How do thematic critics move legitimately from the particular to the general? That is, how can they make general values adhere to particular films? One of the main problems with thematic meanings is their implicit status: themes are not immediately 'visible' or self-evident, but must be inferred or generated from a film. In other words, a theme is a 'pragmatic' rather than a 'semantic' feature of a film. Whereas semanticists argue that meanings are embedded in messages, pragmatists argue that meanings must be inferred or generated by the receiver of messages, since the message does not contain meanings, but simply clues on how to construct the relevant meanings. If receivers of a message do not have the capacity (the 'competence') to infer its meanings, then the message will remain meaningless to them. This process of inferring or generating meaning is more complex than outlined here, and involves multiple levels of meaning. Whereas film spectators quite easily comprehend the events in a film such as Invasion of the Body Snatchers (Don Siegel, 1956), they may not be able to infer that it is trying to tell them something indirectly about Western society in the 1950s. The less obvious the meaning, the more capacity or competence required to generate it.
The thematic critic looks at films obliquely, in an attempt to determine what they are saying indirectly. But because indirect meanings are not self-evident, they are open to dispute. This is apparent in the way the theme of Invasion of the Body Snatchers has been read by various critics. The film depicts the inhabitants of a small town in California being gradually replaced by pod people, who grow out of pods and look exactly like the people they replace, but with one crucial difference: they lack emotions and empathy. The theme of this film indirectly tells spectators something about the politics of the Cold War society in which it was made. It seems to 'say' that communists may look just like anyone else, but they lack a crucial human trait. The film indirectly represents the result of a communist invasion and takeover of American minds by means of communist ideology. In effect, the film is depicting the result of communist brainwashing: one will become an emotionless robot passively conforming to the totalitarian state.
However, the film can also be read in the opposite way: as a criticism of placid conformity to American Cold War ideology. The ideology perpetuated by the American government about the threat of communism to the American way of life instilled fear in the American public. The American government's ideology (as with all ideology) imposed a restriction on the way the public thought about and lived their everyday lives. This ideology established hysteria about an imminent invasion of America by Soviet communists, who would be aided by members of the Communist Party in America. This ideology encouraged the American public to root out the communists (the 'aliens') living amongst them, because they were seen to pose a threat to national security.
Another example of a conflicting thematic analysis took place in the pages of Sight and Sound in 1955 around the final sequence of On the Waterfront (Elia Kazan, 1955). The film focuses on the moral transformation of its main character Terry Mallory (Marlon Brando), a dock worker who also works for the mob that controls the dock workers' union. However, by the end of the film Terry has turned his back on the mob, with the result that he can no longer get a job at the docks. Furthermore, the dock workers are hostile towards him. In the film's final sequence, Terry confronts and defeats the corrupt union official, Johnny Friendly, wins the support of the other dock workers, and gets his job back. However, he is badly beaten in the incident. On the basis of actions in the final sequence, Lindsay Anderson attempted to identify Terry Mallory's intentions and motives, plus the principles he is fighting for (Anderson 1955). As with most film characters, Terry's actions are self-evident and manifest in the film. But his motives and intentions remain implicit, and Anderson concludes that, in the film's final sequence, it is difficult to identify them. Anderson attempts to identify the theme of the last sequence by focusing on the actions of other characters - particularly Father Barry, Edie, and the dock workers. Anderson reads the actions of Father Barry and Edie in symbolic terms (Father Barry's actions are not those of an individual, but represent the Catholic Church, while Edie's actions represent 'a Spartan mother'). Anderson interprets the dock workers' words and actions as indicating that they are weak and incapable of self-government, and in need of a strong leader. Anderson infers that Terry will become their new leader now that he has banished Friendly, the corrupt union official. Anderson concludes: 'The conception of this sequence seems to me implicitly (if unconsciously) Fascist' (1955:128), for the ending cannot be read in any sense as a liberation for the dock workers. Instead, Anderson argues, the ending can only be taken as expressing the theme of hopelessness, or as implicitly expressing contempt for its subject matter.
In his defence of the film, Robert Hughes (1955) argued that its final sequence manifests different themes than those proposed by Anderson. By the end of the film, Terry exists in a no-man's-land between the mob and the dock workers. For the film to achieve resolution, his position needs to be fixed and specified. The last scene depicts the final and decisive stages of Terry's moral transformation and the dock workers' perception of that transformation. Far from signifying their weakness, the dock workers' support for Terry signifies their assertiveness and realization that Friendly no longer has power over them, for one of their own has defeated him. Both Anderson and Hughes are commenting on the same scene, with the same characters, the same actions, and the same dialogue, but they identify different themes or implicit meanings at work in that scene.
In a review of Rosemary's Baby (Roman Polanski, 1968), Andrew Sarris discussed the implicit nature of themes. He argued that '[t]he qualities of a good plot are simplicity, directness, and an oblique treatment of essentials. Rosemary's Baby can be synopsised in one sentence as the adventures of an actor's wife, delivered to the devil and his worshippers by her ambitious husband so that she might bear the devil's baby, which she does. The beauty of the plot is that it virtually conceals its real subject. On the surface Rosemary's Baby seems merely the reversal of Mary's baby' (1970: 374). Sarris goes beyond the surface and identifies two themes in the film: 'two universal fears run through Rosemary's Baby, the fear of pregnancy, particularly as it consumes personality, and the fear of a deformed offspring, with all the attendant moral and emotional complications' (p. 375). Sarris argues that a film which directly portrayed these fears would be unbearable to watch. It is only by dealing with them obliquely that the film becomes watchable and powerful at the same time, for the audience's fears are depicted indirectly, yet the film still addresses those fears. Similarly, many of the themes in films and novels address general human values.
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