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.