We've all seen lists of great screen kisses, great car chases, great fight scenes. They're easy to appreciate, and perhaps that's why they get all the attention. Now maybe it's because I'm a film geek (or because I was an English major), but for me there's nothing like a really well-done film metaphor. (Really!) It goes back to rule numero uno of good cinema -- show, don't tell -- and there's nothing like a tasteful, well-executed visual symbol to do just that (and really get those geek-juices flowing too). If movies were books, it's during those big metaphor moments when I would begin underlining and circling passages feverishly, certain I would return later to study and decode every juicy hidden meaning (yeah, right).
Now, this is by no means a conclusive list (it's somewhat limited by what I could find on DVD and what was already on YouTube), but these eight clips represent some of the finest (or at least most interesting) symbolic/metaphoric moments in cinema in the last 20-30 years. What do they all mean? I'll take a stab at parsing them, but I'd love to hear what you all think, too.
These are, for the most part, safe for work -- but I'll boldly indicate the few that are not. And watch the videos, people! It took forever to cut these together. (Yes, I did a little editing -- but just to maximize the metaphors in the shortest amount of time. Sorry, Stanley!)
The Shining: Hedge Maze
At this early stage in the film, nothing seems too out of whack at the Overlook. But Danny and Wendy are entering a terrifying labyrinth from which there is no easy exit. Jack, looming over the maze like a giant or a puppeteer, almost tips his hand; "you've always been the caretaker here," Grady will tell him later, and indeed, this scene makes him out to be the master of whatever bizarre ceremony we are about to witness. Of course, it also foreshadows the film's famous climactic scene, in which a nearly unrecognizable Jack chases Danny through the maze with an axe.
Barton Fink: the Woman and the Wallpaper
One of my top five favorite films -- and so weird. Barton's horror-movie hotel room is practically brimming with symbols: the picture of the woman on the beach represents, perhaps, hope and the possibility of escape, while the peeling wallpaper seems to suggest that he's currently stuck in Hell. What do you think?
Badlands: the Fish and the Cow
As pointless as it seems to make top-whatever lists of my favorite films (there are so many), Badlands is what I call my #1 favorite whenever I'm put on the spot. It's hard to explain why in a short space, but part of the reason is the deep meaning that director Terrence Malick invests in his images: in this scene -- just three simple shots -- the protagonists reveal their complex (and vastly different) attitudes toward death, which will soon be played out larger than life when Kit embarks on a murderous rampage, with Holly as his co-pilot.
Stroszek: the Dancing Chicken
No one makes movies quite like that famously odd duck Werner Herzog, and Stroszek is one of his strangest, and best. But I'll let Roger Ebert do the explaining (and the guessing) here:
Many movies end with hopeless characters turning to crime. No movie ends like "Stroszek." Bruno and Mr. Scheitz take a rifle and go to rob the bank, which is closed, so they rob the barber shop next door of $32 and, leaving their car running, walk directly across the street to a supermarket, where Bruno has time to pick up a frozen turkey before the cops arrest Mr. Scheitz. Bruno then drives to a nearby amusement arcade, where he feeds in quarters to make chickens dance and play the piano. Then he boards a ski lift to go around and around and around. This last sequence is just about the best he has ever filmed, Herzog says on the commentary track of the DVD. His crew members hated the dancing chicken so much they refused to participate, and he shot the footage himself. The chicken is a "great metaphor," he says--for what, he's not sure. My theory: A force we cannot comprehend puts some money in the slot, and we dance until the money runs out.
(By the way, does anyone else experience a slight sine wave of funny while watching this?):
Punch-Drunk Love: the Pudding
True, P.T. Anderson's There Will Be Blood is the best film he (or a lot of people) have ever made. But that doesn't make his previous film, the decidedly lower-budget, naturalistic and at times seemingly improvised Punch-Drunk Love any less of a treat. Adam Sandler plays basket-case Barry Egan, who thinks he's finally duped the system when he stumbles across Healthy Choice pudding frequent-flyer miles promotion seems too good to be true. The guy seems like a big unhappy ball of anxiety about to explode, and this manic, pudding-buying episode is his peak of manic happiness, soon to be followed by some very deep valleys of despair. But the pudding ... what does it all mean?? You tell me! (By the way, there's one naughty word at the end.)
The Last Picture Show: Sweeping
This is one of the great films of the 70s, and Peter Bogdonavich's masterpiece. For this clip, I took bits from the very beginning and the very end of the film -- the sweeping bookends the film nicely -- and if there's a better cinematic metaphor for the futility and fragility of existence, I haven't seen it. (One swear word near the end.)
Affliction: the Toothache
Okay, this one is kind of graphic and has a lot of swearing, so be forewarned. It's also the climax of a really brilliant cinematic device from an overlooked gem of a movie, released in 1997, called Affliction. It stars Nick Nolte as a well-meaning small-town cop who begins to unravel as he puts together the pieces of what he suspects is a murder passed off as a hunting accident in his town. His mother dies, forcing Nolte to spend a lot more time with his abusive, alcoholic father (played by a totally off-the-hook James Coburn), and the more time he spends with his horrible father (and the more events spiral out of control in the town), the more Nolte comes to resemble the old man, whose temper, propensity to violence and love of drink Nolte has inherited -- nay, is afflicted with (hence the title).
This subtle-at-first then explosive upwelling of violence in Nolte is represented brilliantly, I think, by a nasty toothache he can't seem to shake. It gets worse and worse throughout the film, until this climactic scene when he (and this is where it gets graphic) removes it himself with a pair of pliers and a bottle of scotch to swish with. With the tooth finally pulled, the curse that's been bottled up inside him for years is finally loosed -- and he and his father are painted as birds of a feather in the final brilliant shot (watching boxing on TV, wordlessly sharing a drink, mirror images of one another).
2001: the Monkey Invents Space Travel
I saved the best for last: the bone that turns into a spaceship at the end of 2001's "Dawn of Man" sequence. (Possibly the greatest cut in film history, if you ask me.) What about the monolith, you ask, isn't that a symbol? I'm not so sure: it serves a pretty narrative purpose, being the alien instrument of the apes' advancement as a species. The bone/spaceship, on the other hand, implies a meaning outside of the this-happens that-happens flow of the plot. What do you think?
And while we're on the subject, what are your favorite movie metaphors?
Bonus challenge (and shameless plug)! The house in the short Portable Living Room is most definitely a metaphor (though it's meaning isn't a huge mystery -- just listen to the song):