The Dog Poop in “Roma,” Chief Brody’s Glasses, and Symbolism on Film
Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar, as Sigmund Freud said, yet often in the movies, a cigar means much, much more. It can symbolize power, stand in for the male phallus, or be representative of a lie, i.e. a smokescreen. Groucho Marx used his stogie to represent all three attributes in the characters he played on film. His cigar symbolized a bossy dominion over others, an exaggerated libido, and a propensity to lie through his teeth. Groucho proved that in film, rarely is a prop just a prop.
Symbolism works brilliantly in prose, especially because the reader creates the pictures in their own mind. Employing the tool on film or TV is trickier to pull off due to the visualization being done for the viewer. Done too obviously, symbolism can elicit groans or even derisive laughter. James Cameron’s symbolism in Avatar was so ham-fisted, it marred his arguments for the preservation of nature and rejection of bigotry. Having the blue Na’vi race play as such a thinly-veiled metaphor for the American Indian (The Navaho, get it?) crippled a lot of Cameron’s case. Having their foil be such a caricatured military man like Col. Quaritch (Stephen Lang) also gave the film a B-movie flavor, like he was a modern-day Custer, and earned the earnest film unintentional guffaws.
Zack Snyder did no better than Cameron, over-emphasizing all of the Christ imagery in his origins story of Superman in Man of Steel. From his propensity to backlight Superman throughout to those sledgehammering conversations with his deceased “Holy Spirit” father Jor-El (Russell Crowe), Henry Cavill’s Superman seemed less like a character and more like a blatant religious symbol. Even worse, Darren Aronofsky took all of his biblical metaphors so far in Mother, what with frogs, floods, and masses clamoring to touch a divine baby, that star Jennifer Lawrence never got a chance to play a recognizable human being. Instead, she played only a symbol, specifically that of Mother Nature raging at mankind’s disrespect for her planet.
More successful uses of symbolism on film are those details that are applied with subtly. The surf crashing around Burt Lancaster and Deborah Kerr in From Here To Eternity was a succinct metaphor for their waves of passion for each other. Alfred Hitchcock’s Vertigo had a theme of spirals running throughout, even in Kim Novak’s hairstyle, all keeping connected to the overarching idea of the dizzying condition that plagued James Stewart’s character. Steven Spielberg’s Jaws made great hay out of the glasses worn by Chief Brody (Roy Scheider) as they symbolized his weakness of character.
With them on, the lawman failed to stand up to the town’s mayor or the bullying sea captain. When he loses the glasses at sea, the Brody from NYC emerges, and with his tough, broken-nosed mug, his ability with firearms, and his blunt New Yorker talk, he vanquishes that villainous shark. “Smile, you sonuvabitch,” indeed.
Many of this year’s Academy Award-nominated Best Pictures mined symbolism expertly, enhancing their narrative through details, motifs, and metaphors. In the very first moments of Alfonso Cuaron’s Roma, he establishes a stunning symbol – dog feces. That poop symbolizes the literal and figurative shit that is a constant in the life of the film’s main character Cleo (Yalitza Aparicio), the humble housekeeper of a middle-class family in 1970’s Mexico City.
Her work is never really done, just as she can never really keep up with the dog’s excrement. That symbol even represents how well Cleo takes all the crap in her life in stride, never complaining, dutifully cleaning it up again and again, and starting each day anew.
Later in the film, as the story grows even richer and more complex, so does its symbolism. The stalwart Cleo becomes even Christ-like in her saintliness. At one scene taking place on an exercise field, Cleo nonchalantly stands on one foot mimicking the instructor, balancing herself perfectly. All of the students there fail, but she is literally and figuratively able to balance it all. Then, during a trip to the beach, a child gets pulled out to sea by the ocean’s undertow. Cleo saves him, walking against the crashing waves, practically walking on water to rescue the boy. It is bold symbolism, for sure, but the beauty of Cuaron’s black and white cinematography keeps it ethereal and elegant, never allowing it to become coarse or too on-the-nose.
The film The Favourite, which tied Roma for the most Oscar nominations with 10 this year, uses the motif of rabbits as one of its most vivid symbols. Queen Anne is bitter and lonely, having suffered numerous miscarriages over the years, and failing to produce an heir. Her choice of pets surrounding her manage to not only be fluffy and lovable but these hares become stand-in heirs, symbolizing all the children she could have fostered. (Breeding like rabbits, natch.) It’s a rather cheeky pun but it plays as a great symbol too due to the dark humor inherent throughout the film.
Watch Green Book and you’ll see symbolism centered around the motif of where musician Dr. Don Shirley sits. When Tony Lip (Viggo Mortenson) interviews for the job with Shirley (Mahershala Ali) in the musician’s opulent apartment, the black man sits on an African throne, looking down imperially on his potential driver and bodyguard who is a blue-collar white. From that point on, exactly where Shirley is situated in a scene becomes a symbol of his station at the given moment. While touring the south, Shirley sits in the back of Tony’s car, as if being driven in a limo that separates him from his chauffeur. Yet, in most other instances, Shirley hardly sits pretty. He slumps over alone in his chair at night in cheap motel rooms, drinking away his loneliness, and segregation forbids him from being seated alongside Tony and his two white fellow musicians in various restaurants. At the end, the symbolism of Shirley’s seating reaches its zenith when he shows up at Tony’s house and is literally given a seat at the white man’s table. It may be on-the-nose, but it is effective.
Symbolism in the other Best Picture nominees plays more delicately. Symbols of death and rebirth are constant motifs throughout A Star is Born. (It’s even there in the title.) Jackson Maine’s signature song actually starts with the lyric, “Maybe it’s time to let the old ways die.” From there on, nooses and looping ropes and microphone cords work their way into the narrative and the background, foreshadowing that character’s demise. Meanwhile, the dyed, flaming red hair of Ally (Lady Gaga) becomes a visual signature of her pop star persona as well as a symbol of her killing off her real self and talent to achieve fame. In the climax, Maine kills himself which leads to Ally’s rebirth as an artist fully in command of her talent and wearing her hair with its natural color.
In Spike Lee’s politically deft and searing 70’s period piece Blackkklansman, the leader of the clan may be David Duke (Topher Grace), but he manages to be a symbolic metaphor for all of the modern prejudice filling the news today, particularly in relation to the racism that Donald Trump ramps up on so many occasions. At one point in the story, lead character Ron Stallworth (John David Washington) tells a white co-worker at the police station that America “would never elect somebody like David Duke” to be the President of the United States. In response, Stallworth’s white sergeant tells him he’s pretty naïve.
Lee even ends his film with footage from the infamous Charlottesville protests, climaxing with James Field mowing down protestor Heather Heyer with his car. The news media long ago stopped showing that moment, but Lee shows it in all of its horror, drawing a straight line from the Klan hoods that dominate much of Blackkklansman to the red MAGA hats worn by Trump’s base who applaud Hispanic children being put in cages and “good people on both sides.” Lee uses such metaphors throughout his film to draw parallels between the bigotry of the ’70s with that of today, concluding little has changed in the cause of civil rights.
Most screenwriters wanting to add layering and nuance to their work would be wise to incorporate symbolism. It can be employed in the smallest of a story’s details: the color a character wears, his drink ordered at a bar, the car she drives, or the posters on a wall. Even better, as a writer creates more pages, he or she will see motifs developing that themselves become symbolic of the story. If a story is about death, how many details or lines of dialogue can point symbolically to that over-arching theme? Looking for such opportunities allow writers to not only be clever but create synergies that make everything in their story hold together.
Some symbolism may come naturally, like Brody’s glasses, while other versions of the trope will be worked in more consciously, such as Queen Anne’s hares. But no matter how symbolism is utilized, be it details, motifs or metaphors, they always offer a writer the opportunity to deepen the work. Symbolism increases a story’s power to connect both consciously and unconsciously with an audience. Cuaron knows that, and that’s why his dog poop is so much more than it appears to be. It’s a brilliant symbol in his story, an opportunity to say more about his character that he dared not let go to waste.
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