There are some movies that just never seem to die. Perhaps they made a killing at the box office and continue to be handed down the generations, like a much-loved, now-scruffy childhood toy. Others were barely a blip on the silver screen’s radar when first released, yet continue to fill Christmas stockings and top-ten all-time favourite lists.
Through an exploration of six hits and flops, which the authors watched on high rotation over a number of years, this book explores why certain films persist in capturing the public’s imagination. Anthropologists David Sutton and Peter Wogan argue that movies with enduring popularity are best treated as myths, reflections of our culture that can tell us far more about ourselves than we imagine.
Every society has its own mythology that is passed down from generation to generation, sometimes verbally, sometimes in written form. But it can be difficult to identify just what is the Thor, Medusa or dreamtime spirit of our place and time.
This is partly because societies tend to blend into one another as people and cultural products move fluidly around the world. But it’s also because it is difficult to grasp what our mythology is when we’re living it. Hindsight helps us decide which stories matter.
How, then, can we ever hope to understand the myth-making processes we use today?
This is where filmmakers and anthropologists come to our rescue. In creating movies, screenwriters, directors, set designers and other creative types do the process of identifying important social themes for us. They create stories out of them – and it’s the ones that resonate with the public that prove which are relevant and which are not.
Yet, while the average audience member may feel a strong emotional pull towards a film, the hidden meanings and symbolism contained within them can be hard to unravel. This is why film criticism and analysis is an entire industry, geared towards explaining ourselves to ourselves through the medium of film.
Film analysis can be a way of uncovering human differences and universals
Sutton and Wogan insert something different into this mix. Like other film analysts, their primary method of interrogating the films is textual rather than gauging the reactions of audiences. However, they bring to their analysis a deep knowledge of global cultures, allowing them to question not only why certain myths are popular, but also what this tells us about our society relative to others that are distant in time and space.
Nowhere was this clearer than in their analysis of The Village (2004). This film interested the authors precisely because it was neither a blockbuster nor an enduring favourite, despite having all the hallmarks of a potential successful (popular director and actors).
Why did this film fail?
Sutton and Wogan argue that The Village failed to win hearts because it didn’t conform to audience expectations of what a village is like. Neither idyllic nor draconian, The Village was, ironically, quite an accurate representation of what actual village life is like in distinct corners of the world. In other words, in a reverse suspension of disbelief, the audience rejected reality.
This was not the case for The Godfather (1972), despite the fact that the Mafia portrayed in it were arguably just as socially distant as The Village’s inhabitants. Rather, audiences everywhere 'got’ the central themes of food and writing.
“What? Food and writing?,” I hear you ask, “That’s not what The Godfather was about!” Sutton and Wogan ask you to think again. Some of the major emotional or dramatic moments in the film are about precisely these two issues. The Don uses violence to nullify a written contract, demonstrating the power of the gun over words. Food is a serious social glue throughout the film, binding people together when an offer of a drink or a cake is accepted, and ripping people apart when it is not. Food sharing and gift giving are human universals that underpin pretty much everything we do.
One of the more difficult analyses attempted was of Field of Dreams (1989), which “treat[ed] a single sport as a ritual text that reveals deep cultural issues.” (48) The authors go to quite a lot of effort to explain basic baseball rules at the beginning of the chapter, as they argue that the lines painted on the field are a crucial element of the plot. They help to divide the world of the living from the world of ghosts – but insert tension and mystery when those lines are unexpectedly crossed.
The Big Lebowski (1998) also brings surprises. Sutton and Wogan point to confusion as a comedy device, as the characters repeatedly ask each other, "What the fuck are you talking about?," apparently not able to keep up with their own plot. Set squarely in 1991, yet with all the main characters seeming to belong to a time past, we end up with a highly anachronistic story that perhaps reflects a fragmented society. In a similar vein to Field of Dreams, bonding over a sport saves the day:
“Bowling, the simple framework of which involves setting them up and knocking them down, in a limited number of combinations, resembles a functionalist ritual, the repetition of which provides the comfort that promises a Durkheimian social glue on a society that would otherwise spin apart in too many divergent directions.”
Interesting, the authors faced their biggest challenge with Jaws. It lends itself to plenty of readings – perhaps too many – but it was only after years of watching the film repeatedly that the authors began to suspect that a military theme, especially relating to World War Two, was far more prominent than they had first assumed.
In the book’s conclusion, the authors describe how they tested their theory on undergraduate students, finally deciding that they were probably onto something. Sometimes the most clichéd films can shelter the greatest quantity of hidden meanings. Indeed, one could argue that this is true of any myth.
This is not a book for movie-goers who like to keep their suspension of disbelief permanently suspended. Rather, the reader should be prepared to uncover all kinds of ideas that had not previously occurred to them – and not just within the film itself, but regarding the world as a whole.
Sutton and Wogan convincingly demonstrate that film analysis doesn't just reveal things about a single film, the intentions (conscious or subconscious) of its makers, or even of the society that made it. Rather, film analysis can be a way of uncovering human differences and universals.