The other night I watched one of my favorite old movies, the 1938 film, “Algiers,” with Charles Boyer and Hedy Lamarr. I remember it showing up on TV pretty often when I was a kid, and it never appealed to me back then. But when I caught it again a couple years ago, as an adult, it went straight through my heart like Charles Boyer’s last look at Hedy in the final scene.
And it occurred to me to wonder why. Why does this somewhat corny old movie (memorably parodied in the Warner Brothers cartoon character Pepe Le Pew) move me so much?
And I realized the answer was Metaphor. I respond to “Algiers” as a metaphor.
It’s the story of Pepe Le Moko (Boyer), a famous Parisian jewel thief hiding from the police in the Casbah, the old citadel of Algiers, a warren of narrow streets and rooftop terraces where the police dare not follow him. As long as he stays in the Casbah, Pepe is safe, and he rules there like a king. But he’s tired of the place, tired of the heat, of his uncouth companions, of his devoted mistress. He yearns for Paris and his old life.
This yearning becomes unbearable when he meets Gaby (Lamarr), the fiancée of a rich Frenchman, who comes slumming to the Casbah. When he learns she’s sailing home again, he takes the risk of pursuing her outside his kingdom, with tragic consequences.
Here’s why “Algiers” is a metaphor for me. I suffer from a personality disorder, a shyness disorder. Living this way feels very much like having one safe place in a dangerous world, a place you’re afraid to leave because you know that if you leave it something bad will happen to you.
It’s the metaphor that grabs me, that makes the story, in some sense, my own, and it worked at a visceral level even before I figured out the mechanism.
I suspect (can’t prove it) that if you examine any great story, any story that people genuinely love and return to again and again, you’ll find one or more great metaphors there. People loved the movie “Titanic” because the idea of a ship sailing inexorably toward disaster, whose passengers have to grab what life and love they can get before the collision, feels like life itself. People love the story because they’re saying, “Yes, that’s just how I feel. That’s what it’s like.”
Who among us hasn’t said goodbye to someone we’d fallen in love with, at some time in our lives? The film “Casablanca” gives us a way to think about that memory. It makes it more bearable, by being a more mythic and universal version of our own stories (even if we’re flattering ourselves a little). “The Maltese Falcon” works just as well, in a negative way.
J. R. R. Tolkien famously hated allegory (the rather rigid literary form where characters represent specific abstract concepts), but The Lord of the Rings is chock-full of metaphor. So much that (as we probably all know from experience) the meanings one person sees in it are often entirely different from the meanings another sees. Both sides are right. There is no right or wrong in metaphor; all that matters is how it works on our hearts.
How do you build a metaphor? It’s right-brain thing. When you’re thinking of a plot or a setting for a story, think about problems you know, your own or those of people close to you. Don’t ask yourself, “What is this situation like?” Ask yourself, “What does this situation feel like? If you were trying to express the emotional effect to someone, what kind of story would you tell?”
It’s the difference between looking in the windows of a house and walking inside.
(That’s a metaphor, by the way.)
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