Emotional Intelligence and Symbolism in "Silver Linings Playbook"

Most people probably assume that compulsive superstitions are not a form of "emotional intelligence," but "Silver Linings Playbook" suggests that they're intimately connected.

The key phrase is "reading the signs," which gets used in conflicting ways over the course of this movie. "Reading the signs" first comes up in Nikki’s letter to Pat (Bradley Cooper), where she writes, “I have to say, if it’s me reading the signs, I need to see something to prove you're ready to resume our marriage.” Here, “reading the signs” amounts to emotional intelligence: accurately understanding Pat’s true emotional and mental condition. The phrase has essentially the same meaning in the later scene where Tiffany (Jennifer Lawrence) tells Pat not to back out of the dance competition now that his father (Robert De Niro) wants to make a parlay bet on it. Imploring Pat to reconsider as he's walking out the door, Tiffany tells him, "If it's me reading the signs...."  The implication is that Pat needs to use emotional intelligence to understand this complicated emotional situation and do the right thing.

However, just moments earlier in this scene, Tiffany used this exact same "signs" phrase to refer to the sports “superstitions” of Pat's father (Robert De Niro). She tells him, “Not that I give a fuck about football or your superstitions, but if it’s me reading the signs, I don’t send the Eagles guy whose personal motto is ‘Excelsior’ to a fucking Giants game….” Rather than emotional intelligence, "reading the signs" in this case is being used to mean bad, irrational thinking—obsessive and erroneous thinking ("superstitions"), like believing that there's a literal causal connection between names and sports outcomes. Pat said the same thing when he told his father that holding his lucky handkerchief during football games is “OCD. That’s crazy." By saying "reading the signs," Tiffany is speaking Pat Sr.'s language in order to appeal to his "superstitious" way of thinking. It's a fair comparison because Tiffany actually wrote Nikki's letter, so she initiated all three mentions of "reading the signs." Pat figures this out, but neither he nor any other character notes that Tiffany has used "reading the signs" in seemingly contradictory ways—to mean both emotional intelligence and irrational superstition.

The dividing line between emotional intelligence and irrationality gets even blurrier at the end of the movie. In the scene after the dance competition, when Pat Sr. tells his son to go find Tiffany, he says, “You gotta’ pay attention to the signs. When life reaches out with a moment like this, it’s a sin if you don’t reach back…and it’ll haunt you for the rest of your days like a curse.” His son is so happy that his father has finally understood his relationship with Tiffany that he responds, “I love you, Dad.” So Pat Sr.’s version of reading "the signs” radically transcends the phrase's previous dichotomy. In this final usage, reading the signs means both emotional intelligence (understanding his son’s emotional needs) and superstition (“pay attention to the signs…haunt you…like a curse”).

To its great credit, then, the movie blurs the lines between emotional intelligence and supposedly irrational superstitions, and makes us wonder how much they actually have in common. We're reminded that both require paying close attention to subtle aspects of the world, noticing patterns, making inferences, and listening to our hearts. Irrationality is intelligence, at least for those who are open to hearing this message amidst the affectionate laughing at sports superstitions.

All this happens quietly beneath the surface, without any characters commenting on the conflicting meanings of "reading the signs." Granted, Pat explicitly suggests that people like him, Tiffany, and Danny know more than other people (Danny says they're more in touch with their sixth sense), but this suggestion gets undermined by Danny's failure to anticipate that the policeman would be showing up at the door momentarily to take him back to the mental-health hospital. I find the "reading the signs" motif more interesting and effective because it's more complicated, it operates below the surface of explicit dialogue, and it's a phrase that gets used in everyday life beyond this movie.
Other Symbolism in "Silver Linings Playbook": Getting Out There?
But how do these points apply to us as audience members who like to "read the signs" in movies, interpreting their hidden clues, connections, and symbolism? While some readings of movie signs may contain insight, the equivalent of emotional intelligence, don't we also want to say that some other readings go too far for us? In other words, how do we each draw the lines between good movie interpretations, questionable ones, and downright wacky ones?
To gauge where we each draw these lines, here's a question: Do any of the following interpretations of symbolism in "Silver Linings Playbook" strike you as being too far out there?

Halloween=Death, Favors, and Chaos. Instead of Halloween night, why not set Tiffany and Pat’s tumultuous diner scene on Thanksgiving, Labor Day, or, for that matter, on a regular, non-holiday night? Answer: Because Halloween's ritual symbolism resonates with what's happening here between Tiffany and Pat. Halloween involves symbols of Death (ghosts, skeletons, witches)—and that symbolism matches what Tiffany says here about struggling with her husband’s death. Halloween's central ritual, Trick or Treating, also centers on People Who Don't Know Each Other Well Asking for Favors—which is the symbolic equivalent of Pat in the diner asking Tiffany to pass on his letter to Nikki. Halloween also involves Chaos (kids going out at night, acting scary)—a mood that resonates well with Tiffany smashing the dishes and storming out of the diner when Pat acts superior to her. Halloween has the right seasonal symbolism, then, for this scene.

Christmas=Love and Family Unity.  Tiffany and Pat finally declare their love for each other in late December, with Christmas decorations all around. Christmas stands, then, for love and family unity, including the whole extended family that we see in the very last scene of the movie. This is classic seasonal symbolism, from “It’s a Wonderful Life” to “Four Christmases" and, yes, Hallmark Christmas movies.

Ben Franklin=Father and Country. Pat Sr. says that nothing could be more American than the Philadelphia Eagles and Ben Franklin (one of the “founding fathers”), and the dance competition happens at the Ben Franklin Hotel, on the same night that the Eagles win. Therefore, the movie symbolically equates Pat Sr. with Ben Franklin as father figures, and the extended family union at the end is imagined as a union with the father, the city of Philadelphia, and the entire United States of America.

Ben Franklin=Santa. This is simply the logical extension of the previous interpretations. Ben Franklin and Santa are both portly elder males and legendary figures that try to unite the country. In other words, Ben is a civic Santa.

What do you think? Too far out? Personally, I think the only interpretation that’s getting out there is the last one about Ben Franklin being Santa. The previous ones are solid according to the usual evidence standards for such interpretations: there’s a high degree of match between the interpretations, movie details, and other cultural patterns. To put it in terms of the useful kind of "superstition," these interpretations strive to be based on paying close attention, noticing patterns, making inferences, and listening to your heart.

And even when it comes to Ben=Santa, the interpretation that’s the most questionable, I still like wondering if there’s something to it. I could go either way on this one, and I don’t mind this state of uncertainty, an in-between state that often emerges when you’re reaching the outer limits of an inquiry. In fact, some of the best insights emerge from such ambiguous gray zones, as scientists and artists say. Physicist Erik Mazur, for example, said, “Think of confusion as an opportunity to learn” (Nonsense: The Power of Not Knowing). And when giving advice about writing narratives, Anne Lamott says, "we're out there somewhere between the known and the unknown, trying to reel in both for a closer look. This is why it may take a whole book" (Bird by Bird).

Dream Symbolism
If you’ve read this far and didn’t flee at the first mention of Santa or symbolism, there’s a good chance you’re also comfortable with interpretive gray zones. Going beyond movies, you may also sometimes “read the signs” in other ways, such as looking at your night dreams for possible clues to future events. Don’t worry. You’re not alone. In national surveys, roughly 75% of Americans say they believe that dreams sometimes predict the future. I myself am so fascinated with these beliefs that I wrote a whole book about them, titled Corner-Store Dreams.

In this book, I tell the true story of my unlikely friendship with Ranulfo Juárez, who in 2006 asked his dreams to tell him whether he should buy a small bakery so that he and his wife could make the bread and pastries they knew as kids in Mexico. Or would the bakery bankrupt his family and send him back to working the fields of Oregon? Sifting through his dreams every morning in search of answers forced Ranulfo to look deeply at mysteries like the love and randomness of the universe and his life as a U.S. citizen. Ranulfo also enlisted me, an Anglo professor, as his confidante and sidekick in this quest, and, together, we confronted scam artists and naysayers, cultural differences and personal fears, and ultimately the Financial Crisis of 2008.

Corner-Store Dreams is nonfiction, but like “Silver Linings Playbook,” it’s a story that focuses on people “reading the signs” during a personal crisis. And Hollywood movies and personal dreams aren’t as far apart as they might seem. Both are often based on creative symbolism and narratives that deal with contradictions and tensions that we’re pondering with our unconscious minds. So whether in movies or dreams, I’d say reading the signs is a good bet.

The Cultural Meaning of Halloween and Thanksgiving Pumpkins

Isn’t it remarkable that pumpkins play a major role in two of our biggest holidays, Halloween and Thanksgiving, yet we don’t often talk about that connection? Maybe that’s because Halloween’s Jack-O’-Lantern and Thanksgiving’s pumpkin pie are so different—yet scholars argue that this contrast is exactly what makes these pumpkins so important and interconnected. They say that Thanksgiving pumpkin pie ultimately represents the conquest of Life over Death.

To get to this deeper level, start by noting an obvious fact: Jack-O’-Lanterns are directed at outsiders, not the family. Even if the homeowner recognizes a few neighbors among the Halloween trick-or-treaters, they’re not invited in for a full, sit-down meal, unlike Thanksgiving dinner. The Jack-O’-Lantern doesn’t even look edible; it’s raw, bland, bulky, and often partly rotten. In his playful way, Jack is there to scare you, not feed you. But for precisely that reason, he prepares you for what's coming at Thanksgiving.
Wikimedia, By huk_flickr (originally posted to Flickr as pumpkin pie)

Pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving is the opposite of the Jack-O'-Lantern. The pie is eaten by family and friends inside the home, not by strangers outside. The pumpkin you saw a few weeks ago at a farm stand or on a neighbor’s doorstep on Halloween is now unrecognizable. Through pureeing and cooking, the pumpkin is no longer raw nature; it’s been domesticated and integrated into the family. The contrast effect is key. The homey aura of Thanksgiving pumpkin pie is heightened by its striking contrast with the inedible, outdoor, ghostly pumpkin of Halloween.

Moreover, whereas the Jack-O’-Lantern playfully represents Death, pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving represents Life, literally through physical nourishment, but also socially through its role in a holiday dedicated to reaffirming the family, the source of future generations. Scary ol’ Jack has been cooked, tamed, and turned into food that helps keep the family going. The pumpkin has completed its ceremonial journey from outside to in, moving from living Nature in the fields, to symbolic Death on our doorsteps, to new Life in our body and soul. Through this and other sharp contrasts between Halloween and Thanksgiving, Life overcomes Death. These two holidays are connected, then, and pumpkins, despite their humble appearance, do incredibly important symbolic work for us.

Flckr, Pumpkin Pie, by browniesfordinner, CC 2.0

Of course, most people don’t feel the need to talk about such pumpkin symbolism, and no single interpretation will ring true with the millions of diverse people who celebrate these holidays. Holiday traditions change in the hands of different social groups, both within the U.S. and around the world, so to understand the meaning of today’s Halloween pumpkins, it doesn’t help much to look at their historical origins in remote Irish customs from the distant past. While interesting, those historical curiosities distract us from what we already intuitively know about these holidays. Better to trust those intuitions and look at what’s happening in the here and now with your own holiday pumpkins. If you do, chances are you’ll see that Halloween and Thanksgiving are flip sides of the same coin.

(Please email me at pwogan@willamette.edu if you'd like to read more essays like this about holiday symbolism.)

Finol, José Enrique, “The Semiotics of Ritual: Halloween in an American Community,” Opción 21: 83-97, 1996.

Ott, Cindy, Pumpkin: The Curious History of an American Icon. Seattle: University of Washington Press, 2012.

Santino, Jack, “Halloween in America: Contemporary Customs and Performances.” Western Folklore 42: 1-20, 1983.

Tuleja, Tad, “Pumpkins,” in Rooted in America: Foodlore of Popular Fruits and Vegetables, David S. Wilson and Angus K. Gillespie, eds., Knoxville: University of Tennessee Press, 1999.

Williamson, Margaret Holmes, “Family Symbolism in Festivals,” in Middletown Families: Fifty Years of Change and Continuity, Theodore Caplow et al., eds., Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1982.

Why Do Good People Resent Science? (What's Wonder, Not Politics, Got To Do With It?)

Most Americans really appreciate science, yet many also have reservations about it, complex feelings that go well beyond the well-known protests on the left and right against evolution, vaccines, GMOs, and so on.  We'll never understand these complicated, ambivalent attitudes toward science if we just settle for the usual wagging of fingers, either/or formulations, and ritualistic laments about the ignorance of the other side. Instead, I want to look at a less discussed feature, the state of wonder in America, and see what it has to do with some of these reservations about science.

To start, here are some survey figures that put the issue in perspective. According to one of the best public-opinion surveys, about 90% of Americans say that science “is essential for improving the quality of human lives," yet in that same survey fully 50% of respondents say that science has “created as many problems for society as it has solutions” (VCU Survey). That's astounding: half the country thinks that science is creating problems. You can't just dismiss half the population as a fringe group of hard-core Creationists or New Agers who reject science out of hand. In fact, many of these same people also feel that science is improving the quality of life, so clearly there’s a complex ambivalence here, one that transcends religion, politics, class, and education. It also transcends the current moment, which is why virtually the same survey results have been obtained for years.

To understand current attitudes toward science that can only be flagged by quantitative surveys, we have to look below the surface and go back in time. In particular, I suggest looking at images of science in enduringly popular blockbuster movies, since the ones that stand the test of time usually play upon some sort of hidden, major cultural tension or ambivalence. With that in mind, I want to say a few things about Matt Hooper (Richard Dreyfuss), the marine biologist in Jaws.

The Jaws movie is a good test case because it has been extremely popular ever since it came out in 1975, and Hooper is an interesting, complex character. Rather than a twisted scientist in the mold of Dr. Strangelove, Hooper is portrayed as an ethical and likable person, using his knowledge to save the island of Amity. Best of all for our purposes, Hooper is a scientist filled with a sense of wonder, as you can tell from the way he's astounded by "Jaws" and admiringly refers to sharks as “a miracle of evolution.” So how could anyone resent a scientist like Hooper?

The first clue is Hooper’s obsession with measurement. He’s constantly trying to measure the exact physical dimensions of the sharks in the film, talking about bite radiuses, proportions, and scale. These remarks might seem trivial until you remember that Hooper doesn’t just study sharks, he also kills them. He fully embraces the mission to destroy “Jaws," and, in the end, it’s his air tank that gets the job done. What does that death symbolize, more broadly?

I argue that Hooper embodies a popular view of scientists as killers of mystery. In this view, scientists kill off our sense of wonder and awe at the unexplained. Nothing gets spared from science's relentless measurements and thorough investigations and explanations. The more science has progressed, the more people have longed for mysteries and enigmas, a few last holdouts from science's crushing dominance, like miracle cures, "lost tribes," and, yes, sharks in the deep sea, one of the enduring mysteries of the world. The scientists aren't bad people, they're just too good at what they do. Most people appreciate their discoveries and technologies, but wish they would leave more to the imagination. It's like the paparazzi: we want them to uncover celebrity secrets, but then resent them when they get too good at it. Our imagination longs for sharks, celebrities, and other mysteries that haven't been measured to death.

If you’re like most people who identify with the scientists, you will probably object that science actually increases wonder by opening up new questions for investigation. Personally, I agree, and, since you have sought out and read this analysis, I’m guessing you do, too. That’s fine, we’re people too, but as hard as it is, we need to recognize that millions of people don’t view science the same way. In fact, in certain unguarded moments, like while walking in the woods or listening to a Bach concerto or throwing a coin in a fountain and making a wish, you, too, might be holding onto some cherished mystery, a last refuge from science. You might even indulge the feeling that those mysteries touch the deepest parts of your soul.

Whatever it takes, I just hope more people will recognize that a longing for wonder factors into reservations about science. Maybe doing so will create more understanding of others and ourselves.

That’s probably the biggest difference between today and 1975. Back in the 70s, when Jaws first came out, it was still possible to imagine a fisherman, scientist, and police chief riding in the same boat, in pursuit of the same goal, despite their differences. These days, they’d probably get separate boats and cut each other off before they even got out of the harbor.

We're really in trouble when we can no longer recognize each other’s humanity and mutual interest in both science and mystery.  

More Reading:
If you want a free, online copy of the book chapter (with bibliographic references) that this post distills, go to Academia.edu

For a shorter, complementary interpretation of the final shark explosion in Jaws as symbolic of the  Hiroshima bomb, see my post on WWII. Joining these two posts, I would say Hooper is like Oppenheimer and the other scientists who worked on the Manhattan Project, fascinated with the scientific challenge of creating the atomic bomb, but not fully grasping the grisly deaths it would unleash. 

In terms of awe and magic, you might also like my essay on throwing coins in fountains.

What Do the "Jaws" Movie and WWII Have in Common?

Or put differently, what does the Jaws shark symbolize?

This question is worth asking because Jaws taps into troubling questions about stereotypes, war, and culture.

The obvious place to start is the scene where Quint, the fisherman, describes the shark attacks that followed the sinking of the U.S.S. Indianapolis by a Japanese submarine.

Quint says, "Japanese submarine slammed two torpedoes into our side, Chief. It was comin' back from the island of Tinian Delady. Just delivered the bombthe Hiroshima bomb. Eleven hundred men went into the water. Vessel went down in twelve minutes. Didn't see the first shark for about a half an hour."

Quint is referring to real events, the actual sinking of the Indianapolis after it delivered the atomic bomb. Moreover, at an unconscious, symbolic level, Quint is creating an equation between sharks and Japanese soldiers. What Quint says about sharks"he's got lifeless eyes, black eyes, like a doll's eye. When he comes at ‘ya, doesn't seem to be livin'"could just as well have been describing the WWII American stereotype of the "inscrutable" Japanese soldier with lifeless eyes. Furthermore, through such stereotypes, both the shark and the Japanese soldier were made out to be an enemy that suddenly attacks the nation on its own soil (the "sneak attack" on Pearl Harbor, like Amityville being attacked on the 4th of July), and a relentless enemy that hides in the water (a Japanese submarine, the shark attacking Amityville).

Japanese Submarine, 1941. Flickr, Marion Doss.

Shark fin. Flickr, Anita363.

Part of the power of Jaws, then, is that it allows some viewers—at least the ones who know about WWIIto reflect on some of the most vexing, confusing aspects of "the Good War."

In particular, when the shark gets blown to pieces at the end of the movie, viewers are encouraged to feel that such destruction was fully justified, whereas in real life polls show that Americans have felt increasingly conflicted and regretful about dropping atomic bombs on Japanese civilians. (In a related generational shift, people today are less likely to be disturbed by a doll's eyes or uncannily-realistic robot face than earlier generations were.) Even those older Americans who felt that dropping the bomb was necessary may have later come to believe that Americans lost the moral high ground when we killed thousands of women and children, violating a basic moral ideal that had been in place throughout our entire history as a nation. Many Americans don't like to talk about these ethical problemsbut most do like watching this movie and rooting for the destruction of a shark that was hellbent on killing us, including our children.
Hiroshima bomb cloud, U.S. government photo.

Jaws ending.

Recognizing the Shark
It gets even more complicated when you consider American attitudes toward German soldiers in WWII. For example, here's what one American soldier remembered about a battle on the front lines near Cologne, Germany:

"We were passing the Germans we killed. Looking at the individual German dead, each took on a personality. These were no longer an abstraction. These were no longer the Germans of the brutish faces and the helmets we saw in the newsreels. They were exactly our age. These were boys like us. ...Once the helmet is off, you're looking at a teenager, another kid." Robert Rasmus, interview reprinted in Studs Terkel's book The Good War: An Oral History of WWII.

This soldier's story sounds like Quint's points about the shark's eyeshow they seem "lifeless," or as this soldier put it, like "an abstraction." German soldiers with helmets that hide their eyes also fit Quint's image of the shark, which is the underlying stereotype of all enemies in modern Western warfare: lifeless, inhuman, animalistic.

U.S. wartime poster, 1942, Office of Emergency Management..

But as noted by the American soldier, all this changes when the enemy helmet comes off, when you get up close and see that the supposed monsters are just teenage boys like you. Quint notes this same type of sudden switch in perspective when he says, "Until he [the shark] bites 'ya and those black eyes roll over white..."

In other words, Jaws and WWII both create confusing, disturbing oscillations between media stereotypes and individual personalities, between abstract concepts and real beings, between death and life. The shark seems dead but then you realize how alive he is...just before he kills you. WWII enemy soldiers seem like abstractions, but then you realize they're humans...just before you kill them.

Hope for Humanity?

I find it comforting to hear the American soldier Rasmus say he eventually recognized the humanity of the German soldiers.

American helping wounded German soldier, 1944. Army Surgeon General, National Archives and Records Administration.
Unfortunately, such recognition of common humanity happened less often between American and Japanese soldiers, apparently due to racial biases and the brutality of the fighting in the Pacific, but I would hope that such prejudices are being left behind by now.

Jaws, on the other hand, will remain popular as long as people continue to wonder and worry about war, death, and stereotypes.

Further Reading:
For a different angle on shark symbolism, see my post asking, Why do good people resent Hooper and scientists like him?

Here's my co-authored book chapter on "Jaws," with more extended analysis

For more on Quint and many others' feelings of revulsion and confusion at dolls' eyes and similarly uncanny, hybrid phenomena, see research on the "uncanny valley in reactions to humanoid robots and "creepy dolls." And for the research cited above on contemporary reactions to uncannily human robot faces, see this short article.

Robert Willson Jump Cut journal article, where he explores the resonance between Jaws and submarine movies.