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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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11 Popular Quotes Commonly Misattributed to F. Scott Fitzgerald
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F. Scott Fitzgerald wrote a lot of famous lines, from musings on failure in Tender is the Night to “so we beat on, boats against the current” from The Great Gatsby. Yet even with a seemingly never-ending well of words and beautiful quotations, many popular idioms and phrases are wrongly attributed to the famous Jazz Age author, who was born on this day in 1896. Here are 11 popular phrases that are often misattributed to Fitzgerald. (You may need to update your Pinterest boards.)

1. “WRITE DRUNK, EDIT SOBER.”

This quote is often attributed to either Fitzgerald or his contemporary, Ernest Hemingway, who died in 1961. There is no evidence in the collected works of either writer to support that attribution; the idea was first associated with Fitzgerald in a 1996 Associated Press story, and later in Stephen Fry’s memoir More Fool Me. In actuality, humorist Peter De Vries coined an early version of the phrase in a 1964 novel titled Reuben, Reuben.

2. “FOR WHAT IT’S WORTH: IT’S NEVER TOO LATE OR, IN MY CASE, TOO EARLY TO BE WHOEVER YOU WANT TO BE.”

It’s easy to see where the mistake could be made regarding this quote: Fitzgerald wrote the short story “The Curious Case of Benjamin Button” in 1922 for Collier's Magazine, and it was adapted into a movie of the same name, directed by David Fincher and starring Brad Pitt and Cate Blanchett, in 2008. Eric Roth wrote the screenplay, in which that quotation appears.

3. “OUR LIVES ARE DEFINED BY OPPORTUNITIES, EVEN THE ONES WE MISS.”

This is a similar case to the previous quotation; this quote is attributed to Benjamin Button’s character in the film adaptation. It’s found in the script, but not in the original short story.

4. “YOU’LL UNDERSTAND WHY STORMS ARE NAMED AFTER PEOPLE.”

There is no evidence that Fitzgerald penned this line in any of his known works. In this Pinterest pin, it is attributed to his novel The Beautiful and Damned. However, nothing like that appears in the book; additionally, according to the National Atmospheric and Oceanic Association, although there were a few storms named after saints, and an Australian meteorologist was giving storms names in the 19th century, the practice didn’t become widespread until after 1941. Fitzgerald died in 1940.

5. “A SENTIMENTAL PERSON THINKS THINGS WILL LAST. A ROMANTIC PERSON HAS A DESPERATE CONFIDENCE THAT THEY WON’T.”

This exact quote does not appear in Fitzgerald’s work—though a version of it does, in his 1920 novel This Side of Paradise:

“No, I’m romantic—a sentimental person thinks things will last—a romantic person hopes against hope that they won’t. Sentiment is emotional.” The incorrect version is widely circulated and requoted.

6. “IT’S A FUNNY THING ABOUT COMING HOME. NOTHING CHANGES. EVERYTHING LOOKS THE SAME, FEELS THE SAME, EVEN SMELLS THE SAME. YOU REALIZE WHAT’S CHANGED IS YOU.”

This quote also appears in the 2008 The Curious Case of Benjamin Button script, but not in the original short story.

7. “GREAT BOOKS WRITE THEMSELVES; ONLY BAD BOOKS HAVE TO BE WRITTEN.”

There is no evidence of this quote in any of Fitzgerald’s writings; it mostly seems to circulate on websites like qotd.org, quotefancy.com and azquotes.com with no clarification as to where it originated.

8. “SHE WAS BEAUTIFUL, BUT NOT LIKE THOSE GIRLS IN THE MAGAZINES. SHE WAS BEAUTIFUL FOR THE WAY SHE THOUGHT. SHE WAS BEAUTIFUL FOR THE SPARKLE IN HER EYES WHEN SHE TALKED ABOUT SOMETHING SHE LOVED. SHE WAS BEAUTIFUL FOR HER ABILITY TO MAKE OTHER PEOPLE SMILE, EVEN IF SHE WAS SAD. NO, SHE WASN’T BEAUTIFUL FOR SOMETHING AS TEMPORARY AS HER LOOKS. SHE WAS BEAUTIFUL, DEEP DOWN TO HER SOUL.”

This quote may have originated in a memoir/advice book published in 2011 by Natalie Newman titled Butterflies and Bullshit, where it appears in its entirety. It was attributed to Fitzgerald in a January 2015 Thought Catalog article, and was quoted as written by an unknown source in Hello, Beauty Full: Seeing Yourself as God Sees You by Elisa Morgan, published in September 2015. However, there’s no evidence that Fitzgerald said or wrote anything like it.

9. “AND IN THE END, WE WERE ALL JUST HUMANS, DRUNK ON THE IDEA THAT LOVE, ONLY LOVE, COULD HEAL OUR BROKENNESS.”

Christopher Poindexter, the successful Instagram poet, wrote this as part of a cycle of poems called “the blooming of madness” in 2013. After a Twitter account called @SirJayGatsby tweeted the phrase with no attribution, it went viral as being attributed to Fitzgerald. Poindexter has addressed its origin on several occasions.

10. “YOU NEED CHAOS IN YOUR SOUL TO GIVE BIRTH TO A DANCING STAR.”

This poetic phrase is actually derived from the work of philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who died in 1900, just four years after Fitzgerald was born in 1896. In his book Thus Spake ZarathustraNietzsche wrote the phrase, “One must have chaos within to enable one to give birth to a dancing star.” Over time, it’s been truncated and modernized into the currently popular version, which was included in the 2009 book You Majored in What?: Designing Your Path from College to Career by Katharine Brooks.

11. “FOR THE GIRLS WITH MESSY HAIR AND THIRSTY HEARTS.”

This quote is the dedication in Jodi Lynn Anderson’s book Tiger Lily, a reimagining of the classic story of Peter Pan. While it is often attributed to Anderson, many Tumblr pages and online posts cite Fitzgerald as its author.

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Fumbled: The Story of the United States Football League
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There were supposed to be 44 players marching to the field when the visiting Los Angeles Express played their final regular season game against the Orlando Renegades in June 1985.

Thirty-six of them showed up. The team couldn’t afford more.

“We didn’t even have money for tape,” Express quarterback Steve Young said in 1986. “Or ice.” The squad was so poor that Young played fullback during the game. They only had one, and he was injured.

Other teams had ridden school buses to practice, driven three hours for “home games,” or shared dressing room space with the local rodeo. In August 1986, the cash-strapped United States Football League called off the coming season. The league itself would soon vaporize entirely after gambling its future on an antitrust lawsuit against the National Football League. The USFL argued the NFL was monopolizing television time; the NFL countered that the USFL—once seen as a promising upstart—was being victimized by its own reckless expansion and the wild spending of team owners like Donald Trump.

They were both right.

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Spring football. That was David Dixon’s pitch. The New Orleans businessman and football advocate—he helped get the Saints in his state—was a fan of college ball and noticed that spring scrimmages at Tulane University led to a little more excitement in the air. With a fiscally responsible salary cap in place and a 12-team roster, he figured his idea could be profitable. Market research agreed: a hired broadcast research firm asserted 76 percent of fans would watch what Dixon had planned.

He had no intention of grappling with the NFL for viewers. That league’s season aired from September through January, leaving a football drought March through July. And in 1982, a players’ strike led to a shortened NFL season, making the idea of an alternative even more appealing to networks. Along with investors for each team region, Dixon got ABC and the recently-formed ESPN signed to broadcast deals worth a combined $35 million over two years.

When the Chicago Blitz faced the Washington Federals on the USFL’s opening day March 6, 1983, over 39,000 fans braved rain at RFK Stadium in Washington to see it. The Federals lost 28-7, foreshadowing their overall performance as one of the league’s worst. Owner Berl Bernhard would later complain the team played like “untrained gerbils.”

Anything more coordinated might have been too expensive. The USFL had instituted a strict $1.8 million salary cap that first year to avoid franchise overspending, but there were allowances made so each team could grab one or two standout rookies. In 1983, the big acquisition was Heisman Trophy winner Herschel Walker, who opted out of his senior year at Georgia to turn pro. Walker signed with the New Jersey Generals in a three-year, $5 million deal.

Jim Kelly and Steve Young followed. Stan White left the Detroit Lions. Marcus Dupree left college. The rosters were built up from scratch using NFL cast-offs or prospects from nearby colleges, where teams had rights to “territorial” drafts.

To draw a line in the sand, the USFL had advertising play up the differences between the NFL’s product and their own. Their slogan, “When Football Was Fun,” was a swipe at the NFL’s increasingly draconian rules regarding players having any personality. They also advised teams to run a series of marketable halftime attractions. The Denver Gold once offered a money-back guarantee for attendees who weren’t satisfied. During one Houston Gamblers game, boxer George Foreman officiated a wedding. Cars were given away at Tampa Bay Bandits games. The NFL, the upstart argued, stood for the No Fun League.

For a while, it appeared to be working. The Panthers, which had invaded the city occupied by the Detroit Lions, averaged 60,000 fans per game, higher than their NFL counterparts. ABC was pleased with steady ratings. The league was still conservative in their spending.

That would change—many would argue for the worse—with the arrival of Donald Trump.

Despite Walker’s abilities on the field, his New Jersey Generals ended the inaugural 1983 season at 6-12, one of the worst records in the league. The excitement having worn off, owner J. Walter Duncan decided to sell the team to real estate investor Trump for a reported $5-9 million.

A fixture of New York media who was putting the finishing touches on Trump Tower, Trump introduced two extremes to the USFL. His presence gave the league far more press attention than it had ever received, but his bombastic approach to business guaranteed he wouldn’t be satisfied with an informal salary cap. Trump spent and spent some more, recruiting players to improve the Generals. Another Heisman winner, quarterback Doug Flutie, was signed to a five-year, $7 million contract, the largest in pro football at the time. Trump even pursued Lawrence Taylor, then a player for the New York Giants, who signed a contract saying that, after his Giants contract expired, he’d join Trump’s team. The Giants wound up buying out the Taylor/Trump contract for $750,000 and quadrupled Taylor’s salary, and Trump wound up with pages of publicity.

Trump’s approach was effective: the Generals improved to 14-4 in their sophomore season. But it also had a domino effect. In order to compete with the elevated bar of talent, other team owners began spending more, too. In a race to defray costs, the USFL approved six expansion teams that paid a buy-in of $6 million each to the league.

It did little to patch the seams. Teams were so cash-strapped that simple amenities became luxuries. The Michigan Panthers dined on burnt spaghetti and took yellow school buses to training camp; players would race to cash checks knowing the last in line stood a chance of having one bounce. When losses became too great, teams began to merge with one another: The Washington Federals became the Orlando Renegades. By the 1985 season, the USFL was down to 14 teams. And because the ABC contract required the league to have teams in certain top TV markets, ABC started withholding checks.

Trump was unmoved. Since taking over the Generals, he had been petitioning behind the scenes for the other owners to pursue a shift to a fall season, where they would compete with the NFL head on. A few owners countered that fans had already voiced their preference for a spring schedule. Some thought it would be tantamount to league suicide.

Trump continued to push. By the end of the 1984 season, he had swayed opinion enough for the USFL to plan on one final spring block in 1985 before making the move to fall in 1986.

In order to make that transition, they would have to win a massive lawsuit against the NFL.

In the mid-1980s, three major networks meant that three major broadcast contracts would be up for grabs—and the NFL owned all three. To Trump and the USFL, this constituted a monopoly. They filed suit in October 1984. By the time it went to trial in May 1986, the league had shrunk from 18 teams to 14, hadn’t hosted a game since July 1985, kept only threadbare rosters, and was losing what existing television deals it had by migrating to smaller markets (a major part of the NFL’s case was that the real reason for the lawsuit, and the moves to smaller markets, was to make the league an attractive takeover prospect for the NFL). The ruling—which could have forced the NFL to drop one of the three network deals—would effectively become the deciding factor of whether the USFL would continue operations.

They came close. A New York jury deliberated for 31 hours over five days. After the verdict, jurors told press that half believed the NFL was guilty of being a monopoly and were prepared to offer the USFL up to $300 million in damages; the other half thought the USFL had been crippled by its own irresponsible expansion efforts. Neither side would budge.

To avoid a hung jury, it was decided they would find in favor of the USFL but only award damages in the amount of $1. One juror told the Los Angeles Times that she thought it would be an indication for the judge to calculate proper damages.

He didn’t. The USFL was awarded treble damages for $3 in total, an amount that grew slightly with interest after time for appeal. The NFL sent them a payment of $3.76. (Less famously, the NFL was also ordered to pay $5.5 million in legal fees.)

Rudy Shiffer, vice-president of the Memphis Showboats, summed up the USFL's fate shortly after the ruling was handed down. “We’re dead,” he said.

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