by Evan Pattak
Cut, no. 7, 1975, pp. 24-27
It has been nearly fifty years since I. A. Richards performed his ingenious experiment with his students at Cambridge. Concerned that poetry was not being read the way it was meant to be, Richards gave his students thirteen poems to analyze and interpret. The poems were fairly obscure to begin with, but just to be sure, Richards withheld the titles and authors.
He collected the results in his famous Practical Criticism (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1929), in which he explained his “use of psychology to study mental processes of poetry readers.” What he determined was that the students had all sorts of preconceptions that colored their interpretations of the poetry. Some of these he called stock responses, sentimentality, inhibition, doctrinal adhesions, technical suppositions and mnemonic irrelevances, bits of personal history that flavor interpretation.
Richards’ study is still widely cited today. Does it have applicability to film? I became interested in that question quite by accident, following a recent televised showing of CITIZEN KANE in Pittsburgh. Following the movie, an all-night call-in show host received a cry of distress from a near-frantic woman. She had just seen CITIZEN KANE and still couldn't figure out what Rosebud was.
Having seen the film three or four times, the host assured the woman that Rosebud was Kane’s mistress. Five minutes later an indignant caller insisted that Rosebud was not Kane’s mistress. Rosebud was his illegitimate child.
Neither, of course, is correct. Rosebud, in Orson Welles’ 1941 movie, is Kane’s mysterious dying word. A film company researcher is assigned to ferret out the meaning of Rosebud by interviewing those who knew Kane. By this thread he weaves the story of a powerful newspaper baron ruined by his insatiable appetite for love. The researcher never does find his answer. But we viewers, in the final frame, discover that Rosebud was Kane’s sled, symbolic of the boyhood and affection wrenched from him when his nouveau riche mother signed him over to a bank.
Perhaps it was mere quirk that someone who had just seen the film couldn't tell what Rosebud was and that two others familiar with the movie also missed the climax entirely. But was there something deeper there? On a hunch, I began polling people, eventually reaching ninety-four of them, asking if they had seen KANE, and if they had, did they remember who or what Rosebud was.
Fifty had not seen the film. Ten couldn't remember if they had seen it or not, and seven saw only parts of it. Of the twenty-seven who definitely saw the entire movie, eleven knew that Rosebud was Kane’s sled. Two said Rosebud was Kane’s servant One said it was his house. Others thought it was his dog, his wife, a person he had murdered, a clandestine contact. One respondent offered an eloquent, touching interpretation of Rosebud as a philosophy, an aura that suffused the film. In more material terms, he said, Rosebud was a chair. The others had no idea what Rosebud was. Two in this group, however, exhibited remarkable memories in describing in toto an episode of the old Dick Van Dyke Show in which Van Dyke explained to his son why the boy had been given the middle name Rosebud.
Though the results are interesting and revealing, the informal survey in no way approximated Richard’s work. In the first place, my question dealt only with a matter of plot, whether people noticed and remembered a particular, albeit critical, occurrence of the film. Richards was concerned with more than just the sense of the poems, although a good number of students were helpless on that score. His study covered a broad range: poetic devices, symbols and above all, readers’ mental processes. Moreover, it was possible that some respondents hadn't seen KANE for thirty years; comparison of their remarks with those of people who had seen the film that week would have been meaningless. Finally, despite the genius of CITIZEN KANE, Rosebud-as-sled was a puny, rather forgettable symbol. (In the bickering that today surrounds KANE, one of the fiercest disputes involves who deserves more credit for the film, Welles or scenario writer Herman J. Mankiewicz. Significantly, in a 1965 interview Welles pinned Mankiewicz with responsibility for Rosebud.)
To determine if Richards’ findings hold for film, I thought it would be best to stand outside a theater, tape recorder in hand, and give people free reign to discuss a movie. The film would still be fresh in their minds, and by allowing them to ramble where they would, I hoped to penetrate their thought processes.
The results do indeed suggest that how filmgoers perceive and receive a movie may have more do with their preconceptions and states of mind than with the film’s presentation. Different people tended to understand the film in different and sometimes contradictory ways. Memories, as with Rosebud, were selective and quirky. Respondents often demonstrated pinpoint recall and lively interest where scenes or characters echoed incidents in their own lives; where such connection was lacking, they were frequently uninterested, fuzzy on detail. Several viewers, for example, said they were drawn to the film by a certain actor’s appearance. When the actor turned out to have a small role, they spent most of the time watching for him and, as a consequence, seemed confused about the film as a whole.
Equally significant, many respondents’ opinions and perceptions depended, for better or worse, on how well the film entertained them. Here the present study departs from Richards. No one picking up a poem would he oblivious to imagery, metaphor, symbol and tone. Indeed, one usually digs through these to the poet’s meaning. In the film study, however, respondents seemed not especially interested in film language—flashbacks, interior monologues, cutting—or what the filmmaker, through the arrangement of such devices, hoped to convey. Questions about the point of the film tended to elicit blank stares and stuttered replies, as if the respondents had never thought a film might have a point, or several. The film, perhaps film itself, was seen only as a flow of events, a story. In this sense, the respondents as film viewers were essentially passive.
The film I chose for the experiment was Maximilian Schell’s THE PEDESTRIAN. As the movie opens, we meat the protagonist, Giese, a solid, attractive West German industrialist, the head of an engineering firm, He is wealthy and respected. But all is not as it appears. A newspaper is investigating Giese for possible complicity in a Nazi extermination of a Greek village some thirty years before. And there’s more. Giese’s son Andreas was killed when a car driven by his father crashed into a parked vehicle.
Scenes with his grandson, mistress and dog show Giese to be a warm, sensitive man. These humanizing touches, however, are cut by two series of progressive flashbacks. In the first series, it is revealed that Giese almost certainly was involved in the massacre in some way, though the exact nature of that involvement—whether as commander, child shooter or conveyor of orders—is never made clear. The second series of flashbacks shows that Andreas learned of his father’s involvement in the massacre and was ashamed and angry. During the fatal car ride, Andreas and his father quarreled. Andreas grabbed the wheel, causing the car to swerve and crash.
The newspaper prints its exposé. There is scandal, including a demonstration outside Giese’s plant. The film’s climactic scene is a television debate between an official of the newspaper and Giese’s attorney. Giese is neither exculpated nor condemned. The telling statement is that of the moderator: there may not be collective guilt, but there should be collective shame.
In THE PEDESTRIAN, Schell seems chiefly concerned with guilt and responsibility. But his is no narrow indictment. With allusions to Vietnam and William Calley, Schell appears to be using his film as a warning that what happened in Germany can and will happen wherever people drop their guard.
I chose THE PEDESTRIAN because it is a complex film without being unduly esoteric. There are subtle touches, but if the film is a puzzle, by the final frame every piece is squarely in place. The movie won the Golden Globe Award in Hollywood for Best Foreign Picture of 1974 and was nominated for an Oscar in the Best Foreign Film category.
I conducted interviews on four consecutive days in July 1974 outside the Manor Theatre in Pittsburgh. It was the movie’s first, and to this date, only run in Pittsburgh. I began the interviews on a Saturday, so that the talks were split between the weekend and weekdays.
I selected people randomly as they walked from the theater. I briefly described my purpose. Then, if they were willing, I asked them to summarize the film, tell me what the point of it was, and what about it they liked or disliked. If in their summaries they didn't mention what Giese had done in the war, I asked them about that. Finally, I asked what happened to Andreas, assuming this also was not previously covered.
For the most part, I was content to let respondents speak as long as they liked on whatever topics they chose. Only in the instance of Andreas and the car mishap did I feel obliged to direct them. Technically, it was correct to say that Andreas died in an auto accident and leave it at that. But I was afraid that people who answered in that way might have realized that it was Andreas’ hand on the wheel but, for whatever reasons, weren't saying it. When I got that answer, I asked in as flat a voice as possible if the respondent could describe the accident.
In all, fourteen women and seventeen men were interviewed. Although I was primarily interested in reaching people before the crowd filed by, every age group, beginning with the teens, seemed to be equally represented. Two persons interviewed had seen the film twice.
The Manor Theatre is in Squirrel Hill, a section, predominantly Jewish, of middle and upper income residents. The Manor is primarily a neighborhood, second-run theater. In fact, THE PEDESTRIAN was one of only several first-run films to play there in recent years. (AMARCORD was another.) But like the other three movie houses in Squirrel Hill, the Manor is eager to present films of Jewish interest. Movies thought too parochial for the downtown houses, such as the French THE MAD ADVENTURES OF RABBI JACOB and the Israeli ROSA, have played in Squirrel Hill. That there are four theaters in the area speaks well of the interest in film in Squirrel Hill.
Thus, it was perhaps to be expected that a film dealing at least in part with Nazism would evoke vehement responses. Schell takes great pains to avoid the trap of easy, banal anti-Nazism. He loads the film with references to other wars and exterminations, a number of times citing the My Lai massacre. He makes rather blatant use of the famous photo of the little girl stumbling naked and dazed from a Vietnam holocaust. Only a few respondents commented on the adumbrations of Vietnam. More typical were responses such as these:
Marty P.’s observation notwithstanding, there is only one “party” depicted in the movie, a dinner where Giese ‘s involvement in the massacre is, for the first time, publicly discussed. It is a sordid affair.
Those were the most extreme, but by no means the only, examples of respondents appearing to view this film in terms of prior conceptions. THE PEDESTRIAN offered a fair number of hooks—Nazism, war, war crimes—on which to hang generalities, “stock responses” in Richards’ terminology, and several respondents took such an opportunity.
Other respondents found their perceptions of the film influenced by their moods or frames of mind at the time of viewing.
THE PEDESTRIAN reminded several respondents of another film—the same film, coincidentally—and they viewed the Schell movie in terms of the comparison.
Finally, the legacy of Watergate seemed evident in the responses. Two viewers, including the one quoted above, felt the movie was meant as a look at how a newspaper pursues an investigative story. Two others interpreted the television debate at the film’s close as a courtroom hearing on a request for a temporary injunction.
In his study, Richards found preconceptions about form—“technical supposition”—in the analyses of students who, say, automatically panned sonnets or verse without rhyme and therefore had little interest in interpreting such works. In much the same way, many respondents in the present study had strong prior notions of what a film should be and of what type of movie they would enjoy. THE PEDESTRIAN, with its less-than-linear structure, did not fulfill those expectations, and interest and awareness diminished accordingly.
The importance here is that respondents who found the film unsuited to their ideas of entertainment, though they could accurately reconstruct the storyline, did not usually attempt to discern broader implications. To cite specific instances: although Giese’s role in the massacre is ambiguous, the ambiguity is clearly presented. Of twenty-five respondents who addressed themselves to the question, “What had Giese dome during the war?” eighteen noted that he had been accused but that the allegations had not been proven.
The car accident in which Andreas was killed, on the other hand, is much more subtly shown. Giese at one point confides to his daughter-in-law that he thinks Andreas meant to kill him. To the question, “What happened to Giese’s son Andreas?” twenty of twenty-nine respondents noted that it was Andreas’ hand that swerved the wheel. All in this group accepted at face value Giese’s statement that his son meant to kill him. The critics, however, almost uniformly interpreted the act as an apparent attempt by Andreas to kill his father and himself. To arrive at that conclusion, one had to consider not only Andreas and his few lines of dialogue. One also had to weigh, and eventually discount, what Giese himself says. This was a sophisticated step, and no respondent took it.
Obviously, great care must be taken in drawing conclusions from this study, if only because of the smallness of the sample. There are other problems. Richards’ students had the opportunity to rethink end revise their interpretations with the poems before them. The present study’s format, in which respondents had to answer orally and at once, did not permit leisurely reflection or organization of thought. Under the circumstances, it would have been surprising had the responses been well-ordered and less visceral. In addition, the interview structure does not guarantee comprehensive replies. A direct answer may be but the tip of the iceberg, the complete thought process massed unuttered beneath the surface. Richards’ students submitted their analyses in writing, itself so instrumental in shaping thought. The differences between the written and oral modes may be so profound as to frustrate meaningful comparison. Perhaps a study of this type would work best in a classroom, or classroom-style situation.
It might also be pointed out that Richards’ sample was composed of young people probably paying a great deal of money to study, among other things, poetry. My sample was randomly selected from a more amorphous, certainly less definable group. Viewers seeing the film in first-run or art houses or in neighborhoods of a different ethnic or economic character night have had different interpretations. This, of course, is a major conclusion of the study, that there is a virtually limitless range of personal and psychological factors that flavor perception and understanding of film. What ultimately can be said of a film viewed, in consecutive showings, in these two ways?
Perhaps it is tautological to conclude that people expect mostly entertainment from film and that serious film will be all things to all people, depending on their moods, company, background and suppositions. Yet, given film’s enormous importance as a means of communication and expression, it should be of service to any filmmaker to know that, whatever his/her intent, his/her work will be interpreted, as Richards put it, on the basis of “politics or spleen or some other social motive.”