Approaching films and other cultural objects


1. Fetishism

Looked at a certain way, the film, as with most cultural products, is primarily a vessel for meaning. Its form facilitates the communication of its message. We may categorise cultural products through the various conventional forms that they assume (film, dance, painting, theatre, and so on), but beneath the surface all share the same purpose: the communication of meaning. A certain form may be chosen because it best communicates certain meanings - in other words, it is the vessel best suited to carry a certain cargo - or because the form itself holds an appeal.

A fetishistic approach to film is one that chooses to prioritise the vessel over its cargo; form over meaning. When we fetishise we concentrate on surface aspects - how attractive the vessel is; how well put-together it is; when it was manufactured, and who manufactured it. Inasmuch as the vessel is intended to carry something, this concentration on surfaces is always done at the expense of what is contained within. Whilst we talk of surfaces we do not talk of depths. It is akin to attending a talk and concentrating more on what the speaker looked like - what he was wearing, the size of his nose and so on - rather than what he said.

This is not to belittle the fetishistic approach: inasmuch as it is useful to concentrate on surfaces rather than depths, then fetishism has its uses. It is not our task here to expand upon these uses; suffice it to say that as ways to experience the world, both approaches - depth and surface - are undoubtedly useful to us. It will be left to the reader to reflect on the value of the fetishistic approach.

It is also worth noting that to separate surface from depth is, in a sense, to make an artificial distinction, because it requires us to draw an arbitrary border across the path that connects the two. Yet, whilst there may well be a message in the medium, our borderline is useful inasmuch as it allows us to see, and to talk about, the differences between these two points on our path.

When we talk about the "success" or "failure" of a film, we are, in a sense, talking about vessel rather than cargo. This conversation stands us outside the vessel and directs us towards its objectivity; in other words, it demands, first and foremost, that we see it as an object, as an individual thing that can be talked about as a unit, rather than as a plurality of things. Yet, to talk of the film as a thing is in many ways to labour under an illusion. Were we to breach its surface and enter the vessel, we would see that in fact it contained many "things," and that these things may be both complementary and contrasting. Thus, beneath its surface the integrity of our object is not what it may seem. In fact, if we remain below deck long enough, amongst the whirl of meanings that lurk herein, we may lose the ability to view "it" as a singular "thing" at all.

To look within is, then, to risk the integrity of the object as a unit. We may no longer be able to talk about it as being this way or that way, because it may be many ways, all at once. If a culture demands that its objects be taken as that - as singularities; vessels with definitive shells, that head in one direction - then to get lost within depths is to risk departing from these prevailing ideas.
2. Fetishism and Game-playing

If our concern is primarily with the depths of a film, then it may be that its surfaces become less important, even forgotten about: cargo takes precedent over vessel. We may admire its engineering or design on the way in or out, but once we have taken our cargo home - once it has entered the flow of our lives - then we will have forgotten all about the vessel that transported it to us. In this sense, the meanings of a film are there for us to take, to absorb into our existence - to affect our lives - not to remain within the film as an aspect of its structure, or its excellence. The purpose of the vessel is to transport great delicacies, delicacies that are ultimately destined for our consumption; not to enhance the reputation of the vessel as an esteemed carrier-of-great-things. Because, left inside, even the finest of things will eventually wither and rot. In this sense, the vessel is akin to an egg; its shell cracked open and laid aside, its contents devoured.

The meaningful film demands that we crack its shell; that we free its meanings from their temporary home and allow them back amongst us, into the world, where they are able to do their work. And yet, there is a danger involved in this act. Once freed, these ideas and meanings no longer appear as benign as they did when confined, and they threaten to work upon us; to change our thoughts, our lives. This is the danger of the meaningful film, and the meaningful cultural object. When we allow it to act upon us, we see that its vessel - the object that was necessary to carry it from there to here, them to us - was only ever a momentary distraction. Our vision goes from the object, back to ourselves.

The meaningful film therefore demands reflection, and, sometimes, change. If we allow it to act upon us - if we dare explore its depths and free its meanings - then we risk allowing it to move us, and to change us. In this sense, fetishism - staying at the surface - becomes a defence against change, a way of staying the same. Talking about surfaces becomes a way of not talking about depths; foreplay without intercourse. When we keep the film as an object, and discuss the qualities of this object, we are able to keep its danger at arms length. We can see it, acknowledge it - perhaps even reach out and touch it - but do so in the knowledge that it is shackled, and thus unable to truly harm us. We sample danger - the thrill of the other, of foreign possibilities - whilst maintaining the status quo of our own existence.

So whilst we may venture into the depths and talk about the meanings of a film, in couching our conversation within an objective framework - within the conventions of the film world - we ultimately work to neutralize the potency of these meanings. Thus, a film may be "dangerous," "challenging" or "counter-cultural," but it is always, in the last, a film: a knowable, safe, commodity. As long as we keep reminding ourselves of this - reifying its objective nature - then we work to confine its potency to a safe-ground. We can play with these dangerous meanings, as long as we wear the right protective gear, and stay within the demarcated safe-area. We mustn't take them with us, out into the world; because here they may just be able to do some real "damage."

Thus to talk about the "power" of a certain film, whilst adopting a surface approach to it - reifying its status as object and limiting the reach of its meanings - is to deny that power access to ourselves, and the wider world. It is to encourage danger whilst keeping it at arms length. To allow the danger of a film its true potential we must be prepared to forget surface qualities and abandon the object; to throw the eggshell away. We must, in other words, be prepared to discard the film in order to fully assimilate its message.

Rather than face this danger, and allow the possibility of change into our world, we may instead choose to play games. Games are a way to pass to time; to move without going anywhere. We may play games in order to prevent change from occurring; and their attraction may lie in the fact that they allow the impression of movement - the notion that change is occurring - whilst assuring us that no real movement or change will take place. In other words, they allow a facsimile of change within a framework that ensures the status quo. If games are played honestly and openly - if we both realise and admit to ourselves that what we are doing is playing - then they can be a perfectly innocuous way to pass time. However, if we are unconscious of the fact that we are playing a game, or are unwilling to admit as much, then they can become dysfunctional, both for the individual and for the collectivity. Primarily this dysfunction springs from the fact that, through playing a game whilst insisting that we are not, we are working to obscure Truth. If Truth becomes obscured enough, then we risk reaching a point when we, both as individuals and as a collectivity, can no longer distinguish between game-playing and non-game-playing; between facsimile and original; Truth and untruth. Therefore, if in playing games we obscure Truth from ourselves and others, then our games can rightly be described as dysfunctional.

Often it may be our weakness - our unwillingness to allow change into our lives - that makes us play games. In this case, we must be prepared to admit that we are playing because we are weak, and to feel no shame in this. Only through such transparency can Truth remain clear and unmuddied; and, if our ethics are to remain alive and intact, we must always be prepared to make this individual sacrifice in the name of Truth.
3. Fetishism and Commerce

Most cultural products struggle to evade the grip of commerce, which, as we shall see, has a vested interest in the fetishistic approach. If the ideology of commerce is ingrained within our culture, then we may find it hard not to think and act in terms of this ideology. Thus, cultural objects become products and, like any product, they must sell, to us, the consumers.

These products come with a price; more often than not in terms of money, and always in terms of time. Within a culture that is pushed in terms of these resources, films in particular can appear to make heavy demands: to watch a film is to devote a significant amount of time that could have been spent elsewhere, not to mention a potentially substantial amount of money. As consumers with limited resources we must, then, be assured that our investment is well spent. Hence, we talk of our objects in terms of "successes" and "failures," and develop sliding scales on which we can chart these objects, placing one above another and isolating the chosen from the rejected. Commerce demands practicalities, and, when faced with a sea of potentialities, this is an entirely practical way to separate one object from another, to pick and choose. Yet, as we've seen, to talk of successes and failures is to talk of vessels; and if the conversation stays here it risks missing what lies within.

Commerce needs its tangible objects because it is hard to sell intangibles like ideas and meanings. If they are to be sold, they must come packaged, with a structure that can be seen and touched. And the object must remain important; the egg-shell cannot be discarded, because if it is then no more money can be made from it; and besides, if enough eggshells are thrown away, people may begin to believe that they really don't have that much value in the first place. And so meaning and importance is imbued in the eggshell, the object. The importance of surface is continually asserted.

If we are able to see and to define objects, then we can begin to name these objects and to categorize them. In this way we build structures around them, and in these structures - these worlds - we can live. Thus, when a film becomes "a film" it enters, and constitutes, the "film world." Like any system, it started with a single seed - the first object, the first "film" - and grew exponentially; sprout became trunk, from which came branches and leaves; and eventually all manner of creatures, great and small, made their home within. These creatures now have a vested interest in the maintenance of this world, because it is their home: most do not want to see it disappear.

If the support structure of a world consists of its objects then this world must maintain these objects in order to carry on existing. It is, then, in the interests of those who live within the world to adopt and maintain a surface, objective, approach towards those objects of which that world consists; to, in other words, constantly reify their objectivity. This does not mean that a depth-approach is out of the question, only that the surface approach must always figure in the equation. And so the same conversations, time and again - "Is it good?", "Is it bad?" - which work to keep the emphasis on the object.

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Leaving the Vessel

4. Conclusion

It has not been our task to assert the value of the depth approach over the surface approach, to insist on the general primacy or validity of one over another. As was previously mentioned, both are probably important ways of apprehending the world. Our main purpose has been to elucidate the differences between the two, and in so doing to shine a light into an area that may formerly have been dark. Whilst a surface approach to cultural products may be necessary, it has also been our purpose to highlight its drawbacks.

We've described a film as being like a vessel, and the meanings of the film as being its cargo, and have suggested that for these meanings to truly do their work within the world - the world for which they were always intended - it may often be necessary to leave the vessel, to take our cargo and move on. In practical terms, this would offer a different approach towards cultural products to the one that currently prevails (and to offer this approach is not to insist upon a new orthodoxy, rather to offer an alternative to the current way of things); an approach that accepts the potential multiplicity that is inherent in films, with their whirl of meanings, and that does not seek to wrap up this plurality within a unifying banner or judgement. It is an approach that seeks to allow meanings the freedom to spark and ignite within the spectator, regardless of the surface-level aspects of the vessel that carried these meanings.

It sees through Top 100 Films lists, or in how many stars a certain film got. It recognizes that these things work to keep us thinking of the film as an object, and in so doing threaten to delimit the reach of the meanings contained therein; that they push us back towards the surface, and tempt us into playing games.

In the interests of balance this text necessitates another, that expands upon the value of the surface approach. Yet, regardless of the value that any such text would undoubtedly highlight, our observations upon the drawbacks of fetishism - and in particular upon the dangers of game-playing, must surely remain.


However, for the man who studies to gain insight, books and studies are merely rungs of the ladder on which he climbs to the summit of knowledge. As soon as a rung has raised him one step, he leaves it behind.

On the other hand, the many who study in order to fill their memory do not use the rungs of the ladder for climbing, but take them off and load themselves with them to take away, rejoicing at the increasing weight of their burden. They remain below for ever, because they bear what should have borne them.

[Arthur Schopenhauer]
The World as Will and Representation, Volume II, p.80


Even writing and speaking, whether didactic or poetical, have as their ultimate aim the guidance of the reader to that knowledge of perception from which the author started; if they do not have this aim, they are bad.

For this reason, the contemplation and observation of everything actual, as soon as it presents something new to the observer, is more instructive than all reading and hearing about it.

[Arthur Schopenhauer]
The World as Will and Representation, Volume II, p.72


One of the most curious things in the structure of our psyche is that we all want to be told because we are the result of the propaganda of ten thousand years. We want to have our thinking confirmed and corroborated by another, whereas to ask a question is to ask it of yourself.

What I say has very little value. You will forget it the moment you shut this book, or you will remember and repeat certain phrases, or you will compare what you have read here with some other book – but you will not face your own life.

And that is all that matters – your life, yourself, your pettiness, your shallowness, your brutality, your violence, your greed, your ambition, your daily agony Kali and endless sorrow – that is what you have to understand and nobody on earth or in heaven is going to save you from it but yourself.

[Jiddu Krishnamurti]
Freedom from the Known, p. 125-6


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Further Thoughts: Pineapple Express

By the end of the film a familiar siren was sounding within my head, accompanied by a flashing neon sign that insisted: "This is a terrible film." And yet, despite the fact that the film was terrible, there were still elements of it that I liked. In particular, the two main characters were likeable, and their relationship was, for want of a better word, nice. And yet, it is impossible to ignore the wail of the siren, or the glare of the sign, all the time reminding me that "This is a terrible film"!

Why must I classify it in this way? Why can I not, when I talk of the film, talk solely of what I drew from it; what I liked about it? What meanings it gave me? If, despite its terribleness, it still managed to impart some sort of meaning, then is this not something? Why must whatever I say be prefaced with a objective judgement upon the whole?

But, of course, standards must be maintained. We, as a collectivity, must be able to tell good from bad; the terrible from the sublime; the beautiful from the ugly. Perhaps this is why the sign flashes and the siren sounds.