A Note on Metaphor in Cinema

Charlie Chaplin Modern Times Masses are sheep metaphor

Charlie Chaplin, Modern Times

Metaphor in cinema is an impossible operation. It is one, which in order to function must pass through a transmutation into a second, literary form. The sense of Eisenstein’s metaphor “the workers are cattle” from Strike, or Chaplin’s “the masses are sheep” from Modern Times are always linguistic in origin, and require an intellectual operation in order to gain significance. It is not that metaphor cannot emanate from a film (it of course can) but it is never contained in film, because its proper realm of operation is within language.

Thus, the juxtaposition of two single images never produces a third image, but only an idea, which if it to be understood needs to be transposed to a linguistic register. This is both the strength and weakness of montage theory – the passage into language that empowers the montage is, as Eisenstein pointed out, an intellectual operation, which drew its force from its ideology fighting against the appearance of a “natural order” of the image. Yet this same zealous force also perhaps led the intellectual montage to extinction, or perhaps evolution into its most natural form – the creation of new space.

Sergei Eistenstein Strike metaphor workers are cattle

Sergei Eisenstein, Strike

Between two juxtaposed images, no third image is ever created. Because of the appearance of the cinematic representation’s material origins, even in a fade there is no place in which the sheep become men, or which men become cattle. The images only create a link to a common linguistic space in which men and sheep and cattle all become equal objects for consideration.


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