Snow globes are a reoccurring object in cinema. They are specifically chosen to make or break, both figuratively and literally. They are both enchanting and threatening. Simple, and yet able to feed on the complexities of desire. They bring an aching reminder of the dream that was too far from reach. A barrier between reality and fantasy: then and now. Often they appear when a character is about to make an important choice. The ambassadors of hope and acceptance, or harbingers of destruction.
They provide painful visions of the past like in the Orson Welles critically acclaimed 1941 drama, Citizen Kane, where we see an almost happy reality frozen in time. Charles Foster Kane carries a relentless feeling of abandonment: first by his parents, then ultimately by his wife who first owned the snow globe. Kane has spent his life trying to fill his emotional void with material wealth. In the end, the glass ball holds all that really matters.
In Falling Down, 1993, directed by Joel Schumacher, a shop vendor successfully and more importantly, “calmly” sells a snow globe to a Father who is a playing out his own destructive fantasy in a rebellion against real life. This is one of two snow globes owned by our two main characters, the father gone wrong, and the policeman about to retire who uses a snow globe with a melody to calm his unhinged wife when he has to deal with her over the phone from his office desk. But rarely does the snow globe leave a motion picture intact.
How can something so precious end up shattered… a reality check, too much to handle… you can’t take it with you. Does the snow globe have to be taken literally? Can it exist as an idea? A shape, a thought, a hidden message disguised within other form. As an allegory. As a metaphor.
“INNOCENCE AND OBLIVION”
Orson Welles used the snow globe very sparingly in Citizen Kane. When not on the screen, there were moments where Kane himself represented his world as such an allegory. The snow globe reminded Charles Foster Kane of a time where life was simple. A connection with his childhood, and that of memories of his mother, an uncomplicated woman — as was his wife Susan. The glass ball is hers, but she appears to have no significant attachment to it. Once she packs to leave Charles Kane, she leaves it behind as well. The snow globe is as abandoned as Charles Kane. Both his mother and Susan left him, as does the snow globe leave his dying fingers at the end of his life, and as the snow globe falls; a simple fantasy, the essence of Kane’s humanity is lost.
If we go back to the scenes we see Charles Kane as a boy, he is already framed separate from reality. As his mother settles to have him adopted into wealth, he plays in a snow filled world of innocence and oblivion. Charles Kane as a boy exists in his own glass ball, but at this moment he does not know it yet. That idea was in the POV of a camera, possibly noticed by his mother. Later in the scene where he destroys his lavishly decorated bedroom, he stops at the snow globe. He also seems very aware of its symbolism as we do. Even in his ultimate moment of rage, he recognizes the fantasy — and that recognition is so profound that it triggers an immediate visual and emotional call-back. The snow globe, like the fantasy of play, is the only thing he has left and he wants to keep a hold of it. He feels abandoned by everything else. The state of mind is further emphasized as he steps out of frame amidst the many onlookers who do nothing. They stand there still, like artificial trees within a snow globe; Kane wanders through a metaphorical clearing, lost in his own glass ball reality.
Out of frame we then see him walking but in the reflection of the mirror, further distancing him from reality. We then see him alone walking past more mirrors: he stretches into infinity. A micro universe of Kane’s that reflect to us that no matter what scenario, it was inevitable that it would all come down to this moment.
“FRAME OF MIND”
In the 2002 thriller, Unfaithful, directed by Adrian Lyne, a married woman (and mother to a son) stumbles literally into a whirlwind affair with a young exotic man. Even though her marriage seems strong, there’s nothing daring or magical beyond the ordinariness of their life. Everything runs as if automatically along a routine.
The young man is a lover of words as well as women. In an unusual move, the wife takes snow globe from a family collection — one that was a gift from her husband — further breaking little bits of her family life in order to fit them into her fantasy existence. She intends to give the dome to her lover. The husband finds out that she has had the affair and goes to confront the young man in his book filled New York apartment. He does this calmly, that is until he notices the snow globe. As he takes hold of the glass dome, reality and fantasy collide. He suddenly loses touch with that reality. He knows the truth, and it spins and twists his head into a frenzy. He feels giddy, unable to see the world clearly. His mind is a vigorously shaken snow globe. For this pain and fantasy to end he must bring the blunt weight of the snow globe into a crushing sense of reality. It only takes one blow to the head with the glass ball to kill his wife’s lover.
Suddenly the husband is in his own special world. A secret he now keeps from his wife, until she spots the snow globe once again sitting in the family collection. Their eyes lock. They know each other’s secret.
“TOO MUCH TO HANDLE”
In Equilibrium, the 2002 alternative future story directed by Kurt Wimmer, characters are not allowed to experience emotion. They are forbidden to read books, to indulge in creativity or imagination. The film borrows heavily from Ray Bradbury’s dystopian novel Fahrenheit 451 and George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four. Wimmer’s movie follows a law enforcement specialist, John Preston, as he goes about his cold minded job to hunt down those who hoard forbidden things that evoke emotions.
In one raid, he discovers a room of artifacts that includes in its midst, a snow globe. A romanticized vision of the Eiffel Tower with snow carefully descending cannot move John Preston who wanders through this room void of sentiment. Emotions are treated like a disease which has to not only be contained, but destroyed. Even though the room is filled with sentimentality, it is the music of Beethoven that stirs him… and from his hands, the snow globe falls, and the romantic vision smashes. John felt something. He crossed a line. The shattering snow globe has released that deadly virus. Thoughtfulness and emotion cannot be allowed to escape. Everything in that room must burn.
“THINGS ARE TURNED — UP-SIDE-DOWN”
A small penguin in a snow globe in the 2009 Peter Jackson directed movie, The Lovely Bones, is the first thing we see as we fade into the movie. It is an upward moment where a father explains to his very young daughter, Susie, that the penguin she feels concern for at the center of the snow-globe is actually not sad, but happy to be there. He states, “Don’t worry Susie; he has a nice life. He’s trapped in a perfect world.”
Little Susie notes that the penguin seemed small, as if its only wish was to not only be free, but also, to become larger than life — much like Susie’s aspirations. Susie, now 14, has a lust for life, and in her element of creativity, she dreams big. She is not the penguin. She is the snow that refuses to settle on the ground. She is at her best above the surface of life. She knows what she wants to be — a photographer. Her appetite is prolific. She is also hungry to fall in love with the boy whom from her point of view doesn’t even know she exists. But no sooner are we introduced to the boy does he appear at her locker, telling her everything she needs to hear. He asks her out. Her heart flies. Life is all upwards and bright.
Then, everything turned symbolically up-side-down when Susie is later murdered at the hands of a man who lives close by. Her caring for the penguin in the snow globe parallels that of her caring for the feelings of her neighbour, her killer, who lures her into that up-side-down snow globe beneath the surface of the corn field. Indeed we are looking at direct opposites. Where she had once gazed through the glass ball with concern, nobody is able to see through her walls of mud and earth, where she is suddenly small, and afraid.
Later the snow globe gives her father comfort as he picks it up; He gives it a shake and remembers his lost daughter’s kindness. Inside the “in-between” world where Susie now exists, the penguin is free and larger than life. The wish she had as a small child is granted. Even after death, she is still able to dreams big. In her words, she reiterates that she is in her own perfect world, and that world is envisioned as a sphere.
“UNIDENTIFIED FLYING METAPHOR”
Sometimes, the separation between fantasy and reality can create in a character their own figurative snow globe… There are no actual snow globes in the following analyses, but here I want to extend it to a theory…
In Steven Spielberg’s science fiction spectacle, Close Encounters of the Third Kind, Roy Nearly experiences the extraordinary world when he encounters a UFO while driving his truck in the dead of night. Roy begins to see a form… a shape within in everyday objects. It begins with shaving foam, then mashed potato, and thereafter, the greater materials he gathers as his vision consumes him. He is entranced by a fantasy within his own metaphorical snow globe.
Roy’s family think he’s simply losing his mind. He is from this point unable to see past the psychological snow [like static] that had just been shaken up inside his brain. His family look on, a grave sense of worry and dread, and eventually, once he turns his home into a down-and-out arboretum, they leave, and rightly so. Roy will eventually, feverishly turn his vision into reality after identifying the vision as Devil’s Tower in Wyoming. He meets another woman who has also had visions. Together they travel to the real Devil’s Tower. Finally the snow in his globe settles, but it symbolically covers and hides the things that he once deemed as important: his family, his job, his life.
The fantasy finally becomes a reality.
Soon the aliens descend from the skies. A secret group gather at the plateau of the mountain and share in the fantastical event. The world beyond the dome no longer exists. No family, no home, and no time for regrets. The snow globe cannot be smashed if yourself are inside, looking out. Indeed, Roy never once looks back, never gives his family a second thought, nor does he have any moment of being conflicted about making the decision to leave with the aliens. Once the ship doors open, they eventually allow him in. he is enveloped and once again, he stands inside the metaphorical snow globe. Its meaning is unmistakable.
Stephen Radford, 28/01/18
Citizen Kane (Orson Welles, 1941)
Falling Down (Joel Schumacher, 1993)
Unfaithful (Adrian Lyne, 2002)
Equilibrium (Kurt Wimmer, 2002)
The Lovely Bones (Peter Jackson, 2009)
Close Encounters of the Third Kind (Steven Spielberg, 1977)