A Critical Account of V.F. Perkins’s Approach to Film Interpretation
Movie interpretation is the identification of the content of the movie in either a symptomatic, implicit or explicit way with a particular attitude perceived on the movie. Majority of the movies are attempts by the film makers to make the audiences think their way. Other film makers raise different issues for the audience to figure out. A symptomatic interpretation concentrates on the film as a part of the society’s broad context, including reflections and illustrations themes, which are prevalent in the culture, place and time where the movie was done. Implicit film interpretation entails a deeper interpretation level focusing on what is understood by seeing the change, growth, and development of characters as the movie progresses. Explicit interpretation is concerned with the moral of the story that the movie is illustrating, or the attitudes, socio-political, which are being expressed by the filmmaker through actions and words from characters (Jacobs, 2013). Different people have different approaches and interpretations of movies and films. The current discussion is a critical analysis of V.F. Perkin’s approach to film interpretation, with a close focus on the author’s sequences offered as examples to extend the discussion.
According to Perkins, the early film writing tried to prove that film is a medium which is a serious form of art. It offers justification for both writing films and going to watch films. Going to the movies is said to be an activity of respectable men who are full of intellect and are refined. Perkins feels that trying to prove the credibility of the film did not consider the cinema’s specificity and the limit in the freedom to the investigation and speculation of the nature of the movies (Perkins, 1993). According to Perkins the approach has two major problems which are the assumption for the existence of similarity in the criteria for various types of established forms of art and that it ignores the theory, which states that art is not problematic on its own (Perkins,1993, p. 12). So, according to Perkins (1993), it is not clear that an art theory involves all different arts in a similar way, since there is lack of unproblematic theory of art.
Perkins further explores the acceptance of non-figurative painting in the 20th century in an attempt to understand the making of film. The author noted that the purpose of painting had changed from imitation to painting as a subject, which was itself regarded as the medium (Perkins, 1993, p. 13). Bell (1924) on this point also noted that in the 20th century, photography gave freedom to painting than it was in imitation. Both authors agreed with Pudovkin (1958), who formulated a claim for cinema that there is a significant difference between a natural happening, and how it appears on the screen. It is due to this difference that film becomes an art. Art of film entails all things in the cinema, which are not natural or imitative. According to Perkins (1993), the important value of the theory of film is in the way the cinematography act can be showed to impose realism. Perkins extended the discussion on how the movie elements can fully represent what is seen on the screen.
Perkins made references to sequences of image (Rotha) and montage as depicted in the film theory by Pudovkin to argue that films were meant for enhancing innovation of imagery, and not giving the camera the right to observe (p. 19). Perkins argued that isolating camera elements in a film obstructs viewers’ attention on the movie. It is in this regard that the author argued that understanding the meaning of films requires taking into considerations all elements of films including camera shots, lights and shades, actors’ movement, and setting shape, which are regarded related in enhancing value of the film (p. 22-23). Perkins is interested in understanding the films totally without leaving anything out by stating that the film theory imposed unnecessary obligations on artists, who are forced to stick on expressive devices, instead of giving room for significant styles that catches audiences’ attention to the movie as it is seen (p. 27). In various occasions, Perkins emphasizes on the photographic nature of films, which is a clear definition of cinema as the revelation of reality. At this point, the author agrees with Bazin (2004) definition of cinema as a depiction of reality as it is seen by viewers. The author also agrees with Siegfried (1960) that a respect for reality in cinema is critical in judging the quality of film (Perkins, 1993, p. 31). Just as Perkins, the two authors are in agreement that employing montage method in cinematography is important in eliminating ambiguity of reality as seen in films. Parkins argue that the appreciation of films is depicted in how the filmmakers portray a revelation in cinema, which is basically extended in a film ambiguity (p. 38).
In chapter three, Perkins elaborates the historical development of technology and stated that the aim of technology is to enhance a total cinema, which cannot be distinguished from reality. The author argues that a successful technology and its impact in film is only achieved if it has been used in conjunction with other film genre such as syntactic and semantic conventions, plot and theme. A combination of these features enhanced elaboration of film into reality. The author made references to sequences of films such as in comedies of Laurel and Chaplin to argue that the filmmakers perfectly combined innovation with plot, theme and genre. These comedies according to Perkins missed nothing, and achieved perfection within their range (p. 51).
According to the Perkins, a perfect film is clear and economical (p. 51). Perkins rebukes the orthodox theorists who insisted that editing enhances image reality in films. The author argued that the theorists rejected the importance of narrative, which is brought about by acting. Editing itself is not enough to redirect the audiences’ perception from reality. Therefore, shifting the perception of audiences into reality as depicted in the film, it is critical to focus on the screen, other than the cutting bench and the view finder. According to the author, cinema is where reality is revealed through acting, which is important to the audience. Bazin (2004) also concurs with Perkins’ argument good films require a spectator that understands them. Instead of focusing more on editing to enhance reality in film, Perkins argues that focusing on choice and style of film representation extends realism in film to greater miles. According to the author, style in any medium is formed by employing patterns of decisions in films, which brings about reality to filmmakers and at the same time, extending possibilities of choice that oversees the control within each area in the film (p. 58).
Perkins further explains that one indicator of an achievement in a film is ensuring that a sign used in the film does not explain its nature. It is possible for a viewer to understand various actions in a film without having any comments in the film leading him or her to the understanding of it. None of the symbols in the films requires interpretation to the viewers. For example, the author refers to the sequence of red color in the film, “Red Desert” by Antonioni as not necessary (p. 77). Perkins seeks to distinguish cinema as a device for recording and films as illusions. The author tries to show that the isolation of just one element as carrying a lot of importance is the aesthetics of film, and is a significant way of losing meaning. The author gives an example of the sequence of lion in the “Battleship Potemkin” by Eisenstein (1974) as artificially imported wholly into the film, which raises confusion in what the lions’ involvement in the film is meant, since they are portrayed as symbols, and there is no coherence in the framing of their significance in the context. Perkins does not criticize the entire film because the lions are just, but an example of the bold but non-significant devices, which adventurous film-makers want to explore by all means (p. 105). He is against the critics who say that the moments which are of the most importance in a movie are the ones that make viewers to be alerted in a violent way (Perkins, 1992). Perkins argues that a cinema is best defined by all elements in it, and not just one outgoing element. The most important thing is not how a particular element was gotten from the reality, but how its revelation matters to the world of movies. How material an image is does not matter, but how significant it turns out to be in the fictional world of the movies (p. 115).
Perkins argues that internal consistency in fictional worlds as depicted in a film is core in judging the flaws of films. A question on internal coherence is a pure indication of a bad film. A coherent film should not only conform to its own making, but also balance tensions between film as a real recording and as illusion. The author made reference to a sequence of scenes in the film “The Idiots” as a clear indication of coherence in film. In the film “The Idiots”, the filmmaker carefully balanced reality and illusion, stupidity and brilliance (p. 121). Perkins emphasizes on maintaining the simplicity of films and devoid on every self-consciousness. According to the author, a perfect film is a projection of mental universe, which differentiates the content and form of film as film (p. 133).
Film as Film by V.F. Perkins is a good book for guiding people in the interpretation of films and the cinema world in general. The author’s theory and analysis of film sequences provides critical and valuable insights in the world of cinema. The good thing with the book is that it offers criticisms of various movies and film theorists, and pinpoint critical elements of film that can change readers’ perceptions in understanding and interpreting films. Perkins criticizes film-makers, but at the same time, advices and honest interpretation of their films.
Bazin, A. (2004). What is cinema? (Vol. 2). Univ of California Press.
Bell, C. (1924). Art. 1914. London: Chatto and Windus.
Eisenstein, S., & Leyda, J. (1974). Battleship Potemkin; October and Alexander Nevsky. Lorrimer Pub.
Jacobs, C. P. (2013). Film theory and approaches to criticism or what did that movie mean.
Perkins, V. F. (1993). Film as film: understanding and judging movies. New York: Perseus Books Group.
Pudovkin, V. I. (1958). Film Technique, and Film Acting: Translated and Edited by Ivor Montagu. Vision, Mayflower.
Siegfried, K. (1960). Theory of film: the redemption of physical reality. Introduction by Miriam Bratu Hansen (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997). But, as I have argued in “Cinema/Ideology/Society: The Political Expectations of Film Theory,” in James Donald, Patrick Feury, and Michael Renov, eds., The Handbook of Film Theory.