On being moved by metaphors, from my couch to the communion table and back again.
It was the perfect storm.
That’s a metaphor to begin the delayed germination of a blog post about metaphors.
I rarely blog these days, but I’ve been mulling a post about Parasite with a focus on the use of metaphor with the suseok – the scholar’s stone – but I kept making the pessimistic and shrewd decision to not expend the time and effort on an essay about a film that 95% of my readers haven’t seen. But then, on Sunday, the First of March, this blog post idea received an injection of fresh, relevant, relatable content. The perfect storm of two soccer matches and a communion Sunday service.
“It’s so metaphorical,” says Ki-Woo, the son in Parasite, twice. Of the Kim family members, he is the one most interested in and affected by the suseok, a gift to the family from his friend Min, a gift which accompanies Min’s offer for Ki-Woo to take over his tutoring position at the Park household, which sets the story in motion.
It is so metaphorical. Upon second viewing, the metaphorical story elements of the film – the stone in particular – became so much more obvious for me, but no less effective. Writer/director Bong Joon-ho deserved every Oscar he received, and the second viewing reinforced his case for the screenplay nod in particular. Parasite is loaded with metaphors, beginning with its very title. It goes out of its way to use them, to call attention to them, to sneak them into scenes, to hide them in plain sight, and to even beat them over the head of the audience and…well, no spoilers. And yet, audiences have agreed that the class commentary (with which many of the metaphors are involved) does not come across as ham-fisted even though it is so overt. This is one of the great tricks of the film: by making the metaphors obvious, it makes them natural, drawing attention to the fact that the absurd and grotesque are realities, ubiquitous realities woven into capitalist society. A sore thumb doesn’t stick out like a sore thumb in an old-timey mining company.
“It’s so metaphorical,” says Ki-Woo, his voice musing and reverential as he holds the stone. “It’s so metaphorical!” he says, later, as the family moves through a buffet line while discussing their changing fortunes. Ki-Woo has come to a realization, or realizations, and he is excited by their potential, but also by their very existence. He has seen the metaphors at work in their powerful and pervasive ways, and he is captivated. For the audience, seeing the metaphors ping around and drive the plot forward is one of the great thrills of the film. They coalesce into a brilliant cinematic experience that is also an acerbic critique of capitalist society, allowing the audience to enjoy the art and the commentary as they see the metaphors that were there all along, like a Magic Eye illusion.
But we can gain similar thrills from seeing metaphors all around us in our lives outside the movie theater. Recognizing them – the subtle and conspicuous alike – can set our feet steady and suggest the lofty and transcendent.
And so the perfect storm began for me on Sunday morning to the sound of “Theme from Z Cars.” Everton Football Club, my favorite sports team, were hosting Manchester United, walking out to their usual song, greeted by the roar of some of the best supporters in English football. It’s a moment that always makes me emotional, even making my eyes well up and my throat catch. I have no real connection to Everton. It’s not a family tradition. I’ve never been to Liverpool, and “The People’s Club” has no idea I’m one of their people. And yet I jumped up and screamed like a proper hooligan when I thought Dominic Calvert-Lewin (who I’ve cursed out plenty of times over the years (like a proper hooligan)) had won it at the death, and I sank into the couch in dismay when I realized video review was going to (wrongfully) overturn it. In general, I’m not that kind of sports fan anymore, but Everton is a wonderful, painful, exception. I care so much about a club and community that has nothing to do with me.
Because, as I used to say when this was the SneakyGoodSportsBlog: “Sports are more than a game and life is more than sports.” Everton is something else, something more, than a collection of athletes running around trying to score goals. If that’s all it was I’d find a collection of athletes who do it better. But while it is certainly also about the spirit of the club – its close ties to the community, the grounds of Goodison Park and the Gwladys Street End, its embrace of grit, tenacity, and collective endeavour – those things wouldn’t prescribe Everton as my club either, because there are other clubs with great traits and traditions. There are very real reasons why I love Everton FC, but locating that love on the blue half of Merseyside is also arbitrary, random, and completely unnecessary. But it means something – a great deal – to me.
Everton is what Everton means. It represents something profound, some vast well of meaning that I access in a particular way when I watch them march onto the pitch and play a game. It is more than the thing itself, and therefore it is more to me than “just” a sports team. And, judging by the delirious roars of my fellow Evertonians, I’m not the only one.
After the match, I went to church.
This isn’t a post about my own struggles with going to church, but it is important that you know that I don’t really like going. It’s not the meaningful experience for me that it is for so many other people. There have been long stretches of time since I finished college when I just didn’t go, but since August I’ve been doing the bare minimum of getting to Sunday service each week.
This Sunday was a communion Sunday, which is a too-rare occurrence at this church. But besides the presence of the tables at the front with baskets of matzo and glasses of juice, this worship service played out much the same for me as most others. I stand and sat – mostly checked out and thinking about what else I was going to do that day – through songs of worship I only sort of knew and a sermon that I was prideful enough to think I already knew all about.
And then the metaphor hit. Apologies to those who believe in literal transubstantiation, but communion is the metaphor of all metaphors. “This is my body, which is given for you. Do this in remembrance of me,” said Jesus. “This cup that is poured out for you is the new covenant in my blood.” I hurried to be one of the first ones forward to receive the Host because germs, but as I sat back down with my cracker dipped in juice I made a point to slow down a moment and think about what I was holding and what I was doing, and as I chewed it with muted crunches and tried to keep it from sticking to my teeth because that’s the veteran move I closed my eyes and thought about Jesus saying those words to each and every person one at a time, me included. By this body and blood given to me, I am redeemed, I thought, as the pastor had told me with a smile as I dipped the matzo moments earlier, and as he told everyone who followed after. Jesus gave this to me as he gave it to all.
For the second time that morning, my eyes welled up in the face of a powerful metaphor. In that moment, contemplating the metaphorical body and blood present in the “bread” and “wine” I had just ingested, all the shit I hate about organized religion, about cultural Christianity, about believing in something that sometimes seems stupid, faded away in comparison to this sacrament that is at the heart of my faith.
I’m not about that Hillsong life, but though I had never heard “Who You Say I Am,” before that morning, I had joined in with gusto by the end, spurred on by the power of the metaphor.
The metaphors weren’t done. That night, my favorite soccer team in America, the Portland Timbers, were playing their first game of the MLS season, hosting Minnesota United at Providence Park in Soccer City, USA (that’s Portland, if you didn’t know).
Watching the Timbers – especially when they’re playing at home – is about much more for me than the game played on the pitch. I studied at Oregon State University for two years, and becoming a Timbers fan was the first thing I did in becoming an Oregonian. And now, nearly two years after moving back to the Midwest, being a Timbers fan is one of my last connections to that part of my identity. Watching them is bittersweet, as seeing the scenes at Providence Park remind me of so many of the things I love about Oregon and the things that I missed out on then and miss out on now. As I’ve written, living in Oregon is one of my great achievements and great failures, and watching the Timbers play is inextricable from that, even if I (inexplicably) never took in a game shoulder-to-shoulder with the Timbers Army. Being Rose City Til I Die is hard in this town of mine, such as last September when I went to a neighborhood bar in order to be able to see a crucial match and had a miserable experience that conjured up all my resentments about living here and not there. It was so metaphorical.
My love of the Timbers is mixed up in all manner of metaphor, which is what makes it special. They lost in disappointing fashion on Sunday, but the experience was more than that for me, as it was for those who were there. Richard Farley writes: “The [pre-kickoff festivity] was a reminder of what all share by being part of the culture. Results are always a constant – the metronomic tick that paces each season – but around those wins and losses, the things that differentiate start to grow. As they’re found, picked out and fostered, they become defining parts of the community – the things new fans will be drawn to. Over seasons, decades and generations, memories become foundations, and foundations become culture.” As much as any organization in MLS, the Timbers symbolize much more than the average sports team, transcending the game to be about the community, even beyond that community’s love of sport. The way they represent Oregon makes their metaphorical power that much greater for me, as I watch them and am reminded of what I loved, lost, and never had at all. Somber as that can be, I wouldn’t trade it.
The power of metaphors in sports and religion were at work throughout my Sunday, overt and obvious yet natural and commonplace, like my decision to wear a green flannel and Timbers scarf. My experiences watching Everton and Portland and taking communion at church all gave me a sense of community I wouldn’t have otherwise. I haven’t made many connections at church, and I don’t know anyone sitting in the stands at Goodison or Providence Park, but the community and shared experience were real.
I don’t believe the metaphorical nature of my experiences on Sunday makes them a lesser part of reality. Sure, I could have just turned the TV off and my life would have gone on without the chanting and singing of my fellow fans thousands of miles away. Yes – many Sundays come and go without the elements, and the time spent on communion is tiny, and it’s a ritual barely distinguishable from lighting candles or a responsive reading. But I think this perspective has a flawed threshold for what counts as a real experience. For, as Bong Joon-ho depicts so masterfully in Parasite, our lives are fundamentally metaphorical. At any moment, we are living in them, interacting with them, motivated by them, and, often to our detriment, ignoring them.
Metaphors are fundamental to our perception and understanding of ourselves and the world around us, and embracing them offers profound insights. Sometimes they reveal something about the cruel constructs of capitalism or the redeeming power of faith. Other times they remind us of a love for a place and a community. And, other times, they reassure us that we’re not the only hooligan sinking back into the couch after a shambolic replay review decision, muttering under our breath, once again, “Everton, that.”
Forth now, and fear no darkness.
Soli Deo Gloria
I can’t quite come up with a better easy label than “Top 10.” These are certainly ten of the best films I watched this decade, and they are also ten of my favorite. The most accurate way to describe this list is these are the ten films I’ll really take with me from this decade, the ones that moved me and made me think in notable ways. So, briefly, and in chronological order:
Inside Llewyn Davis (2013) – I love the Coen Brothers’ films, and this is my favorite thing they did this decade. It’s sad and lonely and aches to watch as someone with artistic aspirations, but it’s also sincere and funny and beautiful. I can’t think of a movie with better musical numbers. It’s a terrific performance from Oscar Isaac with whom I am in love. It doesn’t have the same epic scale of Lebowski or Fargo, the visceral thrill of No Country, or the capital letter Big Ideas of Serious Man, but instead the Coens are channeling their quirk and craft into something more subdued, something more mellow, and something great. Also there’s a cat and Adam Driver before he was Adam Driver.
John Wick (2014) – Really quite out of nowhere, this movie changed the action genre in America. It’s not the genre I normally go for, but John Wick hits all the marks while gun-fu’ing its way to a few new ones as well. As many have noted, Wick is so effective in showing not telling and thus building a mythology that has generated two well-deserved sequels (so far). I know the action in 2 and 3 is bigger and better (although the Red Circle Club is one of my favorite action set pieces in years), but the original is the game-changer.
Me and Earl and the Dying Girl (2015) – I’m not sure I’ve ever actually written about this coming-of-age tale of friendship, art, and death and how much I love it. And I really, really love it. It’s one of the films that actually improves on the written source material, taking the off-beat wit and keen teen insights of the novel and refining it into a funny, stylish, aching depiction of teens reckoning with growing up and dying young. It’s one of my most favorite films, and one that I think every young person from this generation should see, as it has something to say about what it means to connect with other people experiencing loss and looking for love and meaning in our postmodern world.
Moonlight (2016) – I mean what is there to say? It looks amazing. It sounds amazing. It’s a dissertation in race and sexuality in film. There are a couple moments in the film that made me audibly gasp on first viewing, and I can’t really get over how remarkable the imagery in the swimming lesson scene is. Sometimes the Oscars end up getting it right, and the fact that Moonlight exists and was recognized with Best Picture gives me such optimism about independent film.
Manchester by the Sea (2016) – Casey Affleck is a problematic fave, and I wish I could fully separate his bad behaviors from this performance which, along with Lucas Hedges and Michelle Williams, makes this one of the best-acted films I’ve ever seen. It expresses the inexpressible and is human to a painful fault. It’s the kind of emotional, artistic storytelling I aspire to, and I use the ending of this film to describe how I like endings to feel. Some of the films on this list are ones I’ve rewatched a number of times (John Wick), but even if I only ever see Manchester once, it’s going to be one that defines this decade for me.
Lady Bird (2017) – A film for my generation that any generation can (and should) enjoy. It takes some of our most basic shared experiences – being a teen, fighting with your parents, finding yourself, moving away – and explores and depicts them with humor, wit, and heart. It’s a knock-out cast (shouts to Lucas Hedges being the only actor to star on this list twice) a superb script, and a brilliant coming out party for Greta Gerwig. This movie is really likable and relatable, while also challenging me to think more about myself and my place in the world. And it’s pretty admirable for a film to be likable, relatable, and provocative.
Coco (2017) – I wanted to include at least one animated film on this list. Inside Out is maybe too much of an emotional wrecking ball Trojan horsed in a “Kids'” movie. The Lego Movie is a little too on the nose as an off-beat deconstruction of consumerism. I don’t have the love of comic books and superheroes to include the innovative Into the Spider-Verse. I like those three films quite a lot, but I think the animated feature from this decade which captures most fully the potential of that art form is Coco. It’s fun and funny, tells a coherent story, is visually arresting, has great songs, expands cultural representation in animated films, and grapples with massive themes. If you don’t cry when Hector sings to Chicharrón, I’m a little concerned; if you don’t cry when Miguel sings to Coco, well…I mean what happened to you?
Minding the Gap (2018) – It’s the most affecting documentary I’ve ever seen. Bing Liu’s documentary about domestic trauma and economic decline, following young men suffering within familial and societal systems, is so masterfully woven together, forming a coherent mosaic out of a vast landscape of human experiences. It’s not about skateboarding, but skateboarding still manages to represent the film – a free-spirited search for escape and expression in a world of limitations.
Shoplifters (2018) – I briefly discussed Shoplifters when I wrote about how much I love the films of Hirokazu Kore-eda. All I’ll say here is this film is perfect. It understands humanity so well, dramatizing the familiar and the overlooked with compassion and artistry.
Roma (2018) – I wrote an entire post about Roma last December in which I said: “Every once in a while, I watch something that breaks parts of me I didn’t know I had. There are rare pieces of art that take pieces of humanity and compose them in a tapestry so fierce and vivid so as to make me feel so spent, and – by feeling what has gone out from me – realize what is there in the first place.” So, yeah. Definitely goes on this list.
Forth now, and fear no darkness.
Soli Deo Gloria
Disney, Star Wars, and the Preeminence of Iconography
One of the reasons Star Wars has and will continue to dominate entertainment after signing Disney’s treaty is a mutual mastery of iconography. Star Wars has embedded itself in the popular imagination through visual branding as simple and recognizable as a swoosh, a golden arch, or a caffeinated mermaid: Darth Vader’s helmet, Stormtroopers, lightsabers, R2-D2 and C-3PO. And since 2012, that intellectual property has been in the hands of the leviathan bedecked in mouse ears living in a German castle. So the most powerful entertainment conglomerate in the world controls the most important film franchise of all time which built its success on an entire legion of the things that the company is good at selling. Ah. I see. What might Palpatine say?
The promotional material for The Mandalorian (a Star Wars series premiering on Disney+ on November 12), including the most recent trailer, suggests that Disney is continuing to lean into the power of iconography. Never mind that the very first shot of the trailer is a Stormtrooper helmet – the trailer makes much of the titular character, whose helmet and armor looks, of course, like Star Wars icon and fellow Mandalorian Boba Fett. Fett, appearing for the first time in The Empire Strikes Back, looked so cool that he sold a galaxy full of merch, got his “father” written into Attack of the Clones, made numerous appearances in video games and other expanded universe content, and inspired the creation of the now iconic Mandalorian sigil, all without, well, actually doing very much in the film and going out like a real punk in Return of the Jedi. Even though The Mandalorian is not the once-rumored Boba Fett film/series, it is capitalizing on the way audiences react to that bounty hunter’s visage.
However, the emphasis on the helmet has come at complete expense of the man behind the mask. The titular Mandalorian is played by Pedro Pascal, but all of the promotional material has avoided showing us his face, and the most recent trailer gave us two words of his dialogue. The first big piece of original content on Disney’s foray into the streaming wars has opted to promote itself with a symbol – a helmet – to the exclusion of the star at the center of it.
And that. Is. Fascinating.
Star Wars has used masks before, of course. In the case of Fett, Stormtroopers, and Vader, it was fundamental to the character. In the case of Darth Revan (in the popular video game Knights of the Old Republic), it facilitated a superb plot twist. And, in The Force Awakens, it was an uncomfortable mix of Kylo Ren’s character development and gimmicky mystery-building as we wondered if the person behind the mask was actually Luke Skywalker or Jar Jar Binks. It is, for the reasons above, perfectly understandable that Disney would use an iconic look to sell a new series, but that could be done without completely concealing the human being inside the suit.
And what a human to conceal. Pedro Pascal is very handsome and very good at acting. He played one of the most charismatic and bad-ass characters in Game of Thrones. He starred in a season of Narcos and was one of the five leads in Triple Frontier. No, he’s not a bona fide movie star, but he should be marketable. What would be lost if there just one shot of him unmasked? Wouldn’t it be a cool trailer moment to see him donning the helmet?
One possible – though I think unlikely – reason for this is racist xenophobia. Pascal is Chilean-American, and maybe seen as less marketable when many Americans hold bigoted opinions about Latin Americans and when some Star Wars fanboys have complained about how many people of color have been featured in the new trilogy. If Chris Evans was playing the Mandalorian, is there any way they would hide him through all the promotional content? If Adam Driver was the transcendent star he is now back when The Force Awakens was released, do you really think they would have bothered with that ridiculous mask? However, I’m hesitant to make this claim as, despite Star Wars’ rocky history with racist tropes and stereotypes, as the recent projects have had relatively diverse casts, and one of the scheduled projects is a series focused on Cassian Andor, played by (also very handsome and talented) Mexican actor Diego Luna. Furthermore, Disney is a global company, and so it would seem Pascal would appeal to some international markets in the way a Chris might not. Perhaps racism and xenophobia play a role in the decision to forego the marketability of this particular person of color, but I don’t believe it’s that simple.
We return, then, to the top – Disney knows how to use icons, and they appear committed to using the embarrassment of visual riches Star Wars has even at the expense of the actors they choose to employ. This aligns with two trends in Hollywood: movie stars have much less power to draw audiences to the theater than they used to, and preexisting intellectual properties are the only surefire box office earners. It follows, then, that Disney would not worry about promoting their actors, and would instead double down on the popular mythology. Heck, I think the trailer for Solo gave more screentime to the name “Solo” in that iconic yellow font than it did to Alden Ehrenreich. Extreme as the commitment to this strategy seems, I’m not going to doubt Disney knows what they’re doing.
I do, however, have some questions going forward. In the specific case of The Mandalorian, how much time is Pascal going to spend behind the mask? Surely the character is going to fit that trope of the cool, mysterious gunslinger, and the Mandalorian helmet plays up that effect, but how much mileage can a series hope to get out of that? How compelling can an armored, shrouded lead character be? I want to see Pascal’s face – yes because he’s handsome – but also because that’s part of the experience in watching actors; I want to see human expression and interaction. Think about what will be lost if there’s a scene between Pascal and Giancarlo Esposito and one of them is wearing a helmet the entire time. I would dare say it will be a mistake if the Mandalorian has his helmet on more often than he doesn’t, even if this is all happening because the original Mandalorian swagged his way through less than ten minutes of screentime, in full regalia all the while.
My other questions concern the big picture of Star Wars, Marvel, and other big entertainment properties, particularly those loaded with iconography. Who will be cast to play these famous characters, and how will they be marketed? Will it matter? Will these properties attract stars, and will they develop stars? Can famous symbols continue to thrive independent of the humans involved?
I won’t even try to answer any of these questions right now, nor will I try to answer what might be the two most important questions which this boils down to. First, will our perception of dramatic human performance change because of this? It’s possible that our consciousness and awareness will change so that the subtleties of acting and the human connection it inspires will be altered or diminished as our attention is constantly focused on symbols and icons. Remember that acting has been around for thousands of years, but once upon a time all the actors wore masks which totally concealed their face. Second, how will this affect the creation of new iconography and visual vocabularies? If Hollywood continues to go back to the same IP wells, will creative minds lose the motivation to create new visually arresting styles and symbols, and, whether they do or don’t, will there be audiences and markets looking for them?
The Mandalorian is going to be the much more lowkey Star Wars release this season in comparison to The Rise of Skywalker, but even so it will provide much reason for discussion and speculation about the future of Star Wars and popular entertainment.
Just like Disney planned it.
Forth now, and fear no darkness.
Soli Deo Gloria
~click the number to return to the text~
1 The Phantom Menace was my introduction to the word treaty. There’s just something about the way Padmé says it. The word association has remained, even as I’ve had to memorize many other versions like Versailles, Ghent, Tordesillas, and Paris.
2 White men really are…we’re the worst.