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Favorite film symbols and metaphors

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I've been thinking about those films that speak through symbols effectively, whether they use the painfully obvious or else communicate with subtlety.

Can you name a few films in which you thought symbolism was used effectively?

Was there a film that "woke" you to the language of visual symbols in film?

Rosebud springs to mind, of course, from Citizen Kane. What did it represent?

The mountain in Picnic at Hanging Rock - the allure of mystery, sensual experience, sex, nature.

The ice-maker in The Mosquito Coast - man's ambition and ego.

In Punch-drunk Love, I think Barry Egan's harmonium is a wonderful thing. It seems so arbitrary at first, but later it comes to suggest things about Barry, about brokenness, and about grace.

And I wonder if that was inspired by Jane Campion's The Piano, and how the instrument came to represent Ada.

The New World is so full of powerful metaphors, it's hard to know what's metaphor and what's not.

Puppets become metaphors in The Double Life of Veronique and Being John Malkovich.

I love how Damiel has to give up the "armor" or detachment in Wings of Desire, and begins to engage with life.

The ship becomes a symbol of Steve Zissou's search for fulfillment in The Life Aquatic.

Edited by Jeffrey Overstreet



Takin' 'er easy for all you sinners at lookingcloser.org. Also abiding at Facebook and Twitter.


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Well there's stacks in anything by Hitchcock or Kieslowski. Three Colours Blue alone is stacked with symbols. I think when i did a talk on it a while back I got everyone to list them all, and there was a big list at the end.

Colour can work like this as well. I'm slightly ashamed to say that the first time I really considered the importance of colour was after Reading Stern et al's analysis of Ray's King of Kings, and pretty much because of that, that film has always been near to my heart.

And pretty much anytime the statue of liberty is used it's symbolic wheter it's Hitch's Saboteur, Planet of the Apes,or The Day after Tomorrow


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The briefcase in Pulp Fiction

Roy's nail-pierced hand in Blade Runner

The neatly-stacked books in Kenji's apartment in Last Life In The Universe

Since Matt mentioned colors, there are the various color schemes in Hero.

"I feel a nostalgia for an age yet to come..."
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The Blue Box in Mulholland Drive. This little box ties together the entire film, and one of the film's most powerful images literally emerges from it at the end. As Ricoeur said: "The symbol gives rise to the thought."

The fish at the end of Rumble Fish. I have a list around here somewhere of films in black and white that insert a few frames or images in color at key moments of the drama. Great example here.

The balloons in The White Balloon. There is something about the open-endedness of this film. It evokes such a sense of innocence and justice in this community enduring a famine of both of those things. Balloons are a fitting metaphor for what happens in this charming story.

The obelisks in 2001. Need no explanation. Function the same way the cross does in The Passion of the Christ.

Every frame of Zerkalo.

The green ray at the end of The Green Ray. I was flabbergasted by the end of this film, and that Rohmer had actually managed to capture this image on film. Fitting symbol for the film and Rohmer's career in one fell swoop.

The balloon at the beginning of Andrei Rublev. Maybe this doesn't fit as well, but I recall a comment about how the balloon is an historiographical symbol. It allows us to enter the film on an objective tone, with a bit of distance from the history that will soon unfold. Perhaps though the bell is a more "symbolic" feature of the film.

The groundhog in Groundhog Day.

As far as The Life Aquatic..., I think the ridiculous Jaguar shark is one of my favorite film "symbols." But I may be reading far far too much into it.

"...the vivid crossing of borders between film and theology may save the film from the banality of cinema and festival business, and it may also save the church from the deep sleep of the habitual and the always known."

(Hans Werner Dannowski)

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Since Matt mentioned colors, there are the various color schemes in Hero.

I find this film to be one of my favorite examples of the uses of colors; they are so effective in the symbols, moods, and transitions of Hero.

And while we are in the Chinese film category, I'll mention the sword that is exchanged between characters in Farewell, My Concubine.

And while we are in the Bill Murray film category, what about the recurring bouquets of flowers and the color pink in Broken Flowers?

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How about the mysterious box in Barton Fink?


And what is it about The Life Aquatic? The more I watch it, the more I see, the more emotional I become, and the more I love this strange little movie.

The jaguar shark makes me cry like a baby.

Well, wait, Peter will want to check my accuracy there... :) probably not like a baby... but you know what I mean.



Takin' 'er easy for all you sinners at lookingcloser.org. Also abiding at Facebook and Twitter.


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You wouldn't believe how many times I've wanted to tell my son "Don't be such a baby!" And then I realize, "Oh, right. This is where that expression comes from."

My daughter is a different story. When she cries, it sounds almost like it hurts her to make those sounds, which tells me she must really, really need to make them. But my son ... all too often, it sounds like it's too easy for him to cry, and I've seen him start to wail at the slightest, slightest of provocations.

Love 'em both dearly, though.

So, um, to keep this on-topic, um, hopefully babies have been used as metaphors somewhere ... has someone already mentioned L'enfant?

(One day I'll post my musings on whether it is possible to "anthropomorphize" babies...)

"Sympathy must precede belligerence. First I must understand the other, as it were, from the inside; then I can critique it from the outside. So many people skip right to the latter." -- Steven D. Greydanus
Now blogging at Patheos.com. I can also still be found at Facebook, Twitter and Flickr. See also my film journal.

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The dresses that Maggie Cheung wears in In The Mood For Love, as a symbol of suppressed desire and longing.

The withered tree in The Sacrifice.

"I feel a nostalgia for an age yet to come..."
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Maybe the greatest example of symbol in film is the "steamship" and "opera" in Fitzcarraldo, because Herzog works so hard to make them tangible, and at the same time, not symbolic at all, but literal.

And because the film "Fitzcarraldo" is at the same time a reflection on its own making, there is an almost perfect correspondence and blurring between Fitzcarraldo (Kinski) and Herzog, and the real ship is a solid obstacle for both of them, and though Fitzcarraldo fails at his mad objective, Herzog succeeds in bringing the lyric feel of the opera to the jungle.

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Televisions and Chance

Exagerate the essential. Leave the obvious vague. ---Vincent Van Gogh

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Wilson in CAST AWAY

The cross and Christmas tree in AUTUMN IN NEW YORK

The rocket in OCTOBER SKY - especially when contrasted with the father who went down into the mine in order to give his son the sky


Since 1995 we have authored a commentary on film, cinema in focus. Though we enjoy cinema as an art form, our interests lie not so much in reviewing a film as in beginning a conversation about the social and spiritual values presented. We, therefore, often rate a film higher or lower due to its message rather than its quality of acting or film-making.

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Maybe it was my evangelical/fundie upbringing (it's ONLY A SYMBOL!), or maybe I'm just weird, but I really can't remember a time when I wasn't at least sensitive to the possibility of visual symbolism in films. Perhaps seeing Purple Rose of Cairo was the first time I recognized it. (At the age of 12 or so, the hamfistedness of the symbolism was perhaps necessary.)

However, for films in recent memory, I'm a bit enamored of the food symbolism in Big Night. The moments of purist and simplest human interaction in the film are accompanied by simple, straightforward foods. When Primo visits the barber, he brings some risotto still in the pot, and they eat it right out of the pot. When Primo finally makes a connection with Ann, it's while he's making the simplest of pasta sauces with just some tomatoes, garlic, and herbs. And, of course, the final scene of the film, the reconciliation of the brothers, is marked by the simplest of foods, scrambled eggs and bread.

In contrast, the most ornate, elaborate, and flashy foods are present in situations that end up being false, empty, or traitorous. Yes, the people the enjoy the feast, enjoy it to the hilt, but in the end the Big Night is the ruination of the business. Pascal's repackaging of Italian cuisine, though popular, is a betrayal of the true Italian roots of the immigrants. Or, as Primo so energetically proclaims, it is "Rape! The Rape of Cuisine!"

At any rate, the symbolism of the glorious timpani and humble omlet are quite powerful to me.

Jesus is not a zombie...I shouldn't have to tell you that.

--Agent Booth, Bones

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The color green in The Matrix.

The rain of frogs in Magnolia.

Archery in The Weatherman.

The desert in Lawrence of Arabia.

The drop of rain/tear in The Passion of the Christ.

The postcard-photo of a tropical island in Collateral.

The rose petals in American Beauty.

Bill Macy's character Jerry Lundergaard scrapping the frost off his car in Fargo.

The TVA flood in O Brother Where Art Thou.

George McFly's transformative punch of Biff in Back to the Future.

Peter Sellers' character Chance sticking his umbrella in the water in Being There.

"Those are my principles, and if you don't like them... well, I have others." - Groucho Marx

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