With movies, as with novels, one can enjoy the story without understanding the symbolism, or even being aware of any symbolism. Yet stories become richer when one finds deeper meanings in them, even if these are not necessarily the same meanings the director (or writer) had in mind.
Lately I've been reading James Mottram's book The Coen Brothers: The Life of the Mind (2000), which discusses symbolism in the first eight films made by Joel and Ethan Coen. Much of what Mottram writes strikes me as pretentious nonsense, as when he says of The Big Lebowski, "The fact that the Coens have set the film primarily in a bowling alley symbolises the lethargy of the masses."
Yet I was rather taken by what he has to say about their 1990 film, Miller's Crossing.
I have loved Miller's Crossing since the first time I watched it, yet I doubt I could give you a synopsis of the story even 10 minutes after watching it, let alone a month later. It's a confusing gangster movie in which somebody is constantly betraying somebody else. Yet the images, the music, the striking scenes and terrific acting make me want to return to the film again and again. But what does it all mean?
Mottram suggests we watch the hats. The story is set decades ago when men wore hats. The Coens have stated that the idea for the movie started with the image of a hat blowing in the wind, and we see that image in the film. That hat means more than we might think.
"Tom (the main character played by Gabriel Byrne) remains the most intelligent of the characters, again reflected by his attachment to his hat," Mottram writes. "It acts as a holster for the film's most powerful weapon -- the brain. Those without one -- characters outwitted by those of a superior intelligence -- are the ones to be dispatched."
The story becomes one of conflict not just between rival gangs but between Tom's head and his heart. He acts one way, with different priorities, when he wears his hat and another way when he does not. When ruled by his heart, he becomes more human, but also more vulnerable.
Now I am eager to watch Miller's Crossing yet again so I can watch the hats.