Reading Susan Sontag’s “Against Interpretation” for Film Studies: Transcendence and the ‘Vocabulary for Forms’


It’s easy to interpret a painting. You might say, “the boy’s stance in this piece is a symbol of his lost innocence,” or “the triangle represents the futile project of man to escape his own death.” But Susan Sontag would ask us to re-evaluate these statements, as for her, they demonstrate not an understanding of a work of art, but an evasion of it.

What exactly does this mean? In her famous essay, “Against Interpretation”, Sontag clarifies: “In most modern instances, interpretation amounts to the philistine refusal to leave the work of art alone. Real art has the capacity to make us nervous. By reducing the work of art to its content and then interpreting that, one tames the work of art. Interpretation makes art manageable, comfortable” (5). Interpretation is, then, a reductive process… When we make art legible to us by disassembling it into digestible parts, we miss it entirely. Naturally, this dissection leaves a work of art incapable of being viewed as a whole—and thus, as Sontag argues, of being enjoyed for what it is and what emotions it could elicit within us. In this bog of interpretation, something like the the glitz and glamour of the parties in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s novel, The Great Gatsby, are transfigured: we disallow them from making us feel, from captivating and enthralling us, because we know that they are nothing more than signs of the corruption and decadence of the American Dream. 

The challenge of leaving a work of art unmanageable is, for Sontag, the path towards transparence in the world of art and art criticism. It’s about “experiencing the luminousness of the thing in itself, of things being what they are” (9). Instead of engaging with art as a problem, as a table of contents that appeals to us for its material only, a transparent mode of viewing and critiquing art would pay far more attention to form, and to the work of art as a sensory experience within itself. In this way, the ‘content’ of a piece becomes just one of the many things it calls called upon to excite our senses, to make us feel something through it. To achieve this, Sontag writes, “What is needed is a vocabulary—a descriptive, rather than prescriptive, vocabulary—for forms” (8).

“In most modern instances, interpretation amounts to the philistine refusal to leave the work of art alone. Real art has the capacity to make us nervous. By reducing the work of art to its content and then interpreting that, one tames the work of art. Interpretation makes art manageable, comfortable.”

But what is a ‘vocabulary for forms’? We know that it’s something not immediately present in a novel, a painting, or even a photograph. To define this term, Sontag has to turn to cinema: the most ‘alive’ of all art forms, with a “surface [that] is so unified and clean… momentum [that] is so rapid… whose address is so direct that the work can be…just what it is” (7). Film moves too fast for our reactionary interpretation—if one stops to ponder the significance of the daisies in a particular shot, that’s it: they’ve missed an entire sequence! A film draws you along; it demands not to be examined and picked apart, at least not until it’s had its fun with you. This quality of directness in film is what makes it unmanageable. It cannot be broken down into its constituent parts—without cinematography, script, image, and audio, a film cannot be made into a work of art. This vocabulary of angles, perspectives, and frames is essential, as it ties the film’s form intrinsically to its meaning. Ultimately, one cannot engage with a film’s content without being immersed completely in its form.

Rear Window is a great example of this. The plot of the film lies completely in its framing—the film’s vocabulary—the way it tells a story—is entirely reliant on Jefferies’ placement (and, by proxy, the placement of the camera). Hitchcock makes the content integral to the form, and vice versa. We see clearly how narrative is reliant on “the explicit, complex, and discussable technology of camera movements, cutting, and composition of the frame” (8). The value of this, for Sontag, is the work that this vocabulary does to resist a film’s deduction by interpreters and art critics. At the end of the day, even they can’t help but cringe in fear as Thornwall slowly turns his gaze for the first time toward Jefferies’ apartment.


Let’s come back to that first example of The Great Gatsby. Though we may grow bored of the book and its high-school metaphors for capitalism and greed, we cannot help but be enthralled by its film adaptations, particularly Baz Luhrmann’s from 2013, which effectively manages to present both the melancholic essence of the original text, as well as the uninterpretable splendor of the roaring twenties. In the case of the Fitzgerald novel, a reader’s enjoying of the decadence might hinder their understanding of these scenes’ more sinister meaning. In contrast, enjoying these scenes on film is essential to making this conclusion, and to understanding the work of art as a whole. Gatsby’s galas, shot by Luhrmann on digital cameras in wide, sweeping shots, shed the tired interpretations of literary critics—they are spectacle to be marveled at in themselves, and not reduced into a conduit for the moralistic, anti-wealth ‘content’ of the films narrative. We, as viewers, are given the luxury of bring wishy-washy and swept up by our feelings; we can both chide Gatsby for his vanity, and partake in an erotic voyeurism over the elite lifestyle it affords. 


This feeling is precisely what Sontag is talking about when she closes her essay with the quip, “In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art” (10). Film has given us a way out of the Greek hermeneutic tradition, with its obsessions over art as a representation, a reduction of its content. It puts the art before you, on a thirty-by-ninety-foot screen, and takes control of your perception. This art involves no elitist interpretations—to understand it, you must only sit back, and put your senses to work. To understand Rear Window, you need only feel suspense at the growing case against Thorwall. To understand Gatsby, you need only watch the titular character’s pain in the fantastic bourgeois world set out before him. Narrative alone cannot communicate the story of these films, nor sound, nor still image, nor cinematography. It is the transparence of experiencing them all together, ultimately, that provides the work of film its meaning.

“In place of a hermeneutics we need an erotics of art.”

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