Don’t Miss the Message!

In my last blog entry, I talked about how books are often “better” at the actual story telling than their movie counter-parts. Budgets, actor’s interpretations, physical limitations, and other factors all contribute to this, and well as the fact that my imagination translates differently than yours or anyone else’s.

One thing that movies can do, that often is lost on paper, is present very vivid images of symbolism. A good director, cinematographer, and art and set director can give a story incredible depth and personality when they notice and illuminate underlying themes or messages.

In the 1974 film, The Great Gatsby, director Jack Clayton remembered his junior English class notes about Fitzgerald, and brought the images of the green beacon, the white linen suits, and the all-seeing eyes on the billboard to life. The tragic story of love and obsession and societal success floats over a deep undercurrent and scratches at your brain even before you know what is really happening.

Why? Because your heart sees some things before your brain has a chance to tell you what it means.

In Dial M for Murder (1954), Grace Kelly stands alongside her husband, played by Ray Milland, enjoying a cocktail with her lover, Robert Cummings. The audience somehow knows there is something going on even before the shot of them whispering to each other.

How? Grace Kelly is wearing a scarlet red dress. You know what that means!

Symbolism and imagery work in other ways, too.

The 2000 film, Oh, Brother Where Art Thou?, takes Homer’s Odyssey to 1930’s Deep South. How did the Cohen brothers manage that? They used symbolism. The band of heroes (George Clooney, John Turturro, and Tim Blake Nelson) face the Cyclops in John Goodman’s eye patched Big Dan Teague. They face beautiful sirens, a blind seer, and other beasts and demons, all as part of a quest for treasure. (And to reunite the hero with his wife, Penny.) As with the Odyssey, the challenges they meet are as integrated into the setting—the times and the locations, as the characters.

Another movie that uses symbolism to tell a story never fully verbalized is the 1990 flick, Joe Versus the Volcano. This one people either love or hate, because it appears as a goofy (and sometimes completely ridiculous) fairy tale. However, like most fairy tales, it has a message.

Tom Hanks plays Joe Banks—an underappreciated office worker and hypochondriac with dreams of travel and adventure. He is every man. He receives the bad news that he has a mysterious and fatal disease, which emboldens him to start living his life. Meg Ryan plays three characters—a severely shy brunette, a flaky redhead, and a free-spirited blonde. In all three women, she represents the idea that while everyone is unique in looks and personality, we all share the same fears and desires.

The imagery in this movie at first seems to indicate that destiny is controlling every aspect of Bank’s life. It is not until Joe tells the woman he loves the whole truth that he frees himself from the fate he formerly embraced. (I’ve heard the truth does that.)

My message to you is to pay attention when you watch a film. Symbols and images are everywhere. Look at the character’s names. Most writers name their characters with meaning and intention.

Watch how the protagonist is dressed. Luke Skywalker (Luke means “light”) wears white and Darth Vader (Dark Father) wears black. In the classic Westerns, the hero dons a white Stetson and the antagonist wears a black hat pushed low on his brow.

Look at the weather. Clouds and rain usually don’t bode well for good news in a movie.

What about the soundtrack? I can write another entire blog about the music!

Can you appreciate a film without “seeing” all the hidden messages? Of course—but I suspect you’ll enjoy it more if you catch them. I have a theory that your heart sees them even when your mind doesn’t. That’s why when you watch a movie again; you start to notice things you never saw the first time.

Call it a challenge.

That’s a wrap for this Toast to Cinema! Thanks for reading!

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