A thought stemming from a throwaway line in a post about something else over at Ars: Are we at the point yet of having developed multimedia dead metaphors? We’ve got tons of prose dead metaphors—expressions that started as evocative figures of speech but eventually lost any link to the original image they were supposed to call up. As some of you may recall, it actually took me a little bit of research earlier this year to figure out where the commonly-used expression “in the tank” came from. We hear it all the time, and we’ve grasped from context that it’s usually used to suggest a journalist secretly wants a particular candidate to win, but we don’t infer that meaning from any analogy to fixed boxing matches, let alone images of diving into a swimming pool. Presumably there are kids out there who, similarly, know perfectly well what “drink the Kool-Aid” means without ever having heard of Jim Jones. That one is probably not quite a dead metaphor yet, but it is certainly what Orwell would have called a dying one. And there’s all those symbols that the pomo theorists we mostly ignored in my analytic undergrad department loved to talk about, abstracted from their original referents—the chess bishop comes to mind.
Now think about film: It has plenty of its own idioms and tropes too. Has it been long enough for some of them to be dead or dying? Because the other day I saw a film trailer that began with a montage clearly meant to invoke “telecommunications”—a couple of seconds worth of images and sounds that would quickly establish for the viewer that this was about, you know, techie stuff—data traveling over wires. One of these was the sound of an old dial-up modem handshaking protocol—14.4kbps, I think. And it suddenly struck me that, possibly excepting a credit card machine at a deli or something, most people under about 25 wouldn’t have any reason to be familiar with that sound in real life. They’d only know it as “that sound in movies that means telecom.”
So I started trying to come up with other examples. Sepiatone or Super-8 colors are sometimes used to suggest that we’re witnessing a flashback to the 20s or 70s, respectively, and a young viewer now might encounter that in several films before ever seeing a really old photograph or an old home movie. Ditto with black-and-white film, come to think of it. There’s that little snippet from the score of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly now universally recognized as signifying “cowboy showdown” by people who’ve never seen the movie, or indeed, any old Western. (Confession: I actually haven’t seen that movie, and had to Google to figure out where it originally came from.) You play that in a scene where two guys meet at the office water cooler and we instantly understand that they’re workplace rivals. Those are the only ones that immediately spring to mind, but I’m sure there are others; enlighten us in the comments.
Update: On the Media hit the increasingly anachronistic use of the vinyl-scratch as all-purpose WTF sound in a 2005 episode.