Cinema is an art. It combines every medium we have: images, prose, performance, and sound. If it’s done well, you can add thematic depth to a story that wouldn’t exist otherwise. But that’s only if the sum is greater than the parts. A strict book adaption on screen simply can’t compete with the source material unless the screenplay captures the nuances of the narrative and the director has a vision he wants to stand by. That’s what elevated The Godfather from a good book to a legendary picture.
Film is subjective. Like any art, you can give as much or as little meaning to what you perceive. But that doesn’t change the fact that creators have underlying ideas in what they make. So what’s the difference between intentional themes and coincidental depth? I say there isn’t much. Is The Old Man and the Sea about an old man catching a fish or the existential conflict of pain, perseverance, and posterity? Both. People can debate this to no end. Catcher in the Rye conveniently seems to be about any ideology the arguer thinks. The Road Not Taken is argued in completely different contexts. I say the sheer fact that we have these arguments is what make them worthwhile stories. But it isn’t enough to play contrarian- crafting an interpretation is what takes some work.
Film is different than written words because, well, you have something going on in front of you. When you’re watching a film by the likes of Stanley Kubrick, there’s quite a bit of non-verbal communication going on. Music is used in a subversive manner. The juxtaposition of cuts and edits could be giving you a deeper clue into the plot or someone’s intent. Characters even contradict their own dialogue. So how do you separate an intentional theme vs pure conjecture? By looking at the film holistically.
1) Was it produced with more consideration to the box office or an artistic vision?
Michael Bay’s Transformers targets a different demographic than, say, David Lynch’s Eraserhead. Some directors manage to make a popular film that takes risks, like Coppola’s Apocalypse Now.
2) Can you tie it to a genre? How about several?
If you’re watching an action/ adventure flick, you probably won’t see a dimensional rift. Sci-fi mood pieces, on the other hand, aren’t known for their musical numbers. As you would expect, the type of film you’re watching often indicates the style of communication going on. A horror film is tailored to creep you out. The sets feel isolated, the music is creepy, and the editing is used to confuse you. The Shining has a tremendous following because it’s scary and unsettling on the surface, but there’s also a plethora of subtle themes going on.
Conventional film themes should be in your face, but you might find subtle messages.For example, Avatar is Dances with Wolves on a foreign planet, clearly an anti-imperialism, pro-environment film. Beyond the flashiness and cliches, James Cameron always manages something clever. Take a good look at the background in this shot,
do the shutters remind you of anything? There’s no way that’s a coincidence.
3) What do the characters represent?
In most films, characters are brought together to highlight their differences. An extroverted rebel like Captain Jack Sparrow teams up with the quiet, collected Will Turner who seeks justice for his love. But that’s a pretty vapid example. 12 Angry Men pits jurors against one another and brilliantly ties in competing ideologies. I think one of the deepest character films I’ve seen is a great movie called Sunshine. It’s a sci-fi thriller about restarting the sun before it’s too late. On the ship, you have a crew of eight to get the job done. Not only do you have competing ideologies, but also an array of temperaments and even a spectrum of faith from atheism to fundamentalism. Great stuff.
4) Use of colors
I cannot stress enough the importance of costumes and set design. A good director makes visual decisions which serve to communicate on a subliminal level. Different colors can denote separate, unique identities if characters are together, but also competing ideologies. In The Thing, the whole crew wear slightly different coats to contrast their personas, but to also serve as a hint who the impostor might be later on.
In Jaws, Quint and Hooper are initally at odds with each other because Quint is a raggedy, old, working-class fisherman and Hooper is a young, wealthy marine biologist. When Hooper first boards The Orca, he sports a red bandana whereas Quint wears a blue one. As they begin to bond and cooperate during their pursuit of the shark, Hooper later dons a blue bandana as well.
Also, sooo many movies use red as a plot device- blood, a dress, the color of the vehicle, you name it. Black and white is also pretty common, especially shadows.
The opening to Reservoir Dogs could be a master class in foreshadowing. Every character who is relevant later on reveals their personality. Mr. Pink is a contrarian and isn’t afraid to stand by what’s right by him. Mr. Blonde gesticulates a foreshadowing gesture. Mr. White mentors Mr. Orange, who rats out Mr. Pink the second. Even though the rat’s identity is a secret early on, Tarantino practically throws it in your face. I mean, look at the color of the opening titles. How about that balloon?
This is a rather extreme case of foreshadowing, but often you can find visual associations and subtle lines which speak to a character’s intent.
5) The “Long” Context
I’m using this phrase because my film professor called it that. Characters are just tools to communicate a larger message. We’ve touched on parts of it already, but it basically spans over the a) the historical context and b) political, social, and economic themes.
A movie can capture historical context in two ways. First, the obvious answer is it takes place during that time period. The second is if it is indirectly speaking to an era. Movies like Robocop and American Psycho may be quite violent and hyperreal, but they are just as much about the cultural mores (or lack thereof) of the Reagan years. I think you can tie pretty much anything into the latter, but it’s something to look for nonetheless.
Anyway, that is a makeshift guideline I have crafted. This is to be used for “actively” viewing movies (as opposed to passively) and to look back and reflect. That is my standard criteria for picking apart a film. Before applying some of these steps, I want to point out that you will have more success on some movies than others. It’s not just because of the difference in genre. It can be a disparity in quality. That was just a very pretentious way of saying that good films are deeper than bad films. Well, I can’t say something outrageous like that without some examples, now can I?
Rather than explore the obvious incompetent, big budget crowd pleasers (see The Lone Ranger, Grown Ups 2), I’d like to harrow in on well-crafted failures. These are films with top-of-the-line talent that just don’t work because of incompetent screenwriting.
1) Tinker, Tailer, Soldier, Spy
Tinker, Tailer, Solider, Spy was lauded as a masterful adaptation of the eponymous BBC series set in the Cold War. TTSS was also strong box office success and garnered the great Gary Oldman his first Academy Award nomination. I, myself, despised it. Why? The narrative was awful. I’ve never seen such confusing editing. We have no opportunity to connect or care about the characters. Moreover, It would have been impossible to follow its nuances without familiarity of the series or repeated viewings. When I saw it in theaters, a man sat up halfway through and said “I don’t know what the hell’s going on,” and left. True story. There’s a world of material in there, but TTSS gave me no reason to care. The best defense I’ve heard for TTSS is that it replicates the aura of uncertainty and confusion for the viewers that the characters feel. To me that’s just incompetent storytelling. So there’s an example of a “smart” story falling flat on screen.
Prometheus was a highly-anticipated sci-fi epic built on the premise of being a prequel to the classic Alien.
They brought in Idris Elba, Charlize Theron, and even the original Alien director Ridley Scott. Scott had several classics under his belt, like Alien, Blade Runner, and Gladiator, and voiced interest in revisiting the Alien universe. He was even given a $100 million budget, so what could go wrong? Two words: bad writing. Prometheus is definitely the kind of movie that seeks to ask some metaphysical questions. Where did we come from? And there’s plenty of interesting material to explore. (Interesting link) I loved that vision and ambition. But frankly, I couldn’t bring myself to care. The characters are illogical and underwritten. There are also far too many unanswered questions that would demand a sequel. Not to mention there are enough lazy plot holes to be a refugee cemetery. (SPOILERS) What would get you to interested to see a sequel: anticipation or confusion?
This doesn’t change the fact that there were memorable elements and academy award nominated visuals, but the only reason that film succeeded in the box office was because of the mindless action sequences. Now, in Scott’s defense, Kingdom of Heaven had an awful theatrical cut, but the director’s cut was a masterpiece- he had to cut out almost an hour out. But because I’ve also seen Scott’s Robin Hood, I’m inclined to believe he sacrifices story for action.
Surprised? Let me reiterate my opening point that this film is impeccably well-made. It had a cool soundtrack and won four academy awards for technical achievements. I cannot stress how cool that film looked. It also has a fantastic ambiguous ending. What I want to do is to talk about a bizarre paradox. Inception is now synonymous in our culture with “cerebral” and “mind-blowing” but it’s not deep. It’s a very conventional story with one twist.
These videos voice everything I want to say, so check them out:
Bottom Line: Complicated ≠ Deep
A simple film well-told can give you the impetus to find more meaning, whether thematic, ambiguous, or personal. Here are some masterpieces for you to reflect upon that have simplistic plots. (be sure you’ve already seen them before viewing their respective analyses.)
1) Pulp Fiction, Miscellaneous Tarantino
2) There Will Be Blood
3) Pan’s Labyrinth
Interesting stuff in there, no? While some parts probably intrigued you, I’m sure others seemed like a stretch. That’s OK, because these are subjective interpretations. Yet, they are still based off of objective elements, so there’s often some shred of validity. Coming up with these finds takes time, but it’s so rewarding.
I hope this is a useful start, I have a list of movies I have arranged which will help broaden your perspective and give you lots to think about, so let me know!