The nature of general categories

Thematic criticism is not an arbitrary activity that involves analysing a film in terms of the critic's idiosyncratic set of values. Instead, it relates films and other forms of human communication to a small, basic set of values universally shared by all humans. For Jonathan Culler, thematic criticism involves analysing a text 'as expressing a significant attitude to some problem concerning man and/or his relation to the universe' (Culler 1975: 115). Universal humanist values therefore offer a motivated point of closure in thematic criticism: 'primary human experiences serve as conventional stopping points for the process of symbolic or thematic interpretation' (p. 228). Barbara Smith similarly argues that 'allusions to any of the "natural" stopping places of our lives and experiences - sleep, death, winter, and so forth - tend to give closural force' (in Culler 1975: 228). Barthes makes the body the centre of symbolic meaning (which he discusses under the 'symbolic code' in S/Z\ see Chapter 5 below), while Todorov speaks of the individual's relation to the world, or to himself (see Culler 1975: 228). In his critique of thematic criticism, David Bordwell offers a list of the main values it adheres to: 'the meaning of a film [for thematic critics] will often revolve around individual problems (suffering, identity, alienation, the ambiguity of perception, the mystery of behavior) or values (freedom, religious doctrines, enlightenment, creativity, the imagination)' (1989: 108).

Thematic criticism is anything but arbitrary and unrestrained. Indeed, it is often criticized for reducing remarkably different texts to the same small set of general abstract meanings. At the same time, the thematic critic would argue that the general abstract humanist meanings they attribute to texts are relevant because they encompass a wide range of experience and affect all forms of human communication. This is one of the strongest arguments for thematic criticism, since it begins to explain why films are made (beyond the profit motive) and why millions of spectators have the competence to comprehend and enjoy them, often across significant differences of religious, cultural, and political values.

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