Symbolism of Hands

Whenever you’re watching a documentary which anonymises its subjects, the camera often tips down to emphasise the hands. What are the hands doing? Picking at fingernails? In a tight grip? Relaxed and open? This close up on the hands is clearly meant to say something about emotional affect.

It’s also interesting to take a look at hands as they appear in advertising.

Why did Bob Peak emphasise hands in his series of 20th century advertisements for 7UP lemonade? He also emphasises masculinity. Could the emphasis on hands be to convey agency and the almost subliminal message that we should being using our own empty hands to get up and do something, ideally to grab a bottle of lemonade?

Bob Peake wasn’t the first to make use of the powerful hand to sell fizz. Here’s an earlier example selling Coca-Cola. (Same company. I’m guessing a different artist.)

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Looking Out To Sea

In stories, if a character is looking out to sea they’re frequently experiencing epiphany. In art, too, there’s no shortage of characters gazing out to sea. The guy giving the sermon below clearly understands the epiphanic power of the ocean, especially in combination with the higher altitude of a clifftop.

John MacWhirter - A Sermon by the Sea
John MacWhirter – A Sermon by the Sea

These days we are technologically connected to each other, but there was a time when saying goodbye to a loved one sailing off on a ship was a separation akin to death. That was the case for my own emigrant ancestors, who sailed to New Zealand in the mid 1800s. They never returned to England, Scotland and Ireland. Nor did their children or their children’s children.

Frank Holl - No Tidings from the Sea 1870
Frank Holl – No Tidings from the Sea 1870
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The Bridges Of Madison County Film Study

The Bridges of Madison County is a 1995 American one-true-love romance. The film is based on a 1992 best-selling, terribly written novel by Robert James Waller.

Stephen King gives the novel a roasting in his well-known book On Writing. Almost everyone who wants to be a writer seems to have read King’s writing book, part autobiography, part how-to guide. In the appendix, King includes a list of excellent novels and a list of terrible ones. He says writers must read bad writing before fully comprehending what makes good novels good. I feel Stephen King is too powerful to be so callous about others. But here’s what I’ve also noticed: Most powerful people came from nothing, and forever see themselves as ‘outside the establishment’. For them, there’s no epiphany in which they realise, “I’m big cheese now. I’d better be careful who I roast.”

Then again, Bridges of Madison County did sell 60 million copies. Maybe if you sell that many books, you’re a peer of Stephen King.

Is ‘Bad Writing’ Simply ‘Screenplay Writing’?

I have nothing like Stephen King’s clout. So I’ll tell you this. I picked up Robert James Waller’s novel Bridges of Madison County at a second-hand store for fifty cents. I took it home and sat down to read it. If Stephen King made it all the way through that novel he did better than me. I couldn’t make it past the first five pages. I’m inclined to absorb the style of whatever I’ve been reading lately, and the prose was so cringe I was worried it would infect my own prose. The guy wrote the novel in 11 days and it shows.

The conventional wisdom in Hollywood is that it’s easier to make a good movie from a bad book than from a great one. That’s probably true. No one has ever gotten The Great Gatsby right. A Confederacy of Dunces has allegedly driven some who’ve tried to adapt it mad. Did you hear that James Franco made a film version of As I Lay Dying? Exactly.

Phillip Martin, Arkansas Online

The book is written as badly as a screenplay. Ergo, it makes for a great screenplay. (Screenplays are work documents, never intended to be enjoyed for their line-level beauty.)

Who Gets To Be A ‘Good Writer’?

Stephenie Meyer is another romance writer whose best-selling vampire novel Twilight is frequently held up as an example of poor writing. Readers who love her work (mostly teenage girls and adult women) are assumed incapable of seeing bad prose for what it is. This isn’t true. Many of Twilight’s biggest fans write sophisticated think-pieces about the series’ problems, ideological and stylistic. Many will likewise point out that the prose becomes better as the series progresses.

There are clearly gender issues affecting pop criticism of pop books. There are also publishing industry issues at play. Why wasn’t the first Twilight book better edited? Why aren’t publishers spending more on editors in general? Well. Why aren’t readers spending more on books?

Genre Blend of Bridges of Madison County

The editors at Story Grid did an episode of The Bridges of Madison County. They consider this story an example of a Courtship Love story.

What Makes A Good Story?

There are many aspects to a great story. All aspects interrelate, but beautiful prose is just one thing, and maybe not even the most important thing to people who read one or two books a year.

Plotting and characterisation are separate from a novel’s line-level beauty. When ugly prose is adapted for film, the prose is no longer an issue. Now other aspects are allowed to shine (or fall flat). At least, this is the case when adept actors are cast in major roles. Meryl Streep and Clint Eastwood do a marvellous job of elevating cheesy dialogue of The Bridges of Madison County. They also share superb onscreen chemistry.

Clint Eastwood clearly saw the adaptive potential of this story. He produced it, directed it and starred in it. The movie is a particular type of satisfying. But because the line-level cringe has all but gone in the film, other issues reveal themselves.

On Setting and Authenticity

While audiences will accept films made with CGI or filmed against backdrops inside Hollywood studios, there’s a special appreciation reserved for movies filmed on site in off-the-beaten-track locations.

The Bridges of Madison County is authentic to its setting. True Grit is also set partly in Iowa, but The Bridges of Madison County looks a lot more like the actual place, being filmed there and all.

I’m giving this old story some fresh attention because three decades later audiences continue to enjoy the film, and theatres around the world continue to adapt the story for stage.

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Interesting Use of Negative Space in Illustration

Most often white space, sometimes negative space comprises another colour such as black. In many ways, picturebooks are like film, but negative space is not an option in most kinds of films, where there has to be some kind of backdrop.

Negative space is advantageous because lack of setting means a story may not date so much. Although crisp white backdrops in picture books feel contemporary, we can find many examples which are really pretty old.

Dream boats and other stories 1920 by Dugald Stewart Walker
Dream boats and other stories 1920 by Dugald Stewart Walker
Retold by Edward Holmes Illustrated by Ronald Embleton houses
Retold by Edward Holmes Illustrated by Ronald Embleton
Hike by Pete Oswald
M. Mayofis - Tales of the Brothers Grimm, Lazy Hans negative space
M. Mayofis – Tales of the Brothers Grimm, Lazy Hans
DIE WEISHEITEN DES HERRN APRIL (1963) Vladimir Fuka tobacco
DIE WEISHEITEN DES HERRN APRIL (1963) Vladimir Fuka tobacco
André François cover design for LE NOUVEL OBSERVATEUR (Jan. 1966)
André François cover design for LE NOUVEL OBSERVATEUR (Jan. 1966)
Alone Together, Toonerville Trolley (1921) Fontaine Fox
Alone Together, Toonerville Trolley (1921) Fontaine Fox
Photo Magazin No 2 1956
Photo Magazin No 2 1956
Mirko Hanák birds negative space houses
Mirko Hanák
Barbara Cooney (American, 1917-2000) 'Chanticleer and the Fox' adapted from The Canterbury Tales 1958
Barbara Cooney (American, 1917-2000) ‘Chanticleer and the Fox’ adapted from The Canterbury Tales 1958
Animals from the Bible, part 1, all Kinds of Birds and other Creatures Fritz Hug 1960 mice
Animals from the Bible, part 1, all Kinds of Birds and other Creatures Fritz Hug 1960
Tall City, Famous Sally (1966) Chas. B. Slackman soft city
Tall City, Famous Sally (1966) Chas. B. Slackman soft city
ANIMALS AT HOME THE BEES (1967) Iliane Roels
ANIMALS AT HOME THE BEES (1967) Iliane Roels
A Children's Garden Of Verses,1966 , Robert Louis Stevenson,illustrated by Brian Wildsmith
A Children’s Garden Of Verses, 1966, Robert Louis Stevenson, illustrated by Brian Wildsmith
Nicole Claveloux, Animaux étranges, 1993
Nicole Claveloux, Animaux étranges, 1993
Albert Dubout (1905-1976)
Albert Dubout (1905-1976)
Niroot Puttapipat - The Red Fairy Book white space
Niroot Puttapipat – The Red Fairy Book
Niroot Puttapipat - The Red Fairy Book
Niroot Puttapipat – The Red Fairy Book

Witches’ Cats In Art and Storytelling

Illustrators frequently depict witches in two mutually exclusive ways: erotic and alluring, or as ugly as the dominant culture can possibly proscribe. Here are some ugly witches dancing around a fire.

The “Crazy Cat Lady” is a modern day burlesque witch, but you know what they say about crazy ladies. In stories they’re almost always right.

Alien is a movie where nobody listens to the smart woman, and then they all die except for the smart woman and her cat. Four stars.

For more on the misogyny, ageism and also racism behind witch persecution, see this post.

Now for some attention to the witch’s most archetypal familiar: The cat. Like witches themselves, cats can be cute as heck or unappealing as hell.

Not all black cats are witches cats, but all black cats inherit a long tradition of superstition.

A black cat crossing your path signifies that the animal is going somewhere.

Groucho Marx
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Symbolism of Green

Elmer Cecil Stoner Green Mask

What does green symbolise in art and storytelling?

  • Unripe (and by extension, naïve)
  • Vital and vigorous (because Greek ‘chloros’ may have mostly meant ‘having sap’, independent of colour). By extension, green can symbolise youth. Young things tend to be moist (sorry) whereas old things tend to be dry (also sorry, blame those Ancient Greeks).
  • Latin for ‘green ‘ is viridis. This becomes verdant in English. This may have meant youthful and vigorous as well as naïve, but thanks to that age-old gender hierarchy, ‘virile’ and ‘manliness’ are overlapping ideas. ‘Virile’ and ‘virtue’ are also related.
From The Australian Women's Weekly, March 19, 1975 green glasses
From The Australian Women’s Weekly, March 19, 1975. Green-tinted glasses. I bet he tells everyone, “You look a little peaky today.”
  • It gets worse. Since green can mean virtue and naivety, it follows that green can also symbolise virginity, a bullshit concept made up to control people, mainly women.
  • Green symbolises spring, hence the adjective ‘vernal’. The common Latin idea with this family of ‘v’ words is ‘juicy’ or ‘sappy’.
  • Many landscapes remain green over summer (not here in Australia, where we should be using Aboriginal concepts of seasonality) but anyway, green can symbolise summer as well as spring.
  • There’s a famous medieval poem called Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. This poem may have come from a pop-culture idea of the time: belief in a Green Man who represents the seasonal cycle. (For a contemporary picture book example of personified seasons see The Stranger by Chris Van Allsburg.)
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Three by the Sea by Mini Grey Picture Book Analysis

Three By The Sea is a 2010 picture book by British writer-illustrator Mini Grey. This storyteller comes from South Wales, which is somewhat evident in the setting. The most widely borrowed picture book from Mini Grey is the wonderfully metafictional Traction Man series.

This one has metafictional elements also, and offers plenty of picture book techniques to discuss. I even get into colonialist ideology and heteronormative gender roles.

By the way, there is a 1981 picture book that goes by the same title. That one is by Edward Marshall and was featured on America’s Reading Rainbow.

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Resources For Teaching The Black Death

Frederick Morgan - Ring O'Roses

This list includes non-fiction, historical fiction (some based on true stories) as well as podcasts, TV shows and even a song. I’m including resources for all ages in this list.


Ring a Ring o Roses Nursery Rhyme

Marie-Madeleine FRENCH NOHAIN
Marie-Madeleine FRENCH NOHAIN

Ring a Ring o Roses, or Ring Around the Rosie, may be about the 1665 Great Plague of London: the “rosie” being the malodorous rash that developed on the skin of bubonic plague sufferers, the stench of which then needed concealing with a “pocket full of posies”. The bubonic plague killed 15% of Britain’s population, hence “atishoo, atishoo, we all fall down (dead).”

The Dark Side of Nursery Rhymes, BBC

Black Death (“Hollaback Girl” by Gwen Stefani)

Illustrations of the Grim Reaper

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Women Without A Voice: In Fiction And In Life

The Silent Nuns

Below is a transcription of a scanned article published in an 1899 edition of The World Wide Magazine. You’ll find it over at Internet Archives. Content note: Internalised misogyny (of course).

I feel keenly after reading this that the women who ended up at that 19th century silent convent were there to escape trauma. The routines of the convent may have provided some initial relief, though as becomes apparent, the silent nunnery itself inflicted its own trauma.

If you’ve ever read The World According To Garp (1978), or seen the film adaptation (1982), you may remember the resonant detail of the Ellen Jamesians, a group of (fictional) women named after an eleven-year-old girl whose tongue was cut off by her rapists to silence her. When creating this plot, John Irving was surely cognizant of historical cults such as the Buried Alive nuns of the 1800s, in which the highest virtue a Victorian-era woman can attain is to keep quiet forever, nun or not. The novel was written during second wave feminism.

Unfortunately, this feels to me like commentary on what many conservatives considered ridiculous and self-flagellating feminist activism of the time.

(Robert Muldoon was also the name of the Prime Minister of New Zealand when this film was made, by complete coincidence.)

As I read about the silent nuns of the Pyrenees I also thought of the sensibility of Hans Christian Andersen, especially as expressed via his story “The Little Mermaid” (1837). I have no idea if Andersen knew about this particular silent nunnery, or of any of silent commune, but that doesn’t matter. The silent nunnery aspires to one outworking of ‘perfect femininity’. (The other is ‘mother’.) This ideal was widely valorised. It affected how women were expected to behave, and it affected fiction.

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One Point Perspective Picture Book Houses

The one point perspective house is commonly when children draw when they first start drawing houses. Here’s an example from my own kid. I think they were about 8 years old when they drew this one.

Another reason this perspective can look childlike: The doll house effect.

Jane-Werner (1914-2005) and Cornelius De Witt (1925-1970) collaborated and produced this 1949 book called Words: How They Look and What They Tell
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