Sunday, May 27, 2007

Four and Twenty Black Birds

Warning: Extreme Spoilers Throughout (but its an old movie so I don't feel bad)

Just as Mother Goose coated her children’s poems about death, poverty and child abuse in a saccharin sweet display of colorful language and rhyme, Tarsem Singh painted The Cell in the colors of fantasy. But fantasy this story is not, nor is it science fiction. It is, in a poetic medium, a telling of personal battles and the realization of obsession, good and ill. Tarsem shows, through a thickly painted canvas of visual luster, how any obsession can put one at risk to lose their sanity. It is defined only by circumstance and environment who shall prevail, and who shall fall prey to madness. It is this method that many authors have used in the past to make their strong statements easier to digest and easily ignored by those who wish not to digest them at all. In the end Tarsem states quite firmly, ‘nothing risked, nothing gained.’

Although the film is filled with visual symbolism, the most powerful images are not necessarily the most poignant. Many who have viewed the movie easily can recount the segmented horse, trapped in a glass guillotine though still breathing. However, many of these “in-your-face” shockers are presented in a manner intended to shock the audience, to leave a residual image which begins the thought process with a healthy "what the fuck does that mean?". It is Singh’s way of introducing you to a world that operates on entirely different rules than that which we are used to. It is not unlike the Wachowski brother’s use of the “Bullet Time” to show you in the first several minutes of the film, The Matrix that, in their world, time bends and distorts at the will of those who would command it- and "it looks really cool." The most prevalent symbols in The Cell, however, tie the world together, linking it all to the torture of a small boy Carl Stargher. Some are obvious, like the consistent use of water, and others are subtler, like Singh’s use of color and the birds.

“Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood clean from my hand?” -Shakespeare, Macbeth (II, ii, 59)

Water is often used as a literary and, in film, visual tool to signify cleansing. The metaphor in The Cell is not much different. For the character of Carl Stargher, water represents not only that which cleanses him, but those things that bring him pleasure and pain. Suffering from Waylon’s Infraction, a rare (and imagined) form of schizophrenia that eventually places the patient into an irreversible coma, Carl’s seizures are triggered by water. Catherine, the psychiatrist working on his case, points out the irony that most schizophrenics are calmed by water. They like the feeling of weightlessness, which is accurate to the condition.

The film is filled to the brim with aquatic visuals. We are presented with the most obvious, the cell itself, where Carl drowns his victims after 48 hours of wet/dry torture. She is then left in a scant three inches of water, a symbolic representation of his wanting to be cleansed, although no longer feeling that he can be totally clean. His next victim is first seen by the audience sitting beside a fountain. Carl’s schizophrenia was triggered during his baptism when his abusive father held him under the river water far too long, almost drowning him, and by no miscalculation. When we enter into Stargher’s world via the psychological contraption presented by Catherine’s research team, we land with the doctor in a sewer puddle, finding later large pools with walk ways. Even the FBI agent Peter Novak who is in charge of finding the missing girl, enters Stargher’s world falling headlong into a puddle in the dirt of an empty farm field. Visual references are made to floating in water, although Catherine is actually floating in air. Carl Stargher’s car is even described as being ‘Aqua Marine.’

In the end of the film, Catherine listens as Carl confesses to drowning a bird when he was a child to save it from his father, who he was sure would kill it anyway. The climax of the film jumps back and forth between Catherine ‘freeing’ Carl Stargher from his mental prison by drowning him in a pool, and Peter Novak freeing the final victim from the water filled Cell. This stark juxtaposition strongly illustrates the author's and director's ideal that torture is no greater or lesser be it mental or physical, that Carl was as much a prisoner of his own pain as the girl was of Carl's machinations.

Carl’s confession by the pool in what the director came to call “Light World”, or Catherine’s world, was not the first of this kind in the film. At an earlier junction Peter in a back door manner confesses his obsession with his job to Catherine, indicating that he, like Stargher was once terribly abused. The only other reference made to this confession is an easily missed line later in the film. While in Stargher’s world, Catherine becomes “lost” and Peter enters the killer’s mind to help her find her way out. In an attempt to delay and seduce Peter, Catherine whispers, “Did Daddy hurt you?” This serves as the only confirmation of Peter’s innuendo earlier in the film. The studio's decision to cut the more detailed scenes which made this information more evident and emphasized its relevance, I feel was a grave mistake, as they illustrated how quickly and easily Peter was lost to his own inner turmoil showing that while he sets himself apart from Carl in a righteous manner, the final admission that he and Carl are both ultimately human is undeniably important. Although Peter is an excellent agent, he is a closed off person and it is this breaking down of superficial walls between good and evil which allow him by the end to be more reachable and touchable, so that ultimately, he too is freed.

A minor use of the pain aspect of the water symbolism is Catherine’s first patient in the film, Mr. E, a young boy who witnesses seals being killed on a beach while boating with his father. The trauma of the event is enough to propel him into a coma. Enter Catherine. Her primary goal with Edward (Mr. E) through the small encounters we, the audience, have with him is to encourage him to go sailing with her. The watery adventure will serve as a cleansing for the boy and help him to break through the fears that he has been so tragically paralyzed by.

“Blue is true
Yellow’s Jealous>
Green’s forsaken
Red is Brazen
White is Love
And Black is death.”–anonymous


Singh uses colors to express the emotions of the film as skillfully as Van Gogh painted 'Starry Night'. The above poem is not far off from the meanings of Singh’s colors. Blue does represent truth, justice and protection. Yellow is fear, jealousy, hidden emotions. The combination of red, white and blue are meant to be innocence. White and brown together are healing. Black, red and gold represent power. White, however, is the key color in the film. It comes to mean several different things when standing on its own. Anonymity is one meaning, cleansing and healing another. It means power and strength. When we first see Catherine, she is in the desert of Mr. E’s mind dressed in a white gown bedecked with feathers. Her second pilgrimage to Mr. E also has her dressed in white indicating that she is there as a caring friend and a healing doctor. Throughout the film white also shows vulnerability. 


In Stargher’s world, Carl, (the boy manifestation of the man) is dressed in a red and white shirt and blue jeans, the innocent side of Carl Stargher. Later, when we, along with Catherine, witness the abuse first hand, he wears a green and white shirt signifying that he is vulnerable and feels forsaken, or denied of love. Catherine is almost never dressed in anything but white, brown and shades of grey and blue. She is the nurturing character, representing healing, love, and truth. She altars from this only when she is pulled deep into Stargher’s world and allows herself to lose control of the situation.

At this point in the film he dresses her in red and black. By taking her out of her white clothing, he separates her from his victims who he bleaches until they are white like porcelain dolls. He shows that he feels a form of power that she exerts over him. For a time during the climax, Catherine is even dressed in a black, red and gold warrior costume as she inflicts upon Stargher Christ like wounds with a cross bow and her sword. But she does not prevail here. In fact, she cannot bring herself to kill Stargher this way. She instead reverts to the Red and white gown of the Madonna, a Virgin Mary-like figure, to ease Carl’s pain. The red indicates, in this instance, the power that Catherine feels in her self, by not becoming like Stargher. The white of the gown showing her love for the boy within Carl, showing that she does care and that she does wish to heal the pain that he has suffered. All of this is a message that Carl needed to hear, and the kind of person that Carl Stargher had been missing in his life since his birth.

It is no accident, either that all of the police ‘suits’ are dressed in shades of blue and grey with the exception of Peter Novak, who, until the final scenes of the film, is continually dressed in Brown and yellow, with only a white undershirt hidden beneath. Peter Novak’s character is driven by an obsession to save. He cares nothing for anyone else in the film but the salvation of Carl’s last victim. In truth, what Peter is trying to save is himself. He is acting out the hero that he did not have as a child when suffering his own abuse, and trying to save himself from the insanity of thinking that one of his cases as a DA did not die because of him, that it was not his fault. He confesses most of this to Catherine by the fountain, though the realization of his own salvation does not come until much later when he sees Catherine as something greater than just a child psychiatrist. Because she helps him to do what no one else willing does, which is find the girl.

There is a deleted scene that can only be viewed on the DVD. In that scene Peter talks with his partner Ramsey who relays to him that they got the bad guy, and he can’t kill anyone else, ever. He feels that this is enough heroism for them and wants to go home and kiss his wife and feel like he did a good job. The scene was deleted for time constraint and pacing reasons, but should have been left in to show Peter’s obsession. Getting the bad guys is not enough, he must save the victim as well. Catherine helps him do this, and by doing that helps Peter to heal inside. The evidence of his personal healing is seen in the final scene with Peter. He is wearing a white shirt and blue pants, showing that he has made a transition into a healthier person from one who needs healing and is in a sense jealous of the other police for their ability to be apathetic, and jealous of Catherine’s ability to care.


“Birds of a Feather will flock together.” – Minsheu

A simple proverb that we all learn as children, Minsheu’s bit of wisdom fuels the character relations of the film. Bird’s become a solid metaphor when Carl tells Catherine of the bird he rescued as a child. It was injured and he wanted to save it. It is quite obvious through the display of Carl’s childhood trauma, that he too is injured. He suffers from a crippling inability to function within society on several levels. We are introduced to Peter’s character early on, as he confesses his personal trauma within the first fifteen minutes of connecting with Catherine on film. His injury too needs healing. Catherine, however, does not serve as only doctor and confidante. It comes out later in the field as Peter is trying to coax her out of Stargher’s world, where she has become lost, that Catherine’s brother was in a coma for several months before finally dying. It is revealed that Catherine too needs healing, that she seeks her own salvation in the ability to coax others to health, especially coma patients. Not to be overlooked, however is the point that all three characters feel that they were unable to save someone, be it a wounded bird, a kidnapped girl, or a sick brother.

Birds appear throughout the film. A seagull leads Catherine to Mr. E. A vulture accompanies Stargher as he tortures Peter Novak. Three humanesque birds, mouths open to beg for nourishment serve as a guide deeper into Stargher's mind. Catherine’s world has a pure white peacock. Darker references to birds are made as well. Stargher’s mother is portrayed with a similarity to a black bird. Carl’s basement is filled with dolls, some of which have bird’s skulls for heads. Stargher’s more terrifying manifestations are marked with a spread wing bird on his forehead made from scales, rhinestones, or scab-like skin. Catherine, too, as mentioned earlier, dresses in a white gown the bodice of which is made of feathers.

By bringing the character’s mutual weaknesses to light, Singh makes their common traits more notable. Each has an obsession in some form, and until they can bring that obsession to rest, none of the three can truly be healed. Peter Novak’s obsession to be saved vicariously through those he saves, and Catherine’s need to do the same parallel Carl Stargher’s need to be saved from his own haunting childhood trauma and from himself.

So much more could be stated in regard to the layers upon layers of visual symbolism that Tansem Singh so expertly painted upon celluloid, but to do so would takes many more pages. The three main symbols, the water, the colors and the birds, are visual feasts of pain, healing and mutual understanding. They serve as Singh’s map, a form of yellow brick road to lead the audience to the understanding of his misunderstood villain, Carl Stargher. He does not at any point condone Stargher’s actions, but does through illustration make us see how a man could come to a point of doing the things that he had done. While each character suffers in their own way and chose their own path, we find that they are not too different. Peter, Catherine and Carl are all seeking someone who will listen, love and respond to them in some way. Tarsem Singh, although highly criticized upon the film’s release for creating a feature length music video, understands better than most directors the need for extreme lighting, visualization and characterization to prove a very unpalatable point.

Added Notation(explained in footnote):

The horse is a very poignant symbol within the story as well. It represents guidance. Catherine rides a horse which takes her to Mr. E in the beginning. The live horse then becomes a chess piece or a statuette. This reference to chess, in which the Knight (most often denoted as a horse) has a limited range of movement, and of course, only one turn at a time. The solidity of that horse then indicates that Catherine has come as far as she will be allowed by Mr. E. Her turn is over.

Later the horse trapped in Stargher's clock-room shows an acknowledgement on Carl's part, if only on this subconscious level that Catherine has only so much time to "dissect" him. That the horse is still alive while dissected is a creative allegory for exactly what Catherine is doing...taking him apart while he still lives. The forcefulness with which the dissection takes place and young Carl's need to save Catherine from the glass blades is an indication of the danger she is facing in doing this, and a comment on the invasiveness of her presence and intentions.

This essay is admittedly a few years old. I was reminded of it by a recent conversation and posted it to direct that person to a more articulated explanation of some of my points regarding this film. The notes regarding the symbolism of the horses were added to help flesh out the conversation which was recently held.

I hope I have not bored too many of you.

4 comments:

Candy Man said...

All that writing makes me wanna go watch that film again!

Candy Man

Kahl said...

ROFL Good! Its a great movie! Very under-rated.

Watch it then tell me if you think I got all the symbolism right...I know there are a lot of details I skimmed over for length-sake.

BattKattColourBlak said...

Heh, I was actually watching the movie as I read this...found it completely by accident, actually. It's really helping me realize more of the deeper meaning behind this film...it truly is very underrated.

Carissa Starr said...

Thank you BattKatt! I am glad that my perspective is bringing a new light to it for you. That would make anyone feel good to hear. I am also glad that you enjoyed the film.

(This is still Kahl...changed my name on Google.)