Tuesday, May 21, 2013

When The Figurative Becomes Literal in Movies

Hey lovers of words and movies, I have a question. One of my favorite film devices is when a figure of speech is depicted literally. Is there a name for this technique?

Here are a few examples. (I will have a spoilers for the movie To Die For. If you haven't seen it yet, To Die For is an unusually smart and well made film. Highly recommended.) So what is it called when a figure of speech is depicted literally in a movie?

Tracy Flick has blood on her hands in Election.
In Electionüber-driven student president candidate Tracy Flick (Reese Witherspoon) throws a tantrum and rips down the posters of her competitors. The "blood on her hands" from paper cuts works both as a realization for her character and in the larger satirical story.

A lot of the gags in Airplane! are based on this technique. The most obvious and gratuitous one (I think) is this:

The shit's about to hit the fan in Airplane!
A prof from an old film class I took, discussing Un Chien Andelou, said "ants in the hand" (or "ants in the palm"?) was a French phrase for when a hand "falls asleep" for lack of circulation. I tried to verify this but only found a few references saying "ants in the palm" means "eager for sex." But I couldn't really substantiate that one either. It might just be that Salvador Dali likes depicting ants.

"Ants in the palm" may be a French phrase. It is definitely an image in Un Chien Andalou.

My favorite example is the closing credits of To Die For. [Spoiler alert.]

Janice Maretto dances on the grave of Suzanne Stone in To Die For.
Suzanne Stone (Nicole Kidman) seduces a high school moron, convincing him and his moron friend to kill her husband Larry Maretto (Matt Dillon). The scandal and speculation over the case brings Suzanne the fame she's always craved. And she is savvy enough to manipulate the press, the investigation, and the high school kids, to where it looks like she'll get away with it.

The Maretto family sees through these pretensions and reluctantly turns to the mob. (By the way, the mob guy who greets Suzanne in that remote location--that mob guy could have been payed by just about any adult male. They cast David Cronenberg as the man who kills the evil media darling. How cool is that?) Suzanne Stone is literally iced. And Janice Maretto (Ileana Douglas), a professional figure skater in the story, literally dances on Suzanne's grave to the tune of "Season of the Witch" by Donovan.

Why do I love this so much? First, To Die For, is a very tightly crafted movie--every moment is there for a reason. And the economy of having this performance behind the closing credits speaks to the whole film. While all the performances are great, Ileana Douglas in particular does a lot of the emotional heavy-lifting. After everything her character has gone through, the movie concludes depicting her in poise and grace. And "Season of the Witch" is a perfect song for the movie. There are lots of short clues and odd moments in the movie that might not be clear on one viewing. So the line, "you have to pick up every stitch" also speaks to the film as a whole. Here's the scene:

So is there a word for this technique? And can you think of other examples?