Metaphors in Movies
John M. Kennedy
Dan L. Chiappe
IN THE OPENING of Memento (2001), a murderer kills his victim with a gunshot. But the scenes run backwards. The blood rises to the wound. The wound heals. The victim gets up. The murderer pockets his gun. The killer and the target separate and retreat their own ways.
Time's arrow is reversed at the start of a movie about a manhunter who can no longer form lasting memories. He has a few notes to guide himself. Plus he swiftly interprets whatever events surround him. One thing he does know for sure. He wants revenge. One of the memories leaking through from his life before his loss is that his wife was killed by a criminal, and the same criminal caused his injury.
What lessons could we learn from this clever beginning of Memento? Should we decide they are a knock-down argument against the thesis that movies are realistic? It would be easy to reach this conclusion. Time flies forwards, always. To show it in reverse is a violation of nature, Einstein's, Newton's, or Asimov's.
Here, our chief task is to describe the role unrealistic events can play as figurative devices, metaphors, and symbols in movies (Whittock, 1990). Along the way, we will take issue with the idea that each medium of representation (literature, radio, movies, TV, Internet, etc.) is a unique cultural product. We argue that each medium is like an island. Above the waterline, it is its own entity. But below, it is joined with all the others in an archipelago. When they use metaphors, movies rely on what is age-old, rich, and powerful in perception and cognition. This is what makes movie metaphors tick.
Memento begins backwards to symbolize the puzzle facing the central character. It is a vivid and imaginative but entirely figurative device because the image is not strictly true for the character, because time runs forwards for him, even though it leaves no memories. The figure also captures the movie's tactic in presenting the story, because the movie unfolds its story backwards. Though each scene is shown forwards, the order of the scenes is generally backwards (with some overlap of scenes to help keep the order straight). For example, secondary characters in the movie take advantage of our hero, but the first time we see an event, this is not obvious. The disheveled woman we thought had been attacked we later see has self-inflicted damage and is only pretending to be distraught. We take her at face value at first, and only later are we shown early events that reveal the deception being played on our hero.
Blood running back to a wound sums up the movie's clever tack. It is a capsule for the movie, an unrealistic image, a symbol. By the end of the movie, we—the audience— have information about its dual significance: the murder's place in the story and why it was shown backwards.