THEME, TONE, AND PRESENTATION
The Ten Commandments (1923)
Modern Times (1936)
The Wizard of Oz (1939)
The Grapes of Wrath (1940)
My Darling Clementine (1946)
It’s a Wonderful Life (1946)
On the Waterfront (1954)
Invasion of the Body Snatchers (1956)
12 Angry Men (1957)
Paths of Glory (1957)
West Side Story (1961)
The Sound of Music (1965)
In the Heat of the Night (1967)
Breaking Away (1979)
Chariots of Fire (1981)
E.T. the Extra-Terrestrial (1982)
Jean de Florette / Manon of the Spring (1986)
Dead Poets Society (1989)
Edward Scissorhands (1990)
Strictly Ballroom (1992)
Groundhog Day (1993)
The Hudsucker Proxy (1994)
Quiz Show (1994)
Little Women (1994)
The Iron Giant (1999)
The Straight Story (1999)
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)
School of Rock (2003)
The Incredibles (2004)
The Social Network (2010)
"What does it mean, what does it mean!?"
Movies (and all other works of art) are about something. Even bad movies are about something. Even Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift is about something. It has a theme, even if it doesn’t want to. Screenwriter Paul Schrader says, "When you write, you have to know in some way what you are about to do… There has to be some sense of why you are doing this" (Boggs, 9)
For some movies, the theme is obvious:
Other movies take more thought to figure out what it’s really trying to say. But that doesn’t mean it isn’t there. There are all kinds of methods and purposes out there and every director is trying to tell (or sell!) you something. Some are like clowns and want to cheer you up (or scare you, if they are scary clowns). Some are like doctors or coaches and encourage you to do things that aren’t very fun but are good in the long run. Some are like political activists and want to change the public’s mind about a certain topic. And some are like fast food chains and don’t care about you or what happens to you, but they’re really good at getting you to pay them money. It’s up to you to figure out what they’re trying to say, and decide how you feel about what they’re saying.
So a theme is the message or moral of a story. Tone, on the other hand is the overall mood or feeling of a film. To figure out the tone, think to yourself "How does it make me feel?" Tone is easy to notice in music. Rage Against the Machine or Radiohead have a particular mood to them, a way they want you to feel when you listen to them. And that mood is very different from The Beach Boys. And all those are different from Bela Bartok or Sufjan Stevens or Earth Wind and Fire.
Presentation is how the work of art is made. In music, the presentation would be the instruments, the sound effects, the notes and chords. The Beatles’ presentation started out with two guitars one bass one drum set and two or three voices. Over the years they added more instruments like organs, horns, and strings, or sometimes subtracted and only used one piano or one guitar. They also got more complicated in song structure, changing from 4/4 time to 3/4 time in the same song.
Movies also have a presentation. How was it shot? Handheld? Steadycam? What lenses did they use? What are the costumes and sets like? Realistic? Fantastic? What colors did they choose? How did they use music? Minimalistic? Big and overwhelming? There are all kinds of things that go into making a film and all of these have an effect on the theme and the tone.
These are things we need to think about when watching movies. What is the theme? What is it trying to say? What is the tone or mood? How does the director feel and how is he trying to make me feel? What is the presentation? How was it made? What did they do with acting, movement, lighting, editing, music and all that, and why?
Listen to "The 59th Street Bridge Song" by Simon & Garfunkel
Listen to "Slow and Steady Wins the Race" by Pedro the Lion
Watch "The Big Snit"
Can you figure out the theme of these movies?