The power of symbolism and the wings to fly

by Lorin Michel Saturday, June 21, 2014 10:28 PM

As a writer, I believe in the power of symbolism to further a story line. Using symbols to progress a story, to delve deeply into a character’s psyche, is one of the oldest and most compelling tricks in the book. Most authors use it to great effect. Instead of a storm was coming, you might read something like the sky swirled and gathered itself in, sending the sun into hiding, a child afraid of the dark. Dark symbolizing the coming storm.

Juxtaposition is also powerful in telling a story, whether on a page or on the screen. One of my favorite films for both juxtaposition and symbolism remains Cast Away. This week, I read a short piece discussing the ten films that the writer found unsatisfying in the end. One was Cast Away because of the box. If you’ve seen the Tom Hanks film, you know what I’m talking about. If not, the box is just that, a box being shipped by Federal Express that survives the plane crash and is the only box the character, Chuck, doesn’t open while marooned on a desert island for four years.

The film, from a writer’s standpoint, is painfully low on dialogue, but exquisitely rich in both juxtaposition and symbolism. We are treated to the modern juxtaposed with the primitive, as Chuck learns to live in a world with virtually nothing after coming from a world with everything. He falls from the sky in one of man’s greatest inventions, the airplane, and survives to live on an island.

Symbolism just explodes. No man is an island but an island, in this case, is all one man needs to survive and to learn. The title itself, as two words, Cast Away, is a symbol. He is dressed in a heavy sweater and pants when he arrives. When he is rescued, he is dressed in nothing but essentially a loincloth.

Once he is rescued from his crude raft by a huge freighter – the small survive but need the big – he sits in his hotel room, alone after a party, and marvels at the king crab legs. We remember the tiny crabs he learned to spear and cook on the island. He has a long lighter with which to light candles and he flicks it on and off. We remember him learning to make fire on the island, in the most primitive and organic way possible, by rubbing two sticks together. Chuck sits on the floor and flicks the electric light on and off with its toggle switch. We remember the only light on the island coming from the sunrise and the sunset. The ease of the civilized world juxtaposed with constant struggle of a world forgotten and lost in time.

When he sits on the ottoman in his friend’s home, dripping wet from the rain, leaning over, lost in thought, a fire burning easily in the fireplace next to him, a drink in his hand, one of the things he says is: “I have ice in my glass.” It’s both a symbol of the fact that he has been frozen out of his previous life by time, and a juxtaposition. The cold of technology allowing for water to freeze into cubes versus catching falling rain in coconuts to store water.

At a cross roads. Another symbol.

Chuck Noland is a time-obsessed manager for Federal Express. The company itself becomes a symbol for how he rushes through life, not even having time to go to the dentist to get an abscessed tooth attended to. Then his Federal Express plane crashes. He would have died except that he unstraps himself from his seat as the plane is careening out of control because the pocket watch his girlfriend gave him fell out of his pocket. By unstrapping himself, he symbolizes the idea that he is untethering from the world he has known, even though he doesn’t know it yet. He gets to the watch just as the plane plunges nose first into the ocean. When he finally drifts to the island he discovers that the watch no longer works. Time has stopped.

I love this stuff. Perhaps it’s why this particular film has stayed with me so long. I remember when Kevin and I first saw it in the theatres. Most of the films we see, we forget almost as soon as we leave. We might walk out, after the credits have finished rolling because we always wait for the credits. I think it’s out of respect for all of the people it takes to make a film, any film, every film, even a bad one.

But this wasn’t a bad one. And while our usual conversation is usually and quickly, what did you think? It was fun, this time, we were both largely quiet, absorbing. When we finally did start talking about it, we talked for hours. It affected us both deeply and to this day, I’m not entirely sure why. I think of it often, and when I read something like I read earlier, basically saying the film didn’t work because Chuck didn’t open the box at the end, I wonder what planet that person is on.

On the island, Chuck crafts a friend named Wilson from a Wilson-brand volleyball he finds in one of the many FedEx boxes that wash onto shore with him. He crafts rope from video tapes he finds, and an all-purpose tool from a pair of ice skates. The boxes become symbols as well, perhaps one of the most clichéd symbols ever. Get out of the box. Think differently, live differently. Be different. Chuck is forced to do all of that.

But one box he doesn’t open. It’s a flat box, and there are wings painted on the outside. He starts to open it but the wings stop him. When he finally makes the decision to make his raft, he crafts sails out of the sides of a port-a-potty, and they flap like wings. Naturally, Wilson makes the trip with him, as does the long-ago frozen watch, and the unopened FedEx box with the wings. What the other writer missed by being upset about never finding out what was inside is that it wasn’t about what was IN the box. It was the box itself. A symbol of being closed up, but on the outside were wings. Wings he took advantage of to set himself free, not just of the island but of his previous life. The wings allowed him to fly. Powerful stuff, and a symbol I celebrate.

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live out loud

Comments (6) -

6/21/2014 11:53:38 PM #

The beautiful symbolism this movie clearly has aside, I understand the trouble the other writer has with the unopened box. Here is an isolated man who smartly and literally pulls off the belt off of the dead pilot's body but yet chooses not to open up the box with wings on it? No way. I don't buy that scenario either. No one spending four years on that island is not going to open up that box eventually, no matter what. Everyone and anyone is going to open up that box.

There may very well have been a perfectly well working cell phone inside of it. And I get this writer's problem perfectly. No sane human being would have left that box unopened for that long. The intended symbolism in the story there comes to a crushing halt when the logical reality of survival presents itself.

The moment we realize Chuck will not open up that box is precisely the moment we know we have a real fairy tale on our hands. And the beautiful young lady, who we meet in the end at the crossroads, then confirms to us that we are indeed witnessing again Hollywood movie making in action.

Fred United States

6/22/2014 12:33:43 AM #

Possible, and perhaps hopefully lucky, items (besides the long sought-after cell phone) that may have been in that box, and for which would have compelled any sane person to open:

A Swiss Army knife?
A flashlight?
A towel?
Clippers (Actually, any bathroom article...)?
A fucking book novel. (Even a bad one.)
A shaving kit?
Portable AM/FM radio?
A simple hat?

Everyone would open up that box.

Fred United States

6/22/2014 2:43:25 PM #

Thanks for your comments. And while I agree that in reality, everyone would open the box, I think the bigger point here, is that this was a movie rather than a documentary, much like a novel isn’t a textbook, and as such some liberties can and should be taken. The box, along with being a symbol and a metaphor was also what Alfred Hitchcock called the MacGuffin. The thing that was always there, around which the story circled.

Chuck not opening the box was also a bit of human nature. People do things sometimes, many times, for reasons passing understanding. He was going to rip it open but the wings on the box stopped him for some reason. Maybe part of the symbolism then is also religious. Who knows? We’d have to ask William Broyles (the film’s writer) and Robert Zemeckis (the director).

I think, too, that being too literal loses the reason. If we’re going to be literal, there’s no way Chuck would have survived the crash to begin with, not in the real world, and if he somehow, miraculously, did survive and was able to get into the raft, he would have had some fairly catastrophic injuries. The fact that he did survive and didn’t have any injuries is part of the fantasy, or fairy tale as you said. I guess with a film, especially a good one, which ultimately this one was, regardless of how realistic it was, I find myself surrendering a bit to the nuance, to the story; to the symbolism.

All that being said, and to your point about maybe there being a cell phone in the box, check out this youtube video.

I think you’ll get a kick out of it.

Lorin United States

6/22/2014 8:33:45 PM #

Being "too literal" I actually think doesn't really exist and I would like to politely repudiate the suggestion you make that this has perhaps occurred with me here. Some metaphors and fantasies simply work better than others, even when we all are capable of surrendering a bit to the nuance of a good story; I am not immune to any of it.

I get that Dumbo could really fly! Just not on a FedEx aircraft in Hollywood without opening up every box possible. Smile

Fred United States

6/23/2014 7:55:28 PM #

Lorin, thank you for being so gracious.....Brilliant....wise...and generous

Larissa United States

6/28/2014 1:32:28 PM #

We can be so sure of all of that!

Fred United States

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