Skip to content

Intentionalism: A new movement? [An essay…kind of]

November 26, 2011

Question: Have indie films and books edged towards a new movement where they can never be critically challenged?

Argument: Yes, they have.

Sources for:  

Baghead [2007, Dir. Duplass Brothers.]

Mumblecore in general.

David Foster Wallace and ‘The Pale King’ [the first 2 pages and a bit in the middle]


The Guard [2011, Dir. McD]

Source Code [2011, Dir. Duncan Jones]

Captain America [2011, Dir. Jack Johnson]

Johnny Saf Foer [Everything is illuminated, twat]

Hopscotch [Julio Cortazar]


I don’t think I have long so let’s forget about structure and just throw ourselves straight in, see if we float…

David Foster Wallace wrote a book about a taxman called The Pale King. The first page was awful, the second near enough the same. What was the story? Life in a dull tax office mostly. Who was the main character? Taxman. What did he generally deal with? Tax.

There’s no real need for introductions to this argument as David Foster Wallace is pretty much the whole concept in one. At his best, he can write his own anxieties into his characters and give a text-face [an other] to readers who’ve felt the same way. At his worst, he writes footnotes.

His last book was a response to that Warhol video of the Empire State Building. Or that one take, nine hour Russian film about an ark. He dared himself to write about a tax office, to show how tedious life can truly be, and maybe between the cracks show some small parts of life that aren’t so bad. It’s hard to tell as the only people who got through the whole thing were critics.

This can’t be true…

But it is. The first two pages are really that dull. I couldn’t read any more, and you might say that prjudiced…prejudices my point, but that’s not true. I’m not prejudiced. I’m not. The first two pages of any book are maybe 92% representative of the whole text, so there it is. First two pages not good = whole book not good. And only someone with an existing reputation could get away with such shit and still be published.

So how does this embody the concept of ‘intentionalism’?

Because it exists almost beyond criticism. It is dull, but intentionally dull. If you don’t like it then you haven’t truly understood it.

This isn’t a new thing…

No, it’s not. Delusional types have often defended their works by saying, ‘you just don’t get it.’ It’s unclear when it first started, but it probably correlates to the birth of the modern media and the fact that we now know everything about anything. Example, in 1940, not many people knew that Kafka had ordered his novels burnt on his deathbed, or that he wasn’t popular while he was alive. But now, it’s everywhere, alongside the legends of John Kennedy Toole, Peeping Tom, Blade Runner etc. So the modern delusionals point to these examples and say it’s the same thing for them whereas a delusional in 1890 would have had nothing but his own boasts.

What does this mean?

People don’t know what’s good anymore. They’re scared they might dismiss something which later becomes extraordinary. Critics, too. There has been so much criticism of so many books and films that they’re starting to third-guess themselves.  They can no longer look at a book like ‘The Pale King’ and think it’s boring because, simply, Wallace might’ve intended something they’re unaware of.

Maybe he did…

And that’s the beauty of intentionalism. You can write about anything and get away with it.

Isn’t this just the same as post-modernism?

That’s unclear. It might just be an extension of it, a little bit of extra track. With postmodernism, you had writers using all kinds of different formats in text [Man, I can’t remember any…the ‘no e’ book, I guess] and putting themselves in the story [Amis, Auster, many more], and when critics slated them, the authors also said, ‘hey, you missed the point.’ Or, ‘hey, you got the point and then hit me over the head with it.’

Is this different to Intentionalism?

It is…it’s just difficult to explain why or how.


Wait, just…wait a minute…I don’t know what I’m…

Okay, how about this? When postmodernist writers wrote something wacky and called it fiction, they made it, mostly, insanely different. And they didn’t get away with hiding behind their intentions so much.

That’s pretty general…

Fuck off, I’m still writing…okay, so, because ‘knowledge’ and ‘wikipedia’ have become more widespread, critics have also grown in number. There are more now than there were in the 70’s or 80’s when postmodernism was flourishing. This is because of the internet. So…more critics, means more people looking to review a book or a film in a different way, and trying to go deeper, deeper, as deep as they can without looking like a twat.

What this means is…every story, even the regular-looking ones, are being reviewed in confusion.  They look normal, but are they?

Hang on…

Where was I? Man, four days…no, wait…five days…they never gave me my watch back…time is only in my head, is it? No, I can still count days…can’t take the sun and moon from me…maybe the windows, but…

Okay, here we go…back into it. Where was…something about intentions…confusion…regular-looking…yes, that’s it, that’s the difference between intentionalism and postmodernism…it’s not really about the text anymore, it’s about the author’s intentions. Even in postmodernism, authors had to reveal their intentions in the text, or they had failed. And it was usually pretty easy to spot the intention as they went to the extremes. Like Cortazar in Hopscotch. He shifted the order of the pages, so everyone knew that he was trying something and they just had to figure out what it meant. But now…


Now, the author is either more subtle or the actual process of criticism has become more intensely detailed. Or the author is writing ‘in character’ eg. Catcher in the Rye – a teenage runaway, so are the things you don’t like just bad writing or consistent writing from the character’s perspective? Where’s the difference?

I shouldn’t be doing this…they said it wasn’t good for me, that it’s too sparky…too much of a spark in the head, makes my mind too bright…maybe it does…

I don’t care…

This is confusing. I’ve just re-read the whole thing back and…man…forget it.

Let’s look at some examples, see if intentionalism applies:

Wait…first, let’s outline ‘intentionalism’.

INTENTIONALISM: The skipping of textual analysis in favour of the author’s possible intentions.


BAGHEAD [2007, Dir. Duplass Brothers]

A film about a group of four film-making hopefuls who go to a cabin to write a screenplay about a killer with a bag on his head. They talk and drink and argue a little. Then a real killer with a bag on his head turns up.

This film is part of the mumblecore movement. You’d think there’d be lots of mumbling in their films, but it’s fairly audible all the way through. The real point of their work is to make things real. To have characters who are similar to how people act in real life, and to have them talk like real people too, which might include boring parts of conversation as well as the good stuff.

How does this fall into intentionalism?

Well, the problem lies in the dialogue and the characters. The concept of ‘real people avatars’ in a film is solid enough, but the dialogue in Baghead is a little too ordinary. Maybe it’s how Americans talk to each other, and maybe it is how we all really sound, but…should it be this way?

No, that’s not it. We were supposed to look at the director’s intentions…

Okay, the directors. They’re another set of brothers, the Duplass twins [?], and their intentions are the thing we have to decide. Why? Because if you say, ‘I thought the concept of ‘real characters, real dialogue’ was good, but the dialogue wasn’t interesting enough’ then you’ve reached an impasse. The Duplass’ and their acolytes would simply reply, ‘that was the intention, and your criticism has just become invalid.’

This is intentionalism. Baghead is a good film. The four main characters have a decent dynamic between them, it feels pretty real, it’s interesting, but still…the philosophy behind the making of the film becomes both a criticism and an accolade.

I’m not sure this is making sense…

Let’s try it this way.

Intention of mumblecore films like ‘Baghead’: show characters acting like real people, talking like real people, dealing with normal or weird situations like real people.

Criticism of Baghead: The conversations do seem real-ish, but aren’t that interesting.

Reply to criticism: That was the intention.

Question: Where is the creative selection of interesting dialogue amongst the boring shit?

And this is the crux of intentionalism. It is an attempt to hide behind a failure in execution of a certain philosophy. [There’s probably a better way to put that.]

John Cassavetes dealt with characters acting like real people. His dialogue wasn’t dull.

The Office deals with the same thing, and it works.

Things happen in real life that seem real and feel real but are really pretty fucking strange. People do weird things, they get into weird arguments.

Baghead was decent, but it could’ve been better. It failed to make the ‘real-esque dialogue’ interesting enough. Why? It’s hard to know for sure, but perhaps the directors were so far into trying to make the film seem like real life, that they forgot that they were still making a film.

Real Life = Real life [uncapturable]

Film = Depiction of life [real or fantastical]

Realist film = The depiction of real life, with a 20-25% loss of authenticity due to creative intent.

A further example, and this is one that is a lynchpin of intentionalism:

One of the male characters in Baghead is, according to his best friend, ‘one of the funniest people I’ve ever met.’

In the film, that male character is not funny. There are a few scenes where he is either trying to be funny or being as funny as real people get.

As a result, it becomes impossible to use the text as the sole basis for analysis. Were the directors intentionally making him not so funny because in real life people aren’t really as funny as they think they are? Or did they just fail to write lines that were funny enough?

Who can tell?

Hang on…it sounds like the male character being unfunny follows the mumblecore philosophy quite closely…

It does seem that way. Maybe the point isn’t strong enough to survive analysis…maybe intentionalism isn’t as strong an argument as it seemed when it was in my head…

Okay, another question then…if we stick with the term ‘intentionalism’, and we define it as writers or directors…what was it? Skipping textual analysis to focus on the author’s intentions…?  Hang on…that sounds like intentionalism comes more from the critic and not the artist…

This is confusing…I don’t think I know which way is ‘continue’ and which way is ‘stop’ anymore…maybe it is just postmodernism after all…

No, wait…let’s go back to the question…maybe it’s related…

Question: If the author/director/artist intends their work to be like ‘real life’, is it also their mission to make it entertaining?

This brings us back to The Pale King and Warhol’s 24 hour Empire State video. It’s an experiment, you can see their intention, but it’s tedious. To a lesser extent, Baghead suffers the same thing. You see the point, but it doesn’t quite work as a film.




Yes, intentionalism lives again. This is the central conflict of it. Can the intentional/experimental be interesting? Should the author try to make it so? Can they fail if they follow their intentions without making the film entertaining?

Can The Pale King still be appreciated even if it’s a tedious piece of shit?

I’m back… I always come back, somehow…what they say and what they try and do isn’t going to…you see, I know that wasn’t really Romania, it just looked like it…or something they think might make me look…make me think of Romania…but I know it wasn’t…there were no dogs, and the buildins werent


Intentionalism. Can something be entertaining and experimental. There was a film recent…a film made recently that did this…what was…the one with the…with the train and the guy who’s…he’s…the guy, he’s…he’s doing…what’s he doing?

Fuck, I can’t…it’s gone, I can’t…what’s happening? They didn’t…they said the thing was…there were no dogs, the buildings weren’t

No, wait…got it. Okay, this is getting pretty long, but here’s one response to…to that question I asked before:

SOURCE CODE [2011, Dir. Duncan Jones]

Unreal people in a ludicrous situation. A man lives the same eight minutes over and over, trying to stop a train blowing up. The director’s intention: To entertain and to make you think about parallel realities.

Does it work?

Mostly. It’s short, about eighty-nine minutes. Each train scene is a little bit different. It makes you think a little. There is symbolism as the man’s imaginary pod gets bigger and messier each time he gets blown up and comes back to it.

What if the Duplass brothers had made it?

That’s a question. The characters are movie people, not real people. The Duplass brothers would probably make the whole thing one big ball of confusion, as the man loses track of the mission and just tries to understand what the hell is going on. This would be real, but could it also be entertaining?

Man, this is a mess…I’m not sure if the point I’m making is the point I want to make or something different…

Can Source Code be used as a response to intentionalism?

Do we even really understand what intentionalism is?

Maybe it wasn’t defined well enough…

No, Source Code wasn’t relevant…forget that part. Just stop reading at ‘Can ‘The Pale King’ still be appreciated even if it’s a tedious piece of shit?’

That’s a good end point.

I think I might’ve been too hard on ‘Baghead’. I really liked it…the main guy gets so excited when he has the idea for his script…it makes you want to have an idea and write a script too…

Fuck it, this whole thing was a mess. I don’t know if they’ve…

They didn’t…


2 Comments leave one →
  1. marchorne permalink
    November 26, 2011 4:09 pm

    There’s an easy technique for determining an Intentionalist work. You confront the Auteur. If he turns slightly to his right and raises his eyebrows to his buddy, it’s Intentionalist.

    If he doesn’t turn, or if the buddy is not there, then it is…something else.

    • Stavrogin permalink
      November 27, 2011 4:07 pm

      What if his buddy is there and has a camera? What if the whole confrontation is filmed? That would swing it back round to Intentionalism and we’d be just as confused as when we started.

      Another good example of ‘realist cinema’ that isn’t intentionalist is ‘American Movie.’ The guy’s neighbourhood is pretty mundane and so are the other characters and what they say to each other, but it’s still good to watch, and funny, and feels like real life.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: