Are Themes Important?

I apologize for the lack of posting this June. Between teaching and writing and the pace of summer, I've not found the usual blogging inspiration.

That's not to say that teaching has not inspired a number of useful questions for me. I found there's nothing like a history survey to make one keenly aware of the blindspots and knowledge gaps one has. It becomes another terrain to play out the generalist/specialist dual pull we face as scholars.

But for now, I'll share an observation that came up this week. In covering high concept (with Justin Wyatt's book and Ken Feil's work on mass camp), I paired Ghostbusters as an example. It's a useful film to examine for all sorts of reason - not the least at how classical its film style seems by today's post-classical standards. Even romantic comedies are not shot in as contained and traditional a style as Ghostbusters.

Yet the film lacks a theme. And it's largely because it lacks a psychological subplot. In Ghostbusters, no character undergoes a significant journey in the course of the narrative. Even as Dana (Sigourney Weaver) moves from standoffishness to romance with Venkman (Bill Murray), the reasons are primarily external (he saves her) than internal. Of the other films I've screened in the history survey, the only other feature film that shares the externality of conflict is a B film I chose from the early 1930s (Mystery Ranch). It's no accident, as much of what characterizes the "New Hollywood" is the raising of B movie sensibility to the big budget universe. Or, to put it another way, the reason many see the New Hollywood as B movies with big budgets has to do with the externality of conflict, often combined with an exaggerated emotional catharsis from the conflict resolution.

The focus on theme has become a preoccupation of mine teaching the intro-to-analysis class with some regularity, since most narrative films have themes, and these themes are often the basis for film criticism as traditionally conceived. Psychological subplots aren't the only way to achieve the film, since formal devices can also do this, but they are the most prominent means in a commercial narrative. And interpretations combining theme and form are not the only way to write film criticism, since semiotics opens up constitutive parts of a film to connotative reading (in the process going even beneath the layers of theme to look at unintended subtexts) and historical poetic opens up films to systematic analysis in a manner that often sidesteps a literary-style theme-beneath-the-surface approach.

I lay all of this out to suggest that reason that film scholars were slow to take contemporary (post-1980) popular cinema seriously wasn't simply snobbery, as William Paul's book Laughing, Screaming implies (though snobbery is a factor) but also a change in what we look for when we analyze movies. It's not just that historical distance has allowed us to see art in classical Hollywood, but that even the flimsiest A pictures - and many Bs - borrowed a thematic approach from literature.


Anonymous said…
GREAT post. The reason there is no theme in "Ghostbusters" (and so many other high concept movies) is that these films re-order the importance of Aristotle's list from the Poetics. Spectacle, which Aristotle ranks the least important, is for most of these films now the most important element. That's what defines them as high concept.

Seeing the guys get slimed, seeing the enormous Stay-Puff Marshmellow Man terrorizing Manhattan, and so on.... the theme is "Doesn't this stuff look cool?"
Chris Cagle said…
Thanks for beefing up the post with some classical aesthetics! I will say that I'm never very conversant in the screenwriting is understood and practiced by those who actually write.

I guess I was trying to sidestep the entire narrative/spectacle dichotomy, Ghostbusters after all does have a decently developed action plot, despite the "frozen" moments. I suppose one could argue that spectacle leads filmmakers to ignore psychological development. We should remember, however, that classical films had their own spectacle, action, and generic pleasures (in films from Gone with the Wind to The Red Shoes to White Heat) while having a distinct theme.

For what it's worth, Wyatt's discussion of high concept films is not limited to spectacle films (e.g. Flashdance), and some on his list distinctly do have themes (e.g. Jaws). We, of course, don't have to confine ourselves to his definition, but it's a useful start.
Joel Bocko said…
In defense of Ghostbusters, it could also be read in Manny Farber's "termite art" fashion, with Bill Murray ironically standing to the side of the film's narrative and formal conventions, wryly commenting on what's unfolding. Except here, unlike in many of the films Farber celebrates, Murray's scene-chewing is an intentional part of the film's text; it's meant to be read that way. I don't know, interesting stuff.

I was drawn to this post because I find that, on my new blog, I am discussing themes more often than formal elements. I am doing so guiltily, as most of my favorite critics (from Cahiers to Kael) delve into the way a film feels over what it's about (or better yet, how it feels about what it's about) but it's definitely making me think about the relative importance of all these different elements in films - and film criticism.

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