"When the Penny Drops": My Favorite Metaphorical Movies.
Having recently seen Quentin Tarantino’s “Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood” (and the subsequent popularity of my review and ‘fan theory’) I thought I would briefly write about some of my favorite ‘when the penny drops’ moments in movies. I also want to take this opportunity to add some ‘after-shocks’ to my OUATIH theory, a few thoughts which have occurred to me since my original post.
Firstly, for clarity, the phrase ‘when the penny drops’ has been attributed to the ‘penny arcades’ of the 19th Century. You (no doubt dressed as a Dickens character in your best sooty orphan outfit) insert your grubby bronze coin into the shiny brass slot, and listen with anticipation as it slips and slides down the mechanism and eventually, once it drops into the hopper, the entertainment can commence.
I find this feeling delightful in film, TV, and literature, and many of the works cited in this post would count among my favorites of all time.
I’d like to take a moment to differentiate a metaphorical work from a Shyamalan twist. Don’t get me wrong ‘The Sixth Sense’ is a truly brilliant screenplay and the twist is epic. (My criticism of Shyamalan, or more aptly the studio executives who pull the strings, is that he became repetitive, and when you know that a twist is coming, it takes some of the fun out of it. Unless you’re Agatha Christie.) Other personal favourite films with a twist; are ‘Fight Club’, ‘Psycho’, and ‘Vanilla Sky’. A Notable mention must go to [corny] classics such as ‘Planet of the Apes’, ‘Soylent Green’, and ‘The Twilight Zone’.
Some are so ingrained in our collective psyche now that we forget how we first felt when Darth Vader said to the trembling Luke Skywalker ‘No… I am your father.’ That moment, though I don’t remember when I first saw it, must have rocked me to my socks. In a genius piece of filmmaking, the audience at once empathizes with Luke who is now devastated.
And, let’s face it, guessing the ending completely spoils the experience. This is why Alfred Hitchcock bought up all available copies of the novel of ‘Psycho’ prior to the film’s release, he didn’t want the ending of his film to lose any impact on the audience. This is also why the actors in Agatha Christie’s ‘The Mousetrap’ swear the audience to secrecy every night regarding the ending of the ‘whodunit’ stage play.
A great twist is terrific. If I know, or sense, that there is a twist coming, I will usually deliberately try to avoid picking it too early. I guessed the ending of ‘The Usual Suspects’ far too soon and, sadly, was never able to enjoy what many of my friends count as one of their favorite films.
A metaphorical work is much broader than a whodunit or a thriller with a twist. Some works manage to do both at once, for example: ‘Life of Pi’. A metaphorical work should be allegorical, that is, it tells one story in order to tell another. Anyone who went to Sunday school knows the parables of Jesus, as an allegory. And to this day when I head the word allegory, I am immediately mentally back to sitting cross legged on the rug on Sunday morning envisioning the sermon on the mount. The entire bible is allegorical in my opinion (but that is a subject for another blog post another day).
Some, like ‘Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood’, may be criticized that the metaphor is too vague, not explicit, or conveyed clearly enough. However, this defeats the purpose of the metaphor. It’s the twist. The ‘when the penny drops’ moment that makes it. The more obscure the better. I like to make the further distinction between an allegorical work and a metaphorical. Compare ‘The Chronicles of Narnia’ (pure allegory) versus ‘The Lord of the Rings’ (highly metaphorical). Although contemporaries and close friends with Lewis, Tolkien likes the interpretive nature of metaphorical works ‘one resides in the freedom of the reader, and the other in the purposed domination of [by] the author.’
Now to the list!....
The best metaphorical or allegorical movies and literature of all time…
Once Upon a Time in… Hollywood
Is a metaphor for America (see also my review and blog post) I will summarize here, but also add a few thoughts here which had not occurred to me at the time of writing that article. I’m surprised that more people didn’t pick up on the metaphor. The film’s title itself is a clue: “Once Upon a Time in … [dot dot dot]” and an image of the Hollywood sign. The ellipsis suggesting to the audience “[insert own meaning here]”.
Cliff and Rick are the two sides of America's personality. Rick the once heroic star of westerns, delivering frontier justice, fighting for the weak, the poor. Now a 'fallen' hero, now often viewed as a ‘sometimes’ villain, striving and failing to reach a vision of himself which is idealistic and unachievable. Cliff is America's 'muscle', he symbolizes war, power, and strength. He doesn't fight without reason or provocation, or without honor, but when he does it is swift, brutal reciprocity.
The two ‘worlds’ of Hollywood, the western genre and the glitz and glamour of the Tate/Polanski Hollywood dream are important. Westerns symbolize a nascent America, one with integrity, being forged in the crucible of the frontier (as is Rick’s career). The ‘Hollywood’ metaphor (and Sharon Tate) symbolize an idealistic American dream, aspirational, naïve perhaps, and certainly unachievable.
This film slipped beneath many people’s radar. It is a masterpiece and I encourage you to watch it if you haven’t seen it. It is Jennifer Lawrence’s best work and has a terrific cast. This film is one of the best pieces of allegorical filmmaking ever. It gives nothing away until, (like Terry Gilliam’s ‘Brazil’) reality has become so distorted, the audience made to feel as about uncomfortable as it can possibly get before (hopefully) the coin pops into your head hopper.
The film centers around Lawrence who, with her poet husband, buys an old farmhouse and sets themselves to renovating it. When uninvited guests arrive her husband welcomes them into their home, but they bring conflict, they overstay their welcome. Into their ‘perfect world’ these uninvited guests bring sex, murder, and propulgate like a virus. And despite the protagonist’s (Lawrence) discomfort her husband refuses to listen to her, preferring instead to soak up the adoration of his fans’ hero worship and the chaos grows from there.
The film is a metaphor for the Bible, yes the entire Bible, and it is brilliantly told. It’s dreamlike, it’s sweet at times, it’s brutal, and it’s also ugly. Different people are going to take away different things from this film, certainly depending on your personal religious beliefs. I have had some discussion with religious friends who point out that (with some good reasoning) that it is an unfair portrayal of the creator myth. In my opinion writer/director Darren Aaronofsky is displaying a very straightforward version of the Bible. One which you might get on a cold-read without buying in.
James Cameron’s Aliens is a clear metaphor for the Vietnam war. Consider, a technologically advanced group of soldiers, sent into a foreign ‘alien’ environment. Going in they are cocky, overconfident, in their training and technology, and the inferiority of their opponent. “Is this another ‘bug-hunt’?” asks the cocky Hudson. Subsequently they find themselves blindsided and quickly overwhelmed.
The whole scenario is being manipulated behind the scenes by big business and corporate agendas. And this is, in my opinion, Cameron’s point. He’s driving home, metaphorically, that Vietnam sacrificed American boys in the interest of corporate wealth and American power. The best summary ever of this theory is put forward by Donald Sutherland’s character, the mysterious ‘X’ in Oliver Stone’s ‘JFK’. Instead of the ‘Weyland/Yutani Corporation’ X cites Bell (Helicopters) and General Dynamics (manufacturers of the F-111 fighter jet). And more broadly the CIA and DOD: ‘find out the defence budget since the war began’ he urges Garrison. ‘the organizing principle of any society is war, the authority of the state over its people lies in its war policy.’
The true villain in ‘Aliens’ is, of course, the slippery Burke (Reiser), not the Xenomorph who is simply defending its territory and responding to its instinctual nature.
Is a metaphor for sinking into madness. Terry Gilliam’s homage to Orwell is packed with wry humour and Pythoneque ludicrousness. Although the entire film is completely surreal, at some point you realize we have left even this ‘reality’ and been transported somewhere else entirely.
Despite the atrocities occurring outside, the lobotomized Lowry is content within his own head. This is a symbol about consumerism, the mind-numbing of the population. Suppression via bureaucracy and endless toil. Lowry’s fantastical dream sequences used to bother me as they seemed so ‘silly’ compared with the rest of the film (I know right, what’s not silly in Gilliam anyway?) but now they seem the most meaningful of all for me. Like Plato’s ‘man in the cave’ analogy, these are Sam’s glimpses into a better reality, another life where he can be free, and what (literally) tries to hold him down? The very bricks, the industrial society with its endless inescapable ‘pipes’. Figuratively ‘free’ people, who live outside the system (DeNiro and his co-horts) are branded as kooks and terrorists. There are lots and lots of unapologetic borrowings from Orwell’s 1984 here, but I think that Brazil is eminently more enjoyable and entertaining along the way. And the point of any satirical work is first to entertain, the second to sucker punch you with a point.
This kooky, weird, and wonderful film is going makes plenty of people uncomfortable. (Especially film producers who wonder at the marketability of such work). But it’s endurance and cult-status signify its importance and I encourage everyone to watch it and take what they will from it.
Not only is this a brilliant film with a brilliant twist, I think its deeper meaning lies in what it is saying about masculinity (and more broadly mankind). Palahniuk paints a vision of man as a slave to society, where we work in benign customer service roles, and subscribe to consumerism. The persona that the narrator creates is Tyler Durden, who symbolizes a strong independent will, both in physicality and mind. I think that it is no mistake that Tarantino cast Brad Pitt as Cliff in ‘Once Upon a Time…’ as, knowingly or unknowingly, they are the same character.
This film is infinitely quotable and have become to be absorbed into common language: ‘you are not your job, you are not how much money you have in the bank, you are not a beautiful unique snowflake.’ Durdon paints his vision of the future: ‘In the world I see you are stalking elk through the damp canyon forests around the ruins of Rockfeller Center. You'll wear leather clothes that will last you the rest of your life. You'll climb the wrist-thick kudzu vines that wrap the Sears Towers. And when you look down, you'll see tiny figures pounding corn, laying stripes of venison on the empty car pool lane of some abandoned superhighways.’
The emergence of violence, the creation of the ‘Fight Club’ is an effort to overcome the numbness, to feel something, anything. Even if that thing is pain. The narrator is at first reluctant to hit Durden, and understandably, reluctant to be hit, but once he has felt something, he becomes addicted. This analogy and the subsequent analogy of ‘project mayhem’ might suggest that the endless suppression of mankind will only result in revolution. There are overtones of Orwell. ‘I am Jack’s complete lack of surprise.’
2001: A Space Odyssey
Well this is a pretty obvious metaphor for Evolution given the opening sequence. But it poses the question of what is the next step in evolution? (see also ‘Imagining the tenth dimension’ or ‘Flatland’). How would a fourth dimensional being view us, as primitive as our view of the apes at the opening of the film? How would we perceive a fourth-dimensional being from our three-dimensional perspective? Much as two dimensional beings ‘flatlanders’ might view us three dimensional beings in ‘slices’ of ourselves. We perceive the transformed Bowman in ‘slices’ of his existence, from foetus to death.
By extension, what is likely to be the next step in our evolution? What part do we play in our own evolution? The film posits that we were ‘created’ by an alien intelligence, (psychologically if not physically, as it is after contact with the prehistoric monolith that we begin to develop mentally, we ‘learn’ toolmaking and subsequently murder. Will our creation (HAL) learn to destroy us?
The sequel ‘2010’ is less immersive and more explanatory than 2001 but no less wonderful in my opinion and I think the two dovetail wonderfully. In 2010 HAL’s creator Chandra posits that HAL’s malfunction was in his idealistic, childlike interpretation of the universe. He was taught never to lie, and then told to lie. This created a dangerous paradox. This is echoed by Cameron in ‘Aliens’ when the android Ash turns on the crew.
There is a wonderful confluence of some of these films and some of their creators. David Fincher who directed Fight Club, began his feature film career with the disappointingly flawed ‘Alien3’ (which we see Project Mayhem erase in Flight Club). Though he subsequently found his voice with the highly successful ‘Se7en’ and with it, perhaps, the power to withstand external influence. Tarantino, I think, pays homage to Fight Club. Cameron pays homage to 2001. Everything is interconnected.
Wonderfully the metaphor is a gift which keeps on giving. A movie with a great twist is amazing the first two times you watch it. The first time when you have no idea what is going on, and the second when you do.
The metaphorical work can keep on delivering time and time again as you reflect on the meaning of different scenes. As Tolkien pointed out, it is open to interpretation and each person is going to take away different things from it based on their unique perspective and experience. I enjoy watching and re-watching movies like this, showing them to my friends and family and watching them squirm and writhe at the discomfort of them, and then discussing what it meant to them and how it compares with my own interpretation.
I’d love to hear from you if you agree, disagree, or if you think there are important works I’ve neglected here.