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This article appeared in Volume 5(2) of The Semiotic Review of Books.

Cinematic metaphors

by Bernhard Debatin

Metaphor and Film. By Trevor Whittock. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press l990. Cambridge Studies in Film. 178 pages. ISBN O521-38211-4.

If metaphor as Donald Davidson (1978) holds, is the "dreamwork of language", then metaphor in film must be the driving force of the "dream machine," the film industry. Therefore, at first glance it seems trivial to question whether metaphors really do exist in film. Not only can we easily identify successful and remarkable metaphors in nearly any movie, we also can look back to a rich and long tradition in film analysis in which metaphor always played an important role. And yet as Whittock argues at the beginning of his book, this question is not a trivial one, since the term metaphor normally is applied to language, not to visual images. Thus its transference to film might lead to a merely metaphorical meaning of the term once it is used to describe film images. Indeed, Whittock challenges those literary critics and film theorists who speak against its application to film analysis in opposing their view, he articulates the central goals of his work:

"...this book will endeavour to widen the employment of metaphor by seeking to discover where and how metaphors may be legitimately attributed to films. It is hoped that this will provide insights into specific films, into the workings of 'film language,' and indeed into the very process underlying metaphor generally." (3)

As Whittock points out in his introduction, existing metaphor theories (in general) as well as accounts of filmic metaphor (in particular) often suffer from privileging single perspectives - either employing only rhetorical and linguistic approaches, or emphasizing mainly the creative and imaginative function of metaphor. Therefore, Whittock's primary ambition is to lay out a comprehensive theory of filmic metaphor that comprises both a rhetorical and an imaginative account of metaphor, thus integrating the analysis of individual metaphors and the metaphorical process underlying the creation of meaning. Whittock's analysis of structures and functions of metaphorical film images is clearly predicated on a romantic view of metaphor as well as of art. Correspondingly, his numerous analyses of metaphors within films focus mainly on classical narrative cinema; and his discussion of film theories favours those that see cinematic metaphor as an expression of conscious and rational creativity, rather than as a means for expressing surreal dreams and unconscious drives, or as a device for infiltrating and deconstructing the manifest discourse of film. Despite these limitations, it has to be emphasized that Whittocks's book is one of the few that treats cinematic metaphor explicitly and centrally, whereas most other authors either regard it as a minor matter, or subsume it under a pre-given system. Therefore, and because of the broad scope of Whittock's metaphor theory, the book is of interest for scholars who deal with film analysis as well as those who study semiotic and philosophical aspects of metaphor.

Whittock unfolds his theory of filmic metaphor in seven chapters (including a short introduction) and two small appendices. A set of copious and detailed endnotes, a bibliography, a filmography, and an index wind up the book. Concerning the structure, it is important to know that the book has been written over a period of about 12 years. Certainly this need not be a drawback, but it means that the book is more a collection of sometimes thematically overlapping essays than a stringently elaborated mongraph. It also means that the references in the chapters become increasingly current as the book goes on.

The opening essay on the "Concept of Poetic Metaphor" (of which an earlier draft had been first published in 1978) presents an explanation of the metaphor's structure in the tradition of the interactionist view. This second chapter of the book also summarizes basic notions and categories of metaphor theory. Following Richards (1936), Whittock defines the metaphorical process as an interaction between tenor and vehicle a fusion of two ideas that results in the creation of a new one. In contrast to analogy which only compares two things without changing categories, the process of metaphorical interaction disturbs and rearranges them: "Metaphor dissolves our fixed notions in order to produce fresh insights' (8). And in contrast to image, which is more vague and less determined than metaphor, and to symbol which has a culturally rooted and permanent meaning, metaphorical meaning is contextually generated through the concrete semantic event of the interaction between tenor and vehicle. Whittock defines two basic principles that underlie the metaphorical process: similiarity and contiguity. He holds these two principles to be the basis of the two types of metaphorical reasoning that were defined by Wheelwright (1962) namely epiphor (for extension of meaning through analytical comparisons and diaphor (for creation of meaning through juxtaposition and synthesis). Whittock's notion of diaphor, in contrast to Wheelwright's, is focused only on the fact that juxtaposition is "caused by metonymic collocation"(11) so that new meaning seems to emerge merely from syntagmatic contiguity, whereas Wheelwright (1962:72 ff.) sees juxtaposition rather as means of creating new similarity based on emotional congruity. Whittock thus risks reducing novel metaphor to metonymy This problem is characteristically found in structuralist approaches with which Whittock does not want to be associated - and as we will see, he implicitly revises this position very soon. However, Whittock is right in saying that the semantics of the poetic context and not only the syntactic and rhetoric level determine both the creation of metaphorical meaning and the identification of metaphor. He is also right in pointing out that different periods have ascribed different functions to metaphor, such as mere decoration, evocation of emotions, reduction of complexity to a concise expression, closing linguistic gaps by catachresis, naming unnamable experiences and feelings, and provoking the reader's creative interpretation. But most interesting in this chapter, crucial to Whittock's theory of cinematic metaphor, and also revising his above mentioned position, is that he employs a broad notion of metaphor that comprises other figures, such as simile, metonymy, rule disruption and hyperbole. The metaphorical process, thus broadly defined, is the fundamental principle underlying the creation of meaning in language as well as in film:

"(Tropes) function in relation to one another and to other elements in the work ... (and) metaphor is not only an element in this process: The process itself is one of metaphorical transformation." (15)

In the third chapter, "Language, Metaphor, and the Film Image," Whittock argues for extending the notion of metaphor to cinema. Acknowledging the difference between language and film, he shows that film does not possess a clear-cut grammar or literal categories, but nonetheless has its own rules and conventions. He also points out that the basic unit of film as a sign-system, the film image, is not an arbitrary sign, but an iconic gestalt of audiovisual elements that shares some characteristics with the real object it depicts. This "existential link with a preexisting world outside the film" (22) leads to a certain literalness, immediacy, and designative authority of the film image. Whittock now asks, if film images seem to be intrinsically literal, how can there be metaphor in film? The traditional answer is: montage - the juxtaposition of shots. In contrast to this "narrow view of metaphor," (25) Whittock argues that the single film image itself is always a result of a selective and metaphorical process, which transforms its object with framing, composing, pacing, sound, rhythm, and tonalities. Therefore, "metaphor is encapsulated within the very film image itself." (29) Whittock underpins this thesis by referring to two important concepts of metaphor theory, namely interplicitness (Martin 1975) and seeing as (Hester 1967): The metaphorical interaction of tenor and vehicle always draws on connotations that are extralinguistic visual experiences. The mutual influence of these disparate contexts and ideas is called interplicitness. Experiencing this new interplicit meaning, we see the metaphorized ideas in a new light; we see them as similar in certain, freshly experienced respects. Hence each film image presents its object in a specific perspective and refers to linguistic meaning as well as to extralinguistic experience. With this concept of metaphor as an interplicit process of seeing as, Whittock concurs with the mainstream of contemporary metaphor theory and he strengthens his view of metaphor as a process that creates both contiguity and similarity. Whittock then defines two general types of meaning conveyed by a film image: first, designation, entailing denotation of an object as a whole, connotation of associated ideas and their interplay, which is the basis of metaphor within a film image; and second, signification meaning the syntagmatic and paradigmatic interplay between film images, the contextual process of "combining film images into significant clusters." (32) Whittock rightly makes clear that if there is a film image then it is the 'language' of filmic signification, the narrative rhetoric of artistic composition.

The main task of the fourth chapter "Planes of Discourse in Cinema" is to explore how the interplay between literal and figurative, constituted by processes of designation and signification, leads to larger significant groups and to the creation of particular metaphors in film. The most important point here is that metaphor in film images has to refer to filmic and extrafilmic conventions with which the (often heterogeneous) audience is acquainted: "How audiences respond to cinematic tropes depends on their education, experience, and expectations' (40) Therefore Whittock claims that either the audience must be prepared for metaphor by diegetic hints, or a metaphor needs to be organized in such a way that it will not disturb the continuity of film if it is misunderstood. Metaphor can then either be arranged in a subtle, allusive, and discreet way, which often calls for repeated viewing in order to be understood, or presented in such an accentuated way that it cannot be missed. (It was, by the way, an infelicitous decision to call the accentuated metaphor 'emphatic' since Max Black (1977) had already coined this term for metaphors that cannot be substituted or paraphrased.) Whittock concludes that interesting and evocative metaphors stem from the interactive tension of literal and figurative levels in both cinematic conventions and conventions drawn from the real world. The metaphorical transgression and disruption of these conventions then leads to a subtle and imaginative "second order" organization of meaning.

With his fifth chapter, "Varieties of Cinematic Metaphor" Whittock develops the core of his rhetorical account of metaphor in film. The basis of this account is a classification of ten general metaphorical forms. Giving plenty of concrete and stimulating filmic examples, Whittock convincingly demonstrates how these forms can be used to analyze the different types of metamorphical film images. In short, the classification reads as follows:

  1. Explicit comparison (epiphor): Metaphor is produced by placing two objects next to each other or by presenting two common features as similar or by presenting two different things as similar.
  2. Identity asserted: A thing is seen as something different, a distortion of something makes it appear to be something else; or an object is turned into a different one by presenting common features.
  3. Substitution; A missing object is called to mind either by a pattern established by diegetic patterns and expectations, or by extradiegetical commonplaces and expectations.
  4. Juxtaposition (diaphor); entailing contiguity in time or space, juxtaposition establishes a new relation between two things, which does not rely on preexisting similarity or substitute. Its success can be achieved by preparing the audience through genre and style or through the manner of presentation, as well as by rendering literal interpretation impossible. In addition, the resonance of juxtaposition can evoke a metaphorical interpretation along with a literal one.
  5. Metonymy; Deleting certain aspects of its object(s), metonymy is a condensation of meaning that "brings a new matrix of thoughts and feelings into existence" (60). As a subspecies of substitutional metaphor metonymy appears either as "received metonymy" which draws on existing connections in the real world, or as "contextual metonymy" which is created by diegetic means.
  6. Synecdoche (part replaces the whole): Like metonymy, synecdoche often appears in combination with other tropes in order to create a more complex metaphor. Unlike metonymy, it is mostly received and only infrequently contextual.
  7. Object correlative: A certain subject, such as a prop, "becomes associated with a particular character, or with some event or situation pertaining to that character." (62) Due to its extensive use in cinema, Whittock regards this form as a proper trope, acknowledging at the same time that it is a subtype of contextual metonymy.
  8. Distortion (hyperbole, caricature): As an intentional deviation from what is expected to be normal, distortion shows the object in a biased perspective. Distortion can be realized through mise-en-scene, viewpoint and selection, as well as through shooting techniques, processing, and cutting.
  9. Rule disruption: In the place of the predictable element according to the established convention, a different one is presented. Rule disruption can affect pre-filmic and existing filmic conventions, as well as patterns developed within a film or unconsciously underlying the organization of the film.
  10. Chiming (parallelism): "A quite arbitrary similarity or parallelism becomes the opportunity for a juxtaposition of ideas." (66) Chiming can be created by accidental parallels in material, or by constructing formal parallelisms such as rhyme, rhythm, grammar, etc.

Finally, Whittock rightly emphasizes that any rhetorical classification tends to reduce the complexity of real metaphors. Therefore this rhetorical account of metaphor has to be supplemented by an imaginative one, which takes the density and complexity of metaphor into consideration, and which Whittock will address in a later chapter. He also points out that his classification is tentative and that other classifications are feasible as well, because "a definitive taxonomy of cinematic metaphor is not possible" (68).

However, since the reader was promised a rhetorical theory of metaphor, it is a bit disappointing that Whittock does not try to motivate and justify his classification theoretically. Why, for example, does he take epiphor to be explicit and not - as is usually understood - implicit comparison? Why does the Aristotelian analogical metaphor of the type A:B=C:D not appear at all? Why is juxtaposition identified with diaphor, whereas Whittock elsewhere agrees that not every juxtaposition is metaphor (see 24 ff and 74 ff )? And is not the violation and transgression of categories, hence rule disruption and distortion, more the basic structure of metaphor than just a form? Whittock could have greatly strengthened his approach by supplementing it with a pragmatic theory of metaphor, thus grounding the taxonomy theoretically - for example, according to the rhetorical functions of the forms classified perhaps in a way similar to the classification of speech acts according to their illocutionary force (see Searle 1975). Though Whittock did actually deal with some of these forms in the second chapter (namely epiphor, diaphor, objective correlative, hyperbole, rule disruption and chiming, he does not come to a systematic discussion of his taxonomy. Lacking this kind of theoretical reasoning, his account of rhetoric remains a typology rather than a rhetorical theory. Nevertheless, the instructive and vivid examples he gives in exemplifying his typology shows his classification to be a worthwhile tool in concrete analysis of cinematic metaphors.

In the sixth chapter, "Theories of Cinematic Metaphor", Whittock offers a detailed critique of Sergei Eisenstein, Roy Clifton and Christian Metz, which he uses to situate his own theory within the discourse on film. Whittock has no problems integrating Eisenstein's film theory with his own romantic notion of art: He appropriates the non-Marxist aspects of Eisenstein's thought by emphasizing Eisenstein's shift from a dialectical to an emotional and organic theory in which a creative act of mind combines disparate elements into "meaningful wholes". He then points out that Eisenstein's notion of montage includes both vertical and horizontal montage, i.e. juxtaposition within a shot and between shots; and that juxtaposition can only create metaphor if a clash of ideas leads to a new idea and if the principles that organize the metaphorical film image fit into the "overall unity" of the artistic work Whittock thus enlists the support of Eisenstein for his own organic theory of art and metaphor.

In a similar vein, Whittock analyzes the ideas and examples of Roy Clifton in order to convince any remaining sceptics of "the existence of a wide range of rhetorical figures (in film) ... beyond any shadow of doubt."(79) Like Eisenstein, Clifton sees the audience as a creative force in the construction of figurative meaning. But in contrast to Whittock, who employs a broad notion of metaphor, Clifton follows the distinctions of traditional rhetoric and treats metaphor as a mere trope. In this context, Whittock rightly faults Clifton's notion of the image for ignoring the level of sound and for overlooking the double reference of metaphorical images. He also notes that Clifton sometimes confuses tenor, vehicle, and their interaction. In toto, however, Whittock agrees with Clifton and applauds his "sensible treatment of dead cinematic metaphors" that shows how their often unintended revival is "not always to the film's advantage." (84)

In contrast to his nuanced readings of Eisenstein and Clifton, Whittock has nothing for Metz but harsh criticism. First, Whittock contends that Metz "seems to be largely unaware of the extensive work done on metaphors by British and American scholars" (85) - a legitimate complaint, which however Whittock is not in the best position to make, given that he treats important authors like Kittay and Dante only en passant and others (such as Goodman, Hesse, Beardsley, Grice, Rorty, and Davidson) not at all. Second, Whittock objects that Metz is using a psychoanalytical approach without ever having "called into question the scientific validity of Freudianism" or having "asked for some evidence of the efficacy of psychoanalytic therapy." (88) Yet it is a commonplace that determining validity and efficacy is difficult in psycho-hermeneutical fields. Furthermore, rather than accusing Metz of "active censorship" (88) of critics of psychoanalysis it would have been more appropriate and fruitful to assess Metz' approach in the context of poststructuralism, which has been as self-evident and paradigmatic in France during the past two decades as the analytical approach has been in recent American philosophy. The third objection, that Metz' theory is ridden with jargon and lacks logic, and is hence nonsense (89), does identify a major problem of poststructuralism where its cryptic terminology is concerned. However, to call this theory illogical and nonsensical means that making sense for Whittock seems to be limited to rational, conscious and manifest discourse, and perforce excludes non-sense. Whittock is reluctant to even try to comprehend, on its own terms, an analysis that draws on categories of the unconscious and dreamwork. His interpretation therefore misses Metz' point. Furthermore, Whittock's charge that Metz' theory has little practical application is obviously untrue (see for instance Williams 1981). Admittedly, it is possible to make valid criticisms of poststructuralist film theory. However, Whittock's sweeping polemical condemnation of Metz' theory, in the absence of compelling arguments, only weakens his own credibility and also might distract the reader from the good points of the book.

In the final chapter, "The Mind's Eye," Whittock explores and develops the basis for his own imaginative account of metaphor with the aim of a semantic theory that "is concerned with how we make sense of signs" (98). Since Whittock has just rejected dreamlike, unconscious ways of making sense, he now tries to show how conscious and rational creativity constitutes the meaning of film images. The heart of his imaginative account is the process of metaphorical redescription of reality, a process that as Ricoeur (1975) has shown, establishes a second-order reference, thus creating new categories by transgressing and destroying old ones. Whittock prepares and underpins this idea with a most interesting combination of two other approaches: the work of Rumelhart (1979) on schemata and that of Lakoff/Johnson (1980) on the basic metaphoricity of language and mind. In short the argument says that interpretation is the activation of a situation schema (as a provisional category) our system of schemata and categories is, on the one hand, constituted by clusters of metaphorical concepts and, on the other hand, always "open to revision and reconstructing by means of metaphor."(117) Thus the construction of meaning is a metaphorical process that both uses existing categories and creates new ones. In this process of making sense, three fundamental principles are at work, namely, condensation, displacement and hierarchization. Following Cassirer (1923) and Ricoeur (1975), Whittock maintains that the integration of narrative structures into a meaningful whole (similar to myth) is achieved through the metaphorical operations of condensation and displacement. In addition, the principle of hierarchy, drawn from Koestler (1964), organizes the elements of an artistic work, such as metaphor, according to their significance, "ranked in order of importance, and the lower order of meaning made to serve the higher." (125)

The principle of hierarchy fits perfectly into Whittock's romantic notion of art, for it implies that the whole structures and unifies its parts. This leads us, however, to the central problem of Whittock's theory: The naiveté inherent in his romantic-organic notion of art, which he borrows from classical authors such as Aristotle, Coleridge and Goethe (104ff). Though Whittock claims that "Marxism, semiotic, or deconstructivist approaches have generated lots of jargon and ideology, but have been quite meagre in displaying any fresh understanding of art" (105), he fails to present a feasible alternative for dealing with works of art that do not fulfil the romantic criterion of an organic whole. That is, Whittock's pre-modern concept of art is unable to account for most of the art created during the twentieth century, including much of cinematic art. For modern art is often fragmentary rather than organic, consisting of intransigence and conflict rather than reconciliation and unity, expressing difference rather than coherence. Making sense of cinematic imagery, in Whittock's approach, functionalizes filmic metaphor and subordinates it to the service of a presupposed organic whole. Whittock's imaginative account is thus only useful for and appropriate to the analysis of classical narrative cinema, it does not address the dreamwork of modern cinema. (For instance, even the metaphorical structure of a mainstream Hollywood movie such as Alien cannot be analyzed properly without drawing on psychoanalytical categories such as intent and manifest levels, for its sense is structured not only by the manifest distinction of familiar vs. unfamiliar, but also by the latent metaphorical field of pregnancy and birth.)

In terms of its organization, Whittock's book, which was assembled from a series of essays written over many years, could have been better integrated. This lack of integration detracts from his claim to present a comprehensive theory of metaphor in film. A case in point are the two appendices, which appear to have been an afterthought. The first, "On Denotation and the Literal in Film," could easily have been integrated into the third or fourth chapter, since it focuses on the function of the indexical link between cinematic images and the real world with respect to documentary and feature. The second, "Searle on Metaphor," briefly discusses Searle's metaphor theory and compares it to Whittock's approach. The place of this appendix in the book as a whole remains unclear. It might have been a better strategy to integrate all the discussions of metaphor theory into one main chapter.

In sum, it can be said that Whittock's theoretical approach provides stimulating insights into the rhetorical and imaginative function of metaphor in film. It is one of the strong points of the book that it deals with a lot of examples, thus never straying too far from its practical purpose, film analysis. The rhetorical typology, though it remains a bit arbitrary because of its lack of theoretical grounding, does a good job in identifying and describing individual metaphors. The imaginative account shows how individual metaphors are connected to the narrative network of a film, which they also simultaneously help to create. Whittock demonstrates this interplay between micro- and macro-level in his last example, the analysis of de Sica's movie The Bicycle Thief. Whittock thus overcomes the notorious problem of many analysts of cinematic metaphor, who too often remain at the micro-level of interpreting individual metaphors without connecting them to the whole. He achieves this advantage, however, at the price of making too much sense of the whole.

Thanks to Patricia Stokes for her help in editing.


Black, Max. (1977) "More about Metaphor." Dialectica 31 (1977): 431-457.

Cassirer, Ernst. (1923) Philosophie der symbolischen Formen, Vol. 1-111. Darmstadt: Wissenschaftliche Buchgesellschaft (third edition 1977).

Davidson, Donald. (1978) "What Metaphors Mean". Critical Inquiry 5 (1978): 31 -48.

Hester, Marcus B. (1967) The Meaning of Poetic Metaphor. The Hague: Mouton.

Koestler, Arthur. (1964) The Act of Creation. London: Hutchinson.

Martin, Graham Dunstan. (1975) Language, Truth and Poetry. Edinburgh: University Press.

Richards, Ivor Armstrong (1936) The Philosophy of Rhetoric. New York: Oxford University Press.

Ricoeur, Paul. (1975) La métaphor vive. Paris: Edition du Seuil.

Rumelhart, David E. (1979) "Some Problems with the Notion of Literal Meaning." In: Andrew Ortony(ed.), Metaphor and Thought. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 78-90.

Searle, John R. (1975) "A Taxonomy of lilocutionary Acts." In: Keith Gunderson (ed.), Language, Mind, and Knowledge. (Minnesota Studies in the Philosophy of Science, Vol. Vll.) Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 344-369.

Wheelwright, Philip. (1962) Metaphor and Reality. Bloomington: Indiana University Press.

Williams, Linda. (1981) Figures of Desire. A Theory and Analysis of Surrealist Cinema. Urbana: Unviersity of lilinois Press.

Bernhard Debatin is a visiting professor for communication theory and semiotics in the department of Social and Business Communication at the College of Fine Arts (Hochschule der Künste) in Berlin, Germany. In his Ph.D. thesis Die Rationalitaet der Metapher (1993) he investigated the rationality of metaphor by analyzing current metaphor theories, and developed a synthetic theory of metaphor based on the philosophy of language, hermeneutics, and communication theory. He has published in the area of computer semiotics, the philosophy of technology, metaphor theory, and interpersonal and mass communication. His was co-editor, with Dieter Hirschfeld, of Antinomien der Oeffentlichkeit (1989), and, with Hans J. Wulff, Das Telefon im Spielfilm (1991).

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