Saturday, September 09, 2006

Subtext - Birth

A few months ago, I noticed a bunch of chatter amongst the film scholars about an “unjustly overlooked film,” Birth. First, there was Jim Emerson’s Birth of a Bunuelian Notion, Dennis Cozzalio’s Mystery of Birth, and also Robert Cumbow's dissection of the film, which even now is the best analysis I’ve read about any movie in a long, long time.

So, of course, I had to buy it.

Birth was a cold & creepy film. And yet, the craftsmanship was absolutely impeccable. It opened with a black screen, and we hear the disembodied voice of a man finishing his lecture.

His name’s Sean.


Okay... If I lost my wife and, uh,
the next day, a little bird landed
on my windowsill, looked me right
in the eye, and in plain English
said, ‘Sean, it’s me, Anna. I’m
back …’ What could I say? I guess
I’d believe her. Or I’d want to.
I’d be stuck with a bird. But other
than that, no. I’m a man of
science. I just don’t believe that
mumbo-jumbo. Now, that’s gonna have
to be the last question. I need to
go running before I head home.



What follows is a long two-minute elevated tracking shot of Sean (from behind him) running through the snow in Central Park. We never see his face. It's downright Kubrickian in its execution. Beautiful. As Sean moves along this path, dogs cross in front of him, which almost interrupts his solitude, and then the path changes. The banks rise up with rocky protrusions on both sides as he heads into a dark tunnel. Dennis Cozzalio observed how the banks and the tunnel had an almost vaginal quality to it as if Sean was going back into the womb. I thought, “you film scholars have way too much time on your hands.”

Then I watched the film, and OH MY GOD, he’s right.

Because… after Sean enters the “womb” of the dark tunnel, he has a heart-attack and dies. Then they cut to the birth of a new baby boy, which gets lifted out of a tub of water, the umbilical cord still attached. The death of a male in one womb, the birth of another.

SUPER: “Ten Years Later”

We’re introduced to Anna (played by Nicole Kidman) who’s engaged to Joseph. There’s also Laura, Anna’s sister, and Bob, her husband. The matriarch of the group, Eleanor, is played by Lauren Bacall. A ten-year old boy shows up. He demands to talk to Anna. They go into the kitchen. The boy tells her that HE is Sean, her dead husband.

Hmm, isn’t that strange. Not only that, he tells her that he doesn’t want her to marry Joseph. Hmm, even stranger. They laugh it off at first. He won’t go away. So they start asking questions. They cannot stump him. He knows things no boy should know.

Is it a trick? A scam? Is the boy possessed by Sean’s dead spirit? Is this a movie about reincarnation?

It’s none of those things.

I won’t give it away. It’s a good mystery that you may not be able to decode on a first viewing. But if you’re curious, read Robert Cumbow’s
sensational analysis. He’s absolutely correct, especially when you watch Anna explain to Clifford (Sean’s brother) the situation with the young boy. And the way she said, “He collapsed and then it hit me.”

However, there is a wide-variety of subtext that Emerson, Cozzalio, and even Cumbow missed, subtext that only us screenwriters studying subtext would notice:

- The way Laura tells Bob to “carve the turkey.” (Bob was the first man sent in to interview Young Sean and prove him to be a liar).

- Mrs. Hill suddenly announcing to Eleanor that Anna’s picked a wedding date, which was something Anna wanted to tell her. That was significant about Mrs. Hill’s character. (Young Sean remembered Mrs. Hill because she told Anna there’s no Santa Claus.)

- Clara (Anne Heche) saying to Young Sean, after he opens the door and meets her for the first time, “Look how dirty my hands are.” (She was having an affair with Sean right up until his death.)

“You’re hurting me… I don’t want you to bother me again.”

The biggest piece of subtext came from Anna herself when she and Joseph spoke to the boy's father, Mr. Conte, and confronted Young Sean about his behavior.


(to Young Sean)
I want you to tell her right now
that you’ll never see her or bother
her again.

I can’t.

Tell her you’ll never see her or
bother her again.



Do it.


Tell her, Sean.

I can’t.

Why did you write this?

Why did you go into her house?

I needed to talk to her.

Well, I want you to tell her right
now that you’ll never see her or
bother her again.


Sean, tell her.


You’re hurting me.

Sean, tell her you’ll never see
her or bother her again.

I can’t.

Do you understand that?

(whispers to Young Sean)
Say it.

I can’t.

Anna leans in, gets in Sean’s face.

I don’t want you to bother me again.

We’re gonna be late. Thank you.

Joseph and Anna head for the elevator.


The very next scene is that famous long take of Kidman, all distracted as she tries to watch an opera but can’t take her mind off of Sean. Of this moment, Cumbow wrote,

“…Anna remains shaken by the boy’s collapse. The music continues, only now it is diegetic music, for they are actually at the opera and as they take their seats the camera is in on Anna as she looks at … what? Not the stage, though in its direction. Twice Joseph leans in, slightly out of focus, to whisper something to her. We are fixed on her, and we detect a range of thoughts and emotions running through her … a hint of tears … real fear … and something like resignation … her eyes close as we arrive at the moment where the curtain would rise … and the shot - and scene - end.”

Back to the hallway. I count three levels of subtext within Anna’s lines of “You’re hurting me” & “I don’t want you to bother me again.” On one level, she’s telling a little boy to quit bothering her. On another level, she is also trying to drive away her own personal demons. And on a third level, Anna is reliving a moment in the past.

This story was not simply a matter of grief and obsession on the part of Anna or about her not being able to let Sean go. This was also about the enormous weight of guilt she still felt over the final words they said to each other before he died. THAT is why Sean collapsed in the hallway. And THAT is why there was that sensational long take on Anna in the theatre in the following scene.

All you film scholars out there, say “hello” to Mystery Man.

Hear me roar.



Anonymous said...

Some interesting info gleaned from the above source:

It grossed just under $24 million world wide, with the domestic/international split being 5/19.

Boxofficemojo readers (160 votes) graded it a C+.

Not that either of the two above point have any particular relevance to a discussion about subtext. In fact, I don't really know what point I'm trying to make. (I obviously have a motivated self-interest in the question of understanding what English language films do well internationally, and why.)

As another possibly random comment, in my day job I'm tutoring two 8th grade students who are preparing to take the entrance test for the best high school in South Korea. (The Korean Minjok Leadership Academy.) We going over essays they've written line by line, word by word, punctuation by punctuation. I'm actually using things from this blog to encourage them to think about how to add "depth and resonance" to their writing.

Mystery Man said...

That is VERY cool about the tutoring! 20 years from now when those kids grow up and make beautiful films full of subtext that's kicks our U.S. asses, we'll know who to blame. Hehehe...

I've been greatly affected by our study on subtext, no question about it. I'm no longer happy unless what I'm writing has subtext...

Birth - it surprises me to read that they made THAT much money. This movie never got a wide release in the U.S., which was a shame. I don't know the entire history about the production, but I think it got shoved underground because of a scandalous pre-buzz rumor, which upset a lot of people, about a scene in the movie involving Kidman in a bathtub with this-year-old boy. And yes, it's true. There is a scene like that in the film. In the context of the story, it makes sense. The boy thinks he's Sean and he wants to be with his wife. Anna still wants to be with Sean. This was just another creepy layer of a very creepy story. It had its place. However, it was a very big tub, they never once touched each other, and they never did anything.

Ebert gave it 3 1/2 stars. I suspect that this may be the kind of movie that only students of film would really appreciate.


Anonymous said...

They probably shot it so that the kid wasn't in the tub with Nicole when she had no clothes on.

Now I'll have to make sure to watch that scene.

That's kind of strange, considering that at 12 Jodie Foster was shot in a way to make it look like she was getting ready to give Robert DeNiro a blow job in Taxi Driver.

Mystery Man said...

Oh no, the kid was definitely in the tub. I had forgotten about Taxi Driver. I love it when you talk about sex. Hehehe...

Mystery Man said...

In a recent discussion about this movie, Miriam brought up some beautiful insights I don't think anyone else will notice.

"'Look at how dirty my hands are' is probably the best line of the whole film.

I think the reason it seemed so cold is because of how the camera was used. I noticed the same thing in The Royal Tennenbaums. The drama of each scene was diluted because the shots were long and the camera didn't move. Of course, choosing to discuss 'how will you satisfy me?' rather than having him woo her all over again also had something to do with it, but I think the choice to have a static camera with long shots also contributed...

My impression of Anna was that she has underlying masochistic tendencies. She lets her lover hold her down during sex, she goes back to him after he exhibits out-of-control anger, and even her conversation with young Sean demonstrates that there was some weird dynamic in her previous relationship. Did he treat her like this when they were married? The only thing we know of the original Sean's personality is his voice over at the beginning and the way young Sean acts. And yet she does fall in love with him again."

Great, Miriam!