Immediate aside: Could I possibly come up with a broader question to start a discussion? Let me hone in a little more.
The idea for this post came out of a Armchair Director Forum member's mention of the use of symbolism in Children of Men. He was trying to sort out what particular images in the movie meant symbolically: premonitions of death (Clive Owen looking through a dirty and broken window at the pregnant girl outside) or easy aphorisms like life is fleeting (the appearance of the deer inside the school). Reading this, I guess, I had a negative reaction at first. How is it that we can say anything for sure about these images?
But hmm....I guess one would probably say that digging up and polishing symbolism in a film is one part of the analysis of that film. And in doing analysis, we need to try on all sorts of clothes to see which ones fit. However, I think trying to give a definite meaning to a given image or sequence can be a red herring as well. How do we know what Cuaron meant with the deer in the school? How do we know that Cuaron had something particular in mind? It is well known that scholars and admirers of Tarkovsky's films make a lot out of his use of rain in his films, yet when pressed to say what the rain means to him, Tarkovsky said something to the effect of, "It's just rain."
Of course, then one will say, well, it doesn't matter what Tarkovsky thinks because once he puts his work out there, he is no longer the authority on what his work means. Point conceded. The viewer should be an equal participant in the ongoing discussion after the filmmaker moves to start the conversation (nod to Brian Park for the idea).
But this goes on to another question: what is the most effective use of symbolism? I would argue that if I can tell that the film is trying to convey a symbol, then the film has failed in making that symbol in any way meaningful to me. I feel cheated if I notice the deer means anything other than a deer. I think this is partly what Tarkovsky is trying to get at. The scholars dice up his films to find some way to describe their primal power, but for Tarkovsky, he is filming what is natural to him. He grew up in an area of Russia where it rained a lot, apparently, so that it would rain in his films is not surprising. And anyway, the symbol's effectiveness (hiddenness) hinges on our being sucked into the film we are watching, so if we are trying to figure out the code during our viewing, we are going to get less out of the symbolism and less out of the film. So in that sense, of course Tarkovsky is going to mask his intentions (if he has any). Besides, analysis is such a personal endeavor that for a director to say, "This means that," would be both unfair to those that would take the interpretation as law, and untrue, as in, there is never going to be one meaning to a symbol and the best symbols are those that are too complex to root out anyway.
That last sentence sounds a bit simplistic in some weird way, I'm not sure. Let me explain further. I think the best expressions of cinema are those that are unexplainable. I cannot explain why the Jaguar Shark sequence is so powerful at the end of Life Aquatic . I cannot explain to you how wonderful Tarkovsky's still life set-ups are throughout his films. We're not sure why we feel the way we do, and to try to describe those feelings would be silly. This only means that in these instances, we grant that cinema has come up with its own language, one that is purely cinematic, that is not held captive by literary analysis. If it is possible to come up with some different model by which we might describe cinematic language, I'm not sure. I'm also not well-educated enough with film theory to have a grasp on whether this has already been done well (I'm sure many attempts have been made).
I might stand behind a conjecture though: pure cinema taps into our deepest expressions of self, communal and spiritual awareness, and that we will never know exactly how that works (simply because, we did not make ourselves).