Thursday, March 19, 2015

Subtext, Meta-Film Experiences, and Henry Poole is Here

This last week I revisited Henry Poole is Here, which for me was a seminal film in my personal road
as an artist, filmmaker, and person.

Let me just take a moment and let you know that I don't use that word (seminal) lightly.

Early on as a teenager and film student I found subtext in film and theater and fell in love. So enamored was I with this one aspect of works of education and entertainment that I began to eschew and ignore all other positive aspects of the medium.

Ultimately, it was how I became a film hipster.

I'll talk in a minute about what subtext is, but sufficeth to say that I was trying to find the secret or hidden messages within all of the films and plays I was seeing. I explained to friends that they thought Les Miserables (they play) was good, but they didn't understand how good it was; I clearly remember having a friend tell me they loved Phantom of the Opera (the movie had just come out) and I retorted, "You don't even know what it is really about." Then, as a capstone project in being a douche, I applied to the BYU film program by creating a video example of what I was capable of creating by submitting a convoluted and meta film that was so inaccessible to anyone who wasn't involved in its conception that there was no way the judges could have thought anything but that I was either crazy, incompetent, or both. My rhetoric was so wrapped in meta-jokes that it was completely incomprehensible - and everyone who saw it thought so. But of course, I just told myself they were uncultured and surely the film professors would understand my deep art.

They didn't. It was the Brazil of student short films.

It was a crazy time for me, as an artist and a person. Finally, because of movies like Henry Poole, I realized that I cared more about helping people than I did about film as an art form, and I gave up my dream of becoming a bigtime (and socially influential) director. I realized that I was trying to change the world for the better through my art, and there were people who just skipped the art and changed the world for the better - and I could easily break into that world and support my family, which is kind of difficult to do when you are trying to become a bigtime director. It was easier, and less selfish. That was seven years ago, and it's been about that long since I last watched Henry Poole.

Enough of about why Henry Poole (and movies like it) matters to me, let's get to the movie analysis and how to analyze. Real quick, let's get on the same page about movie subtext and meta-film experience analysis.

Analyzing subtext in a film is usually an exercise in boiling various aspects of a film (form, writing, narrative content, etc.) down to its most simple expression and looking for patterns. That sounds complex, but it's not. Here are some examples:

  • There are only two camera angles used throughout Rear Window, this matches the main character who is on bedrest and confined to his room, and is used to make you feel detached, distrust what you see, and feel his claustrophobia and feeling of powerlessness. 
  • Every time the evil mother addresses Rapunzel warmly in Tangled, she calls her a "flower" or touches her hair. Every time Flynn addresses her warmly he brushes her hair away from her face and looks her in the eye. This shows which qualities of hers the two characters really care about. 
It's easy. The biggest thing to watch out for (and the practice I don't agree with) is trying to insert meaning in places where it wasn't intended. Like saying that Star Wars has an anarchist agenda because the main characters are trying to bring down the prominent government in the story. That sounds like a stretch...

Meta-Film Experiences
Meta-Film experiences understand that you are watching a film rather than actually living the experience you are viewing. They require you to break your suspension of disbelief and analyze what you are seeing from an emotional distance. Modern comedy does this A LOT, because it targets audiences that have been watching comedy their entire life, and so one way to get to them in an original way is for the comedy to play completely deadpan, dramatic, or even horrific. This only becomes funny when the audience realizes they are watching a comedy and it is completely absurd to be seeing this type of behavior within a comedy - and all of a sudden it's hilarious. 

Henry Poole, despite being labeled a comedy, is NOT hilarious
Henry Poole is Here
The reason I wanted to be clear on subtext and meta-film analysis before talking about Henry Poole is because it really is a terrible movie on the surface, and beautiful in the subtext. And the reason I wanted to talk about why it is important to me as a person is because relating it to yourself and empathizing seems to be the only way to really enjoy it, and when I did so I began to think about larger issues that would ultimately change my life. This movie didn't change my life, but it had the guts to grapple with issues that really matter to me. 

Henry Poole is interesting as a movie is because Henry is not a person in the story, he is an embodiment of an emotional state that humans get into - he hates the world because it is unfair. Dawn is an embodiment of empathetic pain, Milly is childhood trauma, and Patience is faithful and patient, but still broken. All of them are healed by a wall miracle in Henry's backyard. But here's where Henry Poole says something less common in films touching on religion and faith. Henry is healed, even though he doesn't believe. 

The common religious or faith trope for movies is the "Just Believe" platitude, which seems to say that it doesn't matter what you believe in, it is only the degree to which you believe in something that affects how much it can change (or in this case, heal) you. Check out the trailer for Little Boy to see exactly what I mean.  Contrastingly, Henry Poole shows three characters that believe, and are healed when they touch the wall, but Henry goes out of his way to not touch the wall. We are specifically shown 4 different close ups of his hands close to the wall, but he doesn't touch it. 

Then, he does touch it. He smashes it with an ax/sledgehammer, and just as he is about to pass out, he leans back and we get an extreme close up of him grabbing the wall to maintain balance. Then, within a couple of minutes we learn he is healed. We have been told the entire film that he has the worst ailment of anyone there, it is visibly apparent to everyone, and he is healed when he touches the wall without believing that touching the wall will help him. 

This movie mattered to me when I first saw it, and even moreso on this most recent viewing, because when I saw it I related every character, and the emotional state they represented, to me and I empathized strongly with how they feel. I love this movie because it speaks about things that are important to me. 

It's easy in life to say, "Just Believe." But my life has followed more closely the topics discussed in Henry Poole, I have been healed when I believed in something more than myself; I have witnessed those who are close to me healed and been healed by the experience (as do Dawn and Milly); and I have reacted out of anger or hatred and found myself running into spiritual realities that are bigger than I am; and I have received healing, even when I didn't deserve it. 

Believe me when I say, I can understand if you don't like Henry Poole is Here, but I love it because when I turn it on, the story it's telling falls away and I am left considering and grappling with the emotions of trying (and sometimes failing) to believe in a higher power. It's not the movie that I love, it is the experiences that it opens up to me. 


  1. Excellent perspective Cory, very interesting about the characters representing key emotions/feelings of the every day individual. In that light the film certainly takes on new meaning. I had a similar experience watching "Doubt" that was really transformative for me. These are great thoughts about grace and healing, thanks for sharing!

    1. Doubt was a big one for me too! I saw the play before the movie adaptation, but it was a great experience.

  2. I disagree that it was a terrible movie. When you set it up against Hollywood films, it's lower quality. But taken on its own, and especially if you don't watch a lot of films, I think it was a fine production. I think that's why we're so cynical and unsatisfied in this generation: because we have so much that we *can* be critical. We're rich. I think it if watch this film from a less cultured perspective it comes off as a more quality film. That said, it still wasn't great :)
    So, I don't know a lot about subtext. I'm not sure that what I get out of films is subtext, or if it's more the way you described your approach to film earlier on--forcing meaning. But I love movies because I tend to get whatever I'm searching for at the time out of them. Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure was a great film to me in part because it was an enjoyable experience. But I got messages of faith, simple-living, and education out of it. And not in the ways I think they were intending. I don't think that's what people are *supposed* to get out of that film. I just had faith, simplicity and education heavily on my mind for a long period of time, including some of the times I watched that film, so that's lense I watched it through. Not sure if that fits neatly into either of your categories, but I think there's value in going about it that way. Maybe not shareable value, but personal value.
    Back to this film, I enjoyed it because the themes were pretty simple and easy to pick up on. I appreciated that while the message was simple, at least Henry didn't have a completely easy time of getting from point A to point B. That's why I always hated "As You Like It" by Shakespeare, or "The Quest", a book about discovering the truth of Mormonism. The stories are just too neat to be real, or even (in my opinion) relatable. Henry experienced giving up on his faith. He came so close. So completely close. Then he quit. I've been there and think we've all been there. Faith happens and it works, and I think we have moments of experiencing that ideal faith I just wanted to see Henry display. But that would be too easy. And some of the beauty of the message came out because of it. I don't think he was healed because he touched the wall, leaned on it or anything. I almost think he was healed because he made a valiant effort. I really think, though, that he was healed because he wanted to *want* to be healed. This is one of those less common occurrences when I wax scriptorial. It's like in Alma where he said if you can no more than desire to believe. I recall times when I knew which direction I wanted to go, but it was so hard to make myself even try. Sometimes my most fervent prayers weren't for faith, it was for a desire to have faith. At least then I could get started. I liked this movie because it recognized this.