A Brief Commentary on Susan Sontag’s ‘Against Interpretation’ in Relation to Last Year at Marienbad
Susan Sontag’s article ‘Against Interpretation’ tackles one of the most crucial issues art is facing in today’s society. This is the issue of interpretation. The main factor which determines Sontag’s position in regards to art criticism is the fact that our society is one of excessiveness, especially in a generation that’s media capability allows for more output than ever before. She makes it clear that “the result is a steady loss of sharpness in our sensory experience” (Susan Sontag, ‘Against Interpretation’, 13) which leads most critics to analyze and breakdown works as opposed to experience them in a personal level. Sontag’s approach may be extremely beneficial when discussing Alain Resnais’ Last Year at Marienbad.
When viewing a work such as Last Year at Marienbad, it becomes obvious that narrative cohesiveness is not an option. In fact, the more one attempts to analyze the narrative structure and content of the work, the more one may find oneself utterly lost in an inescapable labyrinth of sorts. Trying to add narrative logic to the story means the critic is creating it himself, ignoring the form of the film in means of replacing it with his own translation (Sontag, 5). Sontag clarifies her opinion on the matter by declaring how an analytical breakdown of a work which is purely meant to be felt, such as Last Year at Marienbad, is altering the work “without actually erasing or rewriting the text” (Sontag, 6). Intimidated by an art work, the critic finds solace in “reducing the work of art to its content” in means of taming the piece to an extent in which they can find it comprehensible (Sontag, 5). However, interpretation might actually hinder certain films from their full potential if their initial intentions were to avoid analysis in means of reaching audiences through a mere sensory-level basis.
Last Year at Marienbad offers something to the viewers that cannot be translated into words. Its use of images and use of editing to achieve an oneiric form complementary to surrealistic standards is completely held back by any type of interpretation. Who can interpret something that was meant to be heard, seen and felt? Perception changes from person to person, diversifying the film in the eyes of each and every audience member. By describing the indescribable, a critic is, therefore, altering the experience of the viewer. Not only are they translating a piece of art into their own understanding, but they are completely ignoring the intention of the artists by analyzing work which concentrated on form rather than content. What would be the purpose of creating a film heavily reliant on form if it could just be described in a three-paragraph critique?
In conclusion, it is extremely vital in understanding Susan Sontag’s intentions in emphasizing the importance of experiencing artwork at a sensory-based level, as opposed to a logical level which thrives on interpretation. Last Year at Marienbad is the perfect example for her case as it demonstrates a film fully dependent on form, rather than content in means of reaching out to viewers on a personal level, making perception key to their experience.
Last Year at Marienbad. Dir. Alain Resnais. 1961.
Sontag, Susan. “Against Interpretation.” Against Interpretation and Other Essays. Farrar, Straus & Giroux, 1966. 3-14.