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Thoughts on Meaning…

So what does this cartoon mean?

It shows how the depletion of our natural resources has pitted our small farmers against each other.

Yes, and birds go tweet, what else?

– College lecturer and student dissect Itchy & Scratchy, “Little Girl in the Big Ten”, The Simpsons

I had the pleasure of moving in with my better half last week, and we grew quite fond of listening to her “best of REM” CD – the excellent In Time. “Orange Crush” happened to play, and my significant other happened to remark that she greatly enjoyed the song. As we nodded in time to the music, I pondered aloud if she was familiar with the meaning of the song – she had been unaware of the origins of the Boomtown Rats’ “I Don’t Like Mondays”, for instance, or “What’s the Frequency Kenneth?” on the same CD. She admitted that she was not, so I offered her a brief synopsis over the discussion as to the “meaning” and “roots” of the song:

Orange Crush was an orange flavored soft drink. In this case, though, it was meant to refer to Agent Orange, a chemical used by the US to defoliate the Vietnamese jungle during the Vietnam War. US military personnel exposed to it developed cancer years later and some of their children had birth defects.

This was met with observations that I tend to “ruin” songs be talking about such things, implying that once you know something like that about a song it becomes a lot more difficult to nod your head along and join in on the chorus. Part of me wonders if the same is a little true of movies, in a manner of speaking – does over analysing and disecting them ultimately lead us to somewhat devalue them as entertainment?

It's actually about nuclear proliferation...

I acknowledge that movies aren’t directly comparable to pop music. Films obviously require a lot more engagement and understanding than a song – in that we don’t require a pop song to have  a linear plot, character development or so on, all things that the majority of movie-goers demand from mainstream releases. It’s very hard to just “nod along” to a film, the way that one might to a catchy guitar riff without paying attention to the lyrics.

However, while that makes it harder by default for an audience to ignore the core of a film, there are still layours of meaning and subtext which can slink by a viewer just looking for a superficial thrill. For example, Stanley Kubrick’s exploration of the genocide of the Native Americans in The Shining could pass a viewer right be (and, indeed, went over my head as well – though I did pick up on its jingoist themes). Or the fact that James Cameron wrote Aliens as his “Vietnam” film. These little snippets can pass a viewer by, but make the film an entirely different experience when watching it – more often than not, it makes them somewhat deeper and richer experiences.

The flipside of that coin is that my brother suggests that such knowledge makes it difficult to “switch off”. Aliens will never just be a superb action film, for example. It’s difficult to watch The Reader without being drawn into the historical revisionism it actively engages in (that the people actually conducting the genocide where somehow too stupid to know it was wrong and are thus not culpable for their actions). In fairness, this isn’t insight I’d particularly care to abandon, but I wonder what it might be like to watch a cheap horror slasher movie without pondering the inherent misogyny or wondering what real-life evil is reflected in its killer-of-choice. Hell, despite its technical marvels, I found it difficult to look past the rather racist “white guilt” fantasies of Avatar (yes, the white man is the only one who has the idea to fight back, let alone the knowledge how to) and allow myself to be bowled over by the impressive visuals and Cameron’s well-proven storytelling skills.

Strange how the most socially relevent movies also end featuring flammable zombies...

I realise I probably sound like a pompous asshole, complaining about having too much insight – but most of this insight comes from (or is inspired by) other people. There’s bloggers, interviews with actors and directors, discussions and magazine articles and so on. I wish I was insightful enough to see all of this on my own, but it comes from a whole host of other places. This is probably another symptom of the whole information era overload – the same problem we arguably have seeing too much of a movie before it’s even released or even following a movie through development with a magnifying glass (what, rewrites? the movie is going to suck! and so on) – but there’s also perhaps a hint of something else going on as well, something deeper.

There’s also the simple fact that I’m a movie blogger (it sounds like a declaration, almost like “I’m an alcoholic!”), and you are reading this on a movie blog. Maybe we’re both too wired in to be given a relevent perspective. Maybe we’re hardwired to think about and contemplate such things, rather than turning our brains off and allowing ourselves to be entertained.

Still, I don’t think I’d trade it for the world. I like thinking about movies – I love movies that make me think. Sure, it means that they take a bit more effort than they might otherwise – but they are also their own reward. Sure, it costs me some empty thrills while I watch the movie itself, but it pays dividends afterwards as I digest what I’ve seen. And the truth is that some directors – the people at Pixar being the best example – can cut through my cynicism to the point where I am happy just to sit there and be blown away (of course, the other side is that – with Pixar at least – even if I could bring myself to analyse it, I’d probably still be impressed).

What do you guys think, do we think too much about movies? Or is it even possible to think too much on them?


And now for something completely random. Scott Pilgrim-related, though, so it’s awesome.

5 Responses

  1. I love movies that require me to get all philisophical. I mean, you can make any movie into one that makes you think, but the ones that really challenge reality, politics, society, whatever, those are the ones I really remember.

  2. Like you, I love movies that make me think. However, I guess most movies are made for entertainment purposes only and I think people sometimes read too much into them.

  3. I prefer it when everything is explained Barney-style for me. I don’t have the mental computing power or desire to make any sort of intellectual work while watching a movie. Who needs complex characters, well thought out narrative and twisty plot turns when all you need are archetypes, explosions, loud action scenes and lots of cleavage and leggy shots? Thankfully, Hollywood has been extremely cooperative these days.

  4. I enjoy pondering at length about films which were made to be analysed, however films that were made purely for entertainment value, I also enjoy – I love the feeling of going into a film knowing that you are going to be treated to pure entertainment for two hours, without a shred of responsibilty to think beyond what you are seeing. That’s definitely something that is unique to cinema-going!
    I’ve seen too many of those this summer, so it’ll be great to experience a few hefty films in August. A mixture of both is the key, I suppose.

    • Yep, it’s generally Oscar season when the big thoughtful guns come out, though – generally there’s at least one brainy blockbuster per year.

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