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This week I finally was able to get my hands on the book Film Art: An Introduction, by David Bordwell & Kristin Thompson. From the library that is. It’s so often loaned out, but luckily now it wasn’t. I would love to own it, but the price is too steep for my pocket at the moment. It’s basically for my DIY film school and is an introduction into film as an art and its elements and film analysis. And what better way to also look into films and how they are made than through film analysis, right? And then I also saw a book called ‘The Art Of Watching Films’ by Joseph Boggs & Dennis Petrie, this one solely on film analysis, which I borrowed as well.
As I was flipping through the latter, I ran into the subject of ‘theme’. Coincidentally I also stumbled upon a few articles about the same thing. Little did I know that everyone and their uncle seems to have a different opinion of what the definition of a theme is in a film. Also stated in this article on theme on the website Elements of Cinema.
Whether you believe that a theme in a story is one single word or value added to that word or perhaps even what the director wants to say about the subject, or that it is the underlying message or lesson, for me this was one of the light bulb moments again, epiphany, revelation. And so many dots connected. I had not established the theme of my story yet! And I do believe it’s different than just the subject. Because when you ask someone about the subject of the story, they will often refer to the main character and the plot. But that is not the same as the theme. The light bulb was about my time of writing short plays and why they perhaps went a lot easier at the time. They had a theme! I got assignments to write short plays based on themes. It had to be about a certain topic, I think I would call it. About friendship, about dating, about marriage, about splitting up, a few of the themes of my short plays. But now I think about it, there was always some kind of lesson and message in those plays as well. I had been so focused on story and what that was about, I mean in terms of the main character, what does he do, what happens in the story, that I forgot to ask myself what the central theme was of the story I’m writing.
A friend of mine, a long-time cameraman who I have worked with on a couple of small projects in the past, once said to me ‘always ask yourself: what do I want to say’? Indeed, what is the message? How could I have forgotten that? While I always tell others to keep that in the back of their minds, but with documentary that is or a non-fiction book they are writing. Of course this applies to movies as well! But you don’t want it to be on the surface so much that it’s too obvious and starts bugging people. Unless you’re writing for 5-year-olds, then it can be much clearer, but do remember to put a real story in there, they will find out if you don’t.
It is a different starting point really. Let’s say I want to write a story about jealousy for instance. I’m not saying this is what the story is about by the way, but let’s use that as an example. All of sudden it feels easier in my mind to write around that, being connected to that theme. Almost like a central energy force of the story, although underlying. Like a sun and the planets are orbiting around it. Tell someone to write about 2 guys and your story can fly off to anywhere and is more difficult to brew up. But tell someone to write a story about jealousy and you have something to tie your story to and the characters towards or away from it. But at least it gives some kind of direction. A framework if you will. And perhaps even more creativity how to go about that. In the mentioned article on Elements of Cinema, Gabe Moura gives the example of, yes again I refer to him, Alfred Hitchcock’s Rear Window (1954) and how it’s not very obvious what its theme is, if you’re not paying attention, but it is woven together by all the subplots and side characters, together with the main characters. It is relationships. But because we tend to focus on that one particular neighbour and his missing wife, we can overlook it. So, this is a great example how one can write a story about the theme relationships, but what diverse directions that can take you in. I’m impressed. But this opinion shouldn’t surprise you anymore regarding Hitchcock.
I’m wondering now, whether studying these books as well, will help me write a better screenplay. How can it not, I’m thinking. But might it bring in too much information? Surely I should be able to write better movie reviews after, if I ever decide to pick that up again. Although I liked not knowing officially how to do it, but just write what I had seen and noticed in the movie and why I did or did not like it. Again a dilemma. Will studying these books ruin that ‘innocence’? I don’t want to write as one should. I want to write the way I want to write. Some movie reviews are so boring and predictable. I like to add some depth in it. And some psychology. And some wit. A little storytelling, I guess. If all fails, maybe I can become a movie critic or write about film in general. At least I know more about it already and will know even more when I’m ‘done’ with the DIY film school. Can you detect a little side tracking again here? At least I recognize it now. That’s because I’m writing about this journey. I really does help me to keep on the main track and not jump too far ahead or to another track, although in the same field. I am grateful for it.
So, what do I want to say with my story? What is the message? What is the theme? Different things spring to mind, but I’m not sure. I’m gonna have to sit on this for a bit. More homework it is.