I absolutely adore video essays. For those who aren’t familiar, video essays are a genre of YouTube content that analyzes media- mostly movies- in both an academic and humorous framework. For reference, look up the channels Wisecrack, Nerdwriter1, and Now You See It. A common meme within this genre focuses on how many creators, for the sake of either filling time or trying to sound smart, will over-analyze movies. They’ll pick apart every single easter egg, shot, or line of dialogue in a film and exaggerate, if not fabricate, its symbolic attributes.
I love this style of criticism. When I watch a movie I squirm with excitement as to what kind of absurd hidden theme I’ll decipher. And all my friends can vouch that I love nothing more than to berate dinner conversations with my half-baked Barthian critiques. Here are just a few Rhetoric senior theses I’ve come up with: Monsters, Inc. is a Freudian coming-of-age tale, Adam Sandler’s Click delusionally thinks that capitalists are the real victims of labor exploitation, Full Metal Jacket portrays Albert Camus’ philosophy of absurdism. The list goes on.
Many of my analyses are, admittedly, jokes amongst friends to see what kind of ridiculous message I can extract from a movie. But despite the film theories I don’t take seriously, I do truly appreciate the underlying principle of over-analysis. I believe that art evolves and improves when we force ourselves to read the minute details.
To be clear, there are countless nuances to be explored in how we analyze movies. For example, I think there is such a thing as an opinion of a movie being objectively wrong and there is an entirely separate debate as to whether authorial intent matters. Moreover, unnecessary academic jargon is more often unhelpful than useful when trying to discuss our interpretations of art. The popular image of over-analyzing art is portrayed in this hypothetical scenario from a high school English book:
-Author: The curtains were blue.
-English Teacher: The blue symbolizes the author’s depression and longing to return to her home by the ocean.
-Author: The curtains were f****** blue.
But this caricature of analysis is exactly that: a caricature, an exaggeration. Useful analysis can indeed be tedious and excessively precise, but it does so in good faith. Over-analyzing blockbusters, kids movies, rom coms, et al. rejects the supposed divide between high and low art. Pop culture is often dismissed as plebian entertainment, but this could not be further from the truth. All “dumb” moments in a film, from Bumblebee peeing on John Turturo in Transformers to Tommy Wiseau’s spoons-themed home decor in The Room, were deliberate choices on the part of filmmakers and deserve to be taken seriously. Analyzing these choices, or at the very least discussing them, allows us to further explore what we enjoy and don’t enjoy in movies.
Entertainment just for entertainment’s sake is a perfectly legitimate way to watch a movie, but it cannot be the only way. One of the biggest consequences of us dismissing over-analysis as elitist or humorless is that it stops us from reevaluating our own biases. Even more, digging for deeper meanings in art has been a way that many marginalized groups have exposed cultural prejudices and popular, harmful tropes.
When we over-analyze The Lion King and The Little Mermaid, we can interrogate why so many Disney villians are all blatantly coded as queer. By over-analyzing comedies, we can point out how Wedding Crashers belittles the sexual assault of men and fails to condemn the misogyny of the protagonists. Since the 2019 Oscars last weekend, taking time to analyze Green Book is showing people that white savior fantasies continue to masquerade as works of anti-racism.
I don’t believe everyone should write an entire film studies paper when they return home from the theater. All art criticism needs to have limits. I simply hope more people see where I come from with my love of deep reading into movies. I hope people know why the blue curtains could very well symbolize depression and the ocean, or at least why it’s helpful to think that way.