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Symbolism In Movies: An Interpretation (Of Sorts)

Wild Strawberries

I am constantly amazed by my ability to talk about any subject as if I am an expert, even if I know nothing about it. And so it goes today.

Whilst reading the excellent It’s Only A Movie by the skiffle-loving, quiff-haired BBC and Guardian film critic Mark Kermode (review here), I recognised some truth in a segment about David Lynch’s Blue Velvet. What is particularly interesting is that I recognised it despite having never seen the film. What it did however was strike a chord regarding my feelings of the earlier Lynch film, Eraserhead.

In the book Kermode talks of his initial anger regarding Blue Velvet and his realisation, when reading a review by Roger Ebert, that his hatred was because it was so good, not because it was so bad. The emotional effectiveness of the movie was very strong, but he was unable to articulate or even understand the feelings generated within himself.

I felt similar things after watching Eraserhead. After struggling through it (and taking no less than three breaks, including one nap for an 85 minute film) I ended up being very angry. It just seemed like pointless scenes about nothing with a very simple story in the middle, made mysterious with symbolism and weird looking stuff. But as time progressed I realised that not only could I not forget about it, but that it had had a profound impact on me.

When you get down to the nitty gritty, Eraserhead is just Lynch’s fear of the repressive and constraining nature of the bourgeois family and was certainly a reaction against finding his soon-to-be wife was pregnant, unexpectedly, with their first child. Watching it, this is abundantly clear and it irritated me that it would be so widely praised for doing something so obvious. But as previously stated, the importance is not in the topic, but the powerful way it is presented,. He managed to create a strong emotional reaction from what is essentially a mundane story from a scared man. (The “what is the alien baby thing?” is merely a distraction from the fact that it is still a baby).

As for the rest of it, the open and closing sections and the lady in the radiator, well I have no idea what that is about and I’m not sure Lynch does either, to be honest. The lady in the radiator came out of there being that particular kind of radiator where they were filming. Without that being there, it almost certainly wouldn’t have been in the film.

The power of Eraserhead is that it takes a very mundane and common situation and twists it horrendously to demonstrate the psychological horror within. Through a mild use of symbolism he manages to say far more than would otherwise be possible. Like the handless clock in Ingmar Berman’s Wild Strawberries, it says so much by doing so little.

But what of more abstract images? Can they be understood through words and analysis? Or is it all about emotional impact?

A year or so ago I had the idea to make a film. I had no idea what kind of film, but to encourage the creation I bought a small handheld camera. To this date I have still not made the film, nor do I have any idea what it would be about, but the camera did allow an oppertunity to have a bit of a play.

Filming some random bits and bobs around the room I was renting at the time, I proceeded to stick them together and put it to music. Essentially, I just created a music video for a short song by the brilliant Japanese avant-garde musician Turiko Noriko.

What was interesting about this (to me at least) was seeing in practice that creating symbolic and avant-garde pieces is about more than “just sticking stuff together”. Now, I knew this but there is nothing quite like learning by doing. As it was being put together there was one shot that clearly wasn’t working, so I shot something else and it worked much better (it was still terrible, but not so much). It was weird that two scenes, neither of which had any actual meaning, could be changed and the effect would be so dramatic.

I think this is the point of a rather rambling piece, that symbolism doesn’t necessarily have to have meaning, or particularly deep, but it must have feeling. I would even go so far as to say that sometimes, trying to give symbolism meaning merely detracts from the emotional impact of the work.

I am certainly not comparing my paltry efforts one evening to Lynch or Bergman, but I do think it has (eventually) helped me to see that worrying about what symbolism in particular movies means is misguided and often counter-productive.

Not that this should be taken as a suggestion that symbolism is, can or should be an “anything goes” environment. On the contrary, it should be tightly contained and treated in some respects as more conventional methods of movie making, but to obsess over the meaning of something can be to miss the meaning of what it is you’re obsessing over.

And if you’re wondering what that was all about, just interpret in any way you like.

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