I love the cinema and movies. I also make films myself. What stared as a simple passion for the action and adventure in films has become a life long urge to understand what the filmmaker, the artist using film as his medium, is actually trying to say. One of the best things about the cinema is that you often do not realise the full depth of what is on the screen until later when you think back. Filmmakers take advantage of this in different ways.
The classic way is to have something at the end of the film that drastically changes the entire focus of what you have watched. Such films as “The Sixth Sense,” “Arlington Road” and “The Usual Suspects” are all great examples of modern, more mainstream, films that have a “twist ending”. The endings of these films force you to re-evaluate the preceding hours in a new light with a revelation. This is fine, and indeed mainstream films work hard to “reward” the viewer before the films ends. There may be a few unanswered questions, but that is all to the good and grist to the mill of discussions about the film or the setting up of franchises.
However, some filmmakers go deeper and do not reveal the secret at all. Instead they hint, sometimes in only a look between characters, subtle and quite easy to miss if you are not paying close attention. Sometimes these hints come from asking yourself how the plot would look in a different situational context. One of our films we will be examining is the classic example of this second type and will highlight what I mean.
Directors, writers, editors all need to be “in” on this subtle and underlying Hidden Context for it to work. It must be there, but not referred to, mentioned or pointed out.
Why do this? I hear you ask. One of the many reason is that in a dramatic film it enables the director to create tension in the background used to add depth. You know something is wrong, something is out of context, your eyes have seen it and your brain has picked it up, but your conscious mind – lost in the spectacle and plot – misses it. It is an effect similar to that found in those social experiments, often demonstrated on TV, where six people bounce basketballs to each other. Count the balls, you are told, and count you do, only to find on a later replay that you totally missed the man in the gorilla suit walk through the scene.
One of the other reasons for a Hidden Context is that there is some sort of message in the plot that is socially awkward and would never make it passed the studio executive team (or indeed the government censors!) if it was too obvious. We have a great example of one of these coming up.
The last reason is that the director wants to reward the alert viewer as a fan service to the “eternal story.” That is those stories that all start with a loan hero, a wise councillor, a dark lord, a mighty battle, etc. These film’s plot may not directly follow the trope so the director will add the context into the background to put your sub-conscious mind onto the “path”. Ever asked yourself why you almost know what will happen in a film before it does? Importantly, this layer is almost optional. The story may have a defined plot focussing on something quite different, but then again the richness of character motivation is enhanced by the Hidden Context underneath the surface.
Therefore, I invite you to play along in the comments – here are the rules:
The film must NOT explicitly explain the hidden context.
This context must make some sort of sense in the setting of the film.
We are not talking about minor nods to homage. So Tarantino-style homage (such as those that pepper Kill Bill) do not count. We are talking contexts that are intricately weaved into the fabric of the film.
The film must stand-alone and make sense without knowledge of this “layer.” No strange twist endings that only make sense if there is this context.
Onto the films.
I have chosen my favourite examples of this genre of Hidden-Context films and I should warn you that these outlines include enormous plot spoilers.
Also, there is one slightly graphical image in the 13 Assassins section
**You have been warned**
The Day the Earth Stood Still
An example of a Hidden Context to place the plot on a path we recognise from the classic or “eternal” stories.
In the film, the main character is an alien who comes down from above with a message of peace for the faithful.
He is hunted by the government power for what he says and hides out with a family who know him by the name “Mr. Carpenter.”
He demonstrates get power through miracles. He is then betrayed , subsequently killed and is brought back to life.
When asked if he can create life himself, he says that only the “Great Spirit” can do that.
The faithful “followers” here are the scientists and not the priests, but they all gather in the end of the movie to listen his to sermon about the trouble humankind is in and then he ascends back into space.
It reads as obvious, but it really is not when you first see the film. I watched it many times when I was a child and never made the connection.
The filmmakers, however, later acknowledged the truth of this connection in interviews. They claimed that they left it quiet because of the problem of censorship in the US at the time. However, this is a great example of the type of Hidden Context used to add a background plot that is familiar and that grounds the story. Without the Hidden Context, then perhaps The Day the Earth Stood Still would not be such a classic.
An example of a Hidden Context placed in a film as Fan Service, used to add layered depth to motivation.
Blade Runner is one of those films that has been endlessly analysed by everyone from drunken film students to post modernist philosophers. Quite different from the book it is based on, it tells the story of Roy Deckard’s pursuit of human looking androids, called “Replicants” lose and running amok in 2019 (not long away!) Los Angeles.
The Hidden Context is that Deckard is himself a Replicant. This is cleverly hinted at in the script and in the way Deckard responds to both people and the situations he is placed in. This suggests that he knows what he is at some level – or suspects, but he never says outright.
The evidence is all over the picture, but the clearest ones are quite large. Replicants are known to collect old photos and Deckard has many old black and white images, clearly not of anyone he would know, all over his apartment.
The character Graff at one point makes a model unicorn just after Deckard dreams of unicorns.
Replicants are known to have glowing eyes when reacting emotionally and Deckard displays this at emotional times (cleverly in the background and out of focus).
His emotional responses are also the same as the replicants who he hunts and he is a very unwilling “retirer” of the missing androids. At one point his “boss” reminds him of his place by commenting that if he is not a “Blade Runner,” then he’s one of the “Little People.”
The filmmakers knew that this was in the story and intended to make it more an obvious theme with a reveal, but they lost control of the project to the studio and this element was cut out. The studio also famously added a voiceover to the cinema version that does not flow with this context at all and I actually watched the film something like 6 times before someone put me straight on it. On the special Directors cut DVD the cast discuss the theme and Harrison Ford, who plays Deckard, comments that he fought to have the Hidden-Context re-inserted. Ridley Scott eventually regained control of the film, removed the voice over, extend some scenes and left the facts in the background as fan service.
Probably one of the best films ever made and this Hidden Context adds fabric to the story.
Compare these first two science fiction films with those awful Star Wars prequels that have no such depth and each page of script is dryly slapped together. Consider those prequels against the underlying fabric of the original trilogy, which is made all the better through looks and smiles not found in the scripts.
An example of a Hidden Context placed in the film on purpose to suggest an alternate take on the pumped up masculinity in the film and challenge the viewers sensibilities.
Top Gun is an amazing example of a Hidden-Context that needs to be seen in a different light to become clear. The Hidden-Context is that the Top Gun pilots are in fact all Gay.
Before going on I should point out that I have absolutely no problem with the gay undertones in the movie, in fact I have three gay relatives and a few gay friends (you know who you are!).
The evidence is again weaved into the background all the way through the film, and only becomes obvious when you think a little about it. Firstly, Maverick is undecided whether to come out of the closet or not when approached by the gay members of Top Gun lead by the Ice Man.
Maverick totally failing to get his girlfriend in bed following a very homoerotic beach volleyball scene.
The next day she is (inexplicably) dressed as a man and bumps into Maverick in the lift who then proceeds to kiss her.
Early in the film Maverick is challenged by his friend to gain carnal knowledge of another person and that it “should be a girl this time.” The film is also littered in homoerotic language that is supposedly just macho-pilot talk, but at the end of the film the most obvious line is when Maverick tells the Ice Man that he can be is wingman and ride his tail anytime.
This theory was first brought to light by none other than Quentin Tarantino through his performance in another film where he expounds the idea at a party. Thanks to YouTube, I have that clip here:
Tarantino on TopGun
Is it convincing? I personally think so, but I still like the film a lot. It certainly fits our rules, as the layer is not required to understand or enjoy the surface plot as Mavericks “sulking” is played as him not wanting to be a “team player” and be accepted rather than him being approached for a more intimate “position” in the team.
An example of a Hidden Context probably used to created a depth and “visual” Leitmotif, but that suggests a deeper truth to what we are seeing.
The Grey is a recent film starring the always-excellent Liam Neeson as an Alaskan wolf hunter who survives a plane crash and tries to lead the survivors away from a pack of hungry wolves. Things do not go to plan. The Hidden Context is that Liam Neeson is already dead and the film is his journey through some sort of purgatory.
The evidence is scattered through the film, but you have to watch the entire thing to draw this conclusion as a possibility. I believe that this is an example of the type of Hidden Context used to create a deep fabric on the screen in the form of iconography to enhance your experience of the images. In other words, I am not totally sure that this was something that is actually being suggested as happening or is just allegoric background.
At the beginning of the film, Liam is talking about being “where he deserves” as he walks past a Christian Cross and into a bar full of the sort of drunken violent people one imagines in the frozen north; men and women on the run from something.
Certain commenter’s have suggested that the people in the bar are aspects of Liam’s mind, but many of them are on the plane with him and crash along with him too. After the crash, Liam describes the act of dying to one of them experiencing it with such clarity that you wonder how he knows.
Moreover, the wolves in the film are the stuff of nightmares. Huge, violent and behave not at all as real wolves would act in such circumstances. They are a wall of teeth eating one man at a time. During the attempted escape there are several discussions of philosophy, survival and death that again highlight that Liam’s character knows that he is dead but hasn’t come to terms with it yet. Towards the end Liam is the last remaining survivor and he curses and shouts at God (the clouds above him) asking for proof before he will have faith. Finally he accepts his fate and goes into battle against the largest wolf, the Alpha (in a real pack the Alpha is not the largest wolf, the Beta is – but the Alpha is the leader).
Through the film Liam constantly refers to his wife having “left” him and at the end we see a scene where someone is in a hospital bed with someone else standing over then. The foreground shows a drip. The suggestion is that his wife has died, but the Hidden Context is that it is he who died. The drip is cleverly not shown attached to anyone.
The loneliness experienced by Liam’s character is just like that of a ghost, wandering the world until he is ready to ascend.
This interpretation is not directly known to be factual (the screenwriter hints in some online interviews of a deeper fabric) , but the critical consensus has not reached a conclusion. So this reading is my (and a few critics’) opinions. At the moment!
An example of a Hidden Context used for cultural reasons and to add moral justification to the characters motivations in an otherwise morally questionable situation.
Takashi Miike, Japan’s director auteur, is famous for making films that are all interpretation. Many of his earlier works have little or no plot at all and are rivalled only by the most hardcore art house cinema for violence, filth and blood. I strongly suggest that you think twice before watching “Visitor Q” or “Ichi the Killer” as you may well lose your lunch and have nightmares for months! This isn’t to say, however, that he does these things for no reason. Like all true art, his films are an attempt to grasp the ungraspable, just in the most extreme of ways.
His recent works have been in the Samurai genre and it is one particularly celebrated recent work for which I want to point out a Hidden Context: 13 Assassins.
The plot to this film is quite straight forwards. A small group of Samurai, sickened by the behaviour of their lord, resolve to kill him by ambushing his army of men in a village they have prepared as a kill zone. An orgy of violence commences that lasts well over a 1/3 of the film’s length with each Samurai fighting many men at once in a frenzied attempt to make skill and effort count against vast numbers. The Hidden Context is that one of them is a God.
The Japanese have the concept of God’s that is very different to the Western concept. In the Japanese folk religion, Shinto, everything has a spirit. A rock, a forest and a glade all have spirits. Many Japanese books and films draw from these beliefs, but most acknowledge this somehow in the script. Miike keeps it silent.
After many adventures, the small Samurai team pass through a forest on the way to the village and meet up with a man called Kiga Koyata who claims to be of Samurai lineage and whom they adopt into the group as the 13th member. He leads them to the village and is present as a combatant in the battle. Fighting hand to hand like this is chaos and it goes on for so long that you can easily miss something interesting.
Some of the 13 die, of course, but it did not skip my notice that Koyata dies more than once… and is yet, inexplicably alive and healthy at the end of the film. He had been fighting with only basic (non-Samurai) weapons almost comically for the entire battle.
At one point he is clearly speared in the neck and dies, but yet here he is at the end laughing and heading back into the mountains!
Koyata is a Y?kai; an immortal and divine spirit who cannot be killed.
But why is he in the film? He represents the “Will of heaven,” the mandate that tells us that the actions of the Samurai are approved by the Gods. This is almost too revelatory for this list, but I include it because it is never highlighted or explained and you could quite easily watch the battle (which as I said goes on and on) without noticing it at all.
An example, the classic example, of a Hidden Context used to add layered depth to some of the most complex themes and characters ever seen in cinema, but that would probably be socially rejected if it was a more surface and central plot point.
Our last film in this list is, in my opinion, one of the greatest films ever made. The ending is so perfect, so moving, that its like has rarely been equalled. This film hinges around a majestic performance by John Wayne, which is my personal favourite of his many roles. The basic plot is that his niece Debbie is kidnapped by Indians and he, together with her adopted brother, head out to find her and bring her back. This leads to a quest lasting 5 years of trial and struggle. The Hidden Context is that he is actually Debbie’s father.
This is another film that I have seen many times before, as Sunday matinée viewing was essential in my mother’s house. However, something always bothered me about why John Wayne’s character, Ethan, cares so much about his niece’s fate and why he walks off alone into the sunset in the ending. The clues lay in the way he and the girl’s mother Martha (his sister-in-law) act around each other. It is very subtle, and not in the script, but there are a few looks between them that seem to be saying something.
Clearly Ethan is in love with her, but could it not be more? Did they cuckold Ethan’s brother? Was their love affair secret and illicit and ended when Martha got pregnant? Hence, the background to Ethan is that he has just returned from an absence of 3 years having taken part in some unspecified distant conflict and has an air of shame about him. He is very much the black sheep of the family.
This Hidden Context also explains his willingness to go on the epic journey to rescue the girl, or is it to murder her? All the way through it is suggested that he feels what has happened to Debbie has gone on for so long that he should kill her rather than let her live as an Indian. The film explains this on the surface by highlighting the cultural conflict between the whites and Indians, but you have to ask yourself if underneath it is not about his pain and guilt about his lost child.
The culmination comes when he finally tracks her down in the camp of a vicious Indian called “Scar.”
He attacks the camp, his nephew kills Scar and Ethan chases Debbie down a sand bank. In one of the most powerful moments in cinema history, made all the stronger by the Hidden Context, he comes across her with murder in his eyes, but upon looking at her, his child, he cannot do it and instead embraces her and carries her off to safety.
This is followed by the equally powerful ending. Much happens in the end of this film, but the part that stays with you is as the girl is taken back into her mother’s arms, Ethan stands silhouetted at the doorway looking in and with the sun at his back.
Seeing that he has mended the family by bringing her back, he turns and walks away into the dust. This always seemed to me to be about his violent, racist nature having no place in the family, but as I grew up, and began to understand the Hidden Context, I realised that it is much deeper than this. By rescuing this girl, his secret daughter, he has redeemed himself from his shame of having slept with his brother’s wife. He has no place in this family now and to remain would only complicate things. Taking to the honourable way out, he walks away moving from the shade of the doorway out into the light.
It’s no wonder then that The Searchers was named the Greatest American Western of all time by the American Film Institute in 2008 and coined the phrase “That’ll be the day” that has been used in everything from songs to threats ever since.
So there we have my favourites, do you have any to add to this list? Do you agree with my assessment of them? Hidden Contexts in films and movies are always worth seeking out; they can add depth, humour, highlight the filmmaker’s craft and sometimes, as in the case of The Searchers, almost bring you to tears.
Bio: Philosopher, filmmaker, writer and AI expert.
Occupation: Head of AI for a large corporation.
Interests: Watches, debate, cooking, computer-gaming, reading, writing, videoing, martial arts, airsoft, movies, diving, skiing… (The list goes on — Basho is a philosopher and therefore into everything!)