Cinematic Metaphor

Thrown together David Tamés
v.4, revised March 12, 2019

Note: Images that were included in the original article still need to be added to this handout.

What are cinematic and visual metaphors?

A while ago, I embarked on a reading and viewing adventure to understand better cinematic and visual metaphors used by media makers. My intuition drove this study that cinematic metaphor provides a powerful means for media makers to connote meanings through visuals in the paradigmatic axis and manipulation of time along the syntagmatic axis described by Nichols (2010). For example, filmmakers often use a flash-forward in time to convey the tragedy of fate by allowing the audience to know what will happen to a character in the future. 

Cinematic and visual metaphors abound. For example, an advertisement might use an elephant to represent “intelligence.” A massive geological formation can describe “integrity.” A tailor could be used to represent “customized solutions” to problems. Someone at the foot of a long staircase or looking out towards the ocean can mean pondering an unknown future. A car commercial depicting young people in a convertible driving on the road lit by moonlight under a starry night sky can convey joy, freedom, and optimism as in the Milky Way (Volkswagen, 2006) commercial. Spatial metaphors are ubiquitous in cinema. In The Above (Johnson, 2015), what is above and below helps us understand abstract concepts. A government observing is the authority above, while the people surveyed are the subjects below, the use of spatial metaphor emphasizes these power relations. In one scene the film depicts a juxtaposition of a Ferris wheel rider and children’s balloons to signify how the meaning of technology is deeply enmeshed in  the manner of deployment.

Horror films as a genre reflect metaphorical associations between verticality and affect and between brightness and affect. Bodo Winter argues that metaphors play a significant role in creating fear in horror films, and this genre plays a formative role in keeping these metaphors alive in our culture. He writes, “An analysis of several horror movies highlights the striking consistency with which the two metaphors “EVIL IS DOWN” and “EVIL IS DARK” are used within this genre.” (Winter, 2014, p. 152). Entangle (Yang, 2016), a short video by a former student and Northeastern University alumna, takes an abstract approach to horror. The video envelops us in a watery world, surrounded by swirling objects that reveal themselves to be flowing hair, we are trapped underwater. Yang describes the work as being “about the feeling of trying to get away with something, however, the more you try to get away with it, the more it’s there, drowning but not yet drowning.” The visual metaphors employed effectively convey her intent.

Cinematic metaphors don’t have to be esoteric, V Renée reminds us that “Some of the most simple things in cinema, a door, a window, or even a staircase, can carry incredible meaning […] in the same way that doors have been used as a visual shorthand for ‘isolation’, ‘loneliness’, and ‘voyeurism’, staircases have been used to convey a number of interesting themes and concepts […]” (Reneé, 2016). Often cinematic metaphors and symbols present themselves while you are shooting. It’s good to be on the lookout for possible metaphorical references when shooting a documentary. For example, at 1:40 in an excerpt from Inocente (Fine and Fine, 2013), we see the protagonist crossing the street talking about her situation. The setting and the street signs convey her predicament. Crossing the road as she faces the camera in a long shot also works metaphorically to understand her predicament’s emotional complexity. 

Wrapping up these ideas, Sherri Sheridan writes that “Movies themselves are metaphors for how humans experience life on a deeper level […] symbolic images help us to understand abstract concepts that cannot always be translated into words” (Sheridan, 2004). As media makers, we don’t need to split hairs about what to call a cinematic device, what’s important is how it helps us convey ideas that we can’t put into worlds.

We can take this metaphor thing one step further. Not only do metaphors help us convey abstract concepts that we cannot easily translate into words, metaphors are fundamental to how we structure our thinking and knowledge. In Metaphors We Live By, George Lakoff and Mark Johnson wrote that metaphors are “…pervasive in everyday life, not just in language but in thought and action. […] The concepts that govern our thought are not just matters of the intellect. They also govern our everyday functioning, down to the most mundane details.” (Lakoff and Johnson, 1980). 

Following Lakoff and Johnson, I believe our conceptual system is largely metaphorical, and the way we think and the way we construct abstract knowledge is very much a matter of metaphor. And it is through media that we create our shared reality. Filmmaker Werner Herzog reflects a keen understanding of this when he says, “I’ve always made it very clear that for the sake of a deeper truth, a stratum of very deep truth in movies, you have to be inventive, you have to be imaginative. Otherwise, you will end up with what cinema-vérité does - they are the accountants of truth. I’m after something deeper. I call it the “ecstatic truth” - the “ecstasy of truth.” (Smith, 2008).

Let’s bring this back to the moving image. Joseph Kickasola (2016) observes that towards the beginning of the animated film Ratatouille (Brad Bird, 2007), Remy the gastronomically obsessed rat muses “Just look at what [humans] do with their food!” while a series of swirling and pulsing images convey metaphorically Remy’s taste experiences in a beautiful homage to early works of avant-garde animation like An Optical Poem (Fischinger, 1938).  It’s an ongoing process to develop a deeper understanding of how to orchestrate cinematic subjectivity (that is, how viewers can attribute mental states to characters in a video).

Through metaphors, I can elicit audience responses that connect to the concepts and emotions that I’m expressing in my moving image work. The mapping is never perfect and need not be. Since embarking on this course of study, I try to identify the cinematic metaphors at work every time I watch a short video, television episode, or feature film. Watching moving image works has become a more complex and nuanced experience. I have found that multiple viewings reward me with additional insights. It’s become more challenging to get lost in the story. I tend to take the work apart as I watch, unraveling the cinematic metaphors at work that help me construct meaning from the sequence of aural and visual elements.

Annotated bibliography

Bird, Brad (2007). Ratatouille, feature film, 1:51:00, Buena Vista Pictures Distribution, IMDB.

An animated film that tells the story of a rat who can cook who develops an unusual friendship with a kitchen worker at a famous restaurant in order to express his culinary passions. There’s a fascinating scene in the film that serves as an example of metaphor that’s discussed in Kickasola (2016).

Fischinger, Oskar (1938). Optical Poem, film, 7:12, video.

This abstract film was produced Fischinger for MGM and includes music by Franz Liszt. It represents a completely different direction compared to the work of his contemporary animators,. In retrospect, Fischinger was way ahead of his time.

Fine, Sean and Andrea Nix Fine (2013). Inocente, online video, excerpt from short documentary, 2:13, video.

An excerpt from a short film observing the life of a 15 year-old homeless and undocumented immigrant who is determined to make a life for herself despite her circumstances. Visual metaphors abound, adding layers of meaning to the story, including isolation.

Johnson, Kirsten (2015). The Above, online video, 8:22, Field of Vision (series), video.

A classified U.S. military surveillance balloon floats on a tether high above Kabul. Johnson examines how people imagine its role in their daily lives using spatial metaphors representing power structures and colorful balloons signifying how the meaning of technology is deeply enmeshed in the manner of deployment.

Kickasola, Joseph G. (2016). “Metaphor without an Answer: Cross-Modal Experience and Embodied Meaning in the Cinema” in Kathrin Fahlenbrach, ed. Embodied Metaphors in Film, Television, and Video Games, Routledge, Amazon | WorldCat.

Kickasola makes it clear that metaphor, sensory experience, and the experience of meaning are deeply intertwined using a delightful example from Ratatouille (Brad Bird, 2007).

Lakoff, George, and Mark Johnson (1980). Metaphors We Live By, University of Chicago Press, Amazon | WorldCat.

Introduces Conceptual Metaphor Theory (CMT). Today neuroscience and cognitive science research has confirmed the key components of the theory. Metaphors, are, in fact, what we live by, they structure how we think and understand the world around us. Lakoff in more recently books has applied the theory to understanding political ideology, especially the chasm between conservatives and progressives.

Nichols, Bill (2010). “Film as a Language,” in Engaging Cinema: An Introduction to Film Studies., W. W. Norton & Co., 2010, Amazon | WorldCat.

A chapter from a popular cinema studies text that explains the fundamentals of cinematic grammar, codes, and conventions. It does a good job of explaining the most commonly used discipline-specific jargon that students will encounter when studying the moving image.

Renée, V (2016). ”Learn How Stairs Can Be Used as Visual Metaphors in Your Films,” No Film School, July 28, 2016, article

Provides a discussion with lots of examples of how staircases have been used metaphorically in cinema.

Sheridan, Sherri (2004). “Creating Original Characters, Themes, and Visual Metaphors for Your Digital Short Film,” book excerpt, Peachpit Press, article

Sheridan suggests that movies are metaphors for how we experience life on a deeper level and presents a discussion of metaphors, symbols, motifs, and leit motifs.

Smith, Nigel (2008). “Werner Herzog’s Ecstasy of Truth,” C_arnival Saloon, articlel

Smith interviews Werner Herzog who talks about about his notion of the “ecstasy of truth” in which he asserts that to make a truthful documentary you have to create some fiction.

Volkswagen (2006). Milky Way, Director: Dayton/Faris; Agency: Arnold Boston, Client: Volkswagen, Music:  Nick Drake: “Pink Moon,” online video, video

Four young professionals drive along moonlit roads in a convertible, they stop at a party, but decide not to join the pack, instead, they choose the open road. Rich in visual metaphors depicting individuality, freedom, independence, joy, optimism, and choosing the road less travelled.

Winter, Bodo (2014). “Horror Movies and the Cognitive Ecology of Primary Metaphors,” Metaphor and Symbol 29:3, pp. 151-170, article

Winter presents a convincing argument that metaphors play a significant role in creating fear in horror films and the horror genre plays a formative role in keeping these metaphors alive and well in contemporary culture.

Yang, Amber (2016). Entangle, online video, 2:57, video

Yang describes this work as being “about the feeling of trying to get away with something, however, the more you try to get away with it, the more it’s there, drowning but not yet drowning.”