As my students will hopefully attest, I like to focus on evocative objects in my history classes. These objects are described by social theorist Sherry Turkle as “the things we think with,” and they allow us construct an entire world around them.
For instance, a hubcap from a 1957 Chevrolet leads us into a discussion about the social and cultural contexts of the 1950s and into a world filled with the sounds of rock and roll, the construction of suburban houses, the antics of Howdy Doody and Bert The Turtle, and the stirrings of the modern civil rights movement. The hubcap can also send us down the road of American tourism and into the parking lots of countless motels that lined this road–including the parking lot outside Kelly’s Motel, where I grew up and developed the kind of warped mindset that eventually led to the creation of this column.
I have collected several books about evocative objects that run the gamut from Civil War memorabilia and tasty culinary items, to objects associated with the Beatles and Michelangelo’s art works. My most recent acquisition is Scott Jordan Harris’ fascinating and very evocative ROSEBUD SLEDS AND HORSES’ HEADS: 50 OF FILM’S MOST EVOCATIVE OBJECTS. Published in 2013, this book features fifty one-page essays, accompanied by original drawings, that offer many ways to think about how evocative objects define the history of film. The two references in the book’s title recall the famous (and infamous) sled that unlocks the mystery of newspaper magnate Charles Foster Kane’s life in Orson Welles’ justly praised 1941 movie “Citizen Kane,” and the horse head refers to the unforgettable scene from Francis Ford Coppola’s 1972 film “The Godfather” when movie mogul Jack Woltz awakens in bed to find the bloody and severed head of his prized race horse lying beside him. Today, it is impossible to think or talk about these movies without conjuring up images of these objects at the same time.
Harris’ choice of evocative objects contains expected items as well as some rather unexpected ones. Is it possible, for example, to compile such a book without including Dorothy’s ruby slippers from “The Wizard of Oz” (1939), Marilyn Monroe’s billowing white dress from “The Seven Year Itch,” (1955), “Casablanca’s” (1942) coveted letters of transit, Michael Myers’ “Halloween” (1978) mask, a golden ticket from “Willy Wonka & The Chocolate Factory” (1971), or the Red Ryder BB Gun from Bob Clark’s “A Christmas Story” (1983)?
In addition to these no-brainer inclusions, I am happy to see some of my favorite cinematic evocative objects, including the big clock from Harold Lloyd’s “Safety Last” (1923), the Maltese Falcon from John Huston’s now-classic film noir “The Maltese Falcon” (1941), Indiana Jones’ well-worn hat from all films in the series (1981-2008), and the .44 Magnum wielded by Harry Callahan in the still-controversial “Dirty Harry” (1971), chosen for inclusion.
Although I have seen over forty of the films Harris includes in his list, I am looking forward to adding some to my own list, including “The World of Apu” (1959), “Two of Three Things I Know About Her” (1967), “Delirious” (1991), and “Sholay” (1975). So many films, so little time.
A couple of unexpected, yet very welcome inclusions are the discarded coke bottle from Jamie Uys’ quirky 1980 South African film “The Gods Must Be Crazy” and the white plastic bag blowing in the breeze that becomes a major character in Sam Mendes’ “American Beauty” (1999), a film that takes on a whole new meaning in light of the recent allegations against actor Kevin Spacey.
The coke bottle that lands in the midst of a group of Kalahari Bushmen after being thrown from an airplane becomes a metaphor for cultural change. As Harris describes its significance, “the mass-produced perfection of the Coca-Cola bottle is the ideal emblem of Western society.” Because these bottles are so ubiquitous in our culture, we “scarcely even notice them. We certainly never stop to contemplate them.” To those who have never seen them, however, they might seem divine, and possibly a sign from the gods. In fact, the “bottle’s appearance among the film’s bush people represents the encroachment of modern commerce into a virgin world.” As Harris observes, “No on-screen object has ever exposed the savagery in civilization, or the civility in a savage, as succinctly as this discarded Coke bottle.” Likewise, the blown-around plastic bag from “American Beauty” becomes much more than just a familiar object with which we line our wastebaskets. “It is Hollywood’s standout symbol of the traces of the sublime we can see around us every day.”
And, much to my relief, Harris didn’t forget to include the red pill and the blue pill from 1999’s “The Matrix.” According to Harris “The idea of these two pills has penetrated popular culture to such an extent that ‘taking the blue pill’ is now a common description of any choice that allows someone to unquestionably accept things the way they appear instead of investigating the way they really are.” Of course, this idea is not new, receiving its classic treatment several thousand years ago in Plato’s allegory of the cave from “The Republic.” I agree with Harris that the “great power of the pills is that, though they seem to present such a clear binary choice, they inspire a dozen different interpretations.” And isn’t this the most compelling reason for watching movies?
In case you are wondering, Harris didn’t forget to include the infamous wafer-thin mint that played such a memorable–and hilariously nauseating–role in “Monty Python’s Meaning of Life” (1983). If you remember–and you really can’t forget–the segment featuring Mr. Creosote, you will understand why this evocative object is so essential to Harris’ list.
Like any book based on lists, I question why Harris didn’t include other objects, such as the key Ingrid Bergman held in her hand in Alfred Hitchcock’s “Notorious” (1946), the organ console from “Carnival of Souls” (1963), a spare tire from “Road House” (1989), the Christmas tree from “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation” (1989), the mysterious blue box from “Mulholland Drive” (2001), and the hitchhiker’s pocket knife from “The Texas Chainsaw Massacre” (1974). This list can go on and on, and I am sure you have items of your own to include. But, alas, this column has run out of space.
See you next week with (hopefully) the word of the year.