When I was six years old, my father sat me down to watch the short 1956 film The Red Balloon directed by Frenchman Albert Lamorisse about the unconventional tale of friendship between a young boy and a large, red balloon. In the same way that Toy Story would anthropomorphize gangly cowboy dolls and slinky dogs some 40 years later, Lamorisse’s film succeeded in imbuing an inanimate object with emotional resonance – eliciting in the viewer the same sense of crushing sadness and heartening elation normally reserved for the likes of a Gone with the Wind or a Casablanca. I returned to the film recently as both a nostalgic trip down memory lane and to introduce it to my own children, curious to see whether it would have the same effect on them.
I’m pleased to say that it did.
‘No ideas but in things’ said the American poet William Carlos Williams, and it’s clear to see how film-makers have exploited the evocative power of objects ever since the Lumière brothers used an oncoming train to make audiences jump out of their seats in 1895.
As a primarily visual medium, film uses sequential still imagery to evoke emotional responses to a given narrative. Key to this emotional connection is the use of objects to support character development and help drive a story.
Some objects are richly symbolic, others are purely entertaining and yet others have transcended the boundaries of the screen; acting as shorthand for an entire film and often becoming themselves icons of popular culture. Dorothy’s red slippers from the Wizard of Oz, Marilyn Monroe’s billowing white dress in The Seven Year Itch, Harry Callahan’s .44 Magnum in Dirty Harry – all can stake a claim as cultural artifacts that help to define character and narrative.
Film posters, tasked with grabbing attention while attempting to make clear both the story and genre often use objects as an abbreviated language. Would Stanley Kubrick’s Full Metal Jacket poster work with anything other that the darkly ironic soldier’s helmet, or the poster for Rosemary’s Baby be as effective without the ominous silhouetted pram in the foreground? Quite possibly, but would they be as memorable? Probably not.
Since its inception, film has often relied on objects to create lasting and indelible impressions on audiences. The silent era of film was marked by distinctive characters that were defined in part by objects, such as Charlie Chaplin’s bowler hat, cane and oversized shoes or Harold Lloyd’s round spectacles. Props too would be used by these same characters to create some of the most memorable scenes in movie history, such as the clock from which Harold Lloyd dangles in Safety Last! or the floating globe that Charlie Chaplin teasingly plays with in The Great Dictator.
The presence of a simple, tangible object can also often lend a film gravitas, as is the case with Metropolis’s Maria the robot or Back to the Future’s DeLorean shaped time machine, and – in keeping with the literary plot device of a MacGuffin – provide the driving motivations for an entire story (think the glowing briefcase from Pulp Fiction [itself heavily inspired by the 1955 film Kiss Me Deadly] or the Maltese Falcon from the film of the same name). These objects act as characters in themselves – magnetic ‘totems’ that are as integral to a film as setting or sound.
The visual iconography of objects also contribute to their film’s respective legacies and fan followings, often providing myriad commercial opportunities for people able to harness their pulling power. The web is littered with fan sites selling all manner of merchandise adorned with images of The Terminator’s T-1000, The Lord of the Rings ‘One Ring’ or Lolita’s heart shaped sunglasses. The online gadget and game retailer Firebox even sells Cast Away inspired ‘Wilson’ volleyballs, which – while seeming like an odd choice of object to extol, makes total sense when you consider the emotional resonance of the ball to the film’s central character and to the audience’s sense of empathy. What images of Che Guevara or Bob Marley plastered on posters have done to popularize revolutionary ideals, so too have images of Jason Vorhees’ hockey mask (Friday the 13th) or Freddy Kruger’s bladed glove done for fear of the bogeyman.
Artists too have immense fun with film objects such as New York based Ji Li whose online game ‘Famous Objects from Classic Movies’ requires players to guess the name of films from a single silhouetted image. Highly sophisticated fan art in the form of collectible prints and other published ephemera further demonstrate the marketing potential of cinematic objects, as can be seen in limited edition posters sold by the likes of US based Mondo and Dark Hall Mansions or Belgium’s Nautilus Art Prints, whose founding partner Laurent Durieux is fast becoming the most celebrated artist on the alternative movie poster scene.
Naturally this fascination with screen objects has attracted the attention of more ‘serious’ collectors and, ever since the seminal MGM Studios auction in 1970 – in which the studio created a three day film memorabilia auction to clear seven soundstages in an effort to consolidate space – a whole new collectors market has emerged that previously only existed for a few film enthusiasts. Among the vast array of over 350,000 costumes, film props and related property that went under the hammer at MGM were a pair of ruby red slippers worn by Judy Garland in The Wizard of Oz that sold for $15,000. To give a sense of how this particular area of collectibles has grown, consider that a second pair of the ruby slippers sold at auction in the 1980s for $165,000 and the final pair available (of four known to exist) sold in 2012 for $2 million.
This transition of objects from the films in which they appear into the ‘real world’ as coveted collectibles and auction house treasures, reveal new meanings of ownership, identification and value. Films are suspended in a timeless realm of magic and wonder, and thus owning a piece of them makes us in some way immortal by association. Similar to the ways in which objects like the Batmobile or Darth Vader’s helmet are extensions of the characters which own them, collectors are looking for the closest and most intimate form of emotional connection to a film, and thus – paying such enormous sums for them seems oddly justifiable. The objects are often also direct links to childhood; times in most people’s lives less burdened by responsibility and more fuelled by active and fertile imaginations – an idea that was mined for full effect by Orson Welles’ use of the ‘Rosebud’ sled in Citizen Kane (1931) or Alfie’s coveted Red Ryder BB Gun in A Christmas Story (Bob Clark, 1983).
It seems that Albert Lamorisse too was fully aware of the power that objects can have on us when, in 1956, he dreamed up the idea of an unconventional but lasting friendship between a young boy and a red balloon.
Visit my new Facebook page ‘Seeing Things’ which is solely dedicated to objects onscreen and Read more about film objects in Rosebud Sleds and Horses’ Heads: 50 of Film’s Most Evocative Objects, a book developed by yours truly and authored by Scott Jordan Harris.