Hiding in Plain Sight: The Importance of Subtext in Media

So often when we sit down to take in a movie, game, or other creative work, our role as the audience is a passive one. Sure, we have to keep up with the story and manage all the characters and relationships in our head, or go through the task of jumping, puzzling, and playing through the tasks given to us by the designers and programmers, but very rarely are we mentally or philosophically challenged by a work. It’s an experience we have simply for joy or catharsis, and there’s nothing wrong with that. I’ve played my fair share of button-mashers and games that are only mathematical rigors, and enjoyed plenty of schlock action movies and cheesy romances with no deeper subplots. You need your desserts as much as you need your fine dining! But when a work can hit both strings – be as fun to play or as action-packed as it is spiritually stimulating – you really have to give it credit. So this week I want to talk about three recent adventures I had, and how each of them brought me to a brave new definition of Art.

Oh, and of course, *SPOILERS AHEAD FOR EACH OF THESE!*

Guardians of the Galaxy: Volume 2

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As much as I truly loved the latest Guardians movie, and I really think it’s one of Marvel’s best movies to date out of an already fantastic roster, it’s also a great poster child for defining art via subtext. It may not reach the fullest heights of that definition, but it’s the perfect place for us to start on our journey.

The movie has its primary layer: Quill, Drax, Gamora, Rocket and Groot are out in another interstellar adventure, when they happen upon Peter’s dad, Ego. Turns out he’s kind of maniacal (he wants to make all of the universe part of himself, because he’s basically a god and it’s lonely at the top), so they have to kill him by destroying his planet-brain. Simple enough. But surrounding that, we have plenty of other sub-stories: Yondu’s falling out with Starhawk, his Ravager mentor; Drax’s reminiscing about his lost wife and children; the battle and revealed misunderstanding between Gamora and Nebula; Peter reuniting with his father; Peter coming to terms with being raised by Yondu… There are all these other subtextual narratives that focus on one point: family. 

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So while Guardians 2 may, on its face, be a wild and hilarious space romp, it has the heart of a generational narrative. Every story spins out about some level of familial relationship. Gunn is constantly asking the viewer, “What does it mean to be a family? How do we create families?”

This is a liberty granted to the film by its self-assurance. It trusts its audience to be along for the weirdness and the action, so instead of wasting time playing up on that, it drills down to tell an extremely human story with inhuman characters. This is the kind of evolution that the genre needs, and we’re starting to see it with films like this, Civil War and most obviously, Logan. Hopefully artistry via subtlety and subtext are were Marvel and its competitors are plotting for the future.

Psychonauts

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Now we’re talking! I don’t think many people would put up a fight to hear me say that a Tim Schafer game is a work of art, especially one like Psychonauts! This little PS2-era classic sees you play as psychic camper Raz, as he develops his powers and learns about a plot to turn his fellow psi-cadets into weapons of war. It’s great fun with that timeless brand of Double Fine comedy and zany artwork layered onto a generally solid collectathon platformer (we’ll all just ignore the jankiness of the final level – not even the Steam/PS4/Xbone patch can fully save that mess!) that makes for a somehow under-appreciated gem of its era. But what’s that lurking just underneath the surface?

Oh yeah, it’s that part where the gameplay mechanic is you jumping into the minds of different characters as the levels. You have to sort their “Emotional Baggage,” clear out “Mental Cobwebs,” fight off “Censors” with your “Mental Aggression” while collecting “Figments” of their imaginations. Yeah, the metaphors can be pretty direct, but it’s surprising no one had ever put these things together like this before. What’s more, where early levels were simply used to train Raz on different aspects of psychic projection or powers by camp officials, later encounters become a much more tangled web, to the point where you’re actively working through troubled and untamed minds. One minute you’re laughing at going into the brain of a fish-monster, but the next you’re sorting through the psyche of an artist who’s been crushed by doubt and fears that she’s past her prime. You’re helping a man cope with the rejection of the love of his life. You rally the once-proud son of a Bonaparte out of his depression and back into the workforce.

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As Psychonauts peels back its layers, its teaching us how to cope, how to better ourselves and those around us. Eventually, you have a showdown with not only the man you thought was the villain, not just his haunting memories of his butcher father who made him so twisted, but also the dark form of your own father, taunting you and reviling the psychic powers you’ve attained. And overcoming all of these, protecting the childish innocent form of the man you called rival, requires you to put all of your skills to the test, to remember all of the friends you made and all of the people you’ve healed. Psychonauts is a journey of self-discovery, a game about depression and how we cope and how we overcome. It has moments of joy and moments of suffering. Those times you want to throw the controller at the wall are just as vital as the minutes you’ll have to pause the cutscenes for fear that they’ll end too soon and you’ll be put back into the action while you’re still rolling on the floor laughing. The game encapsulates what it means to suffer, what the road to recovery entails, it it tells us that the goal is worth the fight, because there will always be a team at our side and a stronger version of ourselves at the road’s end.

Colossal

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Ah yes, I’m coming back to my baby. The first post to really get me traction here on the blog (thanks WordPress Reader!). Colossal is a fucking fantastic film – probably one of my favorites this year – and there’s so much to unpack in this little gem. So don’t be surprised if I come back to it a couple more times!

Especially because this time we are going deep. You see, Colossal really is a work of art, and that cannot be denied. Yes, it’s a big, stompy monster-mash, but it’s also a cleverly-crafted film about the human condition in some of its worst forms. The most obvious sublayer is the commentary on addiction. Gloria is quite clearly an addict: she’s a boozer, she feels a need to stick with the same people in the same routine, she finds the allure of the monster’s publicity addictive until she realizes its terrible destructive power. Her boyfriend, Tim, is clearly addicted to his power over her, as we find later in the film through his need to lord his jobs and his New York life in front of the woman he pushed out. Garth is insinuated to be a coke addict. And poor, poor Oscar; he seemed so nice. But we soon realize he’s worse on the sauce than Gloria, that once he discovers he, too has a link to a kaiju, that he won’t relinquish it, even knowing the death toll it brings to the residents of Seoul. Oscar wants power over his friends in every way at every turn, and refuses to give an inch once he has a leg up on them.

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So where’s the critique? Colossal, then, spins in the opposite direction. In a world of addiction and violence, Vigalondo asks us, “What do we do when confronted with these cycles of abuse?” And Gloria’s life is riddled with them, between her own self-abusing ways, to her ex-boyfriend’s demeaning and manipulative nature, right down to Oscar’s open violence and flat-out threats. For a time, he seems the better option, as the film pits him against Tim’s complete disregard: at least Oscar cares about Gloria, on some level. But Colossal is better than this. It’s been training us the whole movie to not accept the simple answer, and we’ve seen Gloria slowly but surely rebuild herself from her own ashes. Where the Seoul Monster link was introduced as a curse, we’ve seen it be remade as a source of empowerment: from the message of hope she leaves the Korean people to the way she defends them from Oscar’s robotic rampage. So when she realizes that the power goes both ways and casts him out for good, we’re not just seeing the deconstruction of the Kaiju genre brawl; we’re seeing Gloria overcome her abusers and addiction through her own self-actualization.

 

So by reflecting upon these three works, I think it’s pretty clear to say that what’s below the surface of your creation will be its defining factor. Movies, books, games, and any other source of media, don’t need to have heavy layers of subtext, but those that do have resonant and well-executed philosophies playing along are the ones that will stand the test of time. To me, I’d like to sum it up thusly: Art is that in which subtext precedes the text in importance. Sure, Psychonauts was a fun game to play, but the reason I love it so much and want to make it a part of my life is because it spoke to me on a spiritual level, as a person who’s struggled with depression, grief, loss, and just not knowing where to be in the world. And when a work can strike a cord with me like that, well, how can something so beautiful be anything less than art?

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3 thoughts on “Hiding in Plain Sight: The Importance of Subtext in Media

  1. Ooooh that’s a good definition there – definitely going to mull that one over!

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Good post. Without a doubt, the Yondu elements of Guardians of the Galaxy 2 were the absolute highlight of the films. I think phrases like “He may be your father, but he ain’t your daddy” and “I’m Mary Poppins ya’ll” will stick with fans with years to come. 😀

    Also, would you be interested in sharing your work on Movie Pilot? I’d like to invite you to the platform as one of our content creators. Feel free to shoot me an e-mail, my contact details are on my “About” page. Hopefully talk soon!

    Like

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