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Symbolism of Objects in Cinema

Page history last edited by Nykki Montano 14 years, 6 months ago


Put simply, a symbol is a physical representation- either an object or mark- that stands in for another object or idea. Symbolism is pervasive throughout all artistic mediums, and the new(ish) production of Cinema is no exception. Now if the idea of symbolism is exaggerated, almost everything in the mise-en-scene could be taken as a symbol, a representation of another object. For instance, Jean Cocteau's La Belle et La Bete meticulous design qualities demand constant symbolic interpretation. But the Fantastical Auteur Poet is not alone in his symbolism; almost every director has used a piece of their particular movie as a symbol of a greater ideal: take Griffith's Southern Town, Eisenstein's Rotten Meat, Renoir's Rose, or Lang's Machines.



Examples in Film

All of the films we've seen in the past few weeks hold simple objects that represent the ideas of their creators, some of the best examples comes from Stanely Kubrick's2001: A Space Odyssey. One such object that becomes a symbol was an ordinary leg bone. This simple leg bone was used to bring our ape ancestors meat and take down their enemies. But as in the scene bellow, we can see the bone become so much more, it changes from being a simple tool to become the symbol of mankind's giant leap forward to no longer humbly accept evolution's slow pace but to shape the world around them and to build ambitions that reach toward the stars. The symbolism of the bone becomes pretty apparent with the triumphrent tossing, representing that leap forward for man especially with the match cut/graphic match taken place with the satellite (bomb).



2001 is a treasure trove of other symbolic objects which can be interpreted many different ways, like for example HAL's red eye could symbolize the fear of placing too much trust into technology, or even something less concrete  the star gate could symbolize the literal splitting of Dave's consciousness into a higher state of being. Perhaps the best symbol from 2001 would be the black monoliths. Throughout the film they just suddenly appear without explanation and leave just as quickly. From the innovation of tool making to the creation of the star child, the black monoliths play a key role in the film but Kubrick gives us nothing as to their origin or purpose. The meaning gleaned off of the monoliths comes from our own interpretation which could be an intelligent design evolution mix, an alien race taking humans under their wing or even God placing these monoliths to bring about necessary changes in man.


Usage in Twelve Angry Men

Many Directors use objects as symbols of ideals or ideas they want to didactically emphasize. In Twelve Angry Men, the director Sidney Lumet uses many elements of the film as symbols. The heat in the Juror room mirrors the tension in the debate. The knife that proves the young man's guilt soon represents the reasonable doubt for the jurors. Even the simple act of voting can be a symbol of the changing times of " the Civil Rights era [, according to Bulent Evirgen, with its] attempts to tackle issues of racial and ethnic bigotry"(2).


Knife Point Proof


The knife in the movie is one of the most compelling pieces of evidence that Lumet brings to our attention, but it's the introduction of the second knife by Juror 8 that breaks the "Guilty" party's argument to shambles. The switchblade knife seems to represent the hard life faced by the "slum-dwellers" and many, especially Juror 10, assume that those "slum-dwellers" have a greater potential of being criminals, which in turn makes it easier for him to automatically vote guilty without thought (2).


A Reasonable Doubt


The votes of the Jurors are a typical symbol of the democratic processes of the United States on the surface. Deeper down, however, the votes seem to represent the assumptions of the jury, and perhaps the audience.  One of the Juror's says at the end of the first vote, "Boy, oh boy, there's always one," implying that Juror 8's vote doesn't count because typically someone always throws off the mold. However, as votes continue to shift, the desire to have a secret ballot emerges. As the votes change, so does the symbol represented by the votes. Votes designate the openness of the juror's mind to other possibilities.  


The idea of "other" possibilites seems to be something that the film is critically concerned with exploring.  The teleplay on which the film is based was written and released in 1954 (the film was released in 1957), which places both works within the radical political environment of McCarthy-era accusation and cold-war tension. Richard Fried states that, "beset by Cold War anxieties, Americans developed an obsession with communism [the political and social other] that outran the actual threat and gnawed at the tissue of civil liberties" (3).  While the film does not directly address notions of politics (or communism, at any rate), it does address the sort of social fear (and fearful accusation that Joseph McCarthy so handily represents) in its dialogue between the jurors.  Juror 8 (played by the notably all-American Henry Fonda) faces hostility, even anger, at his refusal to condemn the accused youth to the electric chair without a thoughtful dialogue.  This directly mirrors what the film might present as the necessary, American response to the frightening accusatory qualities of anti-foreign, anti-communist rhetoric: rational discussion and exchange.  Or, more essentially, a refusal to submit to the fearful reactionism that a refusal of open discussion creates.  The film uses the American legal process (and a tiny part of it, the jury) as a symbol of the power dynamics at work in the American landscape at large, and in doing so, allows the gradual shift of the voting body to stand in for the positive effects of humanist dialogue.


A Jury of your Peers


The jurors themselves ultimately become symbols of their personalities. Evirgen tells us "the Jurors can be used to exemplify personality types per Myers-Briggs or The Big Five Model". For example, the extraverts are Jurors 7 and 12 vs the introverts which are Jurors 2 and5. The sensor Juror 4 vs intuition Juror 6. The thinkers Jurors 8 and 11 vs the feelers Juror 3 and 10. Judging jurors 3, 7, and 10 vs perceiving Juror 8. The high agreeableness in Jurors 1, 2, 6, 8, 9 and 11 vs low agreeableness of Jurors 3, 4, and 10. The high conscientiousness of Jurors 8, 9 and 11 vs the low conscientiousness of Juror 7. The high emotional stability Jurors 4, 6, 8, 9, and 11 vs low emotional stability Juror 2,3, and 12. The high openness to experience of Juror 2 vs low openness to experience of Juror 6" (2). Its pretty astounding how well these individual men exemplify those behavioral traits thus creating the symbol of all the faces of man shown within that tiny, congested room.


Work Cited

1. Webster's New World Pocket Dictionary. ed. David B. Guralnik. New York: Simon and Schuster, 1977. Print.

2. Evirgen, Bulent. "12 Angry Men as a Teaching Tool in Organizational Behavior". Journal of Academic Studies. 11.41 (2009): 175-185. Print.

3."12 Angry Men" Wikipedia.com. 13 Oct. 2009. Web. 27 Oct. 2009.

4. Fried, Richard M. Nightmare in Red The McCarthy Era in Perspective. New York: Oxford UP, USA, 1991.


Comments (2)

Sean Desilets said

at 12:22 am on Nov 9, 2009

Somebody fix this: the match cut in 2001 is not a match on action. It's a graphic match or a match cut.

Sean Desilets said

at 9:55 pm on Oct 28, 2009

* Really like that list at the beginning
* Might be worth thinking about the relationship between symbolism and realism. It seems to me that as realism increases, symbolism becomes less prominent. For one thing, objects have to be motivated by the narrative events. There can just *be* a diamond tear in _Beauty and the Beast_, but anything that's going to be used symbolically in _12 Angry Men_ also has to have a clear role in the "real" world that the film tries to represent.
* Is there a difference between a symbol and a type?
* The page seems to move away from objects a bit here, probably for the reasons I've outlined above--there aren't all that many in _12 Angry Men_.
* I'd love to see somebody take a shot at figuring out how the various votes operate symbolically.

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