Friday, 21 March 2008

Chip vs Subtext

The next draft of my Metlab script has just left the building – a relief really, as the temptation is always to tinker with it some more (one of my stranger ambitions with the new draft was to bring it in dead on 90 pages – I got to 94 – good enough for the moment). I’m not even going to hazard a guess as to how many times I had to re-write the first 30 pages – this ‘making it up as you go along’ lark is not good for one’s mental health. Next time out, I’m outlining all the way.

Metlab aside, I’ve been pondering recently about subtext:

Subtext 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.

That’s from Wikipedia, and is all well and good, but what happens when a subtext is so submerged it takes determined efforts and discussion from viewers to unearth it? For instance, this is from an essay by Bill Blakemore on The Shining:

The Shining is also explicitly about America's general inability to admit to the gravity of the genocide of the Indians - or, more exactly, its ability to "overlook" that genocide. Not only is the site called the Overlook Hotel with its Overlook Maze, but one of the key scenes takes place at the July 4th Ball. That date, too, has particular relevance to American Indians. That's why Kubrick made a movie in which the American audience sees signs of Indians in almost every frame, yet never really sees what the movie's about. The film's very relationship to its audience is thus part of the mirror that this movie full of mirrors holds up to the nature of its audience.

I’ve used this quote from Umberto Eco before, but it seems apt enough again here, that the novel is a machine for generating possibilities. That’s partially what I love so much about The Shining – on the surface, it’s a masterful horror film. The various subtexts, however, provide so much more – there’s even a theory (posited by David Kirkpatrick) that The Shining can be viewed within a Marshall McLuhan subtext. I’m not so sure about this as the argument is a little laboured, but even so: there’s nothing to say they’re wrong, which is part of the beauty of subtext, in that it provides an entertaining battleground for ideas.

The only problem with subtext as far as I’m concerned is that it’s incredibly difficult to submerge it adequately without it either A) sinking altogether (so that no-one notices it), or B) making a huge song and dance about it (and when that happens, it’s not really a subtext any more). Where subtext informs a theme to such an extent as it (allegedly) does in The Shining, then it can be incredibly difficult to pick apart the filmmaker’s intentions (which is always part of the fun of course). But in a script, how far do you push it? Subtext will always be submerged to a certain degree, but if it falls off a reader’s radar altogether, you could argue that you haven’t done your job. Make it too obvious, and you risk it clanking about like a gawky teenager in a suit of armour - and no-one wants that.

All of which means: I love subtext, but I find it very difficult to strike the right balance. How about you?


Far Away said...

Chip, I think subtext is largely subconscious & not something a writer can/should worry about - because it is already there in the writiing anyway - a bit like the 'Peckenham' tag on Elinor's wall...

Lucy said...

I disagree FA, subtext to me is very much the writer's concern... But you don't make a big song and dance about it as Chip says and if no one gets it that's just the way it goes. Way I see it, if just one reader "gets" your subtext that's good enough.

Chip Smith said...

I'm sort of trying to weave a particular subtext into something I'm doing at the moment, but to be honest, I'm not sure that anyone will get it! It's a difficult balance to get right I think, and I don't think I'm quite there yet.

My favourite film for subtexts is Starship Troopers - they positively run riot without becoming overly obvious (and then of course there's the added bonus of seeing Dougie Howser dressed up as a Nazi).

Anonymous said...

I did laugh at the Shining subtext being about america's guilt about the native indians. Ah sure it is. No it's not! Utterly ridiculous academic navel gazing. Try and weave in a subtext and you'll cripple your script. Look how the public ran away in their millions from all the recent slew of clever films full of subtexts about Iraq. Just write a bloody good story and leave the academics to find subtexts for you. They surely will.

Chip Smith said...

Blimey, calm down there anon, it's only a subtext! ;-)

The weird thing is that there are references in The Shining to American Indians, so there's a case to be made there I think - probably not a very strong one, but nevertheless, it's there. I do think the McLuhan subtext is a load of old nonsense tho' (that's not to say it's wrong, mind you).

I'm not sure that a clever subtext is going to make people stay away from a film. There was an article in The Guardian recently about how Brian DePalma's new film REDACTED has tanked in the US, mostly because the war isn't over yet. The slew of Vietnam films that came out in the late seventies/ eighties didn't have this problem, as the war had been over for a good few years before the majority of Vietnam films starting coming along - it's probably a good thing to let the dust settle before weighing in with a Brian De Palma film (which are usually as subtle as flying bricks).