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Fun Joel's Screenwriting Blog

(OR EL DUDERINO IF YOU'RE NOT INTO THE WHOLE BREVITY THING)

-- On Screenwriting and Related Topics

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Location: Los Angeles, CA

I moved from NYC to LA in October, 2003. And though I still think NYC is the greatest city in the world, I'm truly loving life here in the City of Angels. I'm a writer, reader, and occasional picture-taker.

Friday, January 20, 2006

Subtext: Sex

One thing we writer types like to talk about is the need to write dialogue with subtext, instead of the opposite: on-the-nose dialogue.

One of my favorite definitions of subtext (can't remember who said it, so go ahead and chime in on this) had something to do with a guy telling a girl he likes her shoes, but really meaning, "will you sleep with me?"

Still, I think visual scenes can also effectively feature subtext. And staying with the shoes = sex thing, I'd like to highlight two scenes that effectively delivered sex on a somewhat subtextual level (both times played for laughs, of course).

First, the absolute classic. A somewhat forgotten, but absolutely wonderful period romantic comedy is 1963's Tom Jones. Written by John Osborne, based on Henry Fielding's novel, and directed by Tony Richardson, it won Best Picture, Adapted Screenplay, Director, and Music Score Oscars.

In one of the most famous and hilarious scenes from the film, Tom finds himself at a country inn, dining with a bawdy wench (I've always loved that phrase, along with "brazen strumpet"), ample bosom straining against her overgarment (let's see what this post does for my Google searches). He is no stranger to sex, and many would see it as his sole driving force in the film. (Others might see it as the primary driving force in the world overall, but that's not a discussion for here and now!) They sit opposite each other, with the table between them piled high with a feast of epic proportions.

And then they begin to eat. The scene proceeds with them taking turns biting into different foods, making seductive eyes and facial expressions, and generally playing off each other in a dance of culinary debauchery. All they do is eat, but there is so much more there, and it is an absolute riot. I Googled to try to find some of the stills, but was unsuccessful. And I used to have a published version of the script that included a series of stills showing the progression of the scene, and let me tell you... The pictures themselves were hilarious and descriptive enough.

If you haven't seen the film, I highly recommend it.

The second scene is less successful, but still funny, I think. In 2004's "existential detective comedy" I Heart Huckabees, written by David O. Russell & Jeff Baena, directed by Russell, there is a scene about 2/3 of the way into the film between Jason Schwartzman and Isabelle Huppert. Having danced around their lust for each other, they finally begin a scene of consummation via dirty sex.

No, I mean that literally. For a few minutes, we watch as they playfully and comedically rub dirt on each other, push each other into puddles of mud, and the like. Effective and funny stuff that makes very clear what is "really" going on. Unfortunately, I think they shortchanged the scene's cleverness by ending with a more literal act of sex, taking what was solid and funny subtext and pushing it in our faces. Still, the earlier part of the scene works well on its own terms.

Perhaps the reason that sex plays so well in subtext is that it is something that remains somewhat taboo to discuss in our society, so in a sense it remains subtextual in typical conversations. Regardless, the same methods can be played out with other subtextual messages as well. See where the methods take you!

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11 Comments:

Blogger lad said...

Sex also plays in a well because it's a given in almost any situation. It seems that sex is always in the back of our minds so it's easy to make an unspoken allusion to it.
How did the job interview go?

8:41 PM  
Blogger Fun Joel said...

Thanks for asking, Lad. I think it went pretty well, but now I'm just waiting to hear. Will keep you posted.

8:57 PM  
Blogger oneslackmartian said...

I tried the shoe line with my wife tonight.
Apparently at our house it means she, in fact, has nice shoes.
I said, “You don’t get the subtext.”
She said, “You sublimating.”
I said, “That’s a red herring.”
She said, “Don’t pose a false dilemma.”
I said, “There’s a hasty generalization.”
“Begging the question!.”
“Poisoning the well!”
Smooch. Kiss. Clothes off.

I don’t know what the hell happened! But it was great.

4:56 AM  
Anonymous Chris Soth said...

Does a man EVER say anything to a woman where the subtext ISN'T "will you sleep with me."

Even the "sleep" part is a euphemism...

11:07 AM  
Blogger mernitman said...

This is slightly to the right of your discussion (i.e. cleaner than dirty sex, unfortunately) but...

I read a script the other day where the screenwriter wrote in the narration, 'Note: the real meaning of every line in this conversation between [guy] and [girl] is, "I love you. Do you love me?"'

The dialogue that followed, while largely innocuous, did in fact gain a whole other level of interest and fun.

It's not a cheat I'd recommend anyone using on a script-ly basis, but I thought you'd be amused.

8:48 PM  
Anonymous christopher said...

"Unfortunately, I think they shortchanged the scene's cleverness by ending with a more literal act of sex, taking what was solid and funny subtext and pushing it in our faces."

why is it a problem to follow up cleverness with an actual sex scene? "pushing it in our faces" is a very strong indictment of the act of watching others have sex.

i personally like sex and like watching others have it. what's wrong with having it done well with creative settings and clever dialog? why is the actual showing of sex considered a more base act than making some clever subtextual reference to it?

12:22 AM  
Blogger Fun Joel said...

Martian -- FUNNY! I love it.

Chris -- probably depends who the woman is and what she looks like.

Mernit -- I hear what you're saying, but still sounds pretty annoying to me. I'd be very turnbed off by that, I think.

Christopher -- I have no problem with actually showing sex, and I enjoy watching as much as the next guy (well, maybe not as much as YOU do! ;-). However, there is nothing clever or creative about it, no matter how enjoyable it is. Particularly not when it is a relatively rote thing. This doesn't mean there is no place for such scenes in films. All I'm saying is that they started out doing something clever, and then shortchanged the cleverness by spelling it out for us. I'm not saying they shortchanged the film or the relationship -- just the cleverness of the scene.

4:30 AM  
Blogger Esther Kustanowitz said...

Great, hilarious sex scene in The Tall Guy. You must see it!

7:55 AM  
Anonymous christopher said...

there's nothing creative or clever about sex scenes? sorry, completely disagree with that. perhaps you shouldn't watch so much porn - actually, i take that back. some of the positions they get in are very creative... ;)

if i understand you correctly you're saying if it's hinted at but *not* shown we're not shortchanged, but if it's hinted at and then shown, we have been?

why can't we enjoy the hints AND the actuality? why does one negate the other?

10:41 AM  
Blogger MaryAn Batchellor said...

I wish it were MORE taboo to discuss sex than it actually is. Too much of a good thing takes the mystery and romance out of it.

5:39 PM  
Anonymous Lucy said...

Ah, sex, my fave subject. People are always surprised at that because I'm very small and talk like I'm out of a Jane Austen novel (apparently).

I think everyone on here is right. Whilst that may seem as if I am trying to play both ends against the middle (what does that mean, anyway? I taught TEFL last summer and was asked that by a French student and I had to admit, to him, that the majority of English idioms are nonsensical: "not as green as cabbage looking?" Eh?!?), I have this point to make: sex is great. Like Christopher I like to watch it too (tho not porn). However, I think to make it too obvious also makes it lose its appeal - hence the I Heart Huckabees mention of spoilt subtext by Joel and Maryan's notion that it is talked about TOO much. Whilst gratuitous sex in movies can be fun, too much of it can make it seem pedestrian and boring. Whilst I complain there isn't enough of it about, it's probably better that way - like the fact there's never enough houmous in my house (if there was, I'd end up as fat as a barrel).

By the way, having nice shoes never means that in MY house. Luckily for me, because the situation is reversed, all I have to do is come out and ask him. And of course, like all men, he always says yes.

6:00 PM  

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