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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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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva
Man Buys Two Metric Tons of LEGO Bricks; Sorts Them Via Machine Learning
May 21, 2017
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iStock // Ekaterina Minaeva

Jacques Mattheij made a small, but awesome, mistake. He went on eBay one evening and bid on a bunch of bulk LEGO brick auctions, then went to sleep. Upon waking, he discovered that he was the high bidder on many, and was now the proud owner of two tons of LEGO bricks. (This is about 4400 pounds.) He wrote, "[L]esson 1: if you win almost all bids you are bidding too high."

Mattheij had noticed that bulk, unsorted bricks sell for something like €10/kilogram, whereas sets are roughly €40/kg and rare parts go for up to €100/kg. Much of the value of the bricks is in their sorting. If he could reduce the entropy of these bins of unsorted bricks, he could make a tidy profit. While many people do this work by hand, the problem is enormous—just the kind of challenge for a computer. Mattheij writes:

There are 38000+ shapes and there are 100+ possible shades of color (you can roughly tell how old someone is by asking them what lego colors they remember from their youth).

In the following months, Mattheij built a proof-of-concept sorting system using, of course, LEGO. He broke the problem down into a series of sub-problems (including "feeding LEGO reliably from a hopper is surprisingly hard," one of those facts of nature that will stymie even the best system design). After tinkering with the prototype at length, he expanded the system to a surprisingly complex system of conveyer belts (powered by a home treadmill), various pieces of cabinetry, and "copious quantities of crazy glue."

Here's a video showing the current system running at low speed:

The key part of the system was running the bricks past a camera paired with a computer running a neural net-based image classifier. That allows the computer (when sufficiently trained on brick images) to recognize bricks and thus categorize them by color, shape, or other parameters. Remember that as bricks pass by, they can be in any orientation, can be dirty, can even be stuck to other pieces. So having a flexible software system is key to recognizing—in a fraction of a second—what a given brick is, in order to sort it out. When a match is found, a jet of compressed air pops the piece off the conveyer belt and into a waiting bin.

After much experimentation, Mattheij rewrote the software (several times in fact) to accomplish a variety of basic tasks. At its core, the system takes images from a webcam and feeds them to a neural network to do the classification. Of course, the neural net needs to be "trained" by showing it lots of images, and telling it what those images represent. Mattheij's breakthrough was allowing the machine to effectively train itself, with guidance: Running pieces through allows the system to take its own photos, make a guess, and build on that guess. As long as Mattheij corrects the incorrect guesses, he ends up with a decent (and self-reinforcing) corpus of training data. As the machine continues running, it can rack up more training, allowing it to recognize a broad variety of pieces on the fly.

Here's another video, focusing on how the pieces move on conveyer belts (running at slow speed so puny humans can follow). You can also see the air jets in action:

In an email interview, Mattheij told Mental Floss that the system currently sorts LEGO bricks into more than 50 categories. It can also be run in a color-sorting mode to bin the parts across 12 color groups. (Thus at present you'd likely do a two-pass sort on the bricks: once for shape, then a separate pass for color.) He continues to refine the system, with a focus on making its recognition abilities faster. At some point down the line, he plans to make the software portion open source. You're on your own as far as building conveyer belts, bins, and so forth.

Check out Mattheij's writeup in two parts for more information. It starts with an overview of the story, followed up with a deep dive on the software. He's also tweeting about the project (among other things). And if you look around a bit, you'll find bulk LEGO brick auctions online—it's definitely a thing!

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Stephen Missal
New Evidence Emerges in Norway’s Most Famous Unsolved Murder Case
May 22, 2017
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A 2016 sketch by a forensic artist of the Isdal Woman
Stephen Missal

For almost 50 years, Norwegian investigators have been baffled by the case of the “Isdal Woman,” whose burned corpse was found in a valley outside the city of Bergen in 1970. Most of her face and hair had been burned off and the labels in her clothes had been removed. The police investigation eventually led to a pair of suitcases stuffed with wigs and the discovery that the woman had stayed at numerous hotels around Norway under different aliases. Still, the police eventually ruled it a suicide.

Almost five decades later, the Norwegian public broadcaster NRK has launched a new investigation into the case, working with police to help track down her identity. And it is already yielding results. The BBC reports that forensic analysis of the woman’s teeth show that she was from a region along the French-German border.

In 1970, hikers discovered the Isdal Woman’s body, burned and lying on a remote slope surrounded by an umbrella, melted plastic bottles, what may have been a passport cover, and more. Her clothes and possessions were scraped clean of any kind of identifying marks or labels. Later, the police found that she left two suitcases at the Bergen train station, containing sunglasses with her fingerprints on the lenses, a hairbrush, a prescription bottle of eczema cream, several wigs, and glasses with clear lenses. Again, all labels and other identifying marks had been removed, even from the prescription cream. A notepad found inside was filled with handwritten letters that looked like a code. A shopping bag led police to a shoe store, where, finally, an employee remembered selling rubber boots just like the ones found on the woman’s body.

Eventually, the police discovered that she had stayed in different hotels all over the country under different names, which would have required passports under several different aliases. This strongly suggests that she was a spy. Though she was both burned alive and had a stomach full of undigested sleeping pills, the police eventually ruled the death a suicide, unable to track down any evidence that they could tie to her murder.

But some of the forensic data that can help solve her case still exists. The Isdal Woman’s jaw was preserved in a forensic archive, allowing researchers from the University of Canberra in Australia to use isotopic analysis to figure out where she came from, based on the chemical traces left on her teeth while she was growing up. It’s the first time this technique has been used in a Norwegian criminal investigation.

The isotopic analysis was so effective that the researchers can tell that she probably grew up in eastern or central Europe, then moved west toward France during her adolescence, possibly just before or during World War II. Previous studies of her handwriting have indicated that she learned to write in France or in another French-speaking country.

Narrowing down the woman’s origins to such a specific region could help find someone who knew her, or reports of missing women who matched her description. The case is still a long way from solved, but the search is now much narrower than it had been in the mystery's long history.

[h/t BBC]