We Make Sense Together


Think about the wide cast of characters who go into making a movie. There’s the screenwriter — or, more likely, screenwriters, who not only write the words but craft the story (if there is a story). The screenplay itself can play diverse roles. The Coen brothers live by their exact words as much in their films moves to the rhythm of words. Imagine Miller’s Crossing, one of the most articulate movies, without words: it’d be a very strange affair (even if quite beautiful).

There’s the cinematographer who oversees the very look of the film — although not necessarily the look of the movie, if that makes any sense. There is often an art director who helps construct the look of the movie — the colors, the visual concepts, perhaps the mood, the matte browns of Miller’s Crossing, the cold blue greys David Fincher likes so much these days. The cinematographer, who may be art directing, decides the best technology — lens, film stock, camera, lighting — to achieve the desired look.

There are the actors who, in many ways, are the strangest technology on the set. They are defined by the limits of not just their bodies but their capacity to emotionally inflect their bodies. Colin Farrell always looks vapid. He may or may not be as a person but that’s how he presents to the camera. Tom Cruise can’t underplay: he’s all cocky grin. These are not criticisms; they are realities that play their role in configuring this thing that is many things that we call a movie. Harvey Keitel, Vincent Gallo, Cate Blanchett, Bill Murray, Gena Rowlands: these are all actors who have the ability to generate meaning and sense often despite the words they’re forced to say.

There are so many other players — the crew, the set designers, the make up and costumes, the location scouts, the editor (who I secretly feel controls the film), the freakin’ producers who, in Hollywood, probably dictate the most.

And then there’s the director. With the rise of auteur theory, we came to imagine one person who’s really in control — the director. But consider that title for a moment as it tells us all we need to know: the director doesn’t create per se as much as she directs bodies — you there, that here, and so on.

While movies make this distributed effort explicit, it’s there in writing, too. Sure, there aren’t as many bodies bearing down on the writer day to day. But there are probably even more echoes and tropes, temptations of cliché, the cacophonous chorus of history, of all things said and written, of voices and possibilities streaming through our writer. He may look all alone in the chair in the cabin, but he’s haunted by a universe of ghosts.

And this doesn’t even get to the materiality of language itself, all the rules and words with their odd timings and meanings which always have a way of getting away from us. A writer is written by the limits of his language as much as he writes. After all, we can’t just write any old thing. Well, we can. But not if we are writing to an audience and want anyone to make any kind of sense of what we’re writing. Subject-verb agreement, all those inflections of time and orientation, the weight and connotations of every word: they steer the writer whether he likes it or not.

The audience, too, plays its role. Which is to say, the writer will never have been the author — the authority — over his writing (pace Barthes). Once I write, it’s left me and anyone out there can and will do what he or she will. All writing is detached from its origin, always and already, only to be taken up, repurposed, cut up, spun by anyone and everyone (pace Derrida).

Sense and meaning — these are not the same thing; meaning is tethered to a concept or thing, sense to a shape or affect — do not emanate from a point. They are always and already cooperative events. We don’t just create together; we make sense together.

Sense and meaning are distributed throughout an event. Sometimes, especially in films, music plays an instrumental role in defining the sense of a scene. Other times, it’s the dialogue or the actor, the shot or the lighting. In any case, all those components work together in an ever differing calculus to create a sense event: this experience rather than that. Shift one element and it sends ripples through the whole shebang, creating a different event.

There is no single point determining sense or even meaning. Both sense and meaning are distributed in their creation and their consumption (the line between the two blurs, of course). There is never, ever, one point of meaning. It’s not only all in flux: it’s distributed amongst different bodies and forces. We make sense together and the sense we create is never one but always — always — many.