So, what is a recurring visual motif? In my mind, it simply means a visual concept that appears in a movie repeatedly. It could be a set of similar props, or a particular camera angle, or some other visual element, which help to communicate the themes or emotional tone of the movie
(Incidentally, this is #15 in a series of 47 posts about movies, with topics selected by my friend, each given to me after the previous one is written. For more information, check out #1 here.)
I admit, when I put this topic on my list of possibilities, I really only had one movie in mind. So when the topic was actually given back to me, it was a bit challenging to think of other examples which really stand out. After all, you can’t just talk about visual objects which are simply part of the environment of the settings of your movie and call them a “recurring visual motif.” In other words, you can’t just say that “fish” are a recurring visual motif for Finding Nemo just because there are a lot of them. The element needs to be a bit more purposeful than that, part of a cinematic strategy on the part of the director to communicate or enhance an aspect of the story.
Anyway, after some thought, here are some examples.
First off, sometimes the recurring visual element is an actual prop in the story, an object which really stands out by its very look or shape. One of the most powerful examples of this that I can think of is from
2001: A Space Odyssey (1968) – Directed by Stanley Kubrick
Visual Motif: The Black Monolith
2001, if you haven’t seen it, is about how an unseen power (presumably alien) has influenced the development of mankind by inspiring our evolutionary ancestors to create weapons and tools for the first time, and then much later to develop beyond humanity into a completely new sort of cosmically advanced life form. This alien power is never seen nor heard from, except by the presence of a towering black monolith that appears mysteriously on several occasions. The bizarre, nondescript simplicity of this object absolutely commands the attention of both the viewer and the characters. Its stark shape and shear texture make it stand out from whatever environment it is found in, and communicate “alien” better than any more complicated special effect could have. When combined with director Stanley Kubrick’s stylized visuals and the audio motif of Richard Strauss Thus Spake Tharathustra, the enigmatic appearances of the black monolith are amongst the most memorable images in film history.
Close Encounters of the Third Kind (1978) – Directed by Steven Spielberg
Visual Motif: The Mountain
Now this is an interesting example because the recurring presence of the visual motif is actually a point in the plot, and a major mystery for the first half of it or so. Richard Dreyfuss is an ordinary guy who has an odd encounter with (another) mysterious alien presence. After this, he begins to find himself obsessed with a particular shape, constantly being led to draw it or sculpt it or even to make it with his mashed potatoes. And he is not alone…many others around the world start doing the same thing. Eventually, he comes to realize that the shape is a mountain Devil’s Tower in Wyoming, and that he is being “called” there by these aliens, who are looking to make contact. His response to that call is what leads us to the climax of the movie.
As interesting as both 2001 and Close Encounters are, neither of them are actually what I meant when I first suggested the idea of recurring visual motifs. I was thinking of not just an important prop, but a visual concept that comes into the film in a number of different ways, and has a more conceptual and less literal meaning.
You might argue that close ups of hands holding other hands is simple example in Wall-E. Or maybe the floating feather in Forrest Gump. My friend noticed that there are lots of horses in Batman v. Superman: Dawn of Justice (and indeed there’s one in the trailer for the follow-up Justice League as well), though for the life of me I have no idea what that is supposed to communicate. There are also lots of spinning fans in a movie that I saw in college, but I’m so mortified that I ever watched it that I don’t even want to mention its name here.
But one of the most interesting examples, and the one I was thinking of in the first place, is this
The Hudsucker Proxy (1994) – Directed by Joel Coen & Ethan Coen
Visual Motif: Circles
The Hudsucker Proxy is a wacky little movie, one of the lesser regarded ones by the Coen brothers, but ultimately my second favorite project from their whole filmography. The story is about Norville Barnes, a simple guy who comes to the big city with big dreams, but finds himself the victim of a corrupt business that is looking to depreciate their own stock by putting an incompetent simpleton in as the new president of the company. The movie is the story of Norville Barnes’ fall and rise when he is suddenly given this opportunity to make all his dreams come true.
And it’s full of circles. Circles everywhere. A giant clock. A coffee mug’s stain on a newspaper. A doodle on a piece of a paper. A child’s toy. All showing up at different points in the story, constantly reminding us of each other, and helping to tie the movie together visually. And then also having meaning in the story, and is even discussed at one point: the idea of karma, the idea that things come around, that what goes up must come down, and that the new year brings new possibilities.
I love The Hudsucker Proxy, but I admit it’s a little bit of a mess. A bit “overcooked” is how I’d describe it, like it was left in the oven for too long, and wound up with too many ideas, too many jokes, too much production design. But the thematic consistency which comes through via a mixture of story concepts, dialogue, and the recurring visual of the circles all helps to create a cohesive story, allowing me to appreciate its divergence without getting lost, and to enjoy it as the great movie it is.
Bonus Trivia: The main character of Close Encounters and the main character of The Hudsucker Proxy, both come from the same place: Muncie, Indiana.