Friday, September 08, 2006

An Explosion of Subtext

Many of you know the wonderful Ross Mahler, a guy with two Top Ten Screenplay Favorites on TriggerStreet: the Art of Deception and Erased.

I’ve read both stories. You are immediately impressed by his great grammar, superb formatting, and overall economical writing, particularly with the action lines. However, the thing I like most about Mahler's writings is that he always writes with a good ending in mind. If you are a finalist in a contest and you're going up against Mahler, you'd have good reason to be nervous, because whatever failings he MIGHT have in the telling of his story, he'll make up for it with a great ending that'll likely have a well-planned twist. It's as if he constructs his stories with the ending first and works his way back, which is exactly the way it should be done, because the most important element in a story is the ending. People will forgive a lot of faults if you deliver a great ending. We must not forget that revered Hollywood axiom: "Movies are about their last twenty minutes." Thou shalt save the best for last. In fact, I think it was
McKee who wrote that 75% of your creative labor should go into the final climax. But I always wondered, "why SO MUCH creative labor?" Of course, once you start writing your own stories, you quickly understand why because, as William Goldman wrote in Adventures in the Screen Trade, "Endings, frankly, are a bitch." Oh how true it is…

In any case, when I invited Ross to submit a scene for our study, he sent a a couple. “Just a few off the top of my head,” he said. And then he sent another list of examples. And then another list. The man is a frickin’ subtext-machine. Hehehe

And so I give to you Ross Mahler’s explosion of subtext examples.

Thanks so much, Ross.


Sam: How are the twins?
Jack: Triplets.
Sam: My, how time flies!

I love how the subtext is used in jokes in this film. We immediately know that we are dealing with a society in which everyone pretends to care about each other, but they really only care about themselves.

When Harry Met Sally
I love at the end when Sally is telling Harry, "I hate you," but we know she means the opposite.

The Princess Bride
Although this was actually explained much earlier in the movie (so it might not count as subtext), I love when the grandfather says "As you wish" to his grandson and we know that it means "I love you."


When Inigo throws the Man in Black a rope to help him climb the Cliffs of Insanity AND when he lets him rest before fighting, we know that he wants to fight fairly, that the victory would be meaningless if it were won without some sense of honor. The fact that he fights left-handed and then switches to right-handed says that he has only been toying with him. When The Man in Black also switches to his right hand, we know that Inigo has met his match.

The Godfather
Luca: "Don Corleone, I am honored and grateful that you have invited me to your daughter... 's wedding... on the day of your daughter's wedding." I love the way such a massive man fumbles his speech. We immediately know that Vito is a respected and feared man.

The Godfather, Part 2
When Michael says to his sister Connie, "But if you disobey me, and marry this would disappoint me." Great subtext. The fact that he uses the word disobey, means that he has the power to command her. And when Michael says "you'll disappoint me," we know that he is making a tremendous understatement.


When Michael says to the Senator: "My offer is this. Nothing...not even the thousand dollars for the Gaming Commission, which I'd appreciate if you would put up personally." We know who has the real power in the room.

Schindler's List
Amon’s "I pardon you." When Amon Goeth stands in front of the mirror practicing saying this phrase, he is trying to believe it, and he is also trying to pardon himself.

Schindler: “What if I got here five minutes later? Then where would I be?”

When Schindler says this to Stern after saving him from being accidentally taken to a concentration camp, we realize that it was for selfish reasons (didn't want to lose his accountant) rather than for philanthropic reasons.

Annie Hall
I love the subtext of the 2nd lobster scene in Annie Hall where it becomes obvious that Alvy is trying to recreate the chemistry he had with Annie in an earlier lobster scene, but there's no chemistry at all with the new date.

Apocalypse Now
This is really a combination of subtext and great characterization when Robert Duvall's character (Kilgore) doesn't even flinch when a large explosion goes off behind him. That speaks volumes.

When Brody (Roy Scheider) eats breakfast with his son and the little boy emulates every move he makes, you just know he admires his dad and wants to be just like him. What's great about that scene is that it wasn't in the script at all. Roy Scheider noticed the little boy mimicking him and asked the cameraman to film it.

In the first Batman when Michael Keaton says "I'm Batman" to himself as practice, we understand that he wants to tell Kim Basinger his real identity but can't.

Citizen Kane
When Kane says, "You're right. We did lose a million dollars last year. We expect to lose a million next year, too. You know, Mr. Thatcher - at the rate of a million a year - we'll have to close this place ... in sixty years." What a great way to illustrate both Kane's attitude and his wealth all in one speech.

A Clockwork Orange
When Alex sings "Singing in the Rain" while beating someone senseless, it speaks volumes about his attitude and that he takes nothing seriously, gives no thought to the consequences of his actions.

Razor's Edge
When Larry (Bill Murray) says "He will not be missed," about the death of his comrade, Piedmont, we know that this is his way of digesting the man's death and in some strange way honoring Piedmont who used to use that exact expression whenever anyone died.

Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
When Indy's father tells his young son to count to twenty in Greek, we understand that Indy is impetuous, but we also understand that his father has been teaching him for many years and that Indy has been bred to be a person who has an appreciation for the past.

Jurassic Park
When Gennaro, the lawyer, says "We're going to make a fortune," and abandons all his talk of caution, we understand that greed for money or discovery will be the downfall of this project.

I also, like the subtleties of subtext in Jurassic Park. When the automated car doesn't work, and when Henry (in the lab) erases some notes he's making, it all underlines the theme, "Humans are fallible."

There are also those great instances when the humans don't act as the engineers of the attractions predicted (leaving the car, forcing their way off the automated ride, Nedry leaving), which underlines the other theme of unpredictability and chaos theory.

Pirates of the Caribbean
When Will accuses Jack of cheating and Jack just says "Pirate," we know that it means "What did you expect?"

The Empire Strikes Back
When Princess Laia tells Han Solo she loves him and he says "I know," we understand that he needs to have the upper hand, even in his moment of what seems like certain death.

When Mal (Danny Glover) says "I don't want to kill you, and you don't want to be dead." The subtext is, "There's no chance of you killing me. It's not even remotely possible, so give up."

Broadcast News
When Aaron (Albert Brooks) says to Jane (Holly Hunter), "Ok, I'll meet you at the place near the thing where we went that time." We immediately understand that they have such a history together, have worked so closely together, that they can speak in this shorthand and understand each other exactly.


MaryAn Batchellor said...

I don't know that I would agree with all of these examples, but I am soooooo enjoying these posts!

miriamp said...

You've got some of my favorite movies in here. The Princess Bride. There are layers within layers in that movie. One of my favorite lines is, "I swear it shall be done."

Robert Duvall was completely crazy in Apocalypse Now. Actually everybody was completely crazy in that movie: symptom of war, I guess.

When I was in high school my group of friends all read and watched A Clockwork Orange and we talked to each other in "droog-speak." Last year I caught my son and his friends doing the same thing. Classics never die.

mspira said...

A little bit of the old ultra-violence...

rmahler said...

Appy polly loggies -- that was always my favorite. I had no idea what it meant till I read the book.

Mystery Man said...

Maryan - thank you!

Miriam - you're the coolest mom EVER. I wasn't allowed to watch R-rated movies until I was 17. Hell, I moved out just so I would start watching cool movies.

Matt - nobody has the courage to make great films like that anymore.

Ross - Apocalypse Now, great choice. It's a masterpiece, no doubt about it. Duvall stole the show, too. I loved all of Kilgore's obsessive talk about surfing in the midst of this battle. Or when he said, after saying famously talking about smell of napalm in the morning: "One day, this war's gonna be over," and then he frowns sadly and walks away. It's a statement of fact. And at the same time, it's an admission of disappointment. What a great moment. In Coppola's Redux, I think the weakest addition was the visit to the French plantation. It was masterfully filmed, but it was too long and all of the political dialogue was too on-the-nose. All of the points Coppola wanted to make in this film about Vietnam did not need to be verbalized like it was at the French plantation. That was a good cut, and it doesn't belong in the film.

rmahler said...

If any of you are Apocalypse Now fans and you haven't seen Hearts of Darkness, you must check it out. It's a great documentary about the making of Apocalypse Now that is every bit as intriguing as the movie itself. So many interesting things happening during the filming that it was truly a mysterious adventure upriver as they were creating it. Coppola still had no idea how it would end, had no idea that Brando would be as huge as he was. They used Phillipino army helicopters udring that shoot that would occasionally have to leave in the middle of a shot to go fight some guerilla outbreak nearby. Martin Sheen had a heart attack and a bit of a breakdown. It was really an adventure and it made for a great documentary.

Mystery Man said...

Oh, yes, the documentary is CLASSIC. There is also a brilliant article written by Darren Harber, "Deconstructing Francis: Apocalypse Now and the End of the '70's," which is honestly the best thing I've ever read on Coppola's movie.

(Found here:

In it, he writes:

"Willard dreams of grand destruction, choppers and exploding jungles, visions which appear to drive him to madness, to the smashing of his own reflection. This is a nightly ritual, or an oft-repeated one (he has, we assume, indulgent neighbors). And yet he always awakes, sober, to sunlight, stewing in this memory of madness, fading fast, though this madness awaits him at the end of the day when darkness flares, a vicious cycle of anguish that never ends. In this sense, he is rather like Kierkegaard’s "Unhappiest Man," a man metaphysically displaced, removed from time, whose visions of the future echo the horror of the past … a man who anticipates the future yet whose future has become this enervating present. Thus dreaming of the future is futile, and instead of hope he sees more disappointment, this eternal anxiety."

And also about Coppola:

"In this light, Coppola’s sin seems forgivable. His arrogance and cruelty still pluck when we read of it, but it did come back to haunt him. Apocalypse Now was a game he lost from the start, the deck so loaded against him. He played but he didn’t play because it was a rigged game, a virtual game with (demonically) real consequences. He lost his voice, his vision … in other words, everything, the worst possible punishment for the audacious spellbinder. (He certainly landed on the wrong side of the laugh.) Now, of course, he directs adaptations of John Grisham novels, his ambition all but emaciated."

Anonymous said...

This guy clearly does not know what SUBtext is. Thats Film 101, dude. Every example you gave was CONtext, man.

Crumbs said...

I think the best one is the one you missed. This excerpt reveals everything there is to know about Forrest Gump, his mother and their relationship. Forrest has just overheard Mrs. Gump telling his principal that his father's "on vacation".

Mama. What's vacation?

Vacation's when you go somewhere... and you never come back.