Thursday, May 9, 2013

Perils of the Writer: Getting Lost in the Subtext

I recently saw the movie Room 237, which is advertised as a look at the symbolism and hidden messages in Kubrick's The Shining.  But what it really is, in my opinion, is a look at seeking hidden messages and symbolism to an absurd degree, filtered through The Shining as an example.  The Shining is an excellent vehicle to use for such a thing, since it's filled with lush visuals, and Stanley Kubrick had such a monstrous reputation as a perfectionist.  No one would put the same level of hyperanalysis on, say, Michael Bay's Armageddon.  What for any other filmmaker would just be considered a continuity error or a happy accident of framing, for Kubrick the presumption is he did it on purpose because he had a message.

Now, I've talked about clarity in writing, but regardless how clear you make things, there will be subtext to be found.  It's inevitable, unless your writing is completely devoid of value.  Of course, part of that is because we're almost conditioned to look for it, as part of education.

Case in point: probably my favorite "had to read in high school" books was Lord of the Flies.  Of the things we were assigned back then it's one of the few that I've gone back and read again just because I wanted to.  And because it was a read-for-high-school book, we unpacked loads of subtext.  For example, there's the sexual imagery/loss of innocence in the first pig hunt; the id/ego/superego analysis of Jack, Ralph and Piggy; Simon-as-Christ imagery. It's loaded with it.  Were all those Golding's intent?  Maybe, I don't know.  Maybe it's really just about boys going crazy on an island because nothing is stopping them. 

But here's the thing, and it's certainly the lesson to take away from Room 237: the analysis of hidden meanings and symbols has far more to do with the analyst* than the artist. 

Unless you are one of those deliberate decide-my-subtext-first-and-write-to-it people.  Then you're just messing with them

*- Of all the crackpottery on display in Room 237, I have some real affection for the guy whose core theory is, "The Shining is Kubrick's message of his own feelings of madness and alienation due to his role in faking the moon landing".  Because, really, Danny's sweater alone is enough to feed that guy.


Unknown said...

I agree that analysis can go over the top. And, I think all good and great writers/film makers/artists have subtext seeping into their work; some they are aware of and plan, and some slips in unaware revealing something about the writer or her subject.

I haven't read the book, so I was wanting examples from the text and your take on them.

Michael Caton said...

It's always interesting to see people's motivations for tending more to ascribe everything to intention, or to accident. Of course the same applies in life in general. I have no idea if the following is received wisdom
in Shakespeare criticism, but I once had a lit professor tell me that in Julius Caesar, the chimney, toga pocket, and book in one scene were all anachronisms. No they're not goofball. They were almost certainly mistakes, since Shakespeare wasn't an archaeologist and didn't realize that they didn't have those things in Rome. I think writers (and directors) just build up a reputation for having hidden messages, and then they let their fans do their work for them. (See Pink Floyd and James Joyce.) That said the movie looks like fun. The Kubrick equivalent to "Trekkies".

Andrew McAtee said...

I like the idea of subtext, and I have always found it interesting. I am having fun sprinkling it into the book, and it is always cool when the writer creates it without knowing, it feels pretty awesome to hear a beta reader say they found something you didn't put in. However I know all about over doing it. I had one teacher in high school that was asking the class why the author choose to make someones eyes the color blue, or why there were cricket sounds at night. There is not hidden meaning in everything, but that teacher thought there was.