Movies and meaning: Understanding cinema as cultural artefact

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High Plains Drifter (1973)

It’s not uncommon for people to question why one might want to interpret a cinematic text – regardless of whether or not such an action was in search of a film’s implicit meanings, ideology or incidental revelations about the culture in which it was produced. These people commonly argue either that such an activity is of very limited value, or misinterpret the process as a whole and see it as the fallacious projection of intentions onto the film’s creator. In other words, they think it’s either a waste of time or a load of crap… or both. As I’m sure most readers would have gathered by now, I strongly disagree.

I have no doubt most critics of filmic analysis have sat blank faced before a film in a loaded cinema and thought to themselves how absurd it was to ascribe any kind of meaning, or obtain any kind of revelation, from the depiction of giant robots beating each other up on the screen (for example). This is the result of a misunderstanding based on semantics – these people have misunderstood the term meaning to be defined solely as “a message that the film’s director has embedded within the film”. Of course, sometimes this is exactly what it means. For example, there is no doubt that many of the filmic devices Eisenstein employed in early Soviet cinema were an overt expression of ideology. It cannot be denied that there is an overt ideological statement being expressed in many mainstream productions – Fight Club and Paths of Glory spring immediately to mind as interesting examples. But the vast majority of the time, especially in the area of mainstream popular cinema, filmic interpretation must go beyond simply assessing the intentions of the film’s auteur, because often the director’s singular purpose is only to utilise the filmic form to entertain an audience as effectively as possible.

Of course, the misunderstanding of what it might mean to analyse a filmic text is partly an issue of legacy. Literary criticism in its earliest days was largely about studying the text through authorial intent, and there is no denying that the notion of the auteur plays (and always will) a critical notion in how we appreciate cinema. It was only in 1968, when Roland Barthes first published his groundbreaking essay The Death of the Author, that such practices were truly put under the cultural microscope:

cinema film movies

Roland Barthes

“We know now that a text is not a line of words releasing a single ‘theological’ meaning (the ‘message’ of the Author-God) but a multi-dimensional space in which a variety of writings, none of them original, blend and clash. The text is a tissue of quotations drawn from the innumerable centres of culture.”[1]

But what then does it mean to analyse a film, if not simply to study the filmmaker’s intention? Where does one start? To look at a film and ask what it means without setting more stringent parameters on your field of inquiry would indeed be a meaningless exercise. There are a huge range of answers to this question, but I would suggest that the examination of cinema, especially popular cinema, yields great rewards when directed towards the study of film as a cultural artefact. In other words, examining a film with this question in mind: “What does this tell me about the world in which it was created?”

But how can we answer this? What we know about every film is that it is the product of a company and the collective labor of many human beings, both of which are situated within the culture in to which the film is being released. For example, we know that the Clint Eastwood western High Plains Drifter was the product of an American company, created by an American crew, all of whom were situated within the cultural milieu of the early 1970s. This means that their behaviors and attitudes are very likely to be demonstrative of the attitudes of a certain segment of the American community at that time. Contrast this with the earlier Clint Eastwood spaghetti western, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly which is primarily an Italian driven, European production of the mid-1960s, and we’d expect to see a radically different set of approaches and values coming through in these films, just as we would expect to see a set of commonalities relating to their shared genre and possibly in terms of the influence of the earlier film on the latter. And we do – let’s take a very brief look.

cinema film movies

The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly (1966)

The Sergio Leone directed The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is an incredibly cynical and violent production that subverts the moral codes of earlier American westerns by revealing its protagonists to be a series of nihilistic capitalists with varying degrees of immorality – a dark reinterpretation of the genre by a country still dealing with the traumas of WWII. The Ennio Morricone score that accompanies the film, over-zealous by American standards, escalates the drama to operatic levels that would have verged on embarrassing in a more tempered American production.

Meanwhile, Eastwood’s first effort at directing the western reveals enough vengeful rage, and deliberately vague approaches to narrative and character, to demonstrate some of the influence that the Italian hit had on both Eastwood and possibly on the industry’s expectation. Contrarily, its pared-down approach to score, shot composition and dialogue reveals a much more subtle approach to cinema – and its emphasis on the concept of justice (however warped) is indicative of an overarching set of values that contrast with the anarchy of the earlier film. It’s easy to see in this film the suggestion of a struggle with concepts of justice and betrayal – terms whose meanings were greatly contested by both sides of the political spectrum at the time. Notions of a country going wrong or a country finding its way were the two prevailing counter narratives, and it’s no great surprise to know that the screenplay, by Ernest Tidyman, was based upon the much publicized murder of Kitty Genovese, alleged to have been witnessed in broad daylight by countless individuals who would not step in and help.[2] The incident was seen by many as a reflection of a negative shift in American attitudes and High Plains Drifter is harsh in its assessments.

cinema film movies

Avatar (2009)

What else do we know about a film? We know exactly how popular it was in financial terms. This might be fundamentally useless information when it comes to assessing a film’s quality, but it does provide us further insight into the cultural landscape in which the film sits. Why was Avatar so successful, for example? Given the fairly generic nature of the film (see Dances with Wolves or The Last Samurai for a virtual facsimile relocated to a new environment), perhaps it was because the film satisfied the ever increasing demand for great levels of spectacle and innovation occurring within popular culture at the time – a tendency that Hollywood is both a product of and contributor to. If that is the case, where does Hollywood really sit within the current cultural milieu? Perhaps rather than viewing the industry in a vacuum, we should look to the radical innovations occurring in social media and telecommunications at the time to demonstrate that Avatar is part of a period of absolutely unparalleled consumer focused technological innovation, driven by a level of demand that is in of itself the result of an industry in a constant state of technological revolution.

I don’t know any of this for sure – but they are just a few of the questions I would ask if I were to pursue a deeper analysis of what can be learnt about contemporary culture from the movie Avatar, presuming that I started by asking why the film was as successful as it was. If I were to ask a similar question about why Heaven’s Gate was a financial disaster, or why Repo Man has garnered a long standing cult audience, I would inevitably arrive at an entirely different set of questions. But in each situation the intention would be the same, to reveal something about how that film has contributed to, been influenced by, and is a part of human culture.

There are a million questions that we can ask about a film that can open up its cultural context, whether they be about representations of race, gender, politics, socioeconomic status, fashion or pretty much anything else. But in this brief ramble, I hope I’ve at least broadly demonstrated the value of studying film as a product of history. Like almost everything in this world, films are cultural artefacts that can be used to examine the way in which the world operated at a given place and time. The difference is that, within the cinematic frame and its temporal dimensions, a million other elements are revealed to the viewer at the same time. The moving image provides a window onto history that is unprecedented, and cinema, especially popular cinema, truly taps into its respective zeitgeist.


[1] http://www.deathoftheauthor.com/articles.php?page=Critical-Authority

[2] http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Murder_of_Kitty_Genovese

James Curnow is an obsessive cinephile and the owner and head editor of CURNBLOG. His work as a film journalist has been published in a range of print and digital publications, including The Guardian, Broadsheet and Screening the Past. James is currently working through a PhD in Film Studies, focused primarily on issues of historical representation in Contemporary Hollywood cinema.

15 thoughts on “Movies and meaning: Understanding cinema as cultural artefact

  1. Very interesting article. I wholly agree with the positioning of films of cultural artefacts, and I found your interpretation of the popularity of Avatar particularly pertinent. Thanks.

  2. OK, here are my takes on this ‘thoughtful’ article from you, James.

    Eastwood bettered the earlier films, and got to his peak, with ‘Outlaw Josey Wales’. The Leone efforts where ‘what might have beens’, (With a lot of help form Akira Kurosawa) Eastwood changed that to, ‘this was how it was’ (At least in his opinion) He did, in my estimation, a better job.
    Eisenstein would have loved criticism, I am certain, and would have relished the arguments.

    Film makers and critics are virtually joined at the hip, as one cannot succeed, without the existence of the other.

    Avatar is (as you say, and I have said before) ‘Dances With Wolves’, but for the video generation. They would not get a western, so need sci-fi, 3D, and gaming references. It is no better for that, just a pallid imitation, as I am sure we all know!
    Heavens Gate was a financial disaster, simply because American audiences (attending multiplexes) are just not intelligent, or should I say film literate enough, to appreciate excellent work, in an unfamiliar style. Also because too much was spent on detail, that just wasn’t generally appreciated. (It was by me!)

    We can go on about all this forever, and never agree.
    That is the sheer, breathtaking essence of criticism. Long may it continue.

    Regards from England; great work, as always, Pete.

  3. Thanks for this thoughtful post! As a horror fan, I think many horror films have layers that are rarely looked at because the genre is approached more for entertainment and shock value. A theme you come across time and time again in horror is the one of the outsider. I find it ironic that a lot of North American films exclude groups that are treated as the outsider daily, in other words, the cast and crew are usually male and Caucasian. The tides are slowly turning, and being a woman and visible minority myself, I would love to see more diversity in horror themes, cast and crew in the future. Not sure if you’ve seen Dream House, a 2010 Chinese film about a woman trying to get the apartment of her dreams. Gory, horrific and a blatant message about the state of the economy over there. I liked it because it went against the norms of what women should want and how we should go about reaching those goals…not that I’d go slashing people who stood in my way of a sweet condo or anything…

  4. Nicely done! I myself have long appreciated the science-fiction films of the 1970s, like Silent Running, Soylent Green, and The Omega Man, as examples, that display a distrustful outlook on government, for each other, and a concern for the environment, seen to be slowly decimated by the heavy tread of unbridled industrialism, commercialism, and technological progress. I’ve been teaching myself the science of film analysis through reading texts over the years. As you allude, there’s much to learn about ourselves and the times that produced such cinema. Good timing on this piece! Thanks.

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