An Elephant Sitting Still: A Sontagian Read

by Kelly Mu

For me personally, Against Interpretation by Susan Sontag was perhaps the most impactful reading of the quarter. Its defiance of a long tradition of hermeneutics seemed relatable but also revolutionary. It shed light on a question that I have always struggled with, whether in reading literary works or watching a film. That is, how am I supposed to engage with a piece? Do I critically analyse every imagery and cinematic technique, or simply let my emotions consume me? An Elephant Sitting Still, a four hour Chinese film by the deceased director Hu Bo, was a chance for me to do both and reflect on their effectiveness.


For Sontag, the act of interpretation is a “revenge of the intellect upon the world”. It is a means of meaning-generation that distorts the artwork itself and makes it intelligible to the logic of the mundane, to stripe art of art. Sontag identifies two facets to interpretation: it could be liberating, an act of escaping a dead past, or it could be cowardly, stifling that which transcends the status quo. Unfortunately, theory has developed to the extent that it can only achieve the latter. Critical theory as a tradition is cumbersome and too self-focused, and current critics are only displacing art with their own ideological agenda through interpretation. Sontag desperately wants an “erotics of art”, or an immediate bodily and emotional response to an artwork rather than a calculated one. Real art makes us uncomfortable, nervous, and runs wild. Interpretation “tames” art by making it comfortable and acceptable. Instead of interpretation, Sontag proposes a “descriptive, rather than prescriptive vocabulary” for art and its form, where we describe our response to the art or describe the artwork itself, rather than saying what it means. For Sontag, film seems to be a valuable means to achieve the alternative. The myriad of forms in film (camera movement, composition of frames) gives no time for interpretation, but allow for immediate descriptive responses.

An Elephant Sitting Still is an interesting film to apply Sontag’s theories to. The movie is four hours long and consists of many blank shots: shots that only feature slow movement, somber music, with no camera movement and no dialogue. The audience easily gets lost in moments like these, which potentially have a few effects on their interpretation. The film perhaps allows for more “erotics of art” because it is abstract to the point which interpretation becomes near impossible. There is so little happening that it becomes difficult for one to weave a coherent interpretative narrative. But on the other hand, the film may allow for more intense interpretation because of its slow pace. Every change and camera movement now becomes even more noticeable and pronounced, and the audience has time to think about their meaning since there is so little going on. Unlike action-packed feature film, the lack of constant visual stimulus perhaps makes it easier for the audience to have the attention for interpretation.

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(I have selected an interesting scene from An Elephant Sitting Still, which features the three characters standing in a triangle, and then walking off-screen one-by-one. This simple change takes over a minute to take place. An Elephant Sitting Still is a film centered around four protagonists, narrating the course of one single, tension-filled day from dawn to dusk. It portrays a society enveloped by selfishness, and characters that either conform or try to resist. The three characters featured in this scene are Wei Bu, a teenage boy that runs away from home for accidentally killing a school bully, Huang Ling, a teenage girl that has an innocent affair with her teacher, and Wang Jin, the grandparent of the girl that he is with, who is forced out of his own home and sent to a nursing home by his own son. They have all escaped from home and are on a bus to see an odd elephant in ManZhouLi, that does nothing but sit still.)

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Here is what a Sontagian read of the scene might look like. Amidst diegetic white noise, the three protagonists stand in a triangle in silence. Distant conversations can be heard coming from the bus as the rest of the passengers also take a break from the long ride, and the audience is surrounded by a sense of depressing calmness. The three protagonists are technically free as they have taken their fate into their own hands and decided to run away; yet their positioning suggest a faintly discernible sense of attachment to the other, a longing for connection in their lost lives. Huang Lin is the first to leave her spot, and peeks several times at Wei Bu; her action is still influenced by that of others. Wang Jin entirely focuses on his granddaughter, but their private happiness is suffocated by the bleak atmosphere and seems helpless in comparison. Wei Bu is the only character that stands completely still throughout the scene: his looks are empty and dull, projected towards the distance. His shabby outfit along with his scar marks make him look almost dead, with no hopes for tomorrow. The camera is still, as is time: we have forgotten about all the conflicts and misunderstandings that have propelled them to end up here, and are immersed in the brooding of the individual characters. The emptiness of the scene is enchanting. The audience does not become bored, but is strangely attracted to the nothingness, as we stare into their purposeless and meaningless lives. A simple blankness of thoughts.

An ordinary interpretation for a film class would look like something different, as meaning could be extracted from many different details of the film. For example, one could analyse the geometric collisions that happen in the scene; the seemingly unbreakable triangle juxtaposed with the irregular background. The use of lighting and hues could also be meaningful. There are simultaneously two sources of light, one that comes from the front light of the bus which is parked to the left of the frame, while the other is a light that is blocked by Wei Bu. The light behind Wei Bu can be read as a ray of hope that he has determinedly turned his back towards and refused to accept. It has burned him throughout his life and has propelled him to defy the unethical actions of his poor family, such as taking the shopping card of someone else. But after the series of unfortunate events that have happened to him, he has decided to walk away from what he has believed in, though he is the closest to achieving any kind of purity out of the three protagonists.

There are a few things that I notice after doing the above analysis and also reading The Dicken’s World: A View from Todger’s, which Sontag calls a “rare example” of criticism that applies a “loving description” of a work of art. Firstly is that the analysis is taken by the logic of the artwork. That is, the audience or the analyst follows the rhythm of the work and the order in which events proceed. It is a faithful record of the work with a personal and affectionate touch. Interpretation, on the other hand, is a rearrangement of the work. The piece is dissected and taken apart, and put back again using the logic of the interpreter. This process is perhaps why Sontag sees both a creative and destructive power within interpretation: it gives the artwork a second life, for the better or worse.

Secondly, I don’t see how the two interpretations are meaningfully different, i.e. how a Sontagian read is able to escape the problem that Sontag criticises interpretation of having. I disagree with Sontag’s interpretation of interpretation, as an act of complete change, as telling the audience that “X is really… A”. Interpretation is the process through which we derive meaning from the written and spoken words of someone else rather than simply receive meaning. It is an act of “translation”, but it is also a process that is inherent in the way we receive information. Words are a medium through which we communicate certain thoughts, but they are not the forming elements of our thoughts. That is to say, we do not think in words but in abstract strands of unconscious ideas that only become a communicable message when we try to speak. There is therefore a process of translation which fits the thought into the word being used, as word is never the thought itself but merely a description of it. In receiving the words the listener goes through a similar process of translation which transforms the word again back into a thought, but the process happens without full accuracy since it is impossible to know exactly the other is trying to say and referring to.

Even if there are commonly held notions of what a word means, such as in the case of immediate referrals of pointing to “this” and “that”, our mutual understanding stops when the thing or thought being addressed becomes abstract and absent. Despite having overlaps in our thoughts when we speak a particular word (which is why I’m still able to write the essay and communicate), the boundaries of the word are blurred: we do not know when the span of meaning starts and when it ends. There might be a few numbers of objects which we agree are “tables”, but in our unconsciousness we do not coincide on what makes a thing a table and what makes a thing not a table. This difference is mainly due to our different perspectives and personal experiences, which evoke slightly different notions of the word “table”. What a speaker thinks of when she says a table may be entirely different to what a listener thinks of when she hears of a table. There is no collective consciousness in which everyone has the same understanding of what a particular word entails, and we rely on the imperfect medium of words to further communicate ourselves.

Thus, inherent in the act of understanding is interpreting. The listener implicitly receives the word in a way that is in accordance with her worldview, experiences and priorities, and in the process has given new meaning to the word, which is different both to how the speaker intended it, and what the collective mutual understanding of the word is. This difference in meaning is compounded when we collate words into sentences, and try to communicate greater meaning through essays or literature, and becomes more abstract when we are using film or an artwork as a medium. Even in a Sontagian read, the very act of watching a film and perceiving an artwork is distorting it and changing it in some way, albeit unconsciously. The fact that we are enchanted or feel awe in the presence of an artwork means interpretation is happening. The difference between a descriptive read and a prescriptive read is only one of articulation, because we are describing what we perceive in a way that is already entangled with personal biases and subjective judgements, responding not to the artwork itself, but what we interpret the artwork to be.

Therefore I think the difference of a Sontagian read does not lie in the act of interpretation, but in the kind of interpretation. Sontag is calling for an affective rather than a rational read: a blind devotion of the self into the artwork during the experience, rather than holding a clear head and a critical eye. I think a combination of the two would yield the best result, and is also the reason why I like re-watching films: enjoy the moment, but also remember to seek greater meaning through the details when the viewing pleasure cools down.

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