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Subtext in Movies


casablancalover2
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One of my favorites, Now, Voyager, has me sympathizing for the characters with subtexts that surprise me:

 

-A romantic, even passionate relationship with a married man, who doesn't leave the marriage, and we don't question his fidelity to the woman not his wife.

 

Another movie, Some Like it Hot brings out the subtle gender-confusion and orientation being felt and expressed by Daphne (Jack Lemmon), particularly after meeting Osgood (Joe E Brown).

 

I am tempted to mention Casablanca, but I want to read what other may think.

 

Edited by: casablancalover2 on Aug 30, 2012 1:03 AM

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This is a very good topic, especially for anyone who studies writing and acting. Subtext can be intentional, explicitly referenced in the script...and the writer will actually put it as a stage direction, it will say SUBTEXT: SUCH-AND-SUCH in parenthesis. Or it can be unintentional, if a performer is inadvertently bringing something into the characterization from his or her own life. A good casting director and the director of the film itself will recognize the unintentional subtext and hire the performer for that very reason, even if the audience doesn't quite 'see' it.

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One of the things I love about the Bette Davis performance, is the depth beyond the bushy eyebrows and frumpy dress of the Charlotte Vale we are introduced to, and the Charlotte Vale that is allowed to emerge--like a butterfly.

 

We realize the earlier Charlotte isn't the real Charlotte at all, but a woman who's been intimidated to behave in certain ways to please her mother. Bette's shakiness in trying to be forthcoming to Dr Jacquith, yet instead showing the real cracks in her psyche.

 

It is the Charlotte who on the cruise (her shakedown cruise to living her own life) that the real Charlotte comes out. The metaphors of blossoming (use of the Camellias), and even the wonderful mis-identity as Miss Bouchand all create the subtext that her performance brings to her glorious transformation. She gets to adjust to her being herself -by using someone else's name- for a little while. It is an amazing juxposition; She doesn't need to be phony at all, she's just be free to be herself, trying out her wings..

 

And so she does, even to the point of her momentary relapse in front of the new attentive stranger in her life, Gerry. She brings closure to the life she had hidden, the hiddenness that almost destroyed her. Her credibility with the other passengers increases immediately as she opens the door as herself. Great subtext in these scenes.

 

*Am I the only one who noticed how much Gerry looks like the young Wireless Officer Trotter?? She gets to replay her traumatic experience, this time to a better outcome.*

 

Edited by: casablancalover2 on Aug 30, 2012 10:45 AM

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>The metaphors of blossoming (use of the Camellias), and even the wonderful mis-identity as Miss Bouchand all create the subtext that her performance brings to her glorious transformation.

 

Good point. The use of symbolism and recurring motifs helps convey that sort of subtext. The key is not to beat the audience over the head with it.

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I avoid pointing out the subtext when I can, or keep it within one or two words in the character's description. In the screenwriting software I use, they are part of the GENERAL statements in a screenplay, and thus a reader online can pull these statements up and judge the writer's intent, and writer's ability by how much leeway in imagination the writer is willing to give the reader. Screenwriting is saying it with much depth and with as few words as possible.

 

It is so easy to overwrite these things. It is fun to see how much the director, actor, even editors, composers, and sound production can add to the moment of the plot. For instance, where the music comes in, how loud, whose voices are emphasized.. It is a collaboration in storytelling.

 

I am glad you mentioned the actors. The subtext of the actor can bring such depth. Sometimes, we acknowledge the over-dramatic, when the subtle, simple sentences of dialog will convey a greater truth.

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This feeling we are being beaten over the head with symbolism and recurring motifs seems to come out for me when the screenplay is an adaptation of a book to the screen. If the screenplay is more subtle, the readers who loved the novel may complain and may not see the movie. It's just a theory I have, not a point I am trying to prove.

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Speaking of small gestures, the drumming of Mother Vale's fingertip's on the bedpost as Charlotte declares her independence returning back to Boston is perfect. I love those shots in a film. I suspect that's not in the shooting script.

 

Conveys so much more than impatience.

 

Edited by: casablancalover2 on Aug 30, 2012 11:54 AM for a visit from the apostrophe patrol.

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I'm really never sure what's meant by "subtext".

 

 

Could it mean the "life of Christ" undercurrent of *The Day The Earth Stood Still* ? Or even the "Red Menace" representation of *Invasion of the Body Snatchers* and other '50's "space invader" movies?

 

 

Sepiatone

 

 

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> {quote:title=Sepiatone wrote:}{quote}

> I'm really never sure what's meant by "subtext".

>

> Could it mean the "life of Christ" undercurrent of *The Day The Earth Stood Still* ? Or even the "Red Menace" representation of *Invasion of the Body Snatchers* and other '50's "space invader" movies?

>

Yep, that sounds like the meaning. Good examples too.

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That might be more the theme.

 

An example would be in CAT ON A HOT TIN ROOF, when Paul Newman's character is unable to perform sexually with wife Liz Taylor. When she is trying to make love to him and he can't do it, there is probably a reference in the script that says SUBTEXT: IMPOTENT, or RE: IMPOTENCE. It's a note to the actor about how to play it without it being explicitly mentioned in the scene, yet the condition is present.

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Yes, that is good. UniversalHorror and Sepiatone have the idea. I like to look at the character's psychological subtext too.

 

Some characters are straightforward and others nothing as they appear to the viewer at first. It's not always in the mysteries or dramas either.

 

In THE MORE THE MERRIER, we learn very little about the straightforward character Joe (Joel McCrea), yet we don't need to- he is who he is. Even he gets a subtext, and it's big one; that propeller he carries in the opening scenes. Sort of a big secret, lol, on many levels.

 

We do see another side of Jean Arthur's Miss Milligan however; that she is very punctual and proper. But by the way she dresses and for who she dresses, her private moments with the record player, her diary entries, and her her ever weakening resolve against Joe, we see the woman beneath the one engaged to Mr Pendergast.

 

Jean does these characters so well.

 

Her fake crying at the end of the movie is the exclamation point of this woman's sweet fraud.

 

Damn the torpedoes, full speed ahead!

 

Edited by: casablancalover2 on Aug 30, 2012 12:13 PM

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This is an example of an exceptionally thoughtful thread idea. Thanks, cbl, for starting it.

 

Here's a definition of "subtext", courtesy of good old Wikipaedia:

 

*"Subtext *or *undertone *is content of a book, play, musical work, film, video game, or television series which is not announced explicitly by the characters (or author) but is implicit or becomes something understood by the observer of the work as the production unfolds. Subtext can also refer to the thoughts and motives of the characters which are only covered in an aside. Subtext can also be used to imply controversial subjects without specifically alienating people from the fiction, often through use of [metaphor|http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Metaphor|Metaphor].

 

 

Subtext is content underneath the spoken [dialogue|http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Dialogue|Dialogue]. Under dialogue, there can be conflict, [anger|http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Anger|Anger], [competition|http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Competition|Competition], [pride|http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Pride|Pride], showing off, or other implicit ideas and emotions. Subtext is the unspoken thoughts and [motives|http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Base_motive|Base motive] of characters—what they really think and believe."

 

 

I know there must be many movies, possibly hundreds, that use this concept of subtext, either consciously or unconsciously. For some reason, right now I can only think of two, and both of them are about the same subtext.

 

 

*Gilda* carries a fairly obvious subtext ( obvious if you're thinking along these lines, anyway) of an unspoken gay love between the Glenn Ford and the George Macready characters. Perhaps it's a little one-sided ( hard to imagine a gay Glenn Ford), but both men demonstrate a devotion for one another that seems to go beyond simple friendship or loyalty. And Macready's always wielding his "special stick" to impress Ford...I mean, what's up with that ? ( pun intended.)

 

 

*Strangers on a Train* :the possible gay subtext in this has been discussed many times ( although maybe not here.) Bruno is obsessed with Guy, and Guy seems to be fighting a horrified fascination for Bruno throughout the film.

 

 

No, I don't think Guy is gay, but there's something a little homoerotic going on there, somewhere, somehow.

 

 

Since homosexuality was definitely not openly portrayed or even mentioned in most pre-1960 films, any hint of it in the above-mentioned would have only been present as "subtext".

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Internet forums go wherever they go, and individual posters have little to no control over it. A thread will become popular, with a lot of comments on it, if it appeals to a large number of those participating on the forum.

I realize that I can not and should not attempt to "control" these boards, and what threads do or do not receive a lot of attention. People will post on whatever threads they like, and of course that is as it should be.

 

"That said", I am surprised and disappointed that more people here haven't taken up with this thread. It's a great example of a juicy topic about film, i.e., what goes on in a movie that is not overtly stated? It's kind of a literary theme, too, which is always interesting.

 

How come a topic like "subtext in movies" doesn't catch on the way something like "William Warren's hairdo" does?

( ok, I made that one up, but it's an example of something that might completely take off, while the "subtext" topic languishes to page 2.)

 

 

EDIT: I meant "Warren William". That mistake was just a plant to see if anyone was paying attention. Besides, that's what you get when you have a reversible name.

 

 

Edited by: misswonderly on Aug 31, 2012 1:59 PM

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This is a good topic. It may be a bit academic for the casual poster/lurker. But I would not call it a dense topic, and I think people can learn from a discussion about subtext.

 

Subtext is one of those things where art imitates life, because we all have subtext in our daily affairs. Think of all the things that go unsaid but yet are there under the surface during our interactions with others.

 

Earlier in another post, someone mentioned the taboo of homosexuality and how it could not be mentioned explicitly in films of a certain era. That's true. But even after the code, when we are supposedly freer to address issues more frankly, subtext can still exist, especially if a character is in the dark, either to herself or to others. This obviously does not apply only to sexual identity but a character that is in denial about an addiction could have a lot of subtext going on in a scene.

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> {quote:title=TopBilled wrote:}{quote},,,

>

> Earlier in another post, someone mentioned the taboo of homosexuality and how it could not be mentioned explicitly in films of a certain era. That's true. But even after the code, when we are supposedly freer to address issues more frankly, subtext can still exist, especially if a character is in the dark, either to herself or to others. This obviously does not apply only to sexual identity but a character that is in denial about an addiction could have a lot of subtext going on in a scene.

>

Oh yes, for sure there can be and are subtexts going on in movies today; it is not limited to "code era" films.

 

I'm not sure this is a good example, but, again, it's the only one I can think of off-hand:

 

 

There was a discussion here recently of *The Godfather* movies. A fairly obvious subtext going on in them, especially the first two, is the desire for power, acquiring, consolidating, and maintaining it. The characters talk a lot about making sure their enemies don't get to them first, about their families, about decency and honour, etc. etc.

They rarely if ever actually use the word "power". But that in fact is what their lives are all about. I consider this theme a "subtext" because the characters do not openly acknowledge that is at all times their primary goal.

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Yes, good example. Power is the subtext. But there may be a greater subtext from which it derives. For instance, those guys probably had power struggles with their own father and brothers, so a paranoia about gaining power and maintaining standing in the family is what drives them to do what they do. None of that is ever brought out in the dialogue but if we examine their actions in the narrative, that is exactly what is occurring.

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Perhaps that is why *The Godfather Part ll* includes the earlier story of Vito Corleone's youth; it shows a little of the Sicilian "revenge" culture that was so strong and so prevalent in that part of Italy. And it also shows the culture of the"little Italy" neighbourhood in New York. where young Vito first learned the ways that later made him who he was.

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How about these two films which express the subtext of how society often tends to squelch the concept of Individuality:

 

Lonely Are the Brave

 

and

 

One Flew Over the Cockoo's Nest

 

(...though give me enough time, and I could probably think of at least two dozen more dramas that have this same subtext as their overriding theme)

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misswonderly wrote: And it also shows the culture of the"little Italy" neighbourhood in New York. where young Vito first learned the ways that later made him who he was.

------------------------------------------------------------------------------------------

 

Good point, MissW...though in New York it's a "neighborhood"...withOUT that British/Canadian superfluous letter "u" in the word.

 

Though tell ya what. The NEXT time I make mention of, say, a "TORONTO neighbourhood" around here, I'll be sure to include that there letter "u" in it, JUST for you!

 

(...you know I'm just kiddin' ya here, don't ya?!) ;)

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