Thoughts On: Monsters, Inc. (2001)
This post is not directly attached to the Disney Series, instead, we’ll be referencing a post from the series to discuss a bit of film theory.
When watching a movie, there are often two levels at which you may perceive its narrative. You may watch a film for entertainment’s value, or you can analyse it, looking for a deeper meaning. This dichotomy in cinema is what, in my view, defines it; films must both entertain in some capacity as well as provide something of intellectual substance. What then inherently exists in films is both a degree of spectacle and a degree of higher art, and this manifests itself in a film through what we may come to call an ‘inter-narrative’ and a ‘super-narrative’.
To explore this concept, it is best to refer to a film we’ve recently covered, Monsters, Inc. Through this post we essentially teased out the “hidden meaning” of Monsters, Inc. And to explain this, we had to construct and conceptualise a new narrative that exists around the already existing one put to film. This is what you can call a ‘super-narrative’. A super-narrative, as implied by a narrative, exists beyond a film, often as a representative of greater meaning. In such, you may also refer to this as the subtext of a film. However, there is a difference between subtext and a super-narrative and it is defined by the fact that a single moment can have subtextual meaning. For example, two women sit down at a table, one bringing a tray with two drinks on it. The first woman reaches for a drink, but the second places the tray down on the table before she can take it and then hands her a cup whilst taking one herself.
What do these actions mean? That question will define the subtext of this scene. However, if this moment exists inside a wider narrative that does not have any subtextual relation to this one moment, then no super-narrative can be constructed. This implies that a super-narrative is the summation of all subtextual content in a story into a parallel, implied and ambiguous, narrative. For a more detailed explanation of such a phenomena, you’d only have to refer to the original Monsters, Inc. post in which the entirety of the super-narrative is briefly outlined.
A question we may ask, however, is: do all narratives have super-narratives? This is an intriguing question that can seemingly only be subjectively answered. What this question then translates into is, do all films have what is colloquially referred to as a “hidden meaning”? And the answer to this is: it depends on how you watch a film.
All films inherently have subtext as there is a degree of ambiguity in all actions. Evidence for this can be easily seen with the simple question “why?”. Why are you reading this? Why have I written this? There are multiple answers that could be provided – all because we do things without complete reasoning (which is often later assumed or attributed). You can take advantage of this phenomena to then give meaning to everything in a movie and construct a super-narrative or hidden meaning. However, by assuming that there is this infinitely wide spectrum of interpretation, we end up with a post-modern, entirely arbitrary and useless answer to our questions. What this then suggests is that interpretation and “hidden meanings” need validation, which in turn suggests that not all narratives can have super-narratives.
What we then have to do is more precisely define what a super-narrative is. Whilst it is the result of subtext that runs throughout a narrative, this subtext must have clear connections and a basis in the ‘inter-narrative’ – all so that it is obvious that a hidden meaning is found and not given to a narrative.
As we have touched on, all films have shades of spectacle and art within them. Not all films have a substantial amount of artistic content, instead, many contain a greater amount of spectacle. If we consider ‘art’ to be the projection of an intellectual purpose for a film, then ‘spectacle’ is the captivation of an emotional purpose within a film. In such, art films have meaning and attempt to communicate with their audience on an intellectual plane, whilst spectacular films have momentum and so mean to communicate with their audience through the emotions they may arouse in them. This spectacle can be incited through beauty in its many forms or some shade of awe – it is everything from a beautiful landscape to new technological innovations to a brutal fight sequence. And it’s exactly this communication through beauty and awe that creates an ‘inter-narrative’.
An inter-narrative is then akin to themes; it is the culmination of topics that arouse specific emotions. A narrative’s inter-narrative is then one made up of its subtext that does not come together to form a super-narrative. We see this through a film like Monsters Inc. with its themes of friendship. Mike and Sully’s relationship doesn’t have heavy links to the super-narrative, which is centred on ideas of parenting. And so, whilst this relationship has its own subtext meaning, this forms an inter-narrative – one that is contained within the film and doesn’t begin to transcend it, provide a complex, multi-faceted meaning or create a parallel implied super-narrative of its own.
So, what we can now understand is that all films have subtext – this is inescapable. However, this subtext can be merely fuelled by themes and so not build into a cohesive, complex commentary. We would then refer to this outcome, this thematic meaning, as a film’s inter-narrative as it is contained as the emotional spectacle of a film. On the other hand, some films utilise their subtext in a manner in which the ambiguous meaning seemingly stretches beyond the narrative as a form of commentary – one that, itself, builds a parallel and implied narrative that can be interpreted and perceived simultaneously to experiencing a film.
So, with these concepts and definitions at hand, we can all better understand how to interpret as well as construct stories of our liking. If you want to see or create a super-narrative, then you must learn how to see subtext as, or manipulate subtext into, a narrative of its own. However, if you want to be immersed in a film, or construct one which is emotionally immersive, then the inter-narrative – the manner in which subtext creates emotional substance and meaning – is what must be focused on. With that said, a caveat is of course implied; films can have both an inter-narrative and a super-narrative, high art and spectacle, and so will be weighted individually.
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