The ‘Correct’ Interpretation

For my money, one of the most interesting topics we have discussed came up last week when we asked: Is there a correct interpretation of a text? Why do we view some interpretations as more correct than others? And, do these interpretations truly deserve to be more valued than the individual interpretation that a reader derives from a text?

I suppose one of the reasons this inquiry fascinates me is that the art that we value is, more often than not, informed by authorities who bring works of art to the public’s attention through their educated interpretations.

While, Rosenblatt doesn’t exactly tackle the matter of authorities, she does discuss how certain accepted interpretations are arrived at. From Writing & Reading: The Transactional Theory, Rosenblatt remarks: “[G]iven a shared cultural milieu and shared criteria of validity of interpretation, we can without claiming to have the single ‘correct’ meaning, agree on an interpretation… The concept of shared criteria of validity of interpretation in a particular social context recognizes that different interpretations of the same physical text may be acceptable, and that some readings may satisfy the criteria more fully than others.”

Through the AV Club’s podcast, Reasonable Discussions, I first heard about Renoir’s 1939 film, La Règle du Jeu (The Rules of the Game). After a little bit of research, I learned that it is often put in film critics’ lists of the best movies of all time. Interestingly enough, when the film premiered, a good portion of the audience greeted the film with jeers; one viewer lit a newspaper in an attempt to burn down the theater; threats were made to other theaters who intended to screen the movie; and it was eventually banned by the French government. It wasn’t until after World War II that the movie resurfaced.

I watched La Règle du Jeu to see what all the fuss was about, and I gotta say, I was pretty underwhelmed. Actually, it was kind of a chore to watch it. So, why is it so highly regarded? From what I can gather, it is acclaimed for its tight narrative and technical brilliance, the likes of which had yet to be done in cinema. Thinking again about the film, I can see what modern-day critics mean: I can appreciate the camera work, the imagery, and the actors’ élan (if I’m going to talk French film, I might as well be as pretentious as possible) in carrying out their roles, as well as what these roles meant in terms of a world on the brink of world war. And still, the interpretation that this is one of the best movies ever made escapes me. However, I recognize that authorities have a certain training in the study of cinematography that I lack. I am thankful for the validity of film critics’ authoritative interpretation, and yet I believe my own interpretation is just as valid. If you don’t believe me, try watching La Règle du Jeu; I’m curious to see if you care one iota.’

C’est meh, n’est pas?

To go back to the original question, I think that we as teachers have a double duty. The first is to provide opportunities for students to use their critical skills to make their own, personal interpretations that they can explain and defend. The second is to provide students with the interpretations that Rosenblatt states possess the “shared criteria of validity”. Of course, this is not an endorsement, per se, of that interpretation; rather, we should encourage a critical examination of this interpretation to discover if it is founded in the dominant discourse or is it one that truly has intellectual merit or is it, in fact, both.

Even though I know everyone says it's crap, I love the original Tron. That’s my interpretation and I’m sticking to it.

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2 responses to “The ‘Correct’ Interpretation

  1. Another facet to the argument over art in general and La Règle du Jeu specifically is the context of its relationship to its era. Since I have not seen the aforementioned french film I will use an example that is more familiar- the stop motion animation of Ray Harryhausen in the 50’s. If viewed today by my 5 year old nephew, the jerking movements of an army of skeletons would seem ridiculously fake and distracting when compared to the seamless CGI effects of “Avatar” or “Star Wars.” In order to understand the brilliance of Harryhausen’s work, one has to see it as a giant evolutionary step in the art of movie effects, not as simply an autonomous piece of work meant to entertain your jaded palate in the same way as Transformers 6.
    This is where “experts” are invaluable in the process of understanding art.
    Also, we live in such an entertainment saturated environment that we have often digested countless rip-offs of a work before we ever encounter the original source material. As a result, the plot twists, character turns, tricky camera angles, etc.. have already progressed from revolutionary to cliche by the time we consume it.

  2. I second that idea of teachers serving double duty–
    In providing access to alternatives to the “correct” answer and encouraging students to come up with their own, we are over time, altering the correctness of that correct answer– taking this concept further– we are incorporating non-mainstream discourses into the dominant discourse; we are shifting the status quo.

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