Introduction

Common questions film spectators ask themselves (and each other) after watching a film include: What does this film mean? What is it trying to tell us? Does this film have any significance, or is it simply a form of harmless entertainment, containing as much substance as the popcorn and carbonated drinks consumed while watching the film? All these questions are trying to identify on an informal level the film's 'theme', a term originating from literary criticism. Whatever type of text we are referring to - a novel, poem, or film - the theme refers to that text's substance, its principal idea, what it is about. However, themes are usually implicit or indirect, which makes for lively discussions after a screening, for each spectator attempts to make the film's implicit theme explicit and direct. Disagreements arise when some spectators link up particular elements in the film and unify them under a general idea, while others, although privileging the same elements, may try to unify them under a different general idea. Different spectators may then disagree over the selection of elements to privilege, and come up with their own list. Such an activity is also characteristic of thematic criticism, to be outlined in the first half of this chapter. We shall explore thematic criticism by summarizing two thematic analyses of Roman Polanski's films, and then analysing the themes in Chinatown (1974).

In the second half of the chapter we shall return to Chinatown, but this time from the perspective of deconstructive analysis. On the way, we shall review the main premises of the auteur theory, which has many similarities to thematic criticism, particularly its privileging of a coherent, unified text. By contrast, deconstruction privileges excess, deferral, dispersal, dissemination, contradiction, undecidability, unlimited semiosis, and supplementation, the elements of a text that escape unification. As with all theories, thematics and auteurism are partial, in this instance because they focus on a text's unifying features at the expense of those elements that escape unification.

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