Monday, December 1, 2008

Feelings and Facts

Ask someone what he enjoyed about a particular story and he might mention a memorable character or a surprising twist in the action. He may bring up an interesting setting or the striking style of its creator. What he’s unlikely to talk about, though, are the narrative’s themes. Perhaps this is due to a cultural disdain for moralizing, for stories that teach too much. But we’d do well to realize that themes can’t be reduced to mere proposition, an illuminating line uttered at a crucial moment. No, storytellers also instruct by making us feel that certain things are good or bad, indeed, by simply asserting that they’re true or false.

Consider Quantum of Solace, the latest addition to the James Bond franchise. It features a eurovillain so sly that he manages to seduce the CIA with promises of petroleum rights. A conscience-driven African American operative has misgivings about the arrangement (good), but his clueless Caucasian counterpart tells him he needs to be quiet and consider his career (bad). Across the ocean, Bond finds himself caught in the same dilemma. The British government is also swayed by the antagonist (bad), because the world’s oil reserves are dwindling, and free societies must do what they can to secure them (true). What no one realizes is that the eurovillain doesn’t care a whit about black gold. A consummate capitalist, he plans to corner Bolivia’s water market and hike the price (bad). After all, global warming is destroying massive tracts of arable land (true). And if peasants must suffer (bad), what is that to him?

Yes, Quantum is primarily interested in bullets and babes, but director Mark Forster had a few weightier things in mind, too. Most storytellers do. Ideas flow naturally when people and plot and place come together. Next time you stretch out on the couch with a fresh hardback or sit down in a darkened theater, consider bringing a pad and pen with you. Jot down how the storyteller wants to tug at your emotions and the things he assumes to be right. The conclusions you reach -- and the narrative’s thematic depth -- could surprise you.

(Picture: CC 2008 by


Chestertonian Rambler said...

In defense of the Common Man, I'd offer this: "theme" when cleverly executed is exhibited in style, character, setting, etc. (When poorly executed, it is boring at best and preachy at worst.)

If someone says "I think it's really interesting that this time the main Bond girl didn't sleep with Bond," they're talking about character but processing theme. The same is true if they say "you know, the new Bond is cool but I'm not sure I'd want to be him."

If they say "wow, those scenes in the beginning of WAL-E of towers of trash were kinda eerie" they're talking about setting and atmosphere, but also processing theme.

In all those cases, I don't think it's necessary to consciously recognize what the director coded "good" or "bad" in order to agree or disagree with his political or moral statements. One could be excited that this Bond, unlike the old one, seems to be treating women as equals to bond. One could also be disappointed that this Bond doesn't get to have as much sex as the last bond. Such judgments are, essentially, pronunciations of agreement or disagreement with the director's themes. But they come only through consideration of things other than themes--things which, in fact, embody the themes.

Loren Eaton said...

Chestertonian Rambler! I was wondering where you'd gone off to. Good to have you back.

I agree that one doesn't have to fully engage with the author's intent in order to have some involvement on the thematic level. It's just so much fun when you do! I've become more and more fascinated over the years by how particular viewpoints slip into popular narratives and get repeated until they become almost archetypal (e.g. the hooker with the heart of gold, the corrupt cop, the evil corporation). The people with whom I saw Quantum and WALL•E didn't really interact with the stories on the other elements you mention. Of course, this could say more about my acquaintances than I care to admit ...

Chestertonian Rambler said...

Oh, I've been around.

It's just that between grad school and (finally) reworking some fiction and poetry, I haven't had much time for blog posts.

Loren Eaton said...

Yes, I have a hard time managing two kinds of writing at the same time.