April 4, 2013
You know what "Star Wars" is about? I mean, really about? Vietnam. It's a critical allegory of the war: The Rebels are the scrappy Viet Cong, hastily assembled, devoted and relentless; the Empire is the American military, tripped up by an enemy using guerrilla tactics and inferior weaponry. Oh, there's more here, but...
Not buying it?
Then I won't tell you about how "Jaws" is an allegory for the Watergate scandal.
Besides, those aren't my theories. Those have circulated for decades, the stuff that freshman cinema studies are made of — intensely myopic, often insane, occasional insightful readings of movies that, on the surface, appear innocuous and pretty obviously about what they appear to be about. Of course, all art is open to interpretation, and some deep readings of movies eventually seem either self-evident or work their way into the official record of film history: One need only have eyes to start wondering if Mel Gibson movies are really about Mel Gibson's presumable obsession with self-flagellation and torture; pick up any history of the movies and you'll run into a reminder that "Invasion of the Body Snatchers" was all about communism.
"Room 237," filmmaker Rodney Ascher's new documentary about a handful of obsessives and their weird, funny, iconoclastic readings of Stanley Kubrick's "The Shining," is only the most elaborate recognition of these cinematic rabbit holes that film critics and movie fans have been indulging for years. So, with that in mind, we asked a handful of movie scholars and critics to offer their favorite interpretation of a movie.
The following were edited slightly for clarity and length:
Adam Kempenaar, co-host of public radio's Filmspotting:
"Poltergeist" was really about... the end of the '60s
"I've always read 'Poltergeist' as not just a horror movie but a morality tale about baby boomer greed and the counterculture selling out. The husband and wife get high at night in their bedroom. They were the kids who probably watched 'Easy Rider' and wanted to stop the war and save the world. And now they've built their dream home, if unwittingly, on sacred ground. The American Dream — materialism over idealism."
Ron Falzone, associate film professor, Columbia College:
"Thank Your Lucky Stars" was really about... sex.
"It's this innocuous musical from 1943, made as part of the war effort, and every musical number is clearly about who the characters should immediately have sex with. There is basically no plot, just these songs written by (among others) Frank Loesser, who did 'Guys and Dolls,' and the basic point I get from it is: Men are sacrificing themselves for their country, so women, your job is sacrifice your virginity for the men sacrificing themselves for their country. Sleep with the wrong person, you're a slut, but if you're single, get out there and sleep with a soldier!... 'They're Either Too Young or Too Old' tells you not to sleep with just anybody, then there's a song where a dapper-dressed guy goes to the 'South American Hotel for Women,' no joke, real name, the point being, 'America, it's time we got in bed with South America!'... .There are numbers about rationing and how, basically, 'If we can't use the rubber on our tires, just stay home and do it.' But, you know, wink wink."
Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, film critic, clerk at Odd Obsession video store in Wicker Park:
Michael Bay movies are really about... bad dads.
"The most interesting films to talk about in this way are those films that clearly had no intention of relaying a deeper meaning — the romantic comedy that had a million fingers in the pie. Kubrick was very deliberate, so he's easy to play this game with. But Michael Bay is perfect. He is definitely working out some seriously unintentional father issues and constantly returning, despite all the explosions and robots and whatever, to his father narratives. Sean Connery is an absent father in 'The Rock.' 'Armageddon' has bad-father issues. Even the 'Transformers' movies, to an extent, are about Shia LaBeouf clearing the family name. 'The Island' deals with cloning and eugenics and the defects. For sure, his films are about explosions but always grafted on somewhere, the father thing. And remember, for a long time there were rumors that Bay's actual father was director John Frankenheimer (who frequently denied paternity, and died in 2002). It's not hard to start thinking that, in all of Bay's films, on some level, he's working out resentment for feeling abandoned."
Debra Tolchinsky, associate film professor, Northwestern University:
"The Ring" was really about... parenting and reproduction.
"I teach a class on horror films, and one of the things we talk about is how 'The Ring' is this film poised at the end of a certain technology, the video tape. There is this video, you have to reproduce it to live, but there are ramifications. And remember, the main characters are afraid to be parents: Naomi Watts' son in the film, he's really the adult. He calls her by her name, not 'mom,' he lays her clothing out for her before they go to a funeral. He takes care of her. And the father is out of the picture. Then there's the creepy girl, of course, who was thrown down a well because she's evil or something. I think it's about how you have to replicate even though it means you are passing on flaws. Look at the film again and this all kind of fits together."
Kevin Cooper, assistant film professor, Columbia College:
"Platoon" was really about... Jesus.
"Oliver Stone, an outspoken critic of the Vietnam War, resisted the simple characterization of a soldier fighting for survival or that Vietnam was simply ill-advised. He placed Chris Taylor (Charlie Sheen) in the center of good and evil, lodged between sergeants with distinctly different views on life... Stone's ability to avoid being overly parochial while sculpting a scenario grounded in biblical storytelling was significant. Taylor proves to be a sacrificial lamb who, by journey's end, is transformed, enlightened... Stone's direction was similarly precise: Consider his shot of a man's arms (Willem Dafoe) outstretched, as if being crucified..."
Ben Sachs, film writer, Chicago Reader
"Showgirls" and "Starship Troopers" were really about... Hitler.
"Paul Verhoeven is the filmmaker who comes to mind. It shocks me there are a lot of people who still don't recognize that 'Showgirls' and 'Starship Troopers' are satirical. What throws people is the acting, because the performances are not 'good' by traditional standards, but by being so one-dimensional he is making a larger statement. 'Showgirls' is essentially about consumer capitalism and how it turns people into commodities. People are put off by the phoniness of it, but this repulsion is intentional. Verhoeven once said (the infamous Nazi propaganda film) 'Triumph of the Will' was his favorite guilty pleasure, and that explains a lot. He is drawn to these ostentatious, gross displays of power, which, to him — his earliest memories were of Nazi occupation in the Netherlands — comes back to Nazism. The tastelessness of Las Vegas in 'Showgirls,' the military installations in 'Starship Troopers,' the way the film makes a fetish of order and has these Hitler Youth archetypes for heroes — start playing the semiotics game and you could do this all day."
Zoran Samardzija, cinema studies professor, Columbia College:
"The Dark Knight" and "The Dark Knight Rises" were really about... The War on Terror.
"I am actually teaching a class on Stanley Kubrick in the fall and one my favorite readings, floating around the Internet, and very conspiratorial, is that Kubrick died around the time of 'Eyes Wide Shut' because the Illuminati were punishing him for revealing several of their secrets in 'Eyes Wide Shut,' which is what 'Eyes Wide Shut' was actually about!... But here's the one I really like: Christopher Nolan's last two Batman films were apologies for the conservative approach to the War on Terror, for this idea that an elite can save us and that some Utopian view of how things should be is somehow attainable. Batman is the superhero for the elite and the capitalist, and these films offer a certain critique of the world that very much considers how events of the past decade was conducted. I apologize that's not as insane as some theories about 'The Shining,' but there is a great difference between over-reading the peculiar and under-reading the obvious."
Copyright © 2016 Chicago Tribune Company, LLC