For Interpretation

Curator's Note

The images I would like to consider are not images from films but screenshots of tweets. They Live (1988) distinguished itself from the many fiercely individualist Reagan-era action and science fiction films with its explicit anti-capitalism—a working-class hero discovers that the small elite enforcing the system of economic exploitation and the police surveillance state are not human beings at all, but a race from another planet. Decades later the film was being celebrated on white supremacist websites for dramatizing an antisemitic conspiracy theory, and so, John Carpenter, the film’s writer-director, took to Twitter to correct the record. Meanwhile, “the red pill” from a famous scene in The Matrix (1999) became a metaphor to express rejection of progressive or liberal values for a commitment to the far right. When that metaphor was embraced at once by the world’s richest man and the president’s daughter [as seen in the screenshot], Lily Wachowski, one of the film’s writer-directors, decided to make her disapproval known.    

Both tweets feature filmmakers rejecting the interpretation that has been given to their film and so pose the question of what allows someone to claim a certain interpretation of a given film is the right one. The filmmakers are also contesting the interpretations of their films from a political position. In both cases, the filmmakers believed themselves to be making mainstream genre films with a quasi-Marxist left-wing message only to find their films appropriated by the right.   

I also chose these examples because both films thematize the question of the interpretation or critique of images within the story worlds (or diegeses) of the films themselves. They Live figures ideology critique as a matter of decoding discrete elements. The pleasing surfaces of the images of consumer culture in the late 20th century—billboards, product labels, magazine covers—conceal a symbolic demand, typically “Obey” or “Consume,” that is their true message. The illusion is sustained by a television signal that also gives the ruling elite—a race of space aliens with blue, skull-like, skinless faces—the appearance of human beings. The resistance has designed a pair of sunglasses that can block the signal and reveal the true messages beneath. In a literal way, the glasses do the work that Christian Metz once claimed film theory should do: “disengage the cinema-object from the imaginary… to win it for the symbolic.”[1]

In The Matrix, on the other hand, the surface reality is made from nothing but computer code. When we see “the matrix” in its raw state, it is just eerie downward-flowing green characters on a black screen. There is no longer an analogical relationship between the encoded images and their decoded form. Though, as Cypher (Joe Pantoliano) tells Neo (Keanu Reeves), “You get used to it. I don’t even see the code, all I see is blond, brunette, redhead.” If They Live imagines ideological interpretation for the age of television, the culture industry, or the society of spectacle, The Matrix does so for the age of ubiquitous computation. In her recent book Doppelganger, Naomi Klein remarks that today “we are not having disagreements about differing interpretations of reality—we are having disagreements about who is in reality and who is in a simulation.”[2] Both films borrow the narrative cliché—extending at least as far back as Plato—of an individual who awakens from a world in a state of dogmatic slumber to encounter the truth, but they do so in ways that are media allegories for their times. 

The act of interpretation or, as Paul Ricoeur famously called it, “the hermeneutics of suspicion,” has frequently been dismissed for imposing meaning where it didn’t exist before and for harboring covert anti-art resentment.[3] Some version of this criticism has been leveled in very different ways by both Susan Sontag and Gilles Deleuze, among many others. Within film studies, David Bordwell’s Making Meaning: Inference and Rhetoric in the Interpretation of Cinema (1989) provided a cognitive account of interpretive practices and their difference from comprehension, analysis, and theory. Bordwell lamented the dominance of theory-based interpretations that do not theorize general principles about how films are made, but use theoretical doctrines articulated elsewhere to interpret film in a top-down, routinized fashion. The tendency, he argued, is for theory to always finds what it is looking for.[4] All of these critiques of critique are useful reminders of the limits of certain tendencies in interpretative practices, but they don’t help us think about all the cultural connotations or anxieties or fantasies that get evoked by films.

When we read examples of ideological critique in my classes, I have noticed that students often have difficulty with the idea that while any given film lends itself to multiple competing interpretations, this doesn’t mean that all interpretations are equally valid. The difficulty is understandable. It would be nice if there was a single correct ideological reading for each film. But once we accept that there is not, haven’t we then descended into relativism? How do we articulate the position that rejects both a simple code in which each element in a text means some other element, its sole true meaning and, on the other hand, the position that says, “anything goes”? 

The question gets to something important about how ideology functions and what it is that critique might be able to do. The ideological function of any work, especially a work of mass or global culture, is designed to accommodate a whole host of contradictory readings. As Fredric Jameson once remarked about the many interpretations of the killer shark in Jaws (1975): “none of these readings can be said to be wrong or aberrant but their very multiplicity suggests that the vocation of the symbol… lies less in any single meaning than in the very capacity to absorb and organize all of these quite distinct anxieties together.”[5] According to Jameson, each work of mass culture, even the most reactionary, gives expression in however distorted form to both anxieties about the current social order and “the deepest and most fundamental hopes and fantasies of the collectivity.”[6] In 2023, it has been fascinating to see the year’s biggest blockbuster, Barbie (yet another film that juxtaposes a real world with an imaginary one in its diegesis), be interpreted in so many mutually contradictory ways. It is rare, however, to see its interpreters analyze how these contradictions are staged in the film itself.   

Given the readings of their films that Carpenter and Wachowski were responding to, it may seem that interpretations of films, whether convincing or not, are common today. But there are good reasons to question whether what we are talking about is really interpretation at all. In 2009, Thomas Elsaesser observed something unusual about film chat boards: They “either ignore the fictional contract and treat the film as an extension of real life, to which factual information is relevant, or they tend to use the film as the start of a database, to which all sorts of other data – trivia, fine detail, esoteric knowledge – can be added, collected, and shared. What they do not seem to be engaged in is (symbolic or allegorical, intentionalist or symptomatic) interpretation.”[7] Participation in the discourse around a film requires, as he put it, “taking for real.” Elsaesser was primarily interested in a specific genre that he called the “mind-game film,” but he was on to something about how social media is affecting the way people engage with films and other cultural objects more generally. What he observed was a tendency toward literalization that disavows the possibility of interpretation, one which accurately describes the way both The Matrix and They Live have been appropriated by the right. 

In 2004, Bruno Latour argued that critique “has run out of steam” in large part because it was too close to conspiracy theory, and a more recent discourse in the humanities called “post-critique” follows his lead. In Latour’s words, “Of course, conspiracy theories are an absurd deformation of our own arguments, but, like weapons smuggled through a fuzzy border to the wrong party, these are our weapons nonetheless.”[8] But what conspiracist discourse does is oscillate between literalization (all the pieces fit together) and totalizing skepticism (everything is relative). These are the default assumptions of much online writing on film as well as politics. Ideology critique retains its importance today not least because it refuses both these positions to think through the contradictory readings that any film (or TV show, TikTok, etc.) makes possible. Let’s bring back the labor and joy of interpretation.


[1] Christian Metz, The Imaginary Signifier: Psychoanalysis and the Cinema, trans. by Celia Britton and others, Indiana University Press, 1982, 3.

[2] Naomi Klein, Doppelganger: A Trip into the Mirror World, Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2023, 111.

[3] Paul Ricoeur, Freud and Philosophy: An Essay on Interpretation, Yale UP, 1970, 32.

[4] See David Bordwell, Making Meaning: Inference and Rhetoric in the Interpretation of Cinema, Harvard UP, 1989.

[5] Fredric Jameson, “Reification and Utopia in Mass Culture,” in Signatures of the Visible, Routledge, 2007, 35.

[6] Jameson, 40. 

[7] Thomas Elasaesser, “The Mind-Game Film,” in Puzzle Films: Complex Storytelling in Contemporary Cinema, Ed. by Warren Buckland, Blackwell, 2009, 35.

[8] Bruno Latour, “Why Has Critique Run out of Steam? From Matters of Fact to Matters of Concern,” Critical Inquiry 30 (Winter 2004), 230.

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