Whatever Happened to Our Sense of Subtext?

Posted: 11 May, 2011 in Rants, Reviews
Tags: , , , , , , , ,

Shuffle says “I know His Blood Can Make Me Whole”  Blind Willie Johnson The Complete Blind Willie Johnson

Last week I finished watching the third season of Deadwood and was recently ruminating on one of the last images from the final episode.  I cannot recall what was taking place in the thoroughfare, but as usual Al Swearington, the violent crime boss – who at the outset of season one ruled the camp of Deadwood unquestionably with and iron fist and a steel knife -, was watching from his usual perch, the balcony outside his office at the Gem Saloon/brothel, taking in all that transpires.  Across the street stands George Hearst (the mining/media mogul and founder of the Hearst empire) , on the awning of the hotel – which he bought with force from Swearington’s lackey – in front of the hole he made in wall so he could stand outside on the upper level.  There’s a great shot where the two of them are looking over the chaos of the streets.  In the background, out of focus,  is the makeshift market constructed of mostly thin pines and canvass, pieces of ‘Chink Alley’ spilling over; a picture of Deadwood’s origins.  In the foreground is the newly built schoolhouse and the recently opened theatre, occupying the space that was once a brothel.  Swearington’s body is turned forward, but he looks to the side, his eyes briefly grazing over what is behind him.  Directly opposite him, Hurst looks toward the theatre with disgust.

It is a truly beautiful and couldn’t better capture everything it’s creator, David Milch, has tried to say over the past three seasons.  It is the story of social progress, from a very Hobbesian perspective and anyone with the intelligence to follow the show could not possibly miss out on that, especially with images like the one just described. Though Milch never strikes you over the head too hard with it.  The shot is so fucking brief, the story so complex, the characters so rich, and the dialogue so beautiful – you’d forget words ‘cunt’ and ‘cocksucker’ were anything short of the poetry of Poe or Byron – that the message just sits there unassuming.  It is about how we were born out of chaos and violence, dominated by the strong; the meek desperately seeking the order of society, but while the constraints of society may give us the order we seek, it is even more corrupt than the chaos and the violence is only formalized (which of course appeals to the anarchist in me).

The point is no one ever says anything remotely similar to the previous paragraph.  They never discuss philosophy on any level.  Mostly because every character is only interested in surviving or making money (sometimes getting laid).   I kept thinking on those two characters, their duality, how both of them where real living, breathing people some century and a half ago and all that each represented about the birth of America as we know it, as well as the longer journey of social order.  I started comparing to them to the other great pairs of the stage, the page, and the screen and it struck me that this sort of hidden depth is very much on the way out.

I looked and that image and thought “wow that shot has some fuckin subtext”, and the first thing that actually came to mind was a moment from Community. Jeff is trying to decide between two women who both claim to love him and he tries to hash it out saying “Slater makes me feel like the guy I want to be…and Brita makes me feel like the guy I really am”. If I had written something like this in college as a short story, my professor (a bald old South African man who looks a bit like a 5’5” white version of Yoda) would have smacked me upside the head and told me my characters need to stop speaking their subtext and show it with their actions.  But I won’t chastise Dan Harmon for this.  It is the nature of Community, as personified by the character Ahbed, to be all post-modern/metatastic and sitcoms are often to busy trying to get as many laughs to fit into twenty-two minutes and keep up ratings to even attempt to land a ‘deeper message’ . I just feel this is the direction our media is taking.

Complete lack of subtlety is becoming a comedic art form (see the famous line from Dr. Horrible’s Sing Along Blog time stamp 3:50).  Dave Eggers mockingly flaunts the use of use of symbols or metaphors in the first few pages his novel A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius, where he explicitly lists potential devices [if you want to read them that way] (something to that effect).  I never lived in other times, so I don’t know how they actually spoke, but it does seem to me, more and more, people are speaking their subtext too, or at least, ironically, what they think their subtext is.

I honestly don’t know what point I might be trying to make. This has just been in my head lately(along with the latest single from Flogging Molly and Lady Gaga; “Don’t Shut ‘Em Down” and “Judas” respectively).

I’m sure some people reading this will object and will start making cases for contemporary movies and books that they feel do this and I’m sure they could make at least a decent argument. I’m not saying that it doesn’t exist anymore. The example of Deadwood was from 2006 and what I’m talking about is on a grander scale than just a single example and what’s more, these sorts of things really can’t be backed up.

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