Plot, Story, Text, Subtext

In the last month or so, I've seen three things that got me thinking critically about how we think about plot as a storytelling tool, as a discrete thing in a list of other discrete things including, say, characters and stakes (only not necessarily in a vampire way) that we look for and check off in a narrative project to decide if we think it's good. Every viewer is able to take this list and prioritize it in their own way, some preferring plot heavy things, others gravitating toward character-oriented stories, and so on. This is, kind of, in a way, the distinction people are attempting to draw when they say they just want to read or watch something that lets them turn their brains off for a while (or, conversely, when people stare smugly down their noses at stories that don't want you all up in their subtext).

One of the things I saw, as you know, is Inside Out. The other two are Sense8 and Mad Max: Fury Road. In that same time, I've seen comments, and sometimes criticism, about all three that they don't have much plot. The idea works two ways. With Inside Out and Fury Road, it's easy to see: The plot of Fury Road can be summed up simply enough as, "they drive in one direction, and then they drive back," and the plot of Inside Out can just as easily be summed up as, "They get sent away from headquarters, and they go back." While that does no favors to either story in a holistic sense, it covers the basics and gets at a surface-level simplicity that both share, which is why it's been so strange for me to see those same comments and criticisms leveled at Sense8, which defies those kinds of surface-level descriptions and, in the words of my girlfriend, has "way too much stuff going on all the time." But, I assure you, in a good way.

And, yeah, I've tried to write a pithy little 10-word summary for Sense8 and it's impossible. Don't get me wrong, here. I can pull an "a bunch of people try to understand how they're connected" out of my butt, if you'll accept the contraction as one word, but it doesn't work. It always leaves out a key component of the action, or contradicts what we see from one or more of the shows points of view (for example, only a few of the characters even seem to care about understanding their connection at all). Every character in Sense8 is embroiled in a topically disconnected jumbling of action and external forces, the only one of which that actually affects all of them together being the one the show clearly cares the least about and is happiest to completely ignore for great long stretches of film.

By this measure, Sense8 has much, much too much plot. It has more plot than it knows what it do with. But it's still being criticized. And yet, just from the first page alone of a Google search for "Sense8 review:"

"TV has been lying to us... Even prestige projects that get heralded as fingerlickingly good television have still abided by the idea that good TV comes purely from telling good stories... Then along came Sense8."

"What do these eight people from all walks of life have in common? Not much..."

"But the main problem, simply, is that the show doesn’t make much sense... following the lives of its various characters without doing much to advance what binds them."

"... all the messaging would actually be a nice accompaniment to many of these characters’ stories, if there were more story..."

This is a strange grouping of ideas to me -- you don't need a good story to make good TV, there isn't much story, there are no connections between the characters -- because from my perspective Sense8 is almost overstuffed with stories, and occasionally doing too much to draw them together. And what's really happening, as I see it, is that the external narrative is not meeting the viewers' expectations. Again, the one storyline that clearly connects these characters externally is that they're all being hunted by a kind of psychic shadow organization that, like I said before, the show doesn't even really give a crap about. Beyond that throughline, the characters are just kind of living the same lives they started with while we watch, occasionally interacting with each other but never almost intersecting. The only times the stories physically impose themselves on each other are those times that nothing short of death would be the cost otherwise, and the connections are otherwise hands off, and get made exclusively when the characters resonate with each other emotionally, regardless of their external circumstances.

I think, if I remember my high school English classes, this distinction is one between external conflict and internal conflict, and to be more general is between physical action and metaphysical action. I'm not in high school anymore and I could come up with seven or eight different vocabularies to frame this with, but for the sake of simplicity I'm going to just call it text and subtext. And it seems to me that we're conditioned to think of the "text" as plot or story and the subtext as something else... I don't know... a kind of sub-narrative wizard magic at best and as a kind of political message delivery system at worst.

I want to think of text and subtext as a continuum. The concept of the continuum is really difficult for me to wrap my head around because it requires a lot of abstraction to work through coherently. Here's my best attempt: A continuum is a single system that we perceive as multiple, discrete systems. To use a Star Trek style simplification by simile, a continuum is like the optical illusion that looks like it's spinning one way one second and the other way the next, once you get the trick of it. The image, really, isn't spinning at all. It's doing some third thing that we can't even deal with. And because we can't even deal with it, we perceive this bi-directional spinning. But we can't even deal with that, so we perceive the image to be spinning in only one direction at a time.

So in the bi-directionally spinning illusion that is the text-subtext continuum, let's call text the clockwise spin and let's call subtext the counter-clockwise spin (no matter how much wikipedia wants me to say anti-clockwise). This works because most people see the clockwise spin more easily, and it seems like we're predisposed (rather, trained up) to think of story as a function of text.

This helps me make more sense of the two key contradictions I keep coming up against: 1) How can I reconcile this problem that topically simple stories like Inside Out and Fury Road are being talked about in the same narrative terms as an overstuffed potato of plot like Sense8? 2) How can anybody watch Sense8 and think it's story deficient?

What it comes down to is that each of these projects work by asking the audience by some degree to ignore the clockwise spin, or to acknowledge the counter-clockwise one. In the case of Inside Out, the subtext is literally rendered as text, the internal privileged on-screen over the external (which, of course it can be because they're not actually different things). One of the really amazing story things that I saw Inside Out doing has to do with the external interactions between the characters. Because if you look only at the dialogue spoken by Riley and her parents, it's the most stock dialogue you could imagine, from "just leave me alone!" to "that's it; go to your room!" It's a handbook for cliched angsty-preteen narrative dialogue tropes. And yet the film achieves this magic by which you hang on for dear life to every single bit of hackneyed, lazy, boring, no-effort dialogue spoken because so much of the narrative energy is spent literally showing you what's going on behind those words.

Fury Road does this with negative space. The defining characteristic of Fury Road is silence. I can't tell you how often I was expecting spoken exposition or theme-affirming dialogue, only to have it withheld. I think the iconic scene in Fury Road happens when Max is down to one bullet in the Big Amazing Gun of Shooting Things Good, because he wasted the other two by being kind of crappy at aiming guns. Without dialogue, he gives the gun to Furiosa who steadies it against his shoulder and cracks off a bull's-eye. I spent every second of that scene expecting Max or Furiosa to say something entirely on-the-nose, but the film expected me to understand what was going on without it. Fury Road puts all of its world-building and all of its actual story into this negative space and the more you accept that subtext the more you understand how dense the trauma-narratives between Furiosa, the brides, Max, and Nux all are.

Sense8 does this by creating a dizzyingly sprawling sense of text, but resisting almost any textual connections between the characters and their actions. So every piece of action you see, every tense gunfight or fistfight or car chase or argument or erotica feels apart from the others because the topical connections are withheld. I think for the viewer this feels like the show is reneging on a promise, suggesting a familiar text-heavy narrative mode, but then stringing it together entirely by subtext. Interestingly, this ultimately attains a similar effect as Inside Out, because Sense8 is just as aggressively built out of cliches, from the hacktivist queer couple living in San Francisco to the son-of-a-cop white Chicago cop to the Kenyan man whose life is impacted by AIDS and so on. This is some cliched, lazy crap. Every character, at every turn is the top Family Feud answer to the question "describe a person who lives in [x]." But because the show cares so much more about that subtextual level, you stop feeling like you're watching cliches very, very quickly.

To return briefly to the analogy of the optical illusion, I think what we see are different film-makers who are all very, very aware that they are working illusions. Those who worked on Inside Out took the spinning silhouette and added color and shading so that you can't help but watch it spin counter-clockwise. George Miller puts the illusion before you without changing it, but tells you loud and clear to look for the counter-clockwise spin. The discomfort -- and, for me, the success -- of Sense8 is that J Michael Straczynski and the Wachowskis hand you the illusion, tell you it's spinning clockwise, and then go stand together behind a double-mirror to wait and see how long it takes you to figure things out.

On a bit of a truncated final note, because this is probably another essay beyond what I already have, there's a degree to which I know this analysis has been tortured because as soon as I got to the point where I acknowledged that text and subtext are interconnected -- that you can't have satisfying external conflict if it isn't supported by a functional internal framework -- it feels kind of cut and dry. There's a fine distinction I've been trying to draw, though, which I think is more complicated than "the two sides work together". Rather, I mean to say that they are the same. And that, I think, is really a difficult distinction, because the idea that text IS subtext throws a lot of how we typically interact with narrative into an uncomfortable place. Because it means that neither one can actually be privileged over the other -- the text and the subtext succeed on the strength of each other because they are not actually materially different things. We only perceive them to be so. It means that there is no such thing as a successful story that is also brainless, and it means that every story is a message story and the only difference between those that we think are and those that we insist could not possibly be is whether or not the writers ask you (and, possibly as a contradiction, want you) to see the thing spinning clockwise, counter-clockwise, or both.