Metaphor and Symbol in Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995), Spirit of the Beehive (1973), Salaam Bombay! (1988) and Los Olvidados (1950)

The four films under consideration – Welcome to the Dollhouse (1995), Spirit of the Beehive (1973), Salaam Bombay! (1988) and Los Olvidados (1950) – all develop what could be called a “root metaphor” for their vision of childhood and the relationships between their protagonists and other children, adults and authority figures.  This root metaphor is often, although not exclusively, figured in the title of the film—as is the case here with Welcome to the Dollhouse and Spirit of the Beehive.  In Salaam Bombay!, the metaphor seems to reside in the disjunction between the realm of Bollywood cinema and the harsh realities of street life in the city’s red light districts.  In Los Olvidados, it is the symbolic relationship between animal and human.   This essay explores the meaning and use of these metaphors and the interconnections they reveal between the films.

WDollhouseMoviePosterWelcome to the Dollhouse opens with a moving shot of the cafeteria at Benjamin Franklin Junior High School, showing the mass of students arranged in their various groups and cliques, and ends by focusing on the lone figure of Dawn Wiener, searching for her proper niche within the student body.  Visually, the shot establishes the essential opposition and alienation of the character from the body of society; an opposition which by film’s end will not be resolved, where we see Dawn aboard a bus singing along with other chorus students, initially part of the group but by the end of the shot isolated, still apart and lacking harmony with the rest.

The titular dollhouse recurs several times, with varying degrees of specificity.  First there are the dolls which litter the room shared by Dawn and her younger sister Missy, a precocious and adorable moppet who receives the lion’s share of positive attention from her parents.  So it is not surprising that as an act of jealousy and revenge, Dawn saws the head off one of the dolls, which not coincidentally resembles the younger girl.  This resemblance segues into identification in the next appearance—an instance of visual synecdoche—when Missy gets Dawn in trouble with their mother so that she can take control over the television, switching channels to a QVC-type show featuring a variety of dolls.  In both instances, the use of the metaphor highlights the external attractiveness and perfection of Missy, signaling that it is this surface sheen that wins her affection and preferential treatment, and that its lack condemns Dawn to a marginal role in her family and school life.  This short scene brings to the viewer’s attention society’s insistence on the value of external appearance, its commodification or reification, and so reveals the situation in the Wiener family to be a microcosm for larger social trends.  In fact, all the characters in the film can be gauged by their acceptance of this superficiality, or their interest in its maintenance, or their capacity to look past it.

The final instance of the metaphor, lending its title to the film, occurs as song lyrics being performed by Steve in the Wiener family garage.  The lyrics speak to “wandering alone in sterile rooms” and the emptiness of suburban living.  This dissatisfaction and malaise, attributed to an ostensibly popular and attractive character, emphasizes that for anyone capable of looking beyond or beneath the face value of their surroundings the inevitable consequence will be a yearning to get out, to get away, to abscond.  However, the possibilities for doing so are limited; while Steve eventually manages to light out, Dawn is trapped by her seeming acquiescence to her prescribed role.  It is telling that at the end of the film, contemplating whether she should make the effort to attend the chorus group field trip, her brother Mark tells her, “You might as well.  It’ll look good on your transcript.”  The next shot shows Dawn doing precisely that and, while her motivation remains explicitly unstated, the linkage of the two scenes speaks to her inability to remain apart and her desire to fit in, if only because “it looks good”.

SpiritofthebeehiveposterSpirit of the Beehive features another young, female protagonist whose position within the family is equally marginal.  Ana opts to escape to the interior.  While Dawn’s inner experience remains unavailable to the viewer, as well as apparently to herself, with Dollhouse’s insistence on externals and appearances, Ana confronts the desolation and sterility of her surroundings (landscape as well as social scene) by a withdrawal into the realm of “the spirit” or imagination.  This withdrawal is catalyzed by viewing the film Frankenstein; the monster represents the Outsider, a figure capable both of violence and childlike innocence.  So it is that in her vision (or dream) Ana identifies with the monster, her reflection in the shimmering water replaced by the creature’s.  Ana also identifies with the Republican soldier as another representative of the Outsider, an identification indicated entirely through montage, by a series of shots of their sleeping faces in precisely the same posture.

What relationship to this realm of the spirit does the beehive have?  Described by Ana’s father as a teeming world of incessant and essentially purposeless industry, wherein each member has its own rigidly codified place and function, the beehive stands for Spanish society under the new regime of the dictator Franco.  Exiled and marginalized, Ana’s family represents the liberal and intellectual class done in by Franco’s Loyalists.  The title of the film links these two disparate realms.  Ana stands at the crossroads of their intersection.  While seeming to reject the beehive for the spirit, her experiences present the possibility of their integration, at least within the modest radius of the family.  The indication of this possibility is slight—only two sequences—but they are telling.  In the first, Ana’s mother Teresa burns a letter from a distant friend, perhaps a former lover, and tends to Ana’s father in a more loving, demonstrative way.  It is one of the few shots in the film in which the characters share the frame.  Even in sequences showing the family at the dinner table, Erice rigorously keeps each character alone and isolated within the frame.  This moment between mother and father signals the thawing of the ice between them and the possibility of a richer, more gratifying relationship.

The other sequence, the final one of the film, shows Ana opening the window to her room so that she can call to the spirit.  Significantly, the lead mullions form the shape of a honeycomb; Ana and her family reside within their own beehive; by opening her window to the night and the moon, traditional symbols of the unconscious and the imagination, Ana becomes the focal point in which both realms can achieve synthesis.  Other aspects of the landscape provide further demonstration of Ana’s preoccupation with the imagination—the well beside the abandoned farm building, a wishing well and an element from fairy tales which traditionally provides access to or yields an emissary from the unconscious; the woods in which their father teaches the girls to pick edible mushrooms, which recurs as the dark wood of Ana’s dream, a symbol of imagination dating back at least to Dante; the lake in which Ana sees her reflection, linked to the unseen water in the well, as a symbol of the unconscious.  The dialectic of these images leads to the synthesis of Ana’s individuation: standing at the window, intoning over and over, “I am Ana.”

Salaam_Bombay!_posterSalaam Bombay! and Los Olvidados portray the lives of street kids.  Unlike the previous films, the role of the family, while not entirely absent, is truncated and even more dysfunctional.  Both films portray a provincial coming to the Big City, a prototypical narrative especially favored in the nineteenth century; however, while Krishna is the focus of Bombay!, Little Eyes plays a much less significant role in Olvidados.  In the first film, cinema (as in Beehive) provides an avenue for escape (or, at least, escapism); in Buñuel’s film there is no escape, and even access to the unconscious reveals only despair, jealousy and violence.

Krishna travels to Bombay with the sarcastic advice, “Come back a movie star!”  And, indeed, some of his first glimpses of the city show larger-than-life Bollywood stars on billboards and murals.  When the street kids get a little money, they can escape into the “democratic vista” of the cinema; one of them, being harassed by an older patron, says, “We paid money to get in here, just like you.”  Lyrics of popular songs provide ironic counterpoint to the daily grind of their incessant tea-hawking, panhandling and petty theft.  Popular culture envelops them but offers no amelioration other than escapism.  It never seems to engage their own active imaginations.  It exists on a par with the jingoistic, nationalistic slogans they must recite when doing time in the reformatory.

The bridge at the edge of the red light district possesses symbolic value, as well as acting as a sort of territorial boundary.  Typically, the kids play around its base, and one of them claims that the ghosts of the city’s dead children live under there.  It is the underworld, subterranean and infernal.  It is their lot.  When they venture to cross it, near the end of the film, coming from a better part of the city, an area in which they clearly do not belong, they are apprehended by the police.  While they steep in their own poverty and degradation, the police (and other forces of law and order) are nowhere to be seen; only when they transgress where they do not belong, do the larger forces of society get involved in their “plight”; and, even here, it is evident that their attention is merely pro forma.

The final sequence of the film, set against the backdrop of a street festival to the Hindu god Ganesha, epitomizes the many binary opposites within the film.  Having just escaped from the reformatory, Krishna (named after another Hindu god) encounters the procession of the festival, which celebrates the god of good beginnings; however, this is not to be the case for him.  He meets the “new Chillum”—just as there must be a new Chaipau—where names serve only as functions, or broad descriptions, revealing nothing of the personal.  Sweet Sixteen submits to her new role due to her belief in Baba’s promise, positioning herself as yet another in the endless line of such women.  Circularity stands here not for renewal but the vicious circle of the inevitable and the inescapable.  It is symbolized by the festival ride, like a miniature Ferris wheel, on which the kids go endlessly around in circles, and also by the childhood toy Krishna grabs from the trunk of the street kids’ common possessions, a spinning top.  As well, the festival provides the contrast of, on the one hand, anonymity in the mass of celebrants, which tears Krishna away from Manju’s mother, and on the other the solitude to which he is condemned in the film’s final shot.  Sitting on a stoop, he slowly winds a bit of string around and around the top; there is no release, the top does not spin; but even if it did, it could only go nowhere.

Los-Olvidados-PosterLos Olvidados opens with a disclaimer, in mock documentary fashion, stating that the film offers no answers and leaves the amelioration of the problems of exploitation and brutality that it portrays to the so-called “progressive forces” of society, which will be shown as well-intentioned but ultimately feckless.  The film further universalizes its themes by a montage using stock footage of Paris, London and New York.  While the film takes place within a recognizable milieu, the “lower depths” of Mexico City slums, it speaks equally to any time and place where conditions are based on systemic exploitation and characterized by violence and despair.

The first scene shows a group of street kids at play, mimicking bull and matador, emphasizing the violence and bestiality of their behavior.  Throughout the film, the continued proximity of animals to the main characters highlights the commonality of their behavior, putting the animal back in the phrase “the human animal”.  However, it is not as simple—nothing in Buñuel is simple or univocal—as saying, “The poor are brute beasts.”  The bestial resides as a base-line in all human behavior; the unconscious, the id, is all urge and no restraint; however, in these circumstances, such proclivities are brought out and exacerbated by the surroundings: the dire poverty that results from ruthless exploitation.  The only time we see a section of the city other than its slums is when Pedro stands before a storefront window display and a bearded upper-class gent approaches him with the obvious intention of procuring him for sexual gratification.  For the wealthy, the poor are mere commodities for consumption; it is tantamount to Swift’s modest proposal that the rich English eat the babies of the poor Irish peasantry, in order to reduce overpopulation.  Another instance of overt exploitation occurs in the scene at the fairgrounds, where all the rides are powered by child labor.  The kids fear the proprietor will stiff them out of their wages if they don’t get them up front; when they demand them, he responds by buffeting the leader with verbal and physical abuse.  There is the suggestion that this systematic exploitation is founded on the implicit but always threatened use of violence on the part of owners and policy-makers.

Most symbols function on a psychological level with some ambivalence; which is to say that they contain contradictory, unresolved elements.  For instance, the donkey milk that the characters drink for its nutritive contents, and occasionally use for its skin-care properties, also features in a moment of unintended exhibitionism: Meche pours some over her exposed thighs, as Jaibo watches from the hayloft above.  Sustenance becomes the equivalent of fecundity, mother’s milk comes more closely to resemble seminal fluid, and as such it provokes Jaibo’s attempt at seizure and rape.

Later in the film, chicks and eggs come in for ambivalent treatment as well.  The chicks are all over Pedro’s home, where they stand in for his mother’s several children; thus it comes as no surprise when Pedro, having been spurned by his mother, seizes one and chucks it at a hen.  It is also ironic when, following another scene of rejection, his mother solicitously picks up several of the chicks from the floor, lavishing more care on them than on her own son.  The egg, another symbol of nutrition and sustenance, becomes a weapon; tossed directly at the camera lens by one of the boys at the reformatory farm, an assault by extension on the complacent viewer out there in the dark.

Sexual violence is also displaced onto the animal realm: when Pedro’s mother finds the rooster attacking her hens, she grabs a broom and beats it, prompting Pedro to respond with the very same words he’d used earlier during Jaibo’s attack on Julian.  The mother takes out her frustration and perceived mistreatment at the hands of male authority, specifically the husband that deceived her, on the rooster.  Later Pedro, full of an ill-defined hatred, takes out his anger on the reformatory farm chickens.

The duality between nourishment and violence, present in all these instances, becomes “concentrated” and emblematized in Pedro’s dream sequence.  The meat that his mother withheld in reality, but now offers him in the dream, stands not just for the maternal sustenance he craves, but also for a raw and bloody carnality he can only just barely perceive at an unconscious level, and rightly attributes to a struggle between Jaibo and himself.  The maternal body becomes the site of contestation and violence.  Pedro senses somehow that he is bound to lose.  Jaibo loses too, however.  His dying dream of a mangy dog, symbol of his aloneness and alienation, recalls the ending of Kafka’s Trial, where the protagonist also dies alone and “like a dog”.  Even Jaibo—otherwise a force of violence and destruction—has his reasons, his history, his estranged humanity; in a word, he is as much a product of his circumstances as anyone else.

These films provide us with glimpses into the family lives and historical situations of four very different cultures.  Nevertheless, despite the differences in time and place, they reveal certain commonalities: that the possession of a family and a place within it may not guarantee a child emotional security and a sense of identity; that the surrogate family found by abandoned children in the streets may be no more or no less of a support system than what they lost; that—and this is more apparent in the street kid films, though it exists at some level in the first two—barring some unforeseen, radical altering of the basic social structure, and perhaps a leveling of the inordinate disparities of wealth and access to vital resources, nothing stands much of a chance of being any different.

About Budd Wilkins

Budd Wilkins is a writer, film critic and instructor. He is a Staff Critic for Slant Magazine, and his work has also appeared in the Nordic Issue of Acidemic Journal of Film and Media. He is currently writing a chapter for an anthology on international horror directors to be published by Intellect Press and distributed by University of Chicago Press. Mr. Wilkins was born and raised in Hollywood, Florida. He attended Penn State for several years before moving to North Carolina in 1994, where he earned his Bachelor's in Religious Studies and a Master's in Liberal Studies with a concentration in Film Studies from The University of North Carolina at Greensboro. His primary focus is film history, film literacy and criticism, with the goal of bringing obscure, foreign and films that are labeled "difficult" to the attention of film aficionados of all kinds. Other interests and focus of critique include comparative religion, black humor, 19th century European literature, horror and graphic novels. Mr Wilkins lives in Greensboro, North Carolina with his wife, Tina. Follow @buddwilkins on Twitter.
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