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8 Movie Metaphors Worth Puzzling Over

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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):

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8 of the Weirdest Gallup Polls
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Born in Jefferson, Iowa on November 18, 1901, George Gallup studied journalism and psychology, focusing on how to measure readers’ interest in newspaper and magazine content. In 1935, he founded the American Institute of Public Opinion to scientifically measure public opinions on topics such as government spending, criminal justice, and presidential candidates. Although he died in 1984, The Gallup Poll continues his legacy of trying to determine and report the will of the people in an unbiased, independent way. To celebrate his day of birth, we compiled a list of some of the weirdest, funniest Gallup polls over the years.

1. THREE IN FOUR AMERICANS BELIEVE IN THE PARANORMAL (2005)

According to this Gallup poll, 75 percent of Americans have at least one paranormal belief. Specifically, 41 percent believe in extrasensory perception (ESP), 37 percent believe in haunted houses, and 21 percent believe in witches. What about channeling spirits, you might ask? Only 9 percent of Americans believe that it’s possible to channel a spirit so that it takes temporary control of one's body. Interestingly, believing in paranormal phenomena was relatively similar across people of different genders, races, ages, and education levels.

2. ONE IN FIVE AMERICANS THINK THE SUN REVOLVES AROUND THE EARTH (1999)

In this poll, Gallup tried to determine the popularity of heliocentric versus geocentric views. While 79 percent of Americans correctly stated that the Earth revolves around the sun, 18 percent think the sun revolves around the Earth. Three percent chose to remain indifferent, saying they had no opinion either way.

3. 22 PERCENT OF AMERICANS ARE HESITANT TO SUPPORT A MORMON (2011)

Gallup first measured anti-Mormon sentiment back in 1967, and it was still an issue in 2011, a year before Mormon Mitt Romney ran for president. Approximately 22 percent of Americans said they would not vote for a Mormon presidential candidate, even if that candidate belonged to their preferred political party. Strangely, Americans’ bias against Mormons has remained stable since the 1960s, despite decreasing bias against African Americans, Catholics, Jews, and women.

4. MISSISSIPPIANS GO TO CHURCH THE MOST; VERMONTERS THE LEAST (2010)

This 2010 poll amusingly confirms the stereotype that southerners are more religious than the rest of the country. Although 42 percent of all Americans attend church regularly (which Gallup defines as weekly or almost weekly), there are large variations based on geography. For example, 63 percent of people in Mississippi attend church regularly, followed by 58 percent in Alabama and 56 percent in South Carolina, Louisiana, and Utah. Rounding out the lowest levels of church attendance, on the other hand, were Vermont, where 23 percent of residents attend church regularly, New Hampshire, at 26 percent, and Maine at 27 percent.

5. ONE IN FOUR AMERICANS DON’T KNOW WHICH COUNTRY AMERICA GAINED INDEPENDENCE FROM (1999)

Although 76 percent of Americans knew that the United States gained independence from Great Britain as a result of the Revolutionary War, 24 percent weren’t so sure. Two percent thought the correct answer was France, 3 percent said a different country (such as Mexico, China, or Russia), and 19 percent had no opinion. Certain groups of people who consider themselves patriotic, including men, older people, and white people (according to Gallup polls), were more likely to know that America gained its independence from Great Britain.

6. ONE THIRD OF AMERICANS BELIEVE IN GHOSTS (2000)

This Halloween-themed Gallup poll asked Americans about their habits and behavior on the last day of October. Predictably, two-thirds of Americans reported that someone in their house planned to give candy to trick-or-treaters and more than three-quarters of parents with kids reported that their kids would wear a costume. More surprisingly, 31 percent of American adults claimed to believe in ghosts, an increase from 1978, when only 11 percent of American adults admitted to a belief in ghosts.

7. 5 PERCENT OF WORKING MILLENNIALS THRIVE IN ALL FIVE ELEMENTS OF WELL-BEING (2016)

This recent Gallup poll is funny in a sad way, as it sheds light on the tragicomic life of a millennial. In this poll, well-being is defined as having purpose, social support, manageable finances, a strong community, and good physical health. Sadly, only 5 percent of working millennials—defined as people born between 1980 and 1996—were thriving in these five indicators of well-being. To counter this lack of well-being, Gallup’s report recommends that managers promote work-life balance and improve their communication with millennial employees.

8. THE WORLD IS BECOMING SLIGHTLY MORE NEGATIVE (2014)

If you seem to feel more stress, sadness, anxiety, and pain than ever before, Gallup has the proof that it’s not all in your head. According to the company’s worldwide negative experience index, negative feelings such as stress, sadness, and anger have increased since 2007. Unsurprisingly, people living in war-torn, dangerous parts of the word—Iraq, Iran, Egypt, Syria, and Sierra Leone—reported the highest levels of negative emotions.

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11 Times Mickey Mouse Was Banned
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Despite being one of the world’s most recognizable and beloved characters, it hasn’t always been smooth sailing for Mickey Mouse, who turns 89 years old today. A number of countries—and even U.S. states—have banned the cartoon rodent at one time or another for reasons both big and small.

1. In 1930, Ohio banned a cartoon called “The Shindig” because Clarabelle Cow was shown reading Three Weeks by Elinor Glyn, the premier romance novelist of the time. Check it out (1:05) and let us know if you’re scandalized:

2. With movies on 10-foot screen being a relatively new thing in Romania in 1935, the government decided to ban Mickey Mouse, concerned that children would be terrified of a monstrous rodent.

3. In 1929, a German censor banned a Mickey Mouse short called “The Barnyard Battle.” The reason? An army of cats wearing pickelhauben, the pointed helmets worn by German military in the 19th and 20th centuries: "The wearing of German military helmets by an army of cats which oppose a militia of mice is offensive to national dignity. Permission to exhibit this production in Germany is refused.”

4. The German dislike for Mickey Mouse continued into the mid-'30s, with one German newspaper wondering why such a small and dirty animal would be idolized by children across the world: "Mickey Mouse is the most miserable ideal ever revealed ... Healthy emotions tell every independent young man and every honorable youth that the dirty and filth-covered vermin, the greatest bacteria carrier in the animal kingdom, cannot be the ideal type of animal.” Mickey was originally banned from Nazi Germany, but eventually the mouse's popularity won out.

5. In 2014, Iran's Organization for Supporting Manufacturers and Consumers announced a ban on school supplies and stationery products featuring “demoralizing images,” including that of Disney characters such as Mickey Mouse, Winnie the Pooh, Sleeping Beauty, and characters from Toy Story.

6. In 1954, East Germany banned Mickey Mouse comics, claiming that Mickey was an “anti-Red rebel.”

7. In 1937, a Mickey Mouse adventure was so similar to real events in Yugoslavia that the comic strip was banned. State police say the comic strip depicted a “Puritan-like revolt” that was a danger to the “Boy King,” Peter II of Yugoslavia, who was just 14 at the time. A journalist who wrote about the ban was consequently escorted out of the country.

8. Though Mussolini banned many cartoons and American influences from Italy in 1938, Mickey Mouse flew under the radar. It’s been said that Mussolini’s children were such Mickey Mouse fans that they were able to convince him to keep the rodent around.

9. Mickey and his friends were banned from the 1988 Seoul Olympics in a roundabout way. As they do with many major sporting events, including the Super Bowl, Disney had contacted American favorites to win in each event to ask them to say the famous “I’m going to Disneyland!” line if they won. When American swimmer Matt Biondi won the 100-meter freestyle, he dutifully complied with the request. After a complaint from the East Germans, the tape was pulled and given to the International Olympic Committee.

10. In 1993, Mickey was banned from a place he shouldn't have been in the first place: Seattle liquor stores. As a wonderful opening sentence from the Associated Press explained, "Mickey Mouse, the Easter Bunny and teddy bears have no business selling booze, the Washington State Liquor Control Board has decided." A handful of stores had painted Mickey and other characters as part of a promotion. A Disney VP said Mickey was "a nondrinker."

11. Let's end with another strike against The Shindig (see #1) and Clarabelle’s bulging udder. Less than a year after the Shindig ban, the Motion Picture Producers and Directors of America announced that they had received a massive number of complaints about the engorged cow udders in various Mickey Mouse cartoons.

From then on, according to a 1931 article in Time magazine, “Cows in Mickey Mouse ... pictures in the future will have small or invisible udders quite unlike the gargantuan organ whose antics of late have shocked some and convulsed others. In a recent picture the udder, besides flying violently to left and right or stretching far out behind when the cow was in motion, heaved with its panting with the cow stood still.”

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