Wide Sense and Reference

What can an unusual film tell us about how philosophers think about language? It’s kind of a long story…

It’s not out of the ordinary to go to the cinema with some preconceived notions. We’re used to the “coming soon…” or the “in a world…” style marketing that is part of filmgoing, so I make informed choices about my viewing. At some point viewers start building a vocabulary of film that’s a lot like building a vocabulary of words. Which is to say it’s hard to imagine going to the theater truly cold.

I went into Bad Lucky Goat with some preconceptions and some expectations. This is a story about two kids on an island, sort of taking care of this goat corpse that’s hanging around like some kind of cursed football through the film. That’s a story that actually makes sense in a lot of ways.

Since I knew that much about Bad Lucky Goat, I expected to put together a comparative review about evil goats in film. Evil goats are kind of a trope, especially in recent films and European folklore, and it might be expected to talk about The Witch (2015) and Weekend at Bernie’s (1989) in the case of a film called Bad Lucky Goat. But very quickly, my ideas about this film changed.

Bad Lucky Goat is highly referential and also finds a unique voice. That may seem slightly contradictory, a film that’s both referential and original, but it comes with the the territory of good command of a cinematic language. Language is the star of this film. Right after the goat.

Just how widely does this film seem to reference other films? Here’s a non-exhaustive list:

In addition to the aforementioned Weekend at Bernie’s and The WitchThe Last Wave (1977), The Rum Diary (2011), The Seventh Seal (1956), American Graffiti (1973), Little Miss Sunshine (2006), Beasts of the Southern Wild (2012), Do the Right Thing (1989), along with some TV references like True Detective (2013), maybe some music videos like “Pon De Floor” by Major Lazer, and “If I Had A Heart” by Fever Ray seem relatable to Bad Lucky Goat. There are so many more similar films. Just to cover all the bases, the first time I saw an evil goat in its current cinematic incarnation might have been in 300 (2006).

Bad Lucky Goat is not a movie you could pitch with the line “it’s like if Little Miss Sunshine met The Seventh Seal on a tiny Caribbean island.” Yet, that’s not a bad description. How can this be?

Frege, Philosophy, and Filmmaking

What Bad Little Goat reminded me of most wasn’t a film. It called to mind a debate in philosophy about meaning and language. How do people use language to pick out what it is they mean when they say a word or a sentence? How can we use different words with different meanings which point to the same thing? These are questions without good answers, but there is “On Sense and Reference” by 19th Century philosopher Gottlob Frege which is still a good starting point.

There’s a way in which Frege seems interested in originality. How names and sentences can be novel yet familiar. As he puts it:

A difference can arise only if the difference between the signs corresponds to a difference in the mode of presentation of that which is designated. (Frege, 37)

This is the problem he sets about trying to solve. It is sort of a fancy way of saying “it’s not what you say, it’s how you say it.” The question is how do we, people, understand different meanings as a result.

He lays out an intuitive model of how statements work where a speaker (or in our case a film) grasp the same thing, a referent. But statements are still up to interpretation around their meaning, What Frege calls the sense of the word or phrase. When watching Bad Lucky Goat, you can see it pick out these references and put a whole new spin on it in the telling.

Frege’s model of telling stories has three parts. First, a fixed reference, something all films can tap into. Second, a verifiable but flexible sense, the spin any particular films puts on that reference by showing it in some new way. Third, there is a totally subjective idea, this is the experience the audience has about the film. Frege says it like this:

The reference of a proper name is the object itself which we designate by its means; the idea, which we have in that case, is wholly subjective; in between lies the sense, which is indeed no longer subjective like the idea, but is yet not the object itself. (Frege, 39)

All that sounds simple, but it’s not. First of all, philosophers have a lot of different ideas of how we make statements and, of course, how to tell stories with them. More importantly, making sense of Frege’s ideas and a film like Bad Lucky Goat is up to us, the audience and Bad Lucky Goat is a tricky film to make sense of. To go back to Frege one last time:

The possible differences [in poetry] belong also the coloring and shading which poetic eloquence seeks to give to the sense. Such coloring and shading are not objective, and must be evoked by each hearer or reader according to the hints of the poet or the speaker. Without some affinity in human ideas art would certainly be impossible; but it can never be exactly determined how far the intentions of the poet are realized. (Frege, 40)

One More Thing to Say

The real reason it’s really up to the audience to interpret a work is because our world of language gets really complicated really fast. A film is a statement in sounds and images, not just words. What’s more, if the references a film can draw from wasn’t big enough, there’s all the places films come from and languages they’re written in which contribute to an interpretation.

Bad Lucky Goat is in creole, which is a rare language to see a whole film in. (I hadn’t seen a whole film in creole, and I trip over my own words sometimes.) But that’s no barrier to appreciating this quirky film which is steeped in the language of film. Even so, Bad Lucky Goat doesn’t confirm that film is a universal language. It isn’t. Nevertheless, interpreting a film like Bad Lucky Goat is exciting in the sense that it’s conjuring some pretty specific referents. It puts a unique spin on things in a language that’s probably new to a lot of viewers. Then it creates those subjective ideas in the minds of an audience.

Author: Peter Hogenson has been writing about film for ten years, most recently as a student at the University of Minnesota and as the Editorial Intern at Facets.

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