The value of subtlety

Often I will hear someone evaluate a film in terms of it’s degree of subtlety. A person will say “oh it was great, the director approached the theme in a really subtle manner.” or, “it was horrible, he was shoving his idea down my throat, he should be more subtle.”  These comments cause me to wonder who decided that directors should achieve a level of subtlety. This seems to be an assumption without rational basis. What is the value of subtlety?  I suspect that our appreciation for subtlety is the result of our depraved nature and that subtlety may have no real value.

I imagine some readers are saying ” When I appreciate subtlety, I am admiring the prowess of the artist, and his ability to walk a line; communicating his idea softly, but still making the idea possible to understand.” But is it possible for everyone to understand the idea? If so, can you really call that subtle? If not, doesn’t that suck for the people who didn’t get it?

And that is the reason we value subtlety: our human propensity to exclude others.  To be subtle is to communicate a piece of information in a manner that is either hidden, less noticeable or not as clear as possible. The comprehension of the information requires more effort on the part of the receiver. The more subtlety in your communication, the more effort required on the part of the receiver. The greater the effort required, the fewer the people capable of exerting this effort. Thus, as the subtlety of an idea increases, the number of people who will comprehend decreases. So then, when a person says “it is good because it is subtle.” he is actually saying ” I like it because many people don’t.  I have access to something special. My comprehension of this information affirms that God has given me a more advanced brain than most people.”
From here I think the issues are evident. First of all, subtle art encourages a  country club heirarchy, including some and excluding most. Secondly, the proliferation of this value allows hack artists who produce confusing works without any genuine or deliberate choice to pretend that what they’ve done actually is good, but it’s just too subtle for you to understand. Thirdly, the people who experience subtle art don’t even like the art, they like the fact that they understand it. They are prideful. They don’t experience the art, they admire their own brains.

Conversley, this is the same reason why people don’t like bombastic art. If a director screams out his message, the viewer feels that the director is insulting his intelligence. The viewer thinks “hey, God gave me an advanced brain that can connect dots and I like to connect dots but you’re connecting the dots for me and that makes me feel bored and useless.”

But a bombastic director does not necessarily think his audience is stupid. It’s possible that the director could care so much about his idea that tries to communicate it as clearly as possible. He’s not telling the audience they are stupid, he’s making his idea accessible to everyone. Isn’t that admirable?  Why should we applaud an artist who doesn’t communicate his idea clearly? That’s like applauding a cook for preparing something that most stomachs can’t digest.

I’d like to see more “CLEAR FILMMAKING” Enough of this subtlety!

Any retorts?


3 Responses to The value of subtlety

  1. Bruno S says:

    I am completely won over by your persuasive argument.

    Now I just need to save up for a lobotomy so that I can avoid being restless and disengaged while watching movies and reading books that require no deciphering whatsoever.

    Thank you, sir, for showing me the way.

  2. katherine adams says:


  3. Matthieu says:

    I don’t agree with you on that as I often say a movie is not subtle.
    I think there are two occasions when I say a movie lacks of subtlety: when I talk about the acting, or the underlying message

    I think subtlety here has a great thing to do with the difference between theater and movies. Actors in used to have to express their feelings with some bombastic attitude. Actors in movies don’t, and that’s one of the major beauties of cinema. The filmaker can catch a glint, a lips fold, a sigh to convey an emotion. That’s subtlety.

    I’ll take an example.
    The Hurt locker is subtle cause it employs video schemes from video games, youtube, western movies to build a certain vision of Irak that was not present (that did not exist) before the movie was shot. In a way, Bigelow does not argue for/against the war in Irak (which could lead to a non subtle movie such as Redacted). She draws a new way to see soldiers/Irak space, and, by doing this, creates her own point of view. This point of view is delicate and subtle.

    The bottom line is that subtlety is just a way to refer to the way emotions and ideas are conveyed in a movie.
    If a movie conveys threadbare emotions/ideas (or threadbare ways of expressing ideas/emotions), I think the movie is’nt good, and I would point this particular flaw by saying it is not subtle.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: