Day By Day

Wednesday, May 18, 2005

Timothy Burke on the interpretation of films

Back to movies -- the Senate debate is getting really boring -- nobody is saying much of consequence.


Timothy Burke of Swarthmore has a nice riff on the way we interpret films. On both the left and right critics automatically look for themes that they can relate to sociological or political imperatives. Burke finds this sixties and seventies type analysis unsatisfying, especially when considering the epic myths -- Star Wars, LOTR, etc. He writes:

[O]ne of the things that sometimes befuddles Baby Boomer cultural critics about the post-1977 moment. Both left and right, they expect popular culture to be doing certain kinds of explicit work, to have a function which one might either defend or assault. When that functionalist sensibility is not there, many of them look for it all the same–hence the cultural right’s constant assertion of popular culture’s “liberal” agenda, and the cultural left’s perpetual assumption of a consciously instrumental and persistent use of representation in popular culture to do the work of political and social domination.

I think the cultural property which brings this out most clearly for me is not Star Wars but Lord of the Rings. Here’s a book which ascended to its popularity privately, through word-of-mouth and intimate discovery, mostly among audiences born after 1960. When it finally became a series of successful films (after various lesser animated versions), some observers were left puzzled, reading the tea leaves of the zeitgeist for an explanation. What “work” were the books and films doing? The work of supporting the “war on terror”? Identity work, in the casting of heroes as Nordic and pure and villains as dark, black, racially Other? The work of moral absolutism? Of aestheticizing violence?

Burke goes on to assert that the big blockbusters, "Jaws," "Star Wars," or LOTR, speak to an inner sensibility, not to sociology or politics. They are filled with mythic tropes that resonate strongly with young people who feel alienated from the mainstream culture. The shock for Burke was to realize that his private fantasies were shared, not just by other SF fans, but by large segments of the general public. He wonders what this means?

Burke's blog -- Easily Distracted -- is easily one of the best out there. Read him here.

I think he's right to imply that there is a generational aspect to all of this. I'm a bit older than the boomers and react to films quite differently than do they. For instance -- I loved "Sky Captain and the World of Tomorrow" because it fit the mold of the whiz-bang boys adventure series I read as a kid. It took me back to being 12 years old again. But I felt nothing watching "Spotless Mind" because I could not relate to the characters or to what they were experiencing, although it seems many boomer critics were comfortable with both.

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