Why Do We Need Metaphor in Film?
Posted by Jennine Lanouette on Monday, December 24th, 2012
In 1932, the Soviet Union adopted a state policy requiring artists to conform to Socialist Realism. Paintings were to depict workers going about their daily work. Music was to be rousing and uplifting. Novels, plays and films were to tell heroic tales exalting state ideals. Above all, the artist was to adhere to “realism,” rendering the work in such a literal fashion that it could have only one possible meaning. In effect, they outlawed metaphor.
The intent was to control the message. The Soviet bureaucrats feared the layers of meaning that metaphoric content invites. But they also harbored a belief that such nuance was beyond the comprehension of the common man. While they were right that metaphor could open the way for a chaos of radical ideas to spill into the culture, their assumption that the average human is not equipped to catch the meaning of a metaphor couldn’t be further from the truth. On the contrary, what cognitive scientists today are discovering is that liberal use of metaphor is critical to human communication.
As individuals, we utilize metaphors hundreds of times a day just to be understood by our fellow humans. The classic example often cited by cognitive linguists is the word “up” as in “the Dow Jones is up,” “spirits are up” and “I have upped my commitment.” None of these things are actually going up. They are simply increasing. How and when, the scientists ask, did an increase in a thing become associated with going in an upward direction?
Notice that an economic indicator, the mood among people and an intention to follow through are all abstract entities. What cognitive linguists are discovering is that our human brain needs to put abstract ideas in concrete physical terms in order to assimilate them into our thinking. We learned to envision increasing numbers as going upward back when we first saw the water level in a jug rise as we poured more water in. When we relate the abstract set of numbers to physical water going into a jug, the implied visual cue of the water level rising helps our brain understand the amorphous idea that the numbers are increasing.
We speak and hear these visual cues unconsciously. Just in the above paragraphs, you’ll find “uplifting music,” “layers of meaning,” “harbored belief” and even “beyond the comprehension.” When we have a complex and, more importantly, emotional situation to communicate, then we will consciously search for just the right metaphor to get it across. “It’s like . . . It’s like . . . It’s like I’m in a cage in this job and my boss only let’s me out once a day to feed me!”
If you’re like me, you’ll find this brain science on metaphor rather thrilling. This is why we love film! We are hard wired for communicating ideas through visual images! Not only that, we enjoy the visual images, as in the phrase above “a chaos of radical ideas spilling into the culture.” I could have written, “a wide variety of unconventional ideas added to the culture” but that would not have been nearly as much fun – for both writer and reader. Conversely, when we are presented with a set of visual images, as in a story unfolding on screen, our enjoyment of those images is considerably enhanced if there is more to them than meets the eye. This is why so often the films that rise above the rest tend to be those having an additional layer of metaphoric meaning.
Just look at the Best Original Screenplay winner, Midnight In Paris, Woody Allen’s story of a self-professed “Hollywood hack,” who, while in Paris with his shopaholic fiancé and her walking Wikipedia college friend, is mysteriously transported back to Paris in the 20s where he meets Fitzgerald, Hemingway and Stein. Allen uses the time travel conceit to bemoan today’s emphasis on unbridled materialism and information trivia, while yearning for an imagined past that privileged the function of art in people’s lives. (See my analysis of Midnight in Paris here.)
Same with the Best Adapted Screenplay winner, The Descendants, based on Kaui Hart Hemmings’ novel about a man who learns of his wife’s infidelity when she is comatose and decides to confront her lover against a background story of his cousins wanting to sell their ancestral land. The dying-wife-with-a-lover story without the impending land sale could have stood on its own as a sensitive character exploration. But Hemmings puts it against the land sale to pose a question: If you were faced with the irreversible loss of your spouse, would you perhaps think differently about irreversibly spoiling a vast tract of untouched land? The illicit affair is there simply to deepen the metaphoric meaning. (See my analysis of The Descendants here.)
While, thankfully, we do not live under a government that explicitly outlaws metaphor, the new brain science begs the question: Do we value metaphor highly enough? Are we only measuring a film’s worth by the question: What is it about? Or are we putting it to the larger test: What is it really about? To borrow an oft-used brain metaphor, the ability to understand metaphoric meaning is a muscle that must be collectively exercised to keep a free flow of ideas moving about in our culture.