Sunday, 24 April 2011

Subtext creep

In my tutorials I sometimes experiment a bit. I will show a film clip for a set of students, "explaining" it for them before showing it, and then afterwards ask for their take on it. Then I will show the same clip for another set of students, not telling them anything about it in advance, maybe just explain the plot, and then afterwards ask these students for their take on it. The results are almost always strikingly different. In short, if I tell them to look for certain things, they will talk about those things afterwards, and sometimes quoting my own introduction almost word for word, without seeming to realise it. If I do not tell them anything they will either say nothing, or analyse it freely. In this way, I can also make the same scene become, for example, either demeaning to women or a feminist statement, depending upon my introduction to it. This is in itself interesting but it is no reflection upon the students, because they are very good. It says little about them, but rather it says something about us humans in general, and also about films and how they work. It shows how we are influenced by the task at hand, a sort of groupthink, and how films invariably are so complex that you could, with more or less vivid imagination, make any film out to mean anything.

In Field of Dreams (1989), the voice Ray Kinsella hears famously says "If you build it, he will come." When interpreting films (or any art work) the voice seems to say "If you look for it, you will find it." If you are looking for something in particular, chances are that you will find it, regardless of whether it is there or not. You see this all the time, in authorship studies, in feminist studies, in genre studies, in race studies, in queer studies and so on and so forth. This is what I would like to call subtext creep, inspired by the concept of mission creep. Mission creep is the idea that once you have begun a project (particularly military operations) it inevitably escalates in different ways, becoming more costly, time-consuming and elaborate. In cinema studies, what I mean with subtext creep is that the subtext, or meaning or message, you are looking for becomes more or less ubiquitous and can obliterate all other potential, and potentially contradictory, subtexts, and that whatever subtexts is the focus of the study will inevitably be "discovered". You might develop selective blindness, becoming unable, or unwilling, to see other possibilities or other interpretations. This can (and does) happen in most fields of cinema studies. Possibly most scholars have at some point made the same mistakes, myself included.

There are several problems involved with this. It is easy to make generalised statements about things that are not really there, or making it out that all films are the same. There are a lot of problematic representations (conscious or unconscious) of Hispanics in American cinema, with films being condescending and even racist. Should I go looking for anti-Hispanic sentiments in American cinema I could, if I wanted to, find it in any film, even those that made no reference to Hispanics whatsoever, because I could argue that it would be a case of ignoring them, making them invisible. But by making all American films out to be anti-Hispanic (because clearly they cannot be) I would belittle the real problems, the really problematic films, and make the analysis less nuanced, or perhaps without any kind of nuance. Subtext creep is problematic enough when it happens in the study of genres, authors and movements but it is when talking about politics, such as representations of minorities, that it becomes a really serious problem.

So these two things go hand in hand, the ease by which you can sway people that a certain scene means a certain thing, and the dangers of finding the thing that you are looking for, only because you are looking for it, not because it is necessarily there. I once read an essay that said that all war films have a gay subtext. Yes, that all war films have a gay subtext. One might wonder why stop at war films, why not just say that all films have a gay subtext.

The point is not to stop looking for subtexts. Some go in the opposite direction and denies or ridicules any possible subtext. When Brokeback Mountain (2005) came out many critics said that this was the first western with a gay theme. That is obviously not true, many a western do have a gay subtext. So, we should explore and interpret subtexts, but stay clear of subtext creep. To step back, to calm down, not fall victims to groupthink (it is possible even as a lone person to succumb to a solitary equivalent of groupthink), but instead question what you watch, what you read and what the lecturer tells you. Even if, for example, a particular scene seems to suggest a certain meaning, how does it compare with the rest of the film? And if you always find what you are looking for, do not nod your head and think "Just what I thought!" but shake your head and think "Is this really plausible?"

I sometimes wonder about this obsession with subtexts. For one thing, it seems to me that sometimes what is called subtext might actually be just the text. Some studies of Douglas Sirk's films are examples of this confusion. I think that the hunt for subtexts sometimes stems from a conspiratorial state of mind, and sometimes because of a mistaken belief that it is subtext that makes for artistic and intellectual legitimacy.

2014-10-22 Some grammatical changes have been made.


  1. If I say that I agree with you I swear to you that it is not a matter of groupthink. Instead, it's simply a matter of great minds thinking alike. One thing I have noticed relating to 'subtext creep' is the potential for people to take any particular instance within a film as a universal comment on the subject. By this a man cheating on a woman makes the film a comment on masculinity, or on gender politics, etc. In this case the subtext creep results in 'all possible points of reference' being substituted for the more preferable 'meaningfully contextualized'. This is particularly problematic when the event in question relates subtextuaally to allegory rather than a universal social commentary when the two are directly opposed.

    The confusion of text for subtext has derailed many conversations. Sometimes people are less willing to go into meaningful detail with subtext because it is implicit, so when a matter that they think is subtext seems to be a far more immediate matter of text the conversation stalls over what may very well be an essential part of the film. On the other hand, what I described in the first paragraph is a similar phenomena.

    Another element that must be considered that you hinted at is the effect of the situation on the propensity of subtext creep. If the speaker is respected, like a professor, then subtext creep seems to be a far greater problem. The middle point would probably be an open-minded conversation between two people who respect each other as equals who are willing to put forth great thought and accept sharp disagreement. The opposite point is when a group or individual is hostile to the speaker, at which point almost all suggestions will be rejected outright. There are probably dynamics that vary with group sizes, as well. Perhaps the medium has an effect, as well. I find myself falling prey to subtext creep more from a speaker than from a text. You could try that experiment in your class - find a speech and the transcript of that speech and see which one's influence on subtext creep is more insidious.

    This article examines the wildly varying approaches that criticism took, both across populaces and over time, regarding The Bitter Tears of Petra von Kant:

    It's especially interesting for this topic because the author seems to admit falling victim to 'subtext creep' of differing types over the years, an experienced veteran of different theaters of subtext creep when it comes to the film. Fascinating subject.

  2. Gunnar Bjursell6 May 2011 at 11:02

    One problem I faced during my film studies, was that some professors had a very clear idea about the subtexts in a film and when displaying other, equally relevant, underlying significations, they were more or less reluctant discussing them.
    One could also discuss whether or not there are such a thing as 'meaningfully contextualized' interpretations or subtexts in a film or any other artistical work. It has to be proven what is to be regarded as this and what is not.