Exploring Themes in Film:
I. The Thematic Design of Radio Days
One good way to study a film is to attempt to grasp its system. By system, I mean an overall structure, shape or pattern. Many people make the mistake of noticing only isolated, striking moments in films. A systematic approach tries to work out the main organising principles which cohere the whole film – or, at least, as much of the film as can be cohered. For each moment, scene, character, etc., we should ask: how are they meant to fit into the overall design?
There are many kinds of systems in film, but here I will only be discussing the system of themes – the thematic or semantic system. What is a theme? A theme is a broad subject, topic, or idea – what a film (or book), in the most general sense, is about.
Now, if someone asked you “what is Die Hard (McTiernan, 1988) about?”, you could answer, “It’s about Bruce Willis trying to stay alive”. But that’s not a theme, it’s a plot summary. A theme is not specific but general, even abstract or ‘second order’. It is often, in fact, a rather philosophical or speculative kind of creature. If you said that Die Hard was about “the problem of surviving in the modern world”, or “how to be a man today” or somesuch, you would be talking themes.
However, a crucial warning: a theme is not (and should not be reduced to) a simple, pat message, statement or proverb. “Good is preferable to evil” or “Racism is a terrible thing” are not very dynamic themes; they are static statements.
When exploring themes in film (as in literature or theatre), the important thing is to grasp the way they unfold across the length of the work. A theme is not an inert proposition that is demonstrated the same way over and over. Rather, it is dramatised: proposed, discussed, considered from different angles, weighed up. Any film with a rich or interesting theme is one where there are progressive variations on that theme, points and counterpoints, contradictions and doubts, as in a considered debate or discussion.
Rather than assuming that every film arrives at (or starts from) a message, it is far more productive to take the stance that it explores a question. In the case of Woody Allen’s Radio Days (1987), we could start with a question as broad as this: how does the mass media (symbolised here by radio) affect people in their everyday lives? If we look across the mosaic of the film, we can see that it considers many possible or provisional responses to this question. Some incidents in the film suggest that radio fills the characters with hopeless, silly or impossible dreams (e.g., Aunt Bea’s romantic ideal). Other scenes, just as important, show how radio is a welcome consolation, helping to prompt ‘magic moments’, or simple amusement, in even the drabbest parts of daily life (e.g., the family members miming to Carmen Miranda). And the most serious segment (concerning the death of a little girl) shows the radio as a force which brings a community together in collective grief.
People often cannot see themes in a film clearly because they are too fixated or seduced by the specifics of the plot, and particularly by the seeming flesh-and-blood reality of the characters. Many students can only talk about a film on the basis of their reactions to these characters – their inner motivations, whether they are likeable or not, whether they are believable characters one might meet in the real world, and so on. But this can be a big mistake.
It is better to think of the characters in a film as pieces on a chessboard. They have a symbolic function: they stand for certain aspects of the theme, embodying different values, lifestyles or philosophies that are being compared and contrasted by the film.
Often, as in Radio Days, film characters are quite simple or basic, without any particularly complex inner psychology whatsoever: one is a whinger, another is a dreamer, there’s a fat guy, a whore with a heart of gold ... pure character stereotypes, in other words. But this is not a problem for a thematic system. In Radio Days, for instance, Sally (Mia Farrow) stands for someone who crosses over from the daily grind to the fabulous world of the media; in doing so, she reveals some of the truths of that world’s workings. Each character in the family unit is defined as having a different kind of fantasy life fed by radio, a particular form of imaginary escapism: one is into improbable sports legends, another lets off steam by listening to “The Court of Human Emotions”, and so on.
Many people believe they can take a short-cut to a film’s themes by quoting what seem to be extremely significant or meaningful lines of dialogue – as if the message of the film is to be found in a condensed form there. But this is very often a mistake, even a trap. A film does not necessarily intend to say what its characters happen to say. We must look to something bigger, broader and more inclusive: the system of the film.
So how do we trace a film’s system? We look for significant patterns, repetitions (or motifs), and echoes. Radio Days is full of such patterns (some of which I have noted in the following segment breakdown). Several times in the movie, for instance, a devastating piece of world news interrupts the normal flow of both everyday life and radio mythology. Another recurring event in the film, effecting several different characters, is good fortune: Sally is endlessly the recipient of it, the household in the film’s prologue benefits from it, Bea’s life is momentarily made magical by it. The experience of aloneness’ even at the heart of this boisterous family, also recurs: young Woody keeps his submarine vision to himself; Bea continues to dream at the end.
As I have already suggested, films – interesting films, at any rate – do not have simple, static messages. They weigh up a topic, considering it in this way and that in symbolic terms, and then they tend towards some type of provisional judgment. The ultimate attitude of Radio Days concerning the relation between media and everyday life will not be found by isolating one incident, or quoting someone’s pithy line of dialogue. It has to be intuited, and then traced across the whole film – not only in what it shows but how it shows it, in all its changing moods, implications, and emotional undertones.
What are the major themes and sub-themes of Radio Days? Its essential, organising principle is to constantly compare and contrast different worlds: particularly the two central worlds of radio (and its mythologies), set against the ordinary, domestic world of the family. Each of these worlds is explored in detail, and shown to have its own duality – a visible and an invisible aspect, or face. The radio world is ostensibly a glamorous, ideal one; but it is, in reality, full of ‘tricks’, criminal favours, and less-than-ideal personal conduct. The everyday world has its drab routines, but each person within it experiences (via the radio) dreams, magic moments, instances of fabulous good fortune, and an environment of bubbly, happy sociality. As it unfolds, Allen shows these different worlds, and aspects of worlds, either as entirely separate, or suddenly coming together: Sally joins (with her fluctuating accent) the ‘common’ world to the milieu of showbiz high life; the boys unexpectedly get their sexual fantasy as a substitute teacher; the family runs into the celebrated maths ‘wiz kid’ at the zoo.
Other themes are pervasive and intriguing but, since they are less central, they constitute sub-themes or threads of the film. These sub-themes include: the nature of story-telling (‘tall’ or fanciful stories in particular); and the theme of nostalgia and memory – more particularly, the poignant impermanence of memory, which Allen stages in his narration, starting with “Now it’s all gone, expect for the memories”, and ending with the sad reflection, “I will never forget the people, the voices ... though with each passing year, those voices do grow dimmer, and dimmer.” In its whole glowing, vignette style, the film presents itself to us as a precious, fleeting memory about to fade into oblivion – a comment on the poignancy of human history and passing time, on how so few human acts (no matter how consuming or fabulous they were in their moment) are remembered or preserved. Only this film, this collection of stories preserves them – but films too, like radio shows, will be forgotten and lost.
II. Basic Breakdown of the Segmental Structure of Radio Days
It is often useful and illuminating to figure out the basic structure of a film – its major acts, parts or segments. Films are usually scripted in just this way, with the structure sometimes being changed during editing.
I define a movie segment as a section of the film which clearly feels (in its whole rhythm and emotional flow) like it has a beginning, an end, and a development in between. A segment is a ‘felt block’ of the film, in this sense. This is exceptionally clear in Radio Days, where each segment has a clear theme or idea which guides it: such as the introduction to the time, place, and all the family members (segment 2); or ‘memories cued by songs’ (segment 8).
Film segments can be put together in different ways. In some films, a segment might be just one protracted, dramatic scene, with strict unity of time and setting (examples can be found in His Girl Friday, Hawks, 1942, and Johnny Guitar, Ray, 1953). Every segment of Radio Days, however, takes the form of a mosaic – a lot of little scenes strung together and often made to smoothly flow via Allen’s voice-over narration, as well as bridging songs (for instance, Diane Keaton’s song in segment 16). You will notice embedded narratives (i.e., little narratives within the large narrative we are watching) in segments 6 & 7 – someone in the film starts telling or imagining a story which the film briefly illustrates for us. And, since this is very much a film about stories and the telling of stories (including some rather fanciful tall stories and legends), some of the anecdotes related in the film (such as spying on the naked woman in segment 10) have a later cap-off (when this woman reappears as the replacement teacher in segment 12).
Breaking down Radio Days into its major segments reveals a number of important things about its themes, and the way these themes are formed into a system. (It also helps to reveal, I might add, why Allen is far better as a scriptwriter than as a director!) It becomes clear, for instance, that what really drives or organises the film is not the destinies of individual characters – we are not privy to the life story of every character – but, rather, different ways of presenting the lifestyle of a whole family/community, as it lives with the ever-present radio (as in segment 10, ‘Life During Wartime’). It also becomes clear how Allen has structured the film around the consistent comparison between two worlds – the real, domestic world of the family, and the showbiz world of radio and its personalities. Finally, we can see clearly how, at regular key moments, both these worlds are suddenly cut into by broader world events and tragedies – the war (at the end of segment 9), or the death of the little girl (segment 15).
Segment 1: Prologue Story – Burglars Win Radio Prize
The use of this prologue clearly announces to us the film’s major concern with the way radio affects the course of social life. It previews other themes and motifs as well: the role of luck in everyday life; and the strange collision of different worlds (citizen and criminal) via the radio.
Segment 2: Introduction/Exposition
Expositions in fiction introduce for us all the important elements of the story we need to know – time, place, the names and basic traits of the major characters. Major themes are also introduced – most clearly, the theme of two distinct worlds (everyday family life and the mythic world of radio showbiz), and the ways they interact. Allen’s reflective voice-over narration keys us into other important themes, such as the permanence or impermanence of memory.
Segment 3: The Masked Avenger Ring Story
The previous segment has teased us to wait for this anecdote. It is a little allegory (or symbolic tale) of the gap between myth (the voice/character on the radio) and reality (the weedy actor) – an important and recurring theme in the film.
Segment 4: Aunt Bea’s Romances – the Martian Invasion Story
Here is a classic case of an iterative narrative thread – Bea will have many men, we are meant to assume they are all much the same, and that she has much the same disillusioning experiences with each of them. This story ‘stands in’ for all the other, untold Aunt Bea stories. Theme-wise, Bea’s attachment to an impossible romantic ideal is (like all the normal characters’ dreams) fed by the radio. Note how this segment gives us a first, comic statement of a motif that will later become serious: the cutting-into the flow of both everyday life and radio fantasy by a shock news bulletin (which here, of course, is just another piece of showbiz fantasy).
Segment 5: The Story of Roger, Irene and Sally
Sally (Mia Farrow) is an important symbolic character in the film, for the changes in her fortune chart her upward mobility through different, distinct worlds, thus showing how these worlds interrelate. This segment continues the theme of the discrepancy between myth (Roger and Irene the perfect, happy, sophisticated couple) and reality (furtive rooftop trysts). Note the playful way the narration refers to the ‘several possible versions’ of the ending of this story.
Segment 6: The People Next Door
This brief, strange segment is perhaps about the power of radio to fascinate, lull and seduce – called over by the radio next door into an unfamiliar, non-Jewish world, one character returns a completely changed man! (Presumably, he reverts to his old self just as fast.) Note the completely surreal embedded story in this segment.
Segment 7: Favourite Radio Shows
This is a segment full of rich cultural detail about the place of radio in people’s very distinct tastes and experiences. Four shows cue four different ways of relating to/living with radio. The segment concludes with the only occasion on which the real family world and the mythical radio world collide – when the family bumps into the wiz kid.
Segment 8: Songs and Memories
Six songs trigger six vignettes, vivid flashes (or ‘moments of magic’) that are not quite anecdotes. This segment introduces the theme of the precious, fleeting memory, which can be sweet (the parents’ kiss), whimsical (the carrot), or a sign of colourful, everyday sociality (three family members miming to Carmen Miranda – this is the song that appears again over the final credits).
Segment 9: Sally’s Good Fortune
detours fancifully for a segment into a comic rendering of a grand old
Segment 10: Life During Wartime
Another segment concentrating on the cultural/social situation of the entire community, and how radio influences various people’s actions. Note the theme of fantasy linked to aloneness: the young Woody sees/imagines a Nazi submarine, but tells no-one because “only Biff Boxer would believe it”. Such bittersweet reflections on radio-fed fantasy become increasingly frequent in the film from this point on.
Segment 11: Love During Wartime
This patchwork segment relates the ultimate Bea story (the gay boyfriend), placed in-between the scene of the air raid drill, which offers another unusual, precious moment of beauty experienced in everyday life.
Segment 12: The Substitute Teacher
This very brief segment is the delayed pay-off to the story of the nude in segment 10. The story represents an unexpectedly happy alignment of different worlds – adolescent, sexual fantasy and drab, classroom reality.
Segment 13: The Further Fortunes of Sally
Sally now crosses over form her own everyday ordinariness, via rigorous elocution training, into a role as a mythical persona on the radio.
Segment 14: Summation of Everyday Life
This segment focuses on the drab realities and disillusionments in the everyday lives of normal people (the revelation of the father’s occupation; Bea’s boyfriend who never divorces), intertwined with a further magic moment in the dance palace, the good fortune of winning a competition, and the richness of everyday sociality (the conga line).
Segment 15: Death of a Little Girl
The most serious segment in the film, this shows how radio collects diverse people in grief over the plight of someone who is personally unknown to them – radio itself creating a community, shared experience, shared feeling.
Segment 16: The New Year
This finale is built on the cross-cutting or alternation between New Year at home, and at a showbiz nightclub. Sally’s fluctuating accent reminds us of the diverse worlds she has inhabited. Note how the film brings together many characters we have seen in previous segments such as the real Masked Avenger, and Roger & Irene. Refusing any obvious gag possibilities (like Roger again encountering Sally on the same roof), the film ends on a tone of ‘life goes on’ whimsy and melancholia, in both the everyday and the showbiz world; Allen concludes with a final reflection on the impermanence of memory.
Previously unpublished notes from a
© Adrian Martin October 1990