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Interpreting film and literature -- is it meant to be confusing?
November 4, 2012 1:43 AM   Subscribe

In film and literature, how does one deal with the smorgasbord of themes and lack of a single, unifying meaning?

OK, this is a little abstract, so bear with me. For the longest time, I've had trouble interpreting movies and books. When I listen to music or look at art, I usually "get it" right away, because works in these mediums tend to have very clear meanings. But when I watch a movie or read a novel, I'm often left confused by the end despite enjoying the plot.

For example, earlier today, I watched Blade Runner for the first time. It's clear that Ridley Scott and the other folks in the creative pipeline put a lot of thematic complexity into the work, but I just can't intuitively comprehend how it all fits together. Nothing in the film points me towards any given theme, and instead sort of exists in this stew of different ideas. For example, the burgeoning humanity of the replicants is a major theme in the film. So what's with all the other underlined ideas, such as the replicants' treatment of "god", the decrepit, multi-cultural stylings of the future, the references to mythology and religion, the main replicant's wild behavior towards the end, etc.? I can't help but see the film as a massive jumble of tangled thematic threads, none of which end up in the same place. I just don't get a sense of thematic closure. Am I supposed to feel this way? Doesn't it make the film seem incomplete?

My questions:
1. When you watch a movie or read a book, how do you come to grips with the themes? Do they generally make sense to you right away, or do you have to sit and think about them after the fact? In your favorite films and novels, do you find that they jumble together or stem from a single source?
2. How do creators conceive of these works? I'm sure that Ridley Scott didn't just want to make an action flick about a detective hunting robots, but at the same time I'm confident that he didn't consciously sit down one day and pen all the themes listed on the Wikipedia page. So how did this complicated work emerge, if not through a methodical process?

I know this is a fairly basic question, but I feel like the part of my brain that's supposed to just "get it" is missing. So please explain it to me like I'm 12!
posted by archagon to Media & Arts (17 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite
 
For appreciating works: training, intuition, and experience. For me meaning eventually coalesces after I spend some time thinking about a particular work. I write in my books, read criticism, talk with others about their responses. Usually this process clarifies my thoughts even further. That's a really basic answer, but that's pretty much what it all comes down to.

By training I mean having exposure to situations, usually academically, where you are required to think deeply about a work. If you're lucky you haven't been saddled with teachers and professors who lead you by the nose; instead they'll encourage you to think and come up with your own ideas after exposing you to various methods to frame your thinking. For instance, you may be asked to analyze a work from a feminist, psychological, environmental, or historical perspective, to name just a few.

Intuition is a little trickier. Some people are just better at this, not necessarily because they were born with some innate analytic talent--it's more of a desire to truly understand and make connections between narratives. For me it's a desire to find meaning outside of religious contexts without forgetting the strong influence religion has on creative endeavors; I imagine that motivations vary.

Experience is just that--exposure to tons of work. Once you've read or seen the things that have inspired other creative people you can make connections that simply aren't possible without having had that exposure. If you were to watch Citizen Kane, for instance, you would see all sorts of directorial tricks that you've seen dozens of times before. But none of those tricks existed before Orson Welles invented them. If you've read Joseph Campbell, Star Wars and dozens of other movies suddenly have more layers to explore within a particular context (the monomyth.) If you've read Shakespeare you'll notice his influence everywhere. Ditto the Bible, classical myth, and so on.

Creating work is a little different. It's part influence, part magic, part intent. I highly recommend watching Everything Is a Remix to get an idea of how intertwined everything is. In the case of Bladerunner, Ridley Scott was responding to an existing text, his influences, his own experience, and a hundred other things. No doubt much of what he did was intentional, but a lot of the meaning extracted from this film is just responsive criticism.

If you're interested in this stuff, there's a lot to read and watch, more than I could ever enumerate here. There are tons of recommended reading and movie lists scattered around the web.
posted by xyzzy at 2:45 AM on November 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


Although it's literature-specific, there was lots that might be of interest to you in this earlier question.
posted by hydatius at 3:56 AM on November 4, 2012


Not everything is designed to have a lit-crit essay written about it.
posted by pompomtom at 4:01 AM on November 4, 2012 [6 favorites]


First, the fact that you can't easily interpret the themes of Blade Runner is not actually a criticism of you. In many ways, the themes that emerge from Blade Runner are confused and shoddy (part of the reason is that the movie's themes come from multiple and diverse sources).

To answer your questions:

One of the most efficient (although mechanical) ways to come to grips with the themes of great works of art is to experience the art first, then read some criticism about the art, then experience the art again. When you do this, you'll develop some facility with the interpretations that others have constructed, and eventually you'll acquire some judgment about what constitutes good and bad interpretation. Do this enough and you'll get some critical skills of your own.

Do creators envision all the themes that others see in their work? Nope. Do some creators give a heck of a lot of forethought to what they create, so that it reflects -- on further study -- more than initially meets the eye? I'm not much of a creator, but I imagine that the answer is yes.
posted by Mr. Justice at 5:00 AM on November 4, 2012


Maybe it would be helpful to think of thematic content less in terms of statements and closure (Blade Runner is saying that technology is dehumanizing), and more in terms of questions and openness (Blade Runner raises questions about what it means to be a human in an increasingly cybernetic world)?

(I haven't actually seen Blade Runner but I have vague cultural awareness of what it might be about, so please forgive me if those examples don't make any sense!)

So many of us are taught to think about "themes" by our high school teachers who have a vested interest in 5 paragraph essay-level thinking. We're trained to think of art in terms of thesis statements. But what I really get out of the best books & movies is an exploration of ambiguity, or a working-through of a really knotty question, often without coming down on one side or the other.
posted by staboo at 6:08 AM on November 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


In many college English courses the words “myth” and “symbol” are given a tremendous charge of significance. You just ain’t no good unless you can see a symbol hiding, like a scared gerbil, under every page. And in many creative writing course the little beasts multiply, the place swarms with them. What does this Mean? What does that Symbolize? What is the Underlying Mythos? Kids come lurching out of such courses with a brain full of gerbils. And they sit down and write a lot of empty pomposity, under the impression that that’s how Melville did it.

Even when they begin to realize that art is not something produced for critics, but for other human beings, some of them retain the overintellectualizing bent. They still do not realize that a symbol is not a sign of something known, but an indicator of something not known and not expressible otherwise than symbolically. They mistake symbol (living meaning) for allegory (dead equivalence). So they use mythology in an arrogant fashion, rationalizing it, condescending to it.
- Ursula K. Le Guin
posted by griphus at 6:25 AM on November 4, 2012 [9 favorites]


Room 237 is a documentary featuring five different "interpretations" of the "themes" of Stanly Kubrick's The Shining.

Among the themes supposedly discovered therein: Holocaust metaphor. Proof that Kubrick faked the 1969 moon landing. Re-interpretation of the Minotaur myth.

Keep in mind that the supporters of these interpretations are not random wackos gathered off the street. These are serious academics who've studied the film for three decades.

Ultimately, what you get out of any work of art is personal. If there is a meaningful, unifying theme that the artist wants to communicate, and the artist does his or her job well, the theme will be clear and understandable to most intelligent observers.

If you do not detect a theme, there are a few possibilities why. One is that the artist did a bad job. Another is that the artist is being willfully obtuse and "clever." And it's always possible that there's no real "theme" there at all.
posted by ronofthedead at 6:55 AM on November 4, 2012 [2 favorites]


Fables and allegories (usually) have a single, unifying meaning.

Good and great films and literature (and music and visual art and dance, etc.) are often great because they can be interpreted in many different ways, without a single "right" answer. The art often makes viewers or readers draw their own conclusions; that's part of the process of interpreting (and, for me, enjoying) the work.

And it's totally valid to come to the conclusion that a director or author failed in some way because bits of the work don't support other bits of the work, but it's generally useful to really think through why the director or author may have chosen to include the "failed" bits -- e.g., Do they complicate the otherwise-too-easy conclusion that a viewer/reader may have drawn? Are they character-specific, so that "Theme 1" applies to how certain people navigate the world but "Theme 2" applies to other people?

The process of interpretation, for me, is often asking all of the following:
* What do I see as some of the overall messages of the work?
* What do I think the creator intended as the overall messages?
* If those answers are in conflict, is that because the work failed or because I missed something?
posted by jaguar at 7:07 AM on November 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


Or, shorter version: Great art isn't a jigsaw puzzle that artists create expecting you to put all the pieces together in the same way they did, and thinking of it that way will likely frustrate you.
posted by jaguar at 7:10 AM on November 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


In film and literature, how does one deal with the smorgasbord of themes and lack of a single, unifying meaning?

You might want to explore the idea of overdetermination. Basically, there can be multiple causes for a single phenomenon. In literature or film, a single element (symbol, character, trope, etc.) can carry multiple meanings or allude to multiple referents. To me, the "lack of a single, unifying meaning" in a novel or film can be a good thing—I really enjoy multi-layered stories. I think a lot of "classic" literature and film is given that status because it supports multiple interpretations.

I haven't seen Blade Runner yet, but after glancing at Wikipedia, I gather that it can be interpreted as a sci-fi action thriller, a film noir, or a philosophical essay (and perhaps other genres). To me, it would be fun to think through the film in terms of each of these genres and consider how the characters and scenes can work on all three levels. Some characters or scenes might not work equally well on all the levels, but to my mind that doesn't mean the film is "incomplete"; it's just part of the woven texture of the film.

1. When you watch a movie or read a book, how do you come to grips with the themes? Do they generally make sense to you right away, or do you have to sit and think about them after the fact? In your favorite films and novels, do you find that they jumble together or stem from a single source?

My favorite films and novels keep me thinking long after I finish them. My very favorites bring me back repeatedly. I've read Nabokov's Lolita seven or eight times and watched The Cook, the Thief, his Wife, and her Lover four or five times. After seeing the 2006 NYCO production of Semele, I listened to recordings, read the libretto, read up on the Greek mythology and the historical context for Handel's composition, and then listened some more. I've seen as many film and theatrical adaptations of Les liaisons dangereuses as I could find. I got something more from these works each time I returned to them.

Some of this is a matter of taste. Where you see themes "jumbled together," I see them artfully layered. If you don't enjoy thinking about multiple themes in a single work, it's perfectly fine to just enjoy the plot.

On preview, I like what jaguar says above: "Great art isn't a jigsaw puzzle that artists create expecting you to put all the pieces together in the same way they did, and thinking of it that way will likely frustrate you." For me, a satisfying film or novel is more like a complex ecosystem to explore.
posted by Naiad at 7:20 AM on November 4, 2012 [1 favorite]


There's a quote where a kid wrote into an author (I think it was the author of Hatchet) talking about his creative decision to start the story In medias res and framing and theme and whatnot, and the author replied that he'd really just started the story where he wanted to start the story and didn't even know what "in medias res" meant. We project a lot of that English teacher-type stuff onto the story and take away our own interpretations, which isn't to say some filmmakers and writers don't load things up with themes and symbols, etc., it's just that hunting for the "correct" symbol to circle on the Big Test is more of an 8th grade English construct than it is creative intent.

For Blade Runner specifically, Ridley Scott has done some interviews over the years explaining how it came about. Here is one.
posted by Ghostride The Whip at 8:27 AM on November 4, 2012


For the longest time, I've had trouble interpreting movies and books. When I listen to music or look at art, I usually "get it" right away, because works in these mediums tend to have very clear meanings.

This might actually be a symptom of a different problem that you think — it's possible the experience of thinking you "get it" with music and visual art is the problem here, not the experience of thinking you don't "get it" with narrative. The fact that narrative forms seem obviously complex to you is a good thing — why don't you think the same about non-narrative art? No good art is just a container for a content of "clear meaning" that you can unlock instantly and take away from it; all aesthetic experience is about the complex specifics of the form itself. Understanding art is not about "getting" the content by extracting it from the form — rather, it's about understanding as well as possible the relation between form and content.

In the case of narrative art, despite what your high-school teachers may have told you, "theme" isn't some magic word for the secret meaning that the audience is supposed to extract from the story and then be done. When people talk about "themes" (or "motifs" would usually really be the right word) they're just trying to remember to deal with non-narrative aspects of the content rather than just reading for the plot of the story. There are lots of other things that you can do (and that critics do) with narrative art besides going on a scavenger hunt for "themes": e.g. thinking about the shape and form in which the story is told, working with the psychology of the characters, the voice of the narration and what is left unsaid, the contours and content of the story's world, etc.. It's not about unpacking some secret kernel of the meaning of the story, it's about dealing with (any or) all of the different meanings it contains and the way they're expressed.
posted by RogerB at 12:53 PM on November 4, 2012 [2 favorites]


Despite what some film critics (both academic and journalistic) would have you believe, the act of interpreting meaning from a film is entirely subjective. Even if there were, generally speaking, a singular consolidated meaning to all the disparate themes and motifs that comprise most movies, there would be some films constructed explicitly to confound the need to seek it (see most absurdist or avant-garde films).

Also, when you're watching a film you're confronted with a heck of a lot of stimuli, and themes are present in the visuals, the sounds, the plot(s)... That's part of their fun!

But to answer your questions...

1. No, the themes are not always apparent to me. Sometimes I formulate opinions and understanding after the fact, sometimes the themes will resonate with me immediately, and sometimes I fall asleep and miss any meanings - imagined or otherwise! Also, the themes I pick up on are not necessarily the themes that the creators intended.

2. In my honest opinion, I feel that the cinephile community is still altogether too attached to the outmoded auteurist perception of film creation. The director is not some sort of almighty creator. Sure, they oversee the film and therefore often bring a degree of streamlining to the process, and I generally see a lot of recurring motifs through a director's work. However, the film industry is exactly that - an industry - and as such there are a heck of a lot of determinants that shape the finished product (political, commercial, artistic, wider societal trends etc etc). Your own example is a good one: if there was a single coherent meaning to the theatrical release of Blade Runner, then surely there would be no desire for the "director's cut".

So no, you don't have a part of your brain missing. Your brain is just processing the film and coming back to you with "it's complicated" - and that's just fine.

FWIW, I find Blade Runner to be overrated.
posted by dumdidumdum at 1:53 PM on November 4, 2012


Great art isn't a jigsaw puzzle that artists create expecting you to put all the pieces together in the same way they did, and thinking of it that way will likely frustrate you.

Greatness is a matter of opinion, I guess, but I think Life: A User's Manual is pretty great. And it is explicitly about puzzle solving (in at least 3 different ways: Perec's "solving" for the constraints he was writing under, in the way jigsaw puzzles feature in the actual
plot, & in the way the reader can attempt to deduce from the final product the constraints Perec was operating under)
posted by juv3nal at 2:23 PM on November 4, 2012


The strange thing is, when I was younger, I never had this problem with literature. Maybe it's because I wasn't thinking things through enough, or maybe it's because I had good English teachers to guide me, but novels like All Quiet on the Western Front, One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, To Kill a Mockingbird, and 1984 made perfect sense to me on first read, with little confusion over what they might "mean". Any wayward subthemes that they had tied in perfectly to the main theme, or so I felt at the time. As I grew older, this clarity disappeared and I started enjoying literature less and less.

> "This might actually be a symptom of a different problem that you think — it's possible the experience of thinking you "get it" with music and visual art is the problem here, not the experience of thinking you don't "get it" with narrative. The fact that narrative forms seem obviously complex to you is a good thing — why don't you think the same about non-narrative art?"

Well — there's no question that a lot of non-narrative works have interesting context behind them, but that doesn't necessarily mean that it's significant to the message of the work. For example, take something like Mozart's Eine kleine Nachtmusik. In effect, it's party music written for a bunch of rich folks. But it's beautiful and most people don't consider it to be any less art than something like the Ring Cycle. Or take the Mona Lisa: Lenoardo da Vinci is no doubt a fascinating figure and there's a lot of interesting history behind the work itself, but in the end it's nothing more than a really good portrait. In popular music, songs often have a single, specific point to make. Just look at something like Pink Floyd's Dogs or Sufjan Steven's John Wayne Gacy, Jr. I definitely feel like I "get" these works. (Of course, this doesn't apply to all non-narrative art. I'm just talking about the art that I personally enjoy.)

And thank you all for the answers. This is a fascinating discussion!
posted by archagon at 4:08 PM on November 4, 2012


Oh, and I've always been a little confused about the singular use of the word "analysis". To me, there's a lot of different analyses that tend to get lumped together. For example, we can talk about the political context that lead to the creation of Mozart's Eine kleine Nachtmusik, and how it might have affected his compositional style. This is no doubt fascinating and valuable, but Mozart was not aware of it and didn't consciously put it into his work. It's an "external" analysis, in this sense. On the other hand, we can talk about the themes of mythology and religion in Blade Runner, which Ridley Scott put in very intentionally. They're essential to the work and thoroughly integrated into the fabric of the film. And then there's everything in between, such as the artist's experience and personality naturally seeping into his or her creative output. We can easily talk about Tarantino's style, but I doubt he's consciously aware of all his quirks. I'm most interested in "internal" analysis — stuff put in by the artist intentionally — but people often talk about all of these at once and it really confuses me.
posted by archagon at 4:19 PM on November 4, 2012


Truthfully, just talking about what the artist intentionally put into a work tends to get boring pretty quickly, in part because a lot of artists don't intentionally put much in, plus that kind of discussion isn't really an analysis, it's a question of fact.

Facts are first steps steps in art criticism or analysis, not conclusions. The joy in interpreting art comes from developing individual theories (based on careful reading/watching/listening) and defending them, all the while recognizing that other theories are out there and can co-exist with your theories, even if they totally contradict your theory. There's no one right answer, and it's not about answers; it's about the process of the analysis itself.
posted by jaguar at 6:11 AM on November 5, 2012


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