I’ve been thinking about The Green Knight ever since I saw it a month ago. The film is a hypnotic blend of English myth, dream like strangeness and stiking imagery.1 . What has kept me returning to the film in my head is how little it explains for the audience. There is a clear quest with monsters and talking animals, but within this framework it resists easy interpretation. There’s no simple explanation of what the different perspectives mean or why Gaiwan is on the quest. Instead, it leaves the meaning up to the audience.
I’m increasingly drawn to art like this, that is allows space for nuance and interpretation. Perhaps because mainstream films like Marvel offer clear character motivations, as well as obvious bad guys to defeat. It’s refreshing to see something that diverges from this formula. Perhaps I am also tired of the three act structure and the heroes quest that has become so formulaic. Or maybe it’s because social media tends towards strident declarations of facts in the face of increasing chaos. Regardless of the actual reasons, I find art that I have to sit with and figure out myself more interesting at the moment.
Where the meaning is uncertain, it’s easy to say its dismiss these films as random or uncrafted.2 I’d argue instead that when it is done well, the meaning is uncertain but the internal imagery and design is consistent and tight. There is just none of the easy answers usually available to us. The artist may have a meaning in mind, but it is not revealed to the audience, creating a space where the audience can add their own meaning. J David Osborne explores this in his guest podcast for 301 Permamently Moved, saying:
A mode of not-knowing, however, drops a reader or a viewer or a gamer into a world that is tightly controlled, internally consistent, yet completely unavailable. Not cold, per se, but closed off. … for some people, the best thing art can do is open up that space in your mind that lets you fill in the blanks, a place that was there in childhood before you became weighed down with the burden of knowing things.
This is increasingly what I seek from the art I engage with, a space where I can fill in my own interpretations.
I think we tend to accept this more readily in music than in other art forms. Look at the song Spanish Translation by Low:
It’s one of my favourite songs from the last few years and hits me every time. But I could not tell you what it means. Why does the Spanish translation change the perspective of the singer so much? We never know. But we are used to feeling the emotion of music more. The power of the instrumentation, that crash of noise in the chorus and the beautiful vocals in the background all add to the experience of the song. It’s fitting, because it is also a song about uncertainty. Like The Green Knight, it provokes an emotional response but what it means is unclear.
Somewhat inevitably, this leads us onto poetry.
In school, we are often taught that there is one meaning of a poem that the author intended. We excavate this meaning like an autopsy, peeling apart the layers of language to see how it works. This is fine for an understanding of how the form works, but it misses the fact that this dense art form full of imagery and metaphor can often be used to explore not knowing. Look at Stars are Shredding Machines by Christain Hawkey. My interpretation of this poem has changed multiple times since I first read it and I’m not sure any of these are ‘right’. Poetry is used instead to explore the space of not knowing. We can simply experience the poem instead of interpreting it.
In all these examples, what I enjoy is becoming an active participant in the work. Instead of didactically laying down the interpretation of a piece of art, these works allow for multiple meanings to exist at once. The artist may have a meaning in mind when they created it, but the audience becomes an equal participant in crating the meaning, which may be different to the intention. It’s freeing to make your own mind up, but also to sit in the uncertainty for a while.