The unspoken and the understood: Why subtext matters

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William Bennett/Staff

In cinema, the mantra “show, don’t tell” is the generally accepted mark of good screenwriting, and the same principle can be applied to nearly any medium that employs the creative impulses. I am, of course, talking about the all-elusive subtext, a point of debate in every literature class (“but what if all the author wanted to say was that the curtains were f—ing blue?!”).

To provide a case in point, I want to take a brief look at one of the classics, “The Godfather Part II” — in particular, the scene in which the main character and head of the Family, Michael Corleone, meets with his recently divorced sister, Connie, and her new flame and fiance, Merle. The scene opens on Michael finishing some business as Connie and Merle enter the room, holding hands, to request financial assistance and Michael’s blessing for their marriage. After an explosive argument between Michael and Connie (which Merle impotently sits through, barely acknowledged by the camera), Michael exasperatedly sighs, then stalks across the room to stand in front of his reclining sister (the once-stationary camera suddenly animating and panning to track his movement), and consequently turns his back on Merle, the man outside of the Family. He has now not only isolated his sister visually and emotionally, but he stands imposingly over her, reaffirming his authority as head of the Family, her family. After a quiet yet forceful plea for her to stay with the Family, he relents and walks back to his original spot.

There are, at the very least, two layers of significance that subsist within each piece of creative work: what is being said/shown and how it is being said/shown. Every writer, of whatever medium, must engage in a dialogue with the audience, must navigate the realm between the expected and the revealed, the obvious and the shocking. While ostensibly this scene is about a brother’s legitimate concerns for his younger sister’s reckless decisions, on the “how” level it is illustrating the wider thematic trajectory of how Michael Corleone, now head of the Family he had once disavowed, goes about exercising his newfound authority and discovering the limits of his cunning and cruelty.

It is no mistake that one of the singularly defining pairs of shots in this movie is the one where Michael stands over his sister with controlled rage at her rebellion and practiced coolness as befits a man of his station. The first shot sees Michael’s torso taking up the left half of the screen, while the right half of the screen is of Connie’s face contorting and squirming under the piercing gaze of her brother. The consecutive shot is of Michael’s face, enshrouded in shadow, inscrutable yet menacing, as he makes his reasonable and even merciful offer from both a physical and ethical height. The undertone is clear: Even as siblings, the fact that Michael is now Don of the Family means that his every wish carries with it a veiled threat, a fact that both Connie and Michael are cognizant of but that the former is attempting to ignore and the latter is quietly asserting. This tension flows into and tints the immediate next sequence, when, as Connie reaffirms her defiance, Michael softly utters his ultimatum and warning after a dreadfully pregnant pause: “If you don’t listen to me, and you marry this man … you’ll disappoint me.”

The best literary works know how to toe the line and play between the explicit and implicit, and it is in the asymptotic approach from the former to the latter that the work draws its narrative and thematic power. Even as I attempt to preserve the potency of the sequence in my bareboned representation, by the simple virtue of having been uttered, the scene has already been stripped of much of its original vigor. There is some irony in the fact that the academic impulse of the critic to understand what makes a scene work will be compelled to, in the deconstructive process, expose, demystify and extinguish what had once been vivacious and shimmering.

Herein lies the central paradox for the author to navigate and negotiate: the task of evoking without conveying, of letting the silence speak, hang heavy in the air, permeate the chasm between the conscious and subconscious, and finally declare its sovereignty in the realm of the imagination. Things remain unspoken often because there are no simply no adequate words, but other times because speaking them would violently violate their hushed sanctity. To borrow a line from Tywin Lannister of the “Game of Thrones” TV series: “Any man who must say, ‘I am the king,’ is no true king.”

Contact Andrew Yen at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter at @andrewyen329.

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