Tuesday, August 01, 2006

Subtext – Ordinary People

This next selection is from Pat (aka "GimmeABreak" on TriggerStreet) a person I genuinely admire. Pat’s a thorough script reviewer and a tireless, fearless writer, one who isn’t afraid to tackle modern interpretations of (simple little stories like) HAMLET.

Recently, to Pat’s great credit, My Friend Gerald shot up through the ranks to TriggerStreet’s Top Ten Favorite's List (ranked, of course, by other reviewers on the site). My Friend Gerald is about “a British nobleman with artistic aspirations (who) battles depression, tradition, and his mother's Victorian influences as he tries to find acceptance amongst the world's creative elite.”

Here’s Pat’s contribution:

My selection: the final two scenes from Ordinary People where Donald Sutherland (Calvin) has finally figured out that Timothy Hutton (Conrad) is right about Mary Tyler Moore (Beth). I watched this movie again last week and took notes because my current project has a character very much like MTM's Beth. Almost the entire movie, with the exceptions of a few scenes in the psychiatrist's office, is a study of people never saying what they mean. Real feelings/meanings are conveyed by body language, gestures, nervous tics, facial expressions, what is omitted instead of what is said.

What an amazing piece of work - I hated it the first time I saw it but really appreciate it now. I also bought the book to see how the novel compared to the movie but I haven't had time to read it yet.

It's early morning, Beth notices Cal isn't in bed. She finds him downstairs at the dining room table, crying.

Calvin? Why are you crying?
Can I. Uh... Can I get you something?

I don't...

What did you say? Calvin. What did you say?

He sighs.

Tell me.

You are beautiful... And you are unpredictable.
But you're so cautious. You're determined, Beth...
but you know something? You're not strong.
I don't know if you're really giving.
Tell me something. Do you love me?
Do you really love me?

I feel the way I've always felt about you.

We would've been all right...
if there hadn't been any mess.
But you can't handle mess.
You need everything neat and easy.
I don't know. Maybe you can't love anybody.
It was so much Buck. It's as if you buried
all your love with him. I don't understand that.
Maybe it wasn't even Buck. Maybe it was just you.
Maybe, finally, it was the best of you that you buried.
But whatever it was... I don't know who you are.
I don't know what we've been playing at.
So I was crying. Because I don't know
if I love you anymore. And I don't know
what I'll do without that.

Beth looks at Cal, unable to speak. Her stony facade barely cracked, she turns, walks up the stairs and packs her bags.

Con hears the front door slam and finds his father sitting outside, in his pajamas, in freezing temperatures.


The yard looks smaller without leaves.

Dad. What happened?

Your mother's going away for a while.

Where? Why?

Back to Houston. I don't know.

Why? What... I know why. It's me. Isn't it?


It's my fault.

Don't do that to yourself! It's nobody's fault!
Things happen. People don't always have answers.
I don't know why I'm yelling at you.

You should do that more often.
Haul my ass a little. Get after me.
Like you did for him.

He needed it. You didn't.
You were always so hard on yourself.
I never had the heart.

Oh. Dad. Don't.

Well. It's the truth. I never worried about you.
I just wasn't listening.

I wasn't sending many signals then.
You couldn't do anything.

I should've got a handle on it somehow.

I used to figure you had a handle for everything.
You knew it all. You always made us feel
everything would be all right. I've thought about that
a lot lately. I really admire you for it.

Don't admire people too much.
They'll disappoint you sometimes.

I'm not disappointed. I love you.

I love you, too.


mernitman said...

All I can tell you is that this film -- and this writing -- is so powerful that even reading that scene once more (which I'm way familiar with; I teach scenes from this movie in two of my courses) made me cry AGAIN.

I think it's the rawness of emotion in all of the characters (even Beth) and the notion that THE TRUTH is finally being spoken, regardless of consequence...

(You might want to mention the writer -- Alvin Sargent -- who at the ripe old age of 75 is Hollywood's fair-haired boy, having penned SPIDERMAN 2)...

Mickey Lee said...

I haven't seen the movie (I know, kill me) but from what I'm reading here, it almost seems like these scenes represent the release AFTER all the subtext, where the characters finally lay their cards on the table and don't hold back their punches. But like I said, I'd have to see the movie to be sure.

GimmeABreak said...

For those unfamiliar with the movie -

Beth can't admit to anyone, herself included, that she preferred her dead son Buck to her living one, Conrad, and that she blames Conrad for Buck's death.

She can't acknowledge the emotion of love, maybe she can't even feel it. Cal's dialog sounds like pretty straight-forward stuff but what he's really saying is:

"Beth, you're a fucking cold-hearted bitch who lives in this little fantasy world where you can control everyone and everything. When someone drags you, kicking and screaming, into reality, you can't cope. You bury yourself under minutae, you shove any feelings you really have into a box in the back of the closet and you take out your passive-aggressive frustrations on me and the boy. Sure, I was ok with the fantasy world, too, because it's easier than dealing with what's staring you in the face but the truth of the matter is I'm sick of your shit and I'm sick of being such a pussy that I couldn't or wouldn't stand up to you. Because of your complete lack of empathy and compassion and my failure to act like a man and recognize you for the controlling manipulating harpy you really are, we almost lost our other son. He's the only strong one in this family, the only one with guts."

Then Beth, staying true to the course, runs away again (physically instead of just emotionally).

Unfortunately, to know the subtext, you'd have to have seen everything that lead up to those scenes.

Mystery Man said...

If we're making Billy Mernit cry, we MUST be doing something right! You're absolutely right, too, in that I should mention the screenwriters.

Gimmeabreak, extremely powerful comment. Thank you for that. Kubrick was fond of saying that truth is "multifaceted" and even in moments of revelation at the end where truth being spoken, there can be many facets to that truth. A character can be saying verbally "I now realize this about you," when in fact, the character is also saying (without saying it), "I realize this about myself, too, and I will not be this way anymore."

wcdixon said...

I suppose I see gimme and MM's points about some form of subtext here...but I'm inclined to agree with mickey and see these scenes more as the cards on the table 'release' after the earlier subtext in the film - and a great film it is/was....

Mystery Man said...

Hehehe… I’m convinced that the fates have aligned just to convince wcdixon of the value of subtext.

Let me tell you, the vast majority of amateur scripts is full of characters saying exactly what they are thinking and feeling for 120 pages. What really lights my fire is when a writer has gone to the trouble of offering up something more than what a character is actually saying. A character is saying one thing but really means something else because he or she wants to accomplish X. Or they aren’t saying what they want to say because of X problem. I don’t want to give the wrong impression with these studies. Of course, not every line should be full of so much double meaning that your head is spinning before you even get to the act one climax. No, but subtext is the icing on the cake in the best scenes. It’s what turns a good scene into a great scene.

My definition is probably looser than most when it comes to subtext in dialogue. I’m happy so long as characters aren’t always saying exactly what they are thinking or feeling. And I think one of the lessons we have here with these scenes in Ordinary People, is that in the end when truth is revealed, good writers have the discipline to not make the characters verbalize EVERYTHING they are thinking and feeling. By saying “I now realize these things about you” a character is also speaking volumes about himself or herself, which does not always need to be verbalized in your script. It’s like what Billy Wilder said, when you write you say “2+2=” and you let the audience figure out the rest. I believe the audience will appreciate your story more because by not saying everything, you placed faith in them to figure it out. And it’s a more enjoyable experience, because subtext is what sucks them in and makes them involved in the interaction, wondering and guessing what’s really going on, and they will be more satisfied because they come to their own conclusions.

Guys, there’s still some more subtext here. Consider Beth’s line, “I feel the way I’ve always felt about you.” What’s really going on there?

miriamp said...

"I feel the way I've always felt about you" is a very powerful line. It's such a cop-out. And it's the answer to Cal's interior rant that Pat interpreted so well.

It's Beth saying, "You're wrong. I'm not a cold-hearted bitch. It's just that I've buried my feelings and turned away from emotions for so long that they no longer warm my heart."

Mickey Lee said...

Consider Beth’s line, “I feel the way I’ve always felt about you.” What’s really going on there?

That's the only line that truly rung as subtextual to me -- and it very much stood out.

I know "Ordinary People" is an exercise in subtext -- not because I've seen the movie, but because I've read so many excerpts from the movie in different screenwriting books. My position is merely that perhaps these two scenes are not the strongest examples of the subtext found in the film.

Crossword said...

Consider Beth’s line, “I feel the way I’ve always felt about you.” What’s really going on there?

Isn't this more an example of dramatic irony?

It reminds me very much of the dialogue in "Amadeus" (1984) when Salieri asks Mozart what he thought of his little composition and is told (paraphrasing here) that "only you could have written something like that".

wcdixon said...

MM: okay I admit you've got me 'thinking' about subtext a bit more...or at least trying to wrap my head around it in some kind of clear concise way. And from the comments, there doesn't seem to be anything unanimous yet(and please don't say "to each their own" or 'it's subjective' - won't buy it...)

Hmmm...what other shit can I stir up...lol

Mystery Man said...

CROSSOWORD, Oooo... I like it! Can you elaborate for me though?

Hey, I could be wrong, but it seemed to me that there was some subtext in her line because it feels like she's being, I don't know, coy. She knows what's being asked of her, and she's being honest in a weird way by basically saying that "the love you've been getting from me is all the love I feel for you" but yet she's hiding truth from him. Is she just not willing to love him anymore? Has she lost the ability to love at all? Is she not willing to admit or even examine her own problems? Why won't she be completely honest with him about what's going on?

Why are all my new friends telling me about Amadeus? (Is that you, Lori?) A couple weekends ago, I ran out of time to see it like I had planned, then I couldn't find it anywhere, and then I had to order it online, and I'm finally hoping to watch Amadeus this weekend. And by God, if there's a drop of subtext in it, I'm blogging about it. :)

WCDIXON, I'm SO tempted to say that "ya know, it's very subjective" and "to each their own" just for my own amusement but I will refrain! Like the pic! Oddly enough, that's exactly what I thought you looked like. Hehehe...

crossword said...

Sure thing. Sorry, I didn't mean to clutter Gimme's topic with another... however, since you ask :)

To elaborate, I very much believe the line she utters is subtext. However, the intent is to raise anticipation about what is going to happen later. We (the viewer) know exactly what Beth is really saying (at least I think so). Like Mozart, it's a reflexive piece of dialogue intended to say something without really saying anything terribly revealing. Almost like a private joke, but also trying perhaps to be avoid lying without really telling the truth.

You're aboslutely right MM in that the subtext is something like ""the love you've been getting from me is all the love I feel for you". She's probably unable to give any more than that, and isn't going to apologize for feeling that way, yet scared that she may be found out and hurt him.

Why would she be like that? Hell, people are strange. I dated a woman years ago, ten years my junior, who was exactly like that (in her case, she had been abused as a child, and simply wasn't wired in such a way as so-called "normal" people). There are probably other reasons, but all I can say is you have to be super patient and understanding to stand a chance of making that kind of relationship work.

Mystery Man said...

"However, the intent is to raise anticipation about what is going to happen later." Good comment.

I started to think along those lines this evening, because it seems that her weird response reveals that she's not inclined to put forth the effort to actually say the words to him, "I do love you," which in and of itself is heartbreaking, because it means that she really doesn't love him anymore, that she doesn't care what happens to her marriage, and left it up to him to decide whether the family should break up or not.

Geez, I think I'm gonna cry.

crossword said...

...not inclined to put forth the effort to actually say the words to him, "I do love you".

Reminds me of Gimme's "Gerald" :)

I tried looking for "Ordinary People" tonight, but I'm guessing it's now so old the stores don't carry it. Thank God for Amazon. I was only 17 or so when that came out, and I remember not liking it (four Academy Awards! Huh!). But like other things in life, they're actually best appreciated much later.

Peter Sellers came out with his "Being There" around that time, and I didn't like that either. However, now much older & wiser, I think very differently :)

Mickey Lee said...

Know what you mean, Crossword. I've avoided the movie for years, just because I can't believe anything could've won best picture over "Raging Bull." But I definitely have it on my "Must See" list, along with "Amadeus."

GimmeABreak said...

From MM: I started to think along those lines this evening, because it seems that her weird response reveals that she's not inclined to put forth the effort to actually say the words to him, "I do love you," which in and of itself is heartbreaking, because it means that she really doesn't love him anymore, that she doesn't care what happens to her marriage, and left it up to him to decide whether the family should break up or not."

I don't know that it's a matter of not inclined as much as not being able. She probably feels something for him - the same something she felt when they got married - but she can't call it "love" because she doesn't know what "love" is. Re: breaking up the marriage, she made the decision when she got in the taxi without another word to him, IMO.

A personal reveal here - my mother and I are very close, friends as well as mother and daughter, but the word "love" has never passed between us. In this case, unlike MTM's Beth, it's not because my mother doesn't know what love is but, instead, is a result of her strict religious upbringing where love was neither something to be publicly displayed or a topic of conversation. I supposed that's one of the reasons these scenes resonated so strongly.

Mystery Man said...

Oh geez, now I really AM crying. And I'm usually kinda macho...

Thank you, Pat. I really mean that.

crossword said...

Mickey, hopefully you and MM will get to see "Amadeus" before long.

Also, a big DoH!... I have yet to see "Raging Bull"...

In the continuing Personal Reveal Dept., I have to say I totally understand Gimme's comment... I have the same with my father, though not because of religion. I don't think these dynamics are necessarily unique, hence the somewhat universal "resonate" factor... adds a lot of texture to the emotional impact of these stories.