Symbolism in Wes Anderson Movies

Colin Marshall recently commented on about a series of video essays on Wes Anderson films. These are my comments on his comments, but mostly it’s about the symbolism I see in Wes Anderson films.

Wes Anderson Suitcases

  • Suitcases – first few movies they are always silver, last few canvas; they are always matching and of different sizes – like different aged members of a family; they could obviously literally represent emotional baggage, but more likely represent the ties (family) that bind us and that we always carry with us (throughout all films). In the trailer for The Grand Budapest Hotel I noticed the hotel is full of suitcases – as if Wes Anderson is trying to tell us something – like this movie is all of his other movies combined into one hotel full of suitcases.
  • Guns – Bottle Rocket and Life Aquatic both had hand guns, but Mr Fox, Royal Tenenbaums, and Moonrise Kingdom all featured rifles. I think the obvious nod here is to violence, but I almost view it as a contrasting feature to the artistic, loveable characters – it lends to the ironic, comedic tone of the movie underscored by the understating the guns are given in each scene. They serve both as contrast and as comedy.
  • Binoculars – the commentator mentioned this as referencing Star Wars, but I think it’s much more than that. When you look through binoculars, there are many things happening
    • Your power is magnified – you can see farther, which gives you more power
    • You are symbolically looking into the future – children are often seen using binoculars – they want to see what’s coming. Adults do not want to know what’s coming because they are not looking forward to it.
    • You are seeing a mini-movie – what you see through binoculars is like a mini, personal movie inside a movie, which is a metaphor for Wes Anderson films, which are movies about making movies.
  • Trains – trains are featured prominently in Darjeeling Limited and The Grand Budapest Hotel. They are both used to literally move the plot forward and as a way to showcase Wes Anderson’s iconic “dollhouse” sets.

Jobs, Grants, and Everything Else

This is a blog post about jobs, work, getting grants, writing books, watching movies, the state of the Maker culture, and everything Elon Musk is doing nowadays. It started with a conversation I had last night with my wife’s cousin’s husband about these things. This is a summary of that conversation and of my current interests and this blog in general.

How to Be Happy at Work

Erich Stauffer Jobs, Grants, and Everything ElseHappiness at your job comes from being really good at what you do. Being really good requires deliberate practice to rise above the performance plateau that most people reach at their jobs. Once you’re really good you’ll be able to look back at all the good work you’ve done, all of the people you’ve helped, and you’ll feel a sense of accomplishment and happiness.

Ultimately, you are in control of your own emotions. No one else can make you feel a certain way. You always have a choice of how you react to external factors. The hard part is changing the habits that cause these reactions, but if you can replace the action within the habit, you’re one step closer to managing your own actions.

How to Apply for a Government Grant

Anyone can apply for a government grant, but for most people the process is too long, complicated, and shrouded in mystery, so this is brief introduction to the grant application process. First you’ll need an EIN (employer identification number) from your state’s IRS and a DUNS number from Dunn and Bradstreet. Once you have these, you can start applying for government grants.

How to Travel the Glory Trail Across America

There is a path across America that strings together some of the most scenic parts of the western United States. If you’re starting in Indiana, you first go to Chicago, then Madison, Wisconsin, through Minnesota, across South Dakota into Mount Rushmore. From there you continue heading west to Yellowstone in Wyoming and up through Montana and Idaho into Seattle, Washington. From there you head south through Portland, Oregon to Sacremento, San Francisco, and Los Angelas, California. After driving through Las Vegas you finally reach the Grand Canyon in Arizona. At that point you can either choose to go back through Denver, Colorado and Kansas City, Missouri or keep south through New Mexico and Texas. I recently did the first leg of this trail in a tw0-day trip, but expect to spend at least two weeks to do the whole thing.

One recommendation my wife’s cousin’s husband had was to buy a National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Pass that gets your vehicle into any national park for one annual fee. You don’t have to buy it in advance, just make sure you buy it at the first park you come to so you can take full advantage of the price benefits. One other tip is to rent a vehicle for this trip rather than to use your own vehicle. It will cost you between $30 and $50 a day depending on the vehicle and any current specials, but considering the amount of miles you’ll be traveling, the wear on your vehicle, and the amount of things that could go wrong along the way, it makes sense to rent a vehicle that you can swap out if something happens rather than face a big repair bill on your own vehicle while in a remote location.

How to Write, Publish, and Sell a Book Online

You may have heard that books are the new business cards or that it’s a great way to make passive income on the side and it’s both of those, but just knowing that doesn’t make it happen. You still have to do the work. If you’re not used to writing, you might consider starting a blog and writing a few blog posts first. Once you have several blog posts written you could consider rolling these up into a chapter or even a short ebook or white paper. This is called repurposing content and is just one of the ways to get started writing a book.

The easiest way to write a book is to start writing it in secret – don’t tell anyone what you’re doing. You may not know what to write at first, so just start writing about anything and the clarity will come later. Sometimes I find it helps if I start out pretending I’m writing a letter to someone I know. However, you eventually want to let people know about the book if you intend to sell it. While it’s best to finish the book first, there can be some advantages to letting people know you’re about to publish a book.

Imagine if when you were half-way through writing the book that you put up a landing page that let people sign up to get notified about the book when it comes out. In the meantime you start blogging about the book and asking for more email sign-ups. By the time you’re ready to publish the book you’ve got a list of people ready to buy and you’ve established authority and trust from a series of blog posts that are similar to the future book’s material. This is exactly what Nathan Barry did with his iPhone book.

Alternatively you could do the more traditional approach and publish your paper book on Amazon using Createspace or on Kindle using Kindle Direct Publishing, but each of these models has two stark differences to Nathan Barry’s model. First, when a customer purchases a book from Amazon that customer belongs to Amazon, not you. You have no idea who that customer is and you can never contact them unless they contact you first. Second, Amazon takes at least a 15% commission, compared to 5% from your own credit card processing company.

How to Find Good Movies on Netflix

I subscribe to Netflix and have used it to watch everything from Glee to 10 Items or Less, but every since Starz left the movie selection has been left wanting. However, last weekend I watched Primer and this weekend I plan on watching Expendables 2. I knew Primer was good because I’d watched it before once, but since I didn’t understand it the first time I watched it again. I still didn’t fully understand it until I read this blog post explaining Primer. That movie is so hard to explain that when you start typing “what happened in…”, Google autocomplete displays “what happened in Primer” first above the next highest, “what happened in Benghazi”.

Why Expendables 2? While I had reluctantly seen Expendables 1, my wife’s cousin’s husband reminded me that this movie is really a parody of itself and just a over-the-top 80’s action movie complete with all of the 80’s action movie stars. When I say complete I mean Sylvester Stallone, Bruce Willis, Chuck Norris, Jean-Claude Van Damme, and Arnold Schwarzenegger. Seriously? Anyone from the 8-bit generation who grew up watching Saturday-morning cartoons will appreciate this movie even if you don’t like action movies. With a giant wink and a nod, Expendables 2 guarantees a Primer-like trip back to a time when guns were bigger and times were simpler.

To help you find better movies, Netflix has invested heavily in algorithms that help you find movies you might like but this doesn’t always work when one account is used for a whole family. In fact I know it doesn’t work because I don’t actually want to watch My Little Pony despite Netflix’s constant insistence that I do. Thankfully they’ve recently came out with profiles that allow each family member to have their own likes and dislikes. It was with this method that I was able to see Primer after answering a series of questions like, “Do you like mind-bending movies?” I can say with confidence that I was happy to deselect all horror films and children’s films so that I could focus on what I like.

How to Build Anything

We live in an amazing time where we are only limited by our own imaginations and willingness to make things happen. Strictly speaking, we have the Internet which gives us access to more information than we could ever consume, hardware that is both cheap, powerful, and extensible, programming platforms that let us use hardware however we like, credit card processing and ecommerce tools that let us sell anything we could possible choose to make, and a world-wide audience plugged in and ready to be marketed to on Google and Facebook. There is literally nothing stopping you from taking an idea to market with the right amount of dedication and effort.

My greatest fear is that 10 years from now my son or daughter is going to ask me why I didn’t do more with this time I had back then. They will have seen evidence of those who did take advantage of these tools and built something great, something sustainable, or something life changing. In 10 years we will have our next Facebook, our next Google, and our next Microsoft. They will be born out of Arduino boards, iPhone apps, and 3D printing technologies. But by then someone will already have done it and by then it will be too late. The time to act is now – be that person in your child’s past that built that thing that you can look back on with fondness and see how you helped people.

How Elon Musk Builds Things

Elon Musk, co-founder of Paypal, founder of SpaceX and Tesla Motors builds things using Physics’ first principles, which as Musk explains it, “boil things down to their fundamental truths and reason up from there, as opposed to reasoning by analogy.” One of his latest projects is the Grasshopper  which is a test rocket that can take off and land vertically, allowing the rocket to be re-used on this planet or others. The other project is called Hyperloop, which is a new form of city-to-city mass transit that involves using tubes and cartridges instead of rails and trains to carry people and property quickly between cities. Elon Musk children will look back 10 years from now and know their dad helped make our world a better place. If you like Elon Musk, you might also like Jack Dorsey, co-founder of Twitter and founder of Square.

22 Movies that Question Reality

Edit: this post is currently up to 31 “false reality” movies + 2 TV shows. Updates follow the original post.

Movies can make us question reality by prompting these types of questions:

  • What is real? Are we real? Is this life real?
  • What is a simulation or a lie being told to us?
  • How do we know? What evidence might help?

In this blog post I’ve attempted to categorize the following mind-bending movies into conflict narratives where these questions have been asked in one way or another. I don’t attempt to answer the questions – I’ll leave that to you. Many of these movies could fit into more than one conflict narrative type, but I’ve chosen to choose one that I felt was the best fit. If you have another movie you’d like to add or have a differing opinion, please let me know in the comments below.

Every Facet of Your Life is a Lie (Man vs. Society) #Escape

The Truman Show

  • The Truman Show – In this movie, Jim Carrey’s character lives inside a television show without knowing it. Everything and every person around him is either fake or a paid actor. It’s not until he reaches middle age that he starts to wonder if things aren’t exactly as they seem. This movie explores the process a man goes through when he discovers that his world is a lie and how he must break out.
  • THX 1138 – One of George Lucas’ first films, this movie portrays a man who is forced to live the status quo for reasons he doesn’t understand. In his heart he knows there is more to this life than what he is being allowed to believe. While he doesn’t know what is on the ‘other side’ he begins to run and starts the process of escaping the world in which he lives (underground) and only once outside is redeemed.
  • 1984 – A movie where the real truth is never known and is always changing, it revolves around a man in a community dominated by lies and an overbearing government. All information is controlled, propaganda runs rampant, personal lives are controlled, and privacy is non-existant. The central character temporarily breaks free only to be recaptured and re-assimilated into the system.

You’re Being Lied to or Controlled by a Computer (Man vs. Machine) #Trust

2001 A Space Odyssey

  • 2001: A Space Odyssey – HAL 9000 is a computer program designed to help run a space ship on a mission to Jupiter – or so Dave thinks. What Dave comes to find out – after being locked out of the spaceship by HAL 9000 – is that the mission is actually quite different (just like the android’s secret mission in the movie, Alien). Dave overcomes the computer by disabling it’s memory banks, but in the end is still consumed by the primary mission HAL 9000 was trying to protect – the monolith.
  • Wall-E – At the end of this movie you discover that the main computer on the space ship holding all of the humans has been lying to the humans in order to stay in control of them. What’s the lesson here? Don’t let computer programs run your space ships! The humans eventually take control and go home.
  • The Matrix – Mr. Anderson (Neo) is always looking for something, but he doesn’t know what he’s looking for. When he gets a message to “follow the white rabbit” and decides to “see how deep the rabbit hole goes” he discovers that he has not only been living in a simulated reality his whole life, but that he’s also the key to redeeming the rest of the human race enslaved by a computer program.
  • Thirteenth Floor – Have you ever drove in a single direction for as far as you could go just to see what happens? How do you actually know the world is round unless you test it? In this movie, the characters create a simulation and in doing so discover that they themselves are living inside a simulation. What do you do with that information when you discover everything you know isn’t real?
  • The Village (2004) – “The Village” is not actually set in the 1800s. The inhabitants live in a wildlife preserve in modern times and that the government is bribed not to fly planes over the area so that the children who were born there will still believe in the group’s olde-tymie lifestyle and live as the “elders” want them to. As Ed said in the comments, “It’s the best example of Plato’s cave.”

You’re Not Who You Think You Are (Man vs. Himself) #Memory


  • Oblivion – This movie got a lot of flack for being a Frankenstein of previous movies like Moon and Wall-E, but I’ve included it because I think it underlines one of the central themes here and one I think is most popular (either among movie-makers or movie-goers) in that you may not be who you think you are – but you can still become the person you want to be – as long as you break social norms.
  • Moon – Imagine you’re a miner on another planet and your shift is almost up – you’ll soon be able to go home, but you start to get sick and so instead of doing your normal, daily routine, you change something and in the process you discover that you weren’t going home at all. Instead you were going to be replaced – by someone who looks just like you. You are not who you think you are. Mind blown.
  • Blade Runner – In this movie Harrison Ford is a ‘police officer’ of sorts who’s primary role is to find and arrest androids living in the public. The problem is that some of the androids he’s chasing after don’t even know they are really a robot. He’s developed a way to get them to realize they aren’t “real”, but in the process begins to question his own reality – and in this way discovers his own truth.
  • Total Recall – You have the perfect life, the perfect job, and the perfect wife, but something doesn’t seem quite right. You find yourself seeking an adventure…on Mars! You find a way that you can ‘remember’ going to Mars without actually going (much cheaper), but this catapults you into a world where everything you thought you knew was a lie and you find yourself on your way to Mars, for real.
  • Memento – In this movie, the main character can’t remember short-term memories and his last long-term memories were of his wife getting murdered right in front of him. He is continually searching for the man who murdered his wife and keeps notes on his progress by tatooing clues on his body. The only problem is that he can’t remember who he is or what he’s doing, which is very confusing to him.
  • A Scanner Darkly – Who is the good guys and who are the bad guys? How far will you go to find out? What if you can’t remember at the end from when you started? A Scanner Darkly is where Memento meets The Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind as a police officer goes undercover to break a drug ring, losing his identity and mind in the process. Who is a man who has lost his own memory?
  • Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind – In this movie Jim Carrey plays a man so upset with his girlfriend that he hires a man to erase every memory of her from his mind. In the process we get to travel through all of the memories as they are erased – all the while experiencing new memories with the very woman he was trying to erase. This movie explores the role of memory with self and destiny.
  • The Bourne Identity – Like Total Recall, this movie involves a man trying to reconstruct his past and discovering skills and connections he didn’t know he had. In the end, as in Total Recall, Jason Bourne decides to become a different man than the one he used to be. The erasing of his memory has allowed him to become a different person – so again – who is a man without his memory? What is memory?
  • The Number 23 – In a moment of serendipity, the main character discovers a book in a small book store written by him – that he didn’t remember writing. You can imagine how this would be disconcerting, but what if you discovered a code in the book that re-opened up a mental disorder you had forgotten you had and helped you discover a murder you forgot you committed? Yeah, weird.

I sometimes have dreams for years that I don’t realize aren’t true until, by chance, I happen to think of that place during the day. In a single moment years of memories are vaporized and my idea of what is real or not is shattered. I decided to write this section to help bridge the previous memory section with this next section on place because I think dreams (or memories of dreams) are a good example of both.

You’re Not Where You Think You Are (Man vs. Nature) #Information


  • Inception – If you’ve ever dreamed you may have noticed how the dream can seem longer than the actual amount of time it takes to dream it. And if you’ve ever had a lucid dream you may have noticed that there are certain things you can control in your dream. This movie takes those two concepts to the extreme, but the question remains: how do you know when you’re still dreaming or what is real?
  • Pandorum – You wake up in a spaceship and have no idea how you got there. When you begin to explore the ship you discover there are some skills you remember having, but don’t recall specifics. Eventually you discover you are on a ship headed to another planet, but you have no idea where you are. If only you knew where you actually were – if only you had the information you needed to escape.
  • Vanilla Sky – In a form of memory erasure, one of Tom Cruise’s character’s girlfriends decides to end both of their lives in a car wreck. Fortunately (?) Tom Cruise’s character survives, but his face is disfigured and he wakes up in a world alone with him and his therapist. Imagine how he feels when he realizes that he’s not actually alive, but has opted into a virtual reality which he’s forgotten to escape.
  • Being John Malkovich – Where is a man’s thoughts? Do they live inside his head? What happens if someone else gets inside your head? Who are you if someone else is controlling your body? In this movie a puppeteer finds a strange tunnel behind a filing cabinet in an office that allows him to control John Malkovich’s body. Where is this man when he is in the mind of another man? Who is he?

He’s Not Who You Think He Is (Man vs. Man) #Deception

The Prestige

  • The Prestige – There is a term called “the long con” which involves a prolonged act used to deceive another person or group for your own gain. In this movie there is a long con that is not revealed until the end of the movie and a healthy dose of irony in it’s revelation, which I won’t cover here. The man you thought you knew may not be the man you thought at all – and who are you when you’re twice?
  • SALT – Another long con, this one involving children of ambassadors raised in a special school in order to be distributed in key locations in the government to be activated at the appropriate time. However, even the most intricate of plans and training can be overcome by the person you choose to be today. Like Jason Bourne, this central character decides to be the person she is now, not who she was.

Central Themes of These 22 Movies

You may notice that all of these movies follow a central theme: that there is a feeling like something isn’t right, that there is something else out there, and that you must break the social norms to escape to that other place – and once you do you are either redeemed or crucified for it. There is also a theme of memory loss or the questioning of the memories we do have. As humans we don’t always trust the memories we have and when those memories are gone, who are we? Are we just a accumulation of memories or something else?

You may notice that Jim Carrey appears more than once as an actor (The Truman Show, Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind, and The Number 23) and that the author Philip K. Dick‘s movies (Blade Runner, Total Recall, and A Scanner Darkly) all share similar themes.  I didn’t know this, but apparently The Truman Show is a Philip K. Dick short story. One more connection: Matt Damon from The Bourne Identity also played in a Philip K. Dick movie called The Adjustment Bureau. It’s like a game of 6 Degrees of Kevin Bacon.

By the way, all of the movie links above to Amazon are affiliate links. I make a small percentage of money if you buy something from Amazon through those links. It doesn’t cost you anything extra and it helps support the writing of this site. Thanks for reading!


Update 8/29/2013:

A friend recently pointed me to Dark City, which, theologian Gerard Loughlin interprets as a retelling of Plato’s Allegory of the Cave. “For Loughlin, the city inhabitants are prisoners who do not realize they are in a prison. John Murdoch’s escape from the prison parallels the escape from the cave in the allegory.” This allegory is very similar to the movie, THX 1138, where Robert Duvall literally climbs up out of the ‘cave’. I haven’t seen Dark City, but when they realize they aren’t where they think they are, that makes me think it’s a Man vs. Nature film.

Update 9/18/2013:

I was listening to Tropical MBA Podcast episode 24 which played David Foster Wallace’s 2005 commencement speech to Kenyon College, of which much was relevant to this topic. “A huge percentage of the stuff that I tend to be automatically certain of is, it turns out, totally wrong and deluded…[Education] has almost nothing to do with knowledge, and everything to do with simple awareness; awareness of what is so real and essential, so hidden in plain sight all around us, all the time, that we have to keep reminding ourselves over and over: ‘This is water.’ ‘This is water.’ It is unimaginably hard to do this, to stay conscious and alive in the adult world day in and day out.” David killed himself on his back porch in September of 2008, just over 3 years after making this speech, “It is not the least bit coincidental that adults who commit suicide with firearms almost always shoot themselves in: the head. They shoot the terrible master. And the truth is that most of these suicides are actually dead long before they pull the trigger.”

Update 7/8/2014:

I was listening to Tim Ferriss’ podcast with Jason Silva who listed his top, “False Reality [movies] that makes you question your reality”. The one I hadn’t heard of before was Enemy starring Jake Gyllenhaal:

  • Inception
  • The Matrix
  • The Truman Show
  • Existenze
  • Vanilla Sky
  • Memento
  • Enemy – A man seeks out his exact look-alike after spotting him in a movie.

Jason Silva is a Venezuelan-American television personality, filmmaker, and performance philosopher who currently host’s National Geographic’s Brain Games.

Update 10/9/2014:

The Man Who Knew Too Little

Reverse-Reality Movies, where everything is a game:

  • The Man Who Knew Too Little (1997)
  • The Game (1997)

“How much do you trust your own memory?” Movies:

  • A Beautiful Mind (2001)
  • The Moment (2013)
  • The Sixth Sense (1999)

“Where do you think you are?” Movies:

  • The Signal (2014)

Does the Bible hint at some of these themes? James 4:14 says: “You are just a vapor that appears for a little while and then vanishes away.” What is real?. Paul hints that the only thing that is “real” is the things we can’t see. 2 Corinthians 4:18 says, “So we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal.”

TV Shows

  • SouthparkGrounded Vindaloop – the animated characters in the show realize they are all stuck inside an Oculus Rift virtual reality (VR) world and need help desk support (ala Vanilla Sky) to get out. Once out, we realize they are all actually real boys.
  • ScrubsMy Screw Up –  Dr. Cox spends the episode preparing for his son’s birthday with his brother, Ben. Only at the end of the episode is it revealed that Ben is dead and Dr. Cox has been instead preparing for his funeral, unbeknownst to him.

Quotes and YouTube Videos

From the Cafe scene in Inception, “Where are you right now?”

From Scrub’s “My Screw Up”, “Where do you think we are?”