarify it.

Keep this in mind as you begin to think about your Rhetorical Media Analysis proposals for next week.