Wednesday, June 25, 2008

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.

Saturday, June 07, 2008

British Noir

Forgive the somewhat inaccurate term of British noir, but in some respects it's apt for what it evokes: films that Britain made postwar combining crime and an exaggerated visual style. Thom Ryan, in his Film of the Year project, arrives at 1947, and for that year dissects Carol Reed's Odd Man Out, a film I've often thought unfairly overshadowed by the more illustrious Third Man. It's a terrific post that opens up the film to its detail and underlying crosscurrents.

As for my 1947 project, I do want to look into the impact of the British features on the American market. At this point they did have a prominence on US screens. What I need to discover is how much: how much they were relegated to "art house" contexts and how much downtown, neighborhood, or community cinemas showed them.