To read a film thematically involves determining its significance, identifying a general level of meaning that links the film's various elements into a unified structure. Roland Barthes argued that: 'The force of meaning depends on its degree of systématisation: the most powerful meaning is that whose system takes in the greatest number of elements, to the point where it seems to encompass everything notable in the semantic universe' (Culler 1975: 227). This involves relating a particular film to a set of general categories of understanding. A thematic analysis therefore 'reduces' a film to a set of abstract meanings. The internal validity of such a process depends on the 'rules' the critic uses, to move from the particular to the general, and whether the general, abstract categories and meanings are relevant to understanding the film's significance. When a critic argues that he or she has identified a film's significance, he or she is therefore claiming to have identified and made explicit the film's themes, or implicit meanings.
Thematic criticism begins from the particular nature of a film, and then relates it to a set of general, fundamental categories. It is therefore similar to a symbolic analysis of a film, in which the film is read, not in its own terms, but in the context of general human values.
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