Everything you wanted to know about Subtext (but were too afraid to ask)

When I was at film school, I had a teacher Bill Reilly who taught me to understand the importance of subtext as a director. I grew up in an acting family, so I knew about communicating subtext to actors, as Boris might say, “Love is not ‘I love you,’ love is chicken.” But I had never thought about how the subtext of a scene might relate to how you filmed the scene. If two characters are talking, but the subtext is their separateness, that’s a different shot then if the subtext is their desire to be together. Bill taught me that, and it’s been among the most important lessons I took away from NYU.

When I first saw this ad, I wondered if it was some Onion satire, it was so sharp and funny, a parody of a political ad. It’s like a nested doll, a parody of an ad, that’s an ad itself, there’s a certain post revisionist meta brilliance to it (deconstruct that phrase for a moment, I have no idea what it means, but I like it). It’s an actual ad, running on cable not in battlegrounds, but still airing on TV’s across the nation.

I think at face value the ad is pretty funny and does a good job at subverting Romney. Not just the message of he’s getting tough on Sesame street, but not wall street, though that’s important. No, it somehow make Romney seem small and petty, Big Bird, really? Come on, don’t we have bigger issues to take on?

That’s the surface, but I think the true value of the ad is the subtext of its message. To me, this ad says Obama gets it. It’s funny and a bit whimsical, likable and clever. An ad like this makes Obama seem more real to me, because he’s tapping into the current meme of the election. It’s politics and its serious, but he’s not above being a little silly in the face of the ridiculous.

Maybe put another way, the ad is on-message, but it’s also on-emotion, it reflects what some voters are already thinking and amplifies it. That’s a powerful tool.

I don’t know if they intended that to be the subtext of the ad, again as Boris used to say, “your work is on the screen,” so whether they intended it or not, once it’s in there, that’s purposeful enough.

Subtext is a powerful tool, in my mind more powerful than the surface text, because it operates on the viewer, often unconsciously. This ad works on both levels, but the subtext “he gets it” can also translate to “he’s one of us.” To my mind that’s really more useful in this election than a clever hit on Romney and Wall Street.

 

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