Should a director explain their film?

I hate to admit it, I actually love director explanations of ambiguous films.
The question is, does it ruin the mystery and ongoing discussion, if for example we got all the answers to why the Mona Lisa is smiling?



The filmmaker seems to create an aura about his work if he refuses to explain certain things. For instance David Lynch gives the cryptic response that nobody has ever given an interpretation that is HIS interpretation of Eraserhead (1977)



In a world obsessed by instant gratification of information, does a film like Prometheus (2012) frustrate, rather than please, in its ambiguity?


The best questions in life are sometimes unsolvable and have infinite possible answers. The pleasure is not in finding a solution, but in playing the game. A finished puzzle is not fun, is it?


Does it devalue a film to know every little detail about the production, set design, and intentions of the writer and director in documentaries, articles, interviews, books, audio commentaries, and so forth. Is it just a marketing tool aimed at making money, or something the consumer wants?


Is this what separates art and entertainment?

Or does it enhance the material with this added value, that is available if you want it.

For me, it makes us lazy and less imaginative, when we are given all the answers, and don't have to think for ourselves. Its not lazy to eat all this information, but it is mindless to simply take it all and that's that. Difficult to disagree with the maker of the film...


You may be wondering, does the director always HAVE the answers? There are cases when even they have made the story so indefinable, that there are endless interpretations. Last Year at Marienbad (1961), 2001: A Space Odyssey (1968), The Shining (1980), or Eraserhead (1977) arguably are classics today, because nobody has definitive solutions.

The director has made a baby, he/she raises it the best they can, and finally must set it free into the world.

What do you think? Do you want the mystery preserved forever and the artist to take these secrets to their grave? Would it ruin your favorite films for the filmmakers to explain it all? Or better for the explanations to be out there?

22 comments:

  1. Fantastic post and great discussion topic. There is no doubt in my mind that understanding more about a film makes it more attractive - it is the same with music and literature as well. Look at how Joyce comes alive when you understand what is going on. And Picasso, and Jackson Pollock. Avant Garde art tends to need context.
    However - all art (and I believe this without exception) is a collaborative work between the inspiration the artist has gleaned in order to produce the work, the artist and the "audience" - that is the reader, viewer, listener etc. The work must have a willing, open participating receiver or it is not "complete". And for the most part, the artistic experience lies with the receiver of the end product. They (and their interpretive experience) are crucial to the work of art coming alive.
    I fell deeply in love with Marguerite Duras once I understood what she was about, however I am completely aware of my responsibility to her work to bring it alive through my own interpretation when I read her. I did need context, but MD does not need to tell me what to feel and how to think about her work.
    So I guess for me it is a little from column A and a little from column B.

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    1. @Lisa: Great comment! Good point you make, you do need context in a lot of cases, particularly if not familiar with the historical era or culture being depicted. Context can enrich rather than detract. I agree the artistic experience lies with the receiver(thinking feeling, interpreting, etc)

      Recently, I read your new short story 'The previous owners shopping list' and noticed you referenced Marguerite Durasin there, clearly you are a fan, and want others to stumble upon her body of work (:

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    2. Ha ha ha - yes! I am a MD fan, and I do think everyone should read her. I guess it's no secret.
      Thanks again for a great post.

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  2. A friend of mine asked me this question one day. Why on earth I love watching all the behind the scenes documentaries and listening to director commentaries. They asked me if it takes the magic out of the film for me. But for me it adds to the magic. Weird, I know. It makes me feel more a part of the film.

    As for directors having to explain their films ... I don't think they should as such. For me films are something I interpret as I want to.

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    1. @Jaina: It is fun to learn about the back story of how a film came to life, and it certainly can be useful for a review!

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  3. Great post! This is definitely an interesting topic for discussion. I personally prefer filmmakers to give their interpretations of their movies, not to say it is the only "correct" one, but I like to understand somebody's creative process.

    My daughter has written several indie directors and asked questions about their movie plots. They simply replied "it's open to interpretation." That makes me laugh. Does that mean they don't know either?

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    1. @Stephanie Ward: Thanks You! Yes I can see where you are coming from, if you are artistically-minded yourself, then understanding somebody's creative process could be of interest.

      In response to your question, "Bonjour Tristesse" made a great comment for his White Ribbon review:
      "I think unlike some directors who I suspect leave holes because they can't think of a good way to end things, I believe Haneke does know exactly what he's doing and I agree with his reluctance to give up the easy answers.

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  4. Interesting question. Ideally, I would not want to know the director's thoughts. His or her techniques and intentions on a director's commentary are one thing, but I don't want a director to give direct answers about what is actually going on in the film. That is what the film should do. Since I can always rewatch a film, I don't see the point in a director revealing the secrets of his or her film.

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    1. @Josh: Thanks for chipping in, Josh. The technical moviemaking issues, or historical era explained I'm fine with in an audio commentary. The story, as you say, should not need to be spelled out.

      However the deeper questions or ambiguous scenes I'm sort of, should they? /shouldn't they?

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  5. Excellent topic discussion here, and for me, it is answered on a case by case basis. I'm not a fan of directors revealing the ambiguity in their films, but I love learning about some of the tricks implored to make the movie shine. A good audio commentary can make a decent film better, or a great film greater for this exact reason. Making of docs as well.

    But would I ever want to listen to Terrence Malick describe EXACTLY what every image in The Tree of Life represents? God no. Is 2001 left better unexplained? Sure enough.

    Touch and go for each individual movie.

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    1. @Alex Withrow: Thanks, a topic I've been pondering for a while, because I wonder if I SHOULD read director on director interview books, where Kieslowski and Lars von Trier are asked these questions about their films. Do I really want to know. It does relax my mind to have some of these answers, but I kind of feel the artist is mishandled if the interviewer goes too far. Does it sometimes add to the experience of rewatching and give context. Absoloutely.
      I guess the real masterpieces of cinema can handle being torn apart, and still be great. If it ruins a film for the director to discuss it in detail, then maybe not a masterpiece in the first place...Great cinema never gets old.
      Do we all want to know the moviemaking back story and secrets. No.
      Good call, I agree that it is touch and go for each individual movie. As I said above in Josh's comment, I don't want everything revealed in the interview or audio commentary, and how can you filter out what you don't want to hear? Impossible, and therein lies the problem for me.

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  6. I always enjoy listening to directors talk about their movies, but to a certain extent. You should never want to rely on a director for the answers to their film, the discovery makes it all the better. If something in a movies really bothers me sure I will look it up, but I prefer reading through what audience members have to say and how different people interpret it.

    Like you said "a finished puzzle is no fun," unless of course you made it with the intention of admiring its beauty complete and as a whole.

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    1. @Gregory Roy: I too enjoy listening to directors talk about their movies, I just think it can spoil the mystery sometimes, which is a pity.

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  7. Hey, Chris, great topic to bring up. I think when your post you're posing a number of questions. Do I think directors should explain more in their work and be less ambiguous? Not in my opinion. My favorite films (and songs actually) are those that are ambiguous, require you to analyze, have open endings, and can have more than one interpretations. Do I think filmmakers/studios go overboard with all the audio commentaries, behind the scene looks, etc. Yes, like you said, it's a marketing ploy to exploit celebrity of the actor(s) and get people more interested in the work while the work should stand for itself (if it's good). Do I think it ruins the film to know what the director had in mind? No. It actually terribly frustrates me that I don't know most of the time. I may have my own interpretations but it intrigues me to learn what they were thinking and what they were trying to convey. It may be something I never thought of and would give me a new perspective (in addition to my own) to see the film in. I don't think it spoils the mystery at all. For me, it gives me a greater understanding of it. I don't necessary seek out director interviews on their films because they don't usually reveal anything but I would love to hear their thoughts. And yes, I think it is possible that the director doesn't know the answers but I think that has less to do with them trying to create something to confuse people and more to do with playing up all the angles and deciding not to choose one for themselves.

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    1. @Shala: Thanks for joining the discussion! I like open endings and ambiguity too, and it does encourage you to think. So if the director does "the thinking" for you, it kind of takes the fun out of it.
      I'm glad someone agrees with me, that all these behind-the-scenes features are somewhat of a marketing ploy. I mean, they can be interesting if done right, but sometimes, there is no substance. I think great works do stand for themselves, yet adding historical context and trivia is alright I guess. I think I'd rather have the features available than not have any at all, if you know what I mean, so I have a choice.

      The best thing to do I think, is go to film with no prior knowledge and as you say have your own interpretations. Later (for a possible rewatch) I enjoy to find out more from sources.

      Good point, that's what directors sometimes do, play up all the angles and decide not to choose one for themselves. Not necessarily to confuse, but to make audiences think for themselves.

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  8. I think it depends on the type of film. Some are meant to be confusing, and some are memorable for other reasons. With that said, i am generally not a fan of the overly ambiguous films. A little bit can work for me, but ones like 2001 just leave me frustrated.

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    1. @DWC: Yes, it does depend on the type of film. For me certain ambiguous information inexcusable to reveal. (Take for example the song You're So Vain by Carly Simon, if she finally gave up the secrets, if lyrics really are about Mick Jagger or not, it would ruin the ongoing myth.)

      2001 can be frustrating, I guess Kubrick's film is not for everyone.

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  9. Sometimes I like to have my curiosity satisfied, but Film Crit Hulk had a great piece about Prometheus in which he pointed out that people can refer to director/writer quotes and things cut from the script all they want, but you have to evaluate a film based on its own merits. If the final product doesn't make sense, it's just poor writing.

    It's great to leave room for different interpretations, but if the script is illogical or full of plot holes, director explanations are just excuses.

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  10. @Tippi: Thanks for commenting! Film Crit Hulk had a great piece about Prometheus? I'll tale a look then. I'm really interesting in the entire issue of ambiguity.

    There are cases when a director adds on an ambiguous ending, simply to make themselves and their film look more intelligent, or a cop out if don't know how to end things. I prefer when the ending works with the rest of the story.

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    1. Here's the piece I was talking about (http://badassdigest.com/2012/06/17/film-crit-hulk-smash-the-damon-lindleof-intervention/), particularly this section:

      SO YEAH, IT'S GREAT THAT THE FILMMAKERS HAD ALL THESE NEAT IDEAS. BUT GUESS WHAT? THEY EITHER DIDN'T COMMUNICATE THEM WELL IN THE MOVIE (BY EITHER BLUDGEONING US WITH LITERALISM OR GARBLING THEM IN AMBIGUITY) OR THEY DIDN'T EXECUTE THEM AT ALL.

      I think Total Recall (the original), i.e. the "is this a dream or reality" argument, is a great example of ambiguity that adds value to the story and makes the audience really think about what they've done. Something like Prometheus seems ambiguous because the script has too many ideas/was never cleaned up. In the case of the latter, I think director explanations are a cop out. For the former, I think it's better to let the audience decide for themselves!

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    2. @Tippi: Thanks, I read the Film Crit Hulk article today. I did enjoy Prometheus quite a bit, and I confess I 've only seen it once, SPOILERS AHEAD: but I agree that maybe there were too many ideas and characters, and almost all of questions were pushed unanswered into a possible sequel."I want!" / "You can't" really is the biggest disappointment of the film.

      This link I found useful and clears up some of the confusion:
      http://www.cinemablend.com/new/Prometheus-Explained-Unraveling-Unanswered-Questions-31317.html?utm_source=zergnet.com

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  11. @Tippi: oh and yes, a filmmaker/writer will always fight to the death to defend their creation, nobody is more biased than an artist. Even when they have made a bad movie, an actor still has to promote and praise it...

    Prometheus worked well in terms of suspense I think, a weakness was how unprofessionally the “brilliant” scientists behaved. That was poor writing and didn't make sense.

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