Above subtext?

Here is part of a scene from Whit Stillman’s movie, Barcelona (1994):

Ted and Fred, dressed for work, walking up Paseo de Gracia in 8 a.m. pedestrian traffic. This morning the uniform wearing Fred and, by association, Ted, attracts even more hostile looks than normal.


The words to pop songs are about the only literature of advice we have on romantic matters – most of the advice is bad.


Huhn. … Maybe you could clarify something for me. While I’ve been, you know, waiting for the fleet to show up, I’ve read a lot and –


– Really? –


– and one thing that keeps cropping up is this about “subtext.” Songs, novels, plays – they all have a subtext, which I take to mean a hidden message or import of some kind.

Ted nods.


So subtext we know. But what do you call the meaning, or message, that’s right there on the surface, completely open and obvious? They never talk about that. (Using his hand as a visual aid.) What do you call what’s above the subtext?


The text.


(Pause) Okay. That’s right. … But they never talk about that.

(p. 91)

Much of this film deals with two young Americans in Europe, experiencing anti-imperialist “subtext”, as it were, while conversing about love in a romantic comedy. Fred correctly points out that there is not much discussion on the text we see, and in this case, a reprint of a published screenplay (with citation below) that has to be formatted with HTML to appear on this webpage, does not seem that notable. It takes a certain amount of patience (or maybe way too much free time) to read the text of a screenplay.

Of course, might have been much easier just to embed the YouTube clip titled Subtext here, if only this scene were to be found in the creative commons. Is someone’s reading the screenplay, as most trained actors do everyday, going to give a different reading of the scene than what eventually made it onto screen. The writer also happens to be the director, who in the author’s note describes these words as “not exact transcripts” (p. vi) of the movie, but rather from the shooting script, which may or may not change on the day of filming. In what way does Ted nod, or how does Fred use his hand as a visual aid? Is it the actor, director or writer who creates the visual text, aka gestures?

For me, one of the things I enjoy about movies and movie-making is that someone invents a scene by writing words that eventually make a shooting script, and with the help of scores of film industry workers (camera technicians, lighting operators, make-up artist etc.) the image goes from inside someone’s head onto a screen, to be transmitted into other people’s head. In a way, it is a clunky, expensive but truly fascinating way of sharing ideas as text.


Stillman, W. (1994). Barcelona & Metropolitan: Tales of two cities. Boston: Faber & Faber.

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