How We See Symbolism in Film

July 12, 2017  Leave a comment

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.

Matthew Scott Miller

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