Reversing the Symbol Web, John Truby, The Anatomy of Story, p. 247–248
The great flaw of using a prefabricated metaphorical symbol web is that it is so self-conscious and predictable that the story becomes a blueprint for the audience, not a lived experience. But in this flaw lies a tremenduous opportunity. You can use the audience’s knowledge of the form and the symbol web to reverse it. In this technique, you use all the symbols in the web but twist them so that their meaning is very different from what the audience expects. This forces them to rethink all their expectations. You can do this with any story that has well-known symbols. When you are working in a specific genre like myth, horror, or Western, this technique is known as undercutting the genre.
MCCABE AND MRS. MILLER
This is a great film with a brilliant script. A big part of its brilliance lies in its strategy for reversing the classic Western symbols. This reversal of symbols is an outgrowth of the traditional Western theme. Instead of characters bringing civilization to the wilderness, “McCabe and Mrs. Miller” shows an entrepreneur who builds a town from out of the wilderness and who is destroyed by big business.
The reverse symbolism begins with the main character. McCabe is a gambler and dandy who makes a fortune by opening a whorehouse. He creates a community out of the western wilderness through the capitalism of sex. The second main character, the love of McCabe’s life, is a madam who smokes opium.
The visual subworlds also reverse the classic symbols. The town is not the rational grid of clapboard buildings on the flat, dry plain of the Southwest. It’s a makeshift wood and tent town carved out of the lush, rainy forest of the Northwest. Instead of a bustling community under the benevolent gaze of the marshal, this town is fragmented and half-built, with listless, isolated individuals who stare suspiciously at any stranger.
The key symbolic action of the Western is the showdown, and this too is reversed. The classic showdown happens in the middle of the main street where the whole town can see. The cowboy hero waits for the bad man to draw first, still beats him, and reaffirms right action and law and order for the growing community. In “McCabe and Mrs. Miller”, the hero, who is anything but a lawman, is chased all over town by three killers during a blinding snowstorm. None of the townspeople see or care about McCabe’s right action or whether the town’s leader lives or dies. They are off dousing the flames of a church that no one attends.
“McCabe and Mrs. Miller” flips the symbolic objects of classic Western as well. The law does not exist. The church sits empty. In the showdown, one of the killers hides behind a building and picks off McCabe with a shotgun. McCabe, who only appears to be dead, shoots the killer between the eyes using a hidden derringer (in classic Westerns, the weapon of women!). Instead of the chaps and white, wide-brimmed hat of the cowboy, McCabe wears an easter suit and a bowler.
“McCabe and Mrs. Miller”, with its strategy of undercutting a genre, gives us some of the best techniques for making old metaphorical symbols new. It is an education in great storytelling and a landmark of American film.