Thematic criticism method

• The starting point of thematic criticism is to look at a film obliquely, to determine what human values it is indirectly communicating.

• A useful way to begin identifying themes in a film is to keep in mind at the outset the common themes found in all forms of human communication, such as those listed by Bordwell above (suffering, identity, alienation, the ambiguity of perception, the mystery of behaviour, freedom, religious doctrines, enlightenment, creativity, the imagination, etc.).

• Then determine which themes are manifest in the film under analysis. One useful strategy is to analyse the film scene by scene, in order to determine what each scene contributes to the film's overall meaning. In particular, ask yourself: What themes are the characters manifesting through their actions?

• Focus on the themes that cohere across the film. Unity of theme is an important aspect of thematic criticism.

• A perennial problem with thematic criticism is that it is too reductive, to the point of reducing the film to a set of meanings that are so abstract that the criticism becomes banal (a comment such as 'this film is about life' won't win any prizes). One way to avoid this is to identify the basic themes in a film or director's work, and then attempt to establish precisely how they relate to one another, which will reintroduce an element of specificity to the analysis.

• Some thematic critics also attempt to outline the director's attitude or stance toward the themes in his or her films, and to assess whether a director is able to be both 'inside' his characters and 'comment on' them at the same time. When discussing the relation between thematic criticism, genre, and auteur studies, film scholars have often invoked such a double perspective in order to highlight the 'critical' dimension that auteurs are said to impart to 'conformist' genres such as family melodrama (Douglas Sirk and the 'unhappy happy ending') or the women's film (Max Ophuls in films like Caught or Letter from an Unknown Woman). A similar case can be made with respect to degrees of 'knowingness' (see below) or the double inscription of a 'naive' and a 'sophisticated' spectator when arguing the merits of distinguishing between 'classical' and 'postclassical' Hollywood.

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