Hi, this is Matt. I want to do something different today. I usually make videos analyzing the symbolic meaning in films, but today I wanted to talk about how I know and how you can know a film’s symbolic meaning?

If you read the comments on this channel, you will see that I regularly get accused of imposing my beliefs on these movies that I am finding in them something that isn’t really there. Of course, my believing that Andy represents Jesus, Chigurh symbolizes death, the groundhog symbolizes Phil, Max’s Muzzle signifies a beak, and Wilson represents Chuck’s old self but does not make it so. So how I do know that this is more than likely what the filmmakers had in mind? The answer begins with language.

We as humans by nature makers and interpreters of symbols. We listen because we understand. We speak because we expect to be understood, and that’s not all that different from what screenwriters and directors do. They use and invest images with symbolic meaning because they expect us to understand them, and they can do this because it’s something that we do every day.

The words we used are symbols. Take the word “hand” for instance, it’s not the thing itself, but a spoken or written representation of something else. Our cultural context has invest the sound and our combination of letters with meaning, and because words are symbols, not the thing itself, they can and often have a variety of meanings. A list which can grow as words pick up new associations in new context. This is how for instance giving someone a hand came to refer as not to the literal act of cutting out that body part, but instead to help or applause. The specific context was the implicit key by which the hearer understood the speaker’s intent, and from a single usage, the meaning spread to the cultural list of meanings. It’s only in context that we actually know a word’s meaning. A word outside our context means nothing to us, and without some additional context, we simply assume our cultures most common use. Determining if another meaning is intended as a matter of accounting for all the contextual evidence, the more coherence we find increases our confidence that we have indeed understood as speaker’s intent.

In film, images work the same way. An image is simply the thing itself unless context suggests some other sense. Screenwriters and directors invest images with symbolic meaning in a same way we do words by connecting them to other things – a spoken metaphor, a comparison may be between two things becomes a possible meaning when the physical image is shown later on in the film, but metaphors can also be done visually, the effect of cutting between two images places an additional or equal sign between them. Similarities and or contrasts not necessarily shown next to each other can produce the same effect.

But screenwriters and directors also pick images for their pre-loaded cultural associations. Other movies, television shows, historical events, books, philosophical ideas as well as universal experiences already inform us of an image’s possible meanings.

We don’t have to ask a filmmaker what they thought to know what they were thinking; the film tells us in the same way a sentence tells us the thoughts of a speaker. Just as a safecracker listens and considers the sound of a lock testing out hypothesis by trial and error, so we too come to understand a filmmaker’s intent by linking up meaning in film. Since we intuitively understand how symbolism in language works, symbolism is working its magic on each of us.

In Mel Gibson’s Passion of the Christ, Jesus says of his torment, “I make all things new.” And given that it’s a quote from the book of Revelation (21:5), these words seems oddly placed. In the Passion, Jesus is beaten to a bloody pulp. How could this make anything new? The Passion shows how in its beginning and end.

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In the beginning, Jesus is praying in the Garden. And yet its not just Gethsamene. It’s the Garden of Eden. The serpent is found in Genesis, tempting the first humans, as the Devil does Jesus here. Jesus is Eve and Adam, undergoing their temptation. This is important because Adam and Eve aren’t just people in the Bible, as the first humans, they stand for all humanity. In their failure the world failed. And in their expulsion from paradise the whole world was expelled.

But in the Passion, Jesus seeks to do something no human has ever done; overcome all temptation, to crush the serpent’s head, and in doing that replace the failure of the first couple as humanities new representative. He therefore suffers to identify with us and not for his own sin.

This is why the Passion so focuses on Jesus’ suffering. This isn’t just Jesus who is suffering, This is humanity suffering: the child bloodied by the attack of ISIS and the one mistreated by their parent. The list examples on and on. Jesus is suffering with every person. And in righteously sharing in that suffering shares with us his resurrection and victory over sin. That;s why in the resurrection, he stands naked as the first humans did before the fall. He’s returning humanity to the garden.

Just think about Jesus’ suffering as you listen to this song. https://youtu.be/gpOPkzplHRw

I’m not a fan of the Left Behind series. I read the first novel in 1995 before any of the other books came out. After that, I began buying each one with a plan to binge read the whole series when it was finally done. But I never did. By 2003, I began to see that the series misses Revelation’s true meaning.

I know Left Behind is a work of fiction but it’s also based on a real way of interpreting Revelation known as Dispensationalism which sees Revelation, for the most part, as a literal series of near future events. The events occur largely within a seven year period know as the tribulation which begins with a rapture or catching away to heaven of all true believers. After the seven years, Christ returns to earth and reigns for another 1,000. I grew up in a church that taught me to read Revelation and the world with this eye and we watched the news for signs that seven year period was about to begin. But by my early twenties as a history major, I started asking a question no one I knew seemed to be asking. What did Revelation mean for the first recipients? Was it really intended as gibberish for 2,000 years until someone could at last match times with signs?

It was then that I came to see the key to Revelation is really simple. Revelation hinges on a repeated pattern. Five times, the book ushers readers to the throne of God where angels and people of every ethnicity sing songs of thanksgiving and worship to God and Jesus. John describes the first worship scene in chapter 4 and then goes on to describe the effects of Jesus’ breaking of seven seals. The sixth seal leads to a second scene of worship. In chapter eight, the seals give way to the blowing of seven trumpets which yet again ends in a scene of worship. The pattern goes on. The key to Revelation is worship ands it’s intended effect is worship. In fact, Revelation has been called the Psalms of the New Testament because no other book contains the number of worship songs. What we try to solve as a mysterious puzzle was meant more as a hymnal. And as we stain our brains to get it to fit the specifics of our current world issues, we miss it’s intended effect of moving our emotions and turning our hearts to God.

Revelation is not so much about the future as it is a series of symbolic visions of our past, present, and future. The imagery which occurs between each of Revelations worship scenes is in fact indicative of the same time period. Like the metals and beasts of Daniel 2 and 7. Revelation repeats again and again from Christ to the end of time… from Christ to the end of time… from Christ to the end of time. And in all this John shows that all our pain and suffering is being worked by The One Who Suffered for a redemptive end. And again and again, it leads us to worship.

Have you ever noticed the relationship between Cast Away and Back to the Future? Robert Zemeckis’ 1985 classic might not look like Cast Away but, in fact, they share a unique motif. Clocks and other references to time pervade the earlier film – which is fitting since it’s about time travel. Marty McFly finds himself trapped in the past, trying to get back to the present in a classic race against time.

But references to time also saturate Robert Zemeckis’ 2000 film. The opening FedEx logo proclaims “the world on time.” And it’s Chuck Noland’s purpose as a FedEx analyst to invent ways to beat the clock. Like a package himself, he’s rushed around the world to ensure that the system only ever speeds up. Clocks loom over events. Music taps out a quick time. But then Chuck is marooned on a deserted island with his only timepiece stopped. From here, there’s no conversation. No musical score. Not even the sound of insect or bird. Alone in the silence, Chuck finds all the time in the world. It’s a contrast which is foreshadowed in this opening shot. Here the slogan “the world on time” is rushed to the truck but then retrieved upside down and moved at a more leisurely pace. The film’s main idea.

But the island also represents a different time. Chuck arrives, overdressed and overweight, still planning on delivering those packages. But when the surf batters his one hope of escape, he makes a cave his home and let’s go all but a single delivery. He then makes a friend in an object that resembles an idol. And just in case we haven’t recognized the makings of a caveman, he’s shown painting on his cavern wall. When, at last, he resorts to this extremely primitive surgery, the film jumps four years where his transformation into a native is complete.

Do you see it? Chuck has gone back in time. He’s eroded back to the timeless existence of ancient man. And perhaps nothing speaks to that timelessness more than his charting of the annual course of the sun. The figure eight that it makes is our sign for infinity – eternity. Chuck has come to know the world before our enslavement to the clock. And it’s this earliest view of time which is key to his escape and return. To get back to the present in Back to the Future, Marty McFly must connect his time machine’s mast to a precisely clocked bolt of lightning. And Chuck likewise must release his mast at a precise turn in the season to harness the power of the wind.

But Chuck’s return, while echoing back to the future, is also different from Marty’s. Marty finds his present better than the way he left it while Chuck finds it’s moved on without him. And here in the difference lies the why of Chuck’s symbolic journey back in time.

There’s a great deal about Cast Away worth taking the time to see. Why the allusions to the Back to the Future? How does Wilson fit in? And what’s the significance of these film’s ending reference to roads?

I’ll be back next time with a continuation of my take on Cast Away. In the mean time subscribe, comment, and share. And check out some of my other videos.

After watching my Mad Max video, a friend asked me, “how do you know that’s what the author had in mind?”

The same question might be asked of you reading this. How do you know what I’m communicating right now? Simple answer: because I’m telling you and you, of course, know how to read and understand English. There’s a lot about interpretation which we already know.

While there’s a bit of mystery in detecting and interpreting narrative symbolism, on the whole, it’s more like what we objectively do every day. We speak because we expect to be understood. Authors write and invest images with symbolic meaning because they likewise expect us to understand them. But how could they have this expectation? How can we know with relative certainty when an image possesses more than it’s surface meaning and what the meaning is?

While I’ve read and thought a great deal on symbolism, I’ve yet to find a succinct objective explanation on how authors mark out symbols and how audiences intuitively pick up on them. Lacking any simple guide, I’ve honed in on the following.

1. Humans are by nature makers and interpreters of symbols. Language is the primary way we use this ability every day.

2. Words are symbols. A word like “hand” is not the thing itself but a written or spoken representation of the appendage at the end of our arms. Cultural context has invested the sound or combination of letters with that meaning.

3. Since words are symbols they can and often do have more than one meaning. Within our culture, the word “hand” has a number of alternative definitions. And we add to a words list of meanings by bending and adapting them in new contexts.

4. New meanings to words are communicated, not by spelling them out (as in a dictionary) but through implicit connections in the context. This is how “giving someone a hand” came to refer not to the literal act of cutting off that body part but instead to help or applause. The specific context in which these expressions were first used became the key by which the audience was able to understand their meaning. And thus a new definition of “hand” was added to a growing list of definitions, spreading to the wider culture and eventually into the dictionary.

5. Some words (like “hand”) because of the availability of their primary definition are more adaptable to alternative meanings and therefore have a long list of secondary definitions.

6. Without context, we naturally assume a word’s primary definition.

7. Determining if another meaning is intended is a matter of weighing the contextual evidence (both external (the cultural) and internal (the conversational)). More evidence leads to a greater degree of probability.

8. Images within a narrative work in the same way that words do. The image may possess no alternative meaning and thus simply be the thing itself (in other words the primary definition – a picture of a rock is, of course, a rock). But it also may mean something else (an alternative meaning, i.e. symbolic meaning).

9. In a narrative, writers define an image as a symbol by making a connection to a preexisting cultural meaning (An eagle could represent the United States, Freedom and or Flight etc.) or they make some connection to an alternative meaning within the context of the book or film etc. itself. Metaphors and similes spoken in dialogue are potentially carried over into corresponding images within the world of the story. A metaphor in one conversation can define the corresponding image in another scene. But connections can be made implicitly through the narrative as well. The mirroring of one image with another through proximity and similarity is one technique at an authors disposal. The effect of cutting between two similar images in a film has the effect of placing those images side by side with equal sign in between – in essence an implicit metaphor.

10. Since people intuitively understand how symbolism in language works, they are well supplied to make the leap in interpreting narrative symbolism. Whether they cognitively know it or not, symbolism works it’s magic even on the unsuspecting reader.