One of my favorite moments in Whit Stillman's Barcelona comes midway through the picture. Two Americans, businessman Ted (Taylor Nichols) and naval officer Fred (Chris Eigeman), are walking through the streets of the eponymous Spanish city when Fred asks his better-educated cousin a question.
"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 … 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," Fred, says, prompting a nod from Ted. "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. [Fred uses his hand as a visual aid to demonstrate ‘above.'] What do you call what's above the subtext?"
Bemused, Ted replies simply: "The text." And, after a pause, Fred says, "Okay. That's right. But they never talk about that."
The text of the script here is clear enough: It's a funny little character moment, one that helps us both understand Ted and Fred's relationship and also Fred's behavior elsewhere in the film. He's straightforward and to the point; not guileless, exactly, but also not an ironist. When he explains why he joined the Navy a bit earlier in the film, saying, "And then there is all the fighting for freedom, defending democracy, ‘shining city on the hill' stuff, which as you know, I really buy," we buy that he buys it. Fred's text is plain but no less amusing or intriguing as a result.
But, naturally, there's a subtext to Fred and Ted's discussion of subtext. More than any other line in the film, it reads like a comment aimed at critics and at Stillman's fellow artists, a reminder that the obvious reading of a work is just as important—more important, really—than the intuited reading or the guessed-at, hinted-at meaning. This is true and wise. Where we run into trouble is when artists and their corporate handlers mistake subtext for text—or when they think we're simply too stupid to glean the appropriate message in any subtle way.
Consider, for instance, Logan. It's bad enough that writer/director James Mangold cribbed a key scene from the classic western Shane—not once, but twice—in order to trick critics into squealing about how This Is Not Just A Comic Movie, Guys, Actually It Is A Western (cue Ron Howard voice: "It isn't"). More annoyingly, Logan takes the subtext of Wolverine's (Hugh Jackman) internal struggle—between his domesticated side (which wants something like a family to fight and die for) and his feral side (which wants nothing more than to serve as a weapon, to claw and kill and maim and murder)—and turns it into the literal text of the film, having Logan square off against a mindless, murderous clone over the film's last third.
Or take a moment to ponder Kong: Skull Island, a remarkably dull retread of the Great Ape's story that features some of the most ham-handed dialogue in recent memory. Of special note is Brie Larson's blank-eyed nothing of a character informing her fellow characters that, actually, she's an "ANTI-war photographer" after one of them calls her a war photographer. Or the line in which a soldier grimly informs the audience—and I'm paraphrasing here, I wasn't able to get the gem down in my notebook quite in time—that sometimes when you go looking for an enemy you make an enemy. Not only is this life lesson the diametric opposite of deep and interesting, it's also so obviously the point of the film that expressing the theme in a line of dialogue feels like a slap in the face of the audience. You can't help but come away from the theater thinking "Man, they really think we're idiots."
Which brings me to Beauty and the Beast.
I won't bother with a lengthy recap of this old-as-time tale since Beauty and the Beast‘s broad strokes are well known; as a refresher, local beauty Belle (Emma Watson) submits to living with a prince-turned-Beast (Dan Stevens), who, along with his loyal servants, suffers under the spell of an enchantress that will only be lifted if he can find true love. More interesting than the film is the intrigue and angst surrounding it. You may remember the kerfuffle a few weeks back about the film's director, Bill Condon, hyping the "exclusively gay moment" in Disney's latest soulless cash grab. Condon was referring to the trials and tribulations of LeFou (Josh Gad), the manservant of Gaston (Luke Evans). The "exclusively gay moment" comes at the end of the film during a huge dance scene in which partners are exchanged and LeFou switches from dancing with a woman to dancing with a man.
That's it. That's the "exclusively gay moment." It's also the final, crushing death of subtext.
I mean, look, Gad's performance wasn't exactly subtle. On the contrary, it's borderline minstrelsy. He's practically slathered in pinkface, mincing across the screen while he effeminately tosses his head and rolls his eyes, swooning at the muscular Gaston and informing ladies with a catty sneer that they have no shot with the war hero. Gad was already perilously close to turning the subtext of the original cartoon LeFou—who was, at the least, enamored of Gaston in ways that suggested more than a bromance—into "what's above the subtext," as Fred might put it. I'm not sure we really needed Condon to get out on the interview circuit and scream to the high heavens "LEFOU IS SUPER GAY YOU GUYS."
Of course, we don't really need anything about this completely unnecessary live-action retread of a beloved Disney classic. Indeed, we need rather less of it: at two hours, it's 50 percent longer than the original cartoon, and you really feel the bloat. The additional musical numbers are drab, the backstory added to Belle and her father Maurice's (Kevin Kline) flight from Paris is mundane, and the amplified conflict between Gaston and Maurice feels both unwarranted and utterly manufactured. The film practically plods along, hitting the same beats as the original with little of the joy or wonder.