Death of the Critic


Written by: Tom Blaich

We’ve talked before about symbolism and how it can be used in the analysis of a piece, but today we want to look a little closer at the concept of iconography, the study of the context of images separate from their style. An image contains so much information, especially one that was crafted by an artist, and the same can be said of any of the works that we would like to analyze. If something is included on screen or in the page, then it as put there by someone intentionally. There is a reason that it exists, even if that reason is a s simple as to add clutter to the background.

When we look at a work, the style has a great deal of influence over the meaning that can be taken from it. With a painting, this could simply be the color chosen or the thickness of lines, or so many other more complex things. Compare cubism to realism, and you can see so much difference even if the paintings are of the same subject.

A game’s style might be reflected in the genre or mechanics, and a film’s through the shot composition, score, or story structure. But all of these are separate from the content, the actual things that are depicted through that style. You can tell the classic hero’s journey story in dozens of ways, but that does not mean that each of those retelling will give the same meaning to the audience.

Iconography looks at the content of a piece, because if an object was included, it was included for a reason. If I were to write about my car, what details would I include? What objects would I describe? And then based on this, what information could you tell about me? That I’m disorganized. That I drive for my work a lot. That I’ve used this car for years and have slowly made it my own.
Now apply this same basic principle to an photo of two women talking in a museum or a scene in a movie, or the main menu of a video game, and we can really start to glean more information about them. Look at the original
Call of Duty: Black Ops, where the main menu had you strapped into a chair in front of an old TV in a dingy room.

You could struggle and shift, or you could try to use the main menu. At first, it feels like your character has been captured and locked into an enemy prison to be tortured, even though you find out later in the game that you’re being held by the CIA in order to interrogate you for valuable information that you’ve been brainwashed with.
And that is intentional. You shouldn’t trust the organization that does that to you, even if they profess to be your friends, and one of the major themes of this game is that the US its responsible for some reprehensible acts during Vietnam. By placing you in this situation, they invert the normal scenario where you capture a prison and interrogate them (like you do later in the game in Kowloon, where you beat a man with a mouthful of broken glass in a short quick time event). Here you are the victim, and it’s supposed to make you think.

If you really want to see this principle in action, watch a YouTube video where someone does a trailer breakdown for a game or movie they are excited about. "Superfans" with encyclopedic levels of knowledge about a franchise going frame by frame through a two minute video to try to determine the meaning of every little object. Even though they may not realize it at the time, what they are doing is practicing iconography.

Iconography doesn’t have to be obscure references to old books like it might seem based on an introductory course from college. Every time that I write an
Anatomy of a Film, I practice iconography at a certain level. By learning to reorganize these symbols and icons and what they might stand for, we can get one step closer to comprehending a work.


Tom has been writing about media since he was a senior in high school. He likes long walks on the beach, dark liquor, and when characters reload guns in action movies.

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