It’s Easy to ‘See Films Differently’

Listeners of the Film Junk podcast may recall a conversation we had a few episodes ago concerning the parallels that have been made between Chris Nolan’s ‘Dark Knight’ Batman and George W. Bush. Personally, I thought the whole thing was absolutely ridiculous. Too topical, too sensational and too controversial. This brought up a discussion about reading into films.

First off, in no way would I ever claim that filmmakers do not intend to inject messages and metaphors into their films. I think Cloverfield’s 9/11 imagery is fairly obvious and clearly intentional. HOWEVER, I must say that my eyes have rolled on numerous occasions during discussions of phallic imagery within slasher films. So when I came across these short Volkswagen ads on Slashfilm today, I was reminded of how horrible film school COULD’VE been if we’d focused more on theory. These ads manage to celebrate film as an art form that’s worth discussion and debate, yet takes the shit out of pretentious, over analytical film theorists. I truly believe you can connect ANYTHING to a film if you really tried, which is what annoys me about most academic film theorizing. How ’bout them apples? You can check out of few of the videos below.

Toy Story – Puberty and Sexuality

Ghostbusters – Obesity in America

Mary Poppins – The Exorcist

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  • Jay–

    I agree that much can be read into films that contain no particular subtext. However, I think by pooh-poohing the entire idea of film theory, you are missing out on what film is, ultimately– art. It is subject to interpretation.

    Do theorists take it too far and sniff their own farts sometimes? Sure. But in some cases, te subtext is there to be digested– as in “The Dark Knight.” One obvious example is the use of the cell phone sonar– a direct allusion to phone tapping and the Patriot act. It’s right there, and is not a “film theorist” stretch to see that the writers put it there very purposefully.

    I’m not saying that I fully believe that “Batman is Bush” argument whole heartedly, but I did think you dismissed it a bit prematurely.

  • Ian

    Thanks for posting this Jay. I think your take on movie criticism is one of the best around. I hope things are going well on the horror picture you guys are working on and that Niagra documentary too.

  • Goon

    Jon, I mocked you several weeks ago about the Batman/Bush thing, you never replied right?

    I mean seriously, were you also trotting around the Leonidas = Bush thing when 300 was new? or were you maybe an equally ridiculous Xerxes = Bush man?

    Did you ever sit around talking about McMurphy in Cuckoo’s Nest as Jesus Christ?

    The problem Jon, is that your ‘allusions’ are so clumsily selective. Sure Batman tries to justify his ‘patriot act’ esque spying, but again – Batman is a vigilante with no oath to anyone and only one tick in his code – not to kill. Bush is sworn to uphold the constitution, so using a vigilante as some positive avatar for him completely rings false on every level, and if anything, if you actually give a shit about the constitution, is more of an insult to Bush than a defense.

    Even Battlestar Galactica, which directly has admitted to ripping plots from the headlines, is clumsily attached to certain ideologies. The first half of the shows run was heralded by conservatives who saw it as being ‘on their side’ as an allegory of why the war on terrorism is good… but in season 3 when the humans start suicide bombing them, they thought the writers ‘flipped’ ideologies, and were defending terrorism – when really all along they were simply trying to have characters logically act out what they would do in a situation, using modern events as a template for how to make things ring true. Everyone, I think even Kurt, wanted to say “New Caprica = Iraq”, when really, so many parts could just as easily be attributed to the Holocaust, or Israel/PLO, or Afghanistan’s Cold War struggle vs. Russia, and so on, and so on, and so on.

    I have no problem with people analysing things and using film to examine how they feel about any number of issues, but ultimately such analysis as Batman = Bush is such a very dumb conclusion by dumb people to justify dumb ideas.

  • I apologize as I haven’t watched the clips above, but the subjects do sound silly and I can guess, remembering some film classes I’ve taken, what they’re like. I would tend to agree with Jon on film criticism–sometimes the subtexts that commentators read into movies is ridiculous, but oftentimes it can be illuminating. And I do believe that regardless of whether or not a filmmaker (or musician or artist or whatever) intended to put certain subtexts into their work, they could “exist,” whether unconsciously or in the public’s perception, and be worthy of discussion. A good example of this is when Bruce Springsteen wrote “Born in the U.S.A.,” a stark protest song about the failures of the American government in the post-Vietnam years. But most people think that song is about how awesome the U.S. is; Ronald Reagan even tried to use it as his campaign song in 1984 before the Boss stopped him (and good on the Boss for doing so).

    The Dark Knight thing is similar to me because the movie seemed to be set in the context of the current U.S. foreign policy situation. Jon mentions the cell phone issue, and I remember a very striking shot of Batman standing against crews cleaning up the wreckage of the explosion that killed Rachel Dawes that I am almost 99% positive must have meant to evoke 9/11 in viewers’ minds. The thing that was ridiculous to me was that people (on the Right *ahem*) saw such a striking, black-and-white pro-America message in The Dark Knight, when, if anything, it posed more serious questions about the unilateral, cowboy-style approach to terrorism.

    For me The Dark Knight asked more questions than answered them, but in the end I enjoyed it simply because it was an awesome action thriller. I do believe that the number one goal for filmmakers should be to entertain people (however you want to interpret that). But I have no problem when a director wants to put ideas into the a film or (for the most part) when critics want to discuss them. If a piece of criticism gets too gassy, I’ll just skip it.

  • Goon

    by the way, remember even earlier this summer when Iron Man was being tugged as ‘their movie’ by both the right and the left?

    Remember when March of the Penguins was tapped by Intelligent Design proponents?

    Apparently Bee Movie is considered by some to be anti-union..

    I suppose if you can believe all these things, maybe you can also keep your kids from watching the Smurfs, because they might get Communist ideas

  • Goon

    “For me The Dark Knight asked more questions than answered them”

    This is a common thing people say, but its a good answer, and personally – a sign of a more intelligent movie. Something that asks questions will always have more respect from me than something that outright declares what must be, pretty much coming from the authors mouth instead of the characters’

    ie. 56 pages of John Galt’s bullshit in “Atlas Shrugged”, and most of South Park since 2001.

  • By the way, if you want to hear what Chris Nolan “really meant” to say in The Dark Knight, there’s an interview with him by Elvis Mitchell on KCRW:

    http://www.kcrw.com/etc/programs/tt

  • Goon–I agree with you about a film, or any work of art that asks more questions than answers them being a sign of its greatness. Not in every case, but yeah, it means that the audience itself is the one doing the work. And in that case, it makes sense that people would come up with a lot of wild theories and opinions and try to apply them to a “question” movie like The Dark Knight–and in this case (Batman=Bush), come up with opinions that are totally wrong, haha.

  • Actually, though I definitely think that Batman=Bush is wrong, I’m not surprised that people think that and I don’t feel a sense of rage against anyone who thinks that either; hopefully that didn’t come across above. It’s just another sign of the difficulty of discussing subjects that require finesse that it’s easy to reduce a conversation like this in stark black-and-white terms.

  • I think everyone has to decide where they draw their own personal bullshit line, but I find reading into media to be interesting, if not particularly useful as far as judging a film’s merit.

    If one person gets a particular message from a movie, even if it’s not what the filmmaker intended, does that mean it’s not valid? I don’t think so. Even if a filmmaker has come out in an interview and laid it all out for you, it’s still open to different interpretations. That’s how art works right? (Goonie, you would know better than me.)

    I just don’t understand all the hate against people reading into stuff. 9/11 has infiltrated every inch of American culture in the last 7 years, of course people are going to have it on their minds.

  • “ven if a filmmaker has come out in an interview and laid it all out for you, it’s still open to different interpretations.”

    Well, there are definitely cases to be made when an artist keeps putting out messages or undertones they dont intend that it makes sense to bring them up – everything from homoerotic undertones to glam rock/leather, hell even how Creed are ‘so straight they’re gay’ – but even in those cases I think most people point unintended things out to either discredit the ACTUAL message rather than the other way around.

    I mean, when people compliment an abstract piece of art that is nothing but lines and squares as representing an Oedipus Complex or this or that, or any other case of complimenting something for putting across a theme that wasn’t intended, it feels so much more ridiculous and pretentious.

    If i sat on this long enough, there’s probably plenty to poke holes in that, but whatever.

  • JakeTheFatMan

    I thought the cellphone-sonar was a direct allusion to a ‘bat’ i.e. ‘Bat-man’. When he referred to sonar “like that of a submarine” was a joke. ‘Cause he’s Batman. You know, like a ‘bat’. And bats see by sonar.

  • Well, I definitely think in Batman you easily are reminded of modern day real-life society. Like when the Joker says “It’s not about money, it’s about sending a message” obviously you’re going to think of terrorism. And Batman in the end resorts to despicable means to justify the end of stopping the crazy madman killer, obviously you can think of the Iraq war as being the despicable means to stop Saddam Hussein. I mean that’s all right there. At the same time there are tons of scenes in the film that doesn’t resemble real life in any way.

    Jay, I don’t see how reading into things isn’t a valid way of approaching moviewatching. It is precisely the sign of something truly good, that you can keep on digging and it will keep on answering back and answering back. I know that you, from what I can deduce, have little interest in digging in anything, but your attitude towards people who are more interested in the ideas than the execution, comes off as defensive more so than anything else.

  • Goon, I would be interested to know what you think of a painting like this:

    http://farm3.static.flickr.com/2070/2382725440_6e7561398e.jpg

    It’s by Joan Miro and it’s called The Birth Of The World. Granted, in real life it is much bigger, but when I saw it in New York I spent a good 20 minutes thinking about it, contemplating the title, the composition, and how it made sense, or didn’t make sense. Initially you are struck with the colors and emotion that it emits, and then the thought processes kick in – a title helps alot in this case. But I know alot of people will just write this off as nonsense that kids could paint. But this is a case of a (in my opinion) a masterpiece, where alot of the work is done in the thinking of it as you experience it. I would be interested to know Jay’s opinion as well, but I think I can guess it ;).

  • “Jay, I don’t see how reading into things isn’t a valid way of approaching moviewatching. It is precisely the sign of something truly good, that you can keep on digging and it will keep on answering back and answering back. I know that you, from what I can deduce, have little interest in digging in anything, but your attitude towards people who are more interested in the ideas than the execution, comes off as defensive more so than anything else.”

    I don’t think there’s anything wrong with searching for meaning in films. I just think there’s a very fine line between genuine and original opinions and regurgitated, sensational, pretentious verbal wankery. I suppose it’s a personal line that I’m unwilling to cross. Just listen to the Movie Club Podcast for some good dot-connecting between Funny Games and Lady in the Water. I’m cool with it. It’s fun.

    HOWEVER, as I stated in the title of this post…it’s easy to see films differently. It’s easy to apply a meaning to anything. I imagine that any character in the history of film could, in some complicated way, be connected to George W. Bush. This doesn’t impress me and it doesn’t interest me. Maybe the fact that 98% of reading into film is simply opinion, and 50% of the time those opinions are rooted in intellectualizing for the sake of intellectualizing rather than truley attempting to understand or appreciate what a film is trying to say or do.

    I would hate for the stunning and original imagery of a Werner Herzog film to be ruined by an intellectual battle of metaphors. It reminds me of a great scene from one of my favourite films, Crimson Tide. Denzel and Hackman are enjoying a cigar above deck of their submarine, taking in a beautiful sunset. After a moment of silence, Hackman commends Denzel’s character; ‘You knew to shut up and enjoy the view. Most eggheads want to talk it away.’

    As for the painting…it’s nice to look at, but I’m not interested in trying to figure out what the artist is trying to say. Especially when it’s an obvious statement agains the treatment of women within the Muslim world.

  • I think its esthetically pleasing, but no more deserving of ‘masterpiece’ than say, the cover of Nine Inch Nails’ “Downward Spiral” cover. if I saw it in person I’d be more likely to look at intricacies in the strokes, etc. I could perhaps wonder what he was thinking as he made it. The thing about art is that ones that take a long time to make obviously have both conscious and unconscious influences. But in the end, with that title, I’m not likely to defend it as some grand statement or ‘about’ something.

    Perhaps my favorite artist of all time is Keith Haring. A lot of his work is abstract/pattern based. But I appreciate that when he actually makes those, if they don’t have a stupid (to be funny and take the piss) or obvious title, they are simply left Untitled.

    There was this humongous asshole in my art classes in college, where we had very specific assignments, and he’d come in with abstractish paintings and explain to the teacher how it connected to the assignment. Most of the time he got away with it. Years later though, I went back to his website and saw that these same paintings were up there with completely different explanations. So he’s lying now or was lying then. That Miro painting might as well to me be called ‘Cock Chocolate’

  • “Like when the Joker says “It’s not about money, it’s about sending a message” obviously you’re going to think of terrorism.”

    It’s also hard for me throughout all the messaging to relate back to the analogies because

    1) Everyone loves the Joker, he’s make to be pretty likeable, admit it. ledgers face in makeup is going to be on t-shirts for the rest of our lives, and is the new Scarface as far as bad merch is concerned.

    2) He has no specific religious, political or even personal motive other than destruction for destruction’s sake. No one is going to ever say that the Joker hates Gotham for its freedom.

  • OK I just watched those videos and realized they were jokes. They’re pretty funny.

    I’ll just say that I agree with you on the point that anyone can come up with some crazy connect-the-dots theory about any film, but I really think the Batman/Bush thing has caught on because there’s something there. If someone were to come up with an intricate thesis about how The Dark Knight was commenting on the plight of Native American mushroom farmers or something (which I’m sure any egghead with a wild imagination could), of course it would be bullshit. But saying that The Dark Knight is in many ways deliberately set against the backdrop of real life political realities is legitimate.

    That’s why this particular question has resonated with people, even though equating Batman with George W. Bush is transparently simple-minded. Similarly, I think it’s pretty obvious that Wall-E is making some sort of comment about American overconsumption and environmental neglect. Just what it says and how strongly it does so and whether that matters is where the discussion comes in. I guess I’m just saying it is a fine line between what is ridiculous and what is legitimate, but to me, it’s usually interesting to argue anything that can be backed up by solid examples from the films themselves.

  • ‘You knew to shut up and enjoy the view. Most eggheads want to talk it away.’

    I have quoted this several times, mainly in dealing with personal relations though. Nothing pisses me off more than when somebody mentions “you know, this is a really good debate” or “man, I am having such a good time”. With artistic experience, I can see in the moment shutting up is the right response, but things that are indeed masterful, will prove to become better the more you open them up, and it’s a shame to leave them closed for fear of ruining them. Perhaps, they weren’t worthy of your praise afterall, if they weren’t able to stand up to scrutinizing.

    “That Miro painting might as well to me be called ‘Cock Chocolate’”

    The title is an inseparable part of the artwork though. Had it been called Cock Chocolate, it would have been a completely different painting. I will say that it’s much more impressive in real life than on the screen, but it’s hard to recreate things like this. I do appreciate your individual responses.

    The Joker analogy is not meant as saying that The Joker is literally a terrorist. But the film does evoke certain themes that are comparable to the real world situation. I think you’re getting hinged on minor details, when I was talking about certain elements that makes you think about it in a different context. In no way is Batman a great example of this mind you, but it’s the one that has been brought up. I would agree that anybody who would argue that Batman was directly comparable to George Bush is a failure at being an intellectual, and at being a human being.

  • There is a good quote by Umberto Eco who mentioned: “When you analyze, you’re ruining your favorite toys”. I think Jay, that you’re having too much fun to risk it. While I respect this, I have to be honest and say that it smells alot like an ‘Ignorance is bliss’-state of mind.

  • “So he’s lying now or was lying then.”

    While I wouldn’t doubt the assholish nature of somebody in an art class, I feel a need to point out that with abstract art, there is obviously a chance that its meaning will change for you over time. So I wouldn’t say that people who at one point got something out of a painting, and later on something else, were necessarily lying – even though I honestly don’t doubt that is the case with your example.

  • Here is an example of an artwork that, unlikes Miros, I don’t find particularly interesting, impressive and would be very suspicious of anybody who tried to intellectualize what it meant to me. It can also be found at MoMA in New York:

    http://lh3.ggpht.com/hozhiwei/RluSrBbn9NI/AAAAAAAAJsQ/nv17fnAlubs/DSC_3453.JPG

  • This kind of analysis is good for a college essay but lame otherwise (I’ll admit that the Ghostbusters one was pretty clever, albeit completely unintentional by the filmmakers). I just hope people don’t actually believe they were supposed to get these ideas from those films. Christ=Neo (valid). Bush=Batman (RIDICULOUS).

    And I also COMPLETELY LOATHE all the people (who are primarily women) that have to point out phallic symbolism constantly. It’s everywhere all the time; GET OVER IT. Its fine to make these correlations but I as long as you acknowledge that “you can connect ANYTHING to a film if you really tried”.