Symmetry in film is a very complex and counterintuitive technique. The question that most commonly arises is, ‘how can a frame that has perfect bilateral symmetry create such a sense of unease?’ Surely a frame that is ordered in dimensional ratios would create, at least psychologically speaking, an aura of natural equilibrium. We see time and time again that this isn’t the case. I refer specifically to the cinema of Stanley Kubrick who was well versed in the psychological consequences of one-point perspectives.
I will go back to Kubrick’s uses of symmetry in a few paragraphs time but first of all I will present a case for why symmetry has such an obscurely off-putting and deeply distressing effect on the mind. I begin by making the assertion that cinema, or at least the cinema that I will be referencing here, is an art form that mirrors and represents nature. Not in the sense of the nature documentary in that it directly shows the natural world – although the same rules would apply – but in a way that it is based firmly in the grounds of representing reality. Given, a reality that is open to psychological and emotional skewedness but one that we would instantly recognise as being representative of the ‘real’.
So taking this assertion one would expect symmetry to be a technique to create psychological equilibrium for we regularly see symmetry in nature. Leaves have a bilateral symmetry; the human face has this also. On larger scales, the planets and stars have a spherical symmetry. Symmetry is seemingly all around us and is reflected in a cultural ideal to create in this regular form. This is purely superficial for when we look more closely and start to gain a deeper understanding of these structures, it is only then we can start to see that there are intrinsic asymmetrical tendencies. Let’s take the familiar human face. It may appear to have symmetry but anyone who has ever played with ‘mirror’ camera effects where the frame is split into two and one side is reflected onto the other will know that the resulting picture is slightly weird. Theoretically if the human face was symmetrical then these effects would look no different to your normal face and yet they do and it’s a very odd feeling indeed. The face is identifiably yours but it is somehow not yours at all. It might come to no surprise that the human face isn’t symmetrical at all, it may seem that way superficially but on fundamental levels it is not. And to risk becoming trivial, viewed at smaller and smaller scales faces become further and further asymmetrical; an imperfection on the left cheek not mirrored on the right, the left eye set a millimetre higher than the other. At our macroscopic level of experience what seems symmetrical is far from it and when faced with true symmetry, the mirrored version of the human face for example, the resulting psychological effect is a deep feeling of unease.
This isn’t just a quirk of human evolution; asymmetry runs much deeper and is at the heart of all natural phenomena. Take plant leaves for example. When we take a closer look at the surface symmetry we see that there is a long vein running from the stem to the tip that splits off into smaller veins and then they split into even smaller structures. This certain type of scaling symmetry reveals a self-similar pattern that doesn’t change even when zooming in. A mathematician by the name of Benoit Mandelbrot coined the term ‘fractal’ to describe this natural occurrence. This fractal pattern occurs so frequently you could almost say that nature uses this as a sort of scaffolding in which larger structures are built around. Another example of this can be seen in the capillary system in the human body, whereby blood vessels divide and divide again to create the largest surface area possible to aid blood transportation to the various tissues. You can see fractals in lightning bolts whereby the electrical charge splits off into an almost infinite amount of self-similar forks. Mountain ranges or coastlines seem to be measurable at a distance but the closer you are, or the smaller your means of measurement, the more infinitely long they become. The most famous images of fractals, and the ones that you are no doubt more familiar with, are created with the aid of computer programs. Beautiful swirls that get ever more detailed and psychedelic at smaller scales, you could be fooled into thinking that these structures have a deep symmetry but this is not true, even at the microscopic. Other mathematicians studying these patterns found that the symmetry was only skin deep. With the power of computer simulations they saw new structures emerging in almost chaotic unpredictability, “every new molecule would be surrounded by its own spirals and flame-like projections, and those, inevitably, would reveal molecules tinier still, always similar, never identical, fulfilling some mandate of infinite variety, a miracle of miniaturization in which every new detail was sure to be a universe of its own, diverse and entire.” (James Gleik, Chaos: Making A New Science, pg. 228). “Never identical” is the key concept here, superficially similar but never quite perfect replications – this is also a central pillar in evolution concerning the seemingly randomized mutations in the replication of genes that have filled our small planet with unbelievable diversity and stunning beauty.
Fractal pattern in a leaf with computer generated Mandelbrot Set. Notice the similarities between the fractal vein structure in the leaf with the self-similar structures produced in the mathematical simulation.
So we move deeper down the rabbit hole from macroscopic asymmetry in human faces to microscopic differences in fractals and other self-similar biological structures to now going one step further into the quantum world of the atom and the brief moments after the big bang. It might seem that in going far beyond the reach of unaided human senses is superfluous to the argument but it serves to add a tremendous depth to the level of asymmetry. There is a certain paradox in physics involving symmetry in much the same way that I have described previously. Through the understanding and observation of symmetry, the standard model of particle physics, a theory that encompasses all known particles and forces, was discovered. Here lies the problem, as physicist Michio Kaku puts it, “If the laws of science are framed at their most perfect, most symmetrical form, then life cannot exist at all.” (Michio Kaku, Horizon: The Hunt For The Higgs, BBC 2012). A universe created from these symmetrical laws would be in complete balance and would cancel itself out just like a mathematical equation. There has to be something that breaks this symmetry, and it comes in the form of the Higgs mechanism. Without getting bogged down in technicalities, which I am running the risk of already, moments after the big bang the fundamental forces of nature – electromagnetic force, strong and weak nuclear forces (excluding gravity) – were encompassed into just one single force. If this had stayed in its balanced symmetrical bindings then the forces would never separate and all particles would travel at the speed of light unable to form chemical bonds thus unable to produce anything that we see today. The Higgs field was a way of breaking the symmetry between the forces by giving the corresponding force mediating particles (bosons) different masses. Another instance of subatomic asymmetry comes in the form of matter and antimatter. The mathematics implies, and was later discovered as being in existence, that all matter particles must have an equal but opposite counterpart in the form of antimatter. When combined, these particles annihilate each other completely leaving only pure energy. A balancing of the equation if you will. As everything you see today is made of matter it can be inferred that there must have been a moment of symmetry breaking otherwise, quite literally, nothing would exist, everything would cancel out in an explosion of energy. It isn’t entirely understood how this original asymmetry occurred but it has been observed in the Large Hadron Collider at CERN that a type of subatomic particle, a B Meson, and its antimatter constituent has asymmetrical decay rates. Without going into technical flavour oscillations etc., B Mesons are an unstable type of particle that will decay into more common and fundamental forms. It so happens that the anti-B Mesons decay less than its normal matter partner thus creating and contributing to a disequilibrium between the two forms of matter.
Symmetry has an almost mythical quality that we, as cultural animals, strive for but as we have seen nature only produces this phenomenon in a deceptive and superficial way. A simulacrum of an original asymmetry that seems to run far deeper than what appears on the surface. We only need to go back to the example of mirroring the human face to see what happens when true symmetry is achieved, like the myth of Icarus flying too closely to the sun, symmetry has despairing effects. And these effects can be experienced quite intensely in the cinema of Stanley Kubrick. It’s doubtful that he had knowledge of asymmetry at a subatomic level but he certainly had a firm grasp on the psychological effects of perfect cinematographic symmetry. What I have tried to outline is that symmetry isn’t something that is particularly natural; in fact nature tends to go out of its way to break symmetry. Taking this assumption to the next stage, we can imply that symmetry is unnatural. It is this that makes Kubrick’s use of one-point perspective so disturbing and yet hard to put your finger exactly on what the issue is. It’s film school 101 to avoid symmetry and one-point perspective in cinematography; this is why the rule of thirds in framing is a device that dominates film. There is something quite disturbing when faced with forced symmetry, especially in the moving image of cinema. This is why this technique can be exploited in the way that it does.
The Shining uses one-point perspective almost throughout. The most obvious use being that of the iconic steadycam shots following Danny Torrance on his little tricycle as he glides through the hotels’ maze like hallways. Notice that the symmetry isn’t broken for the whole length of these shots. Kubrick slowly ramps up the tension and despair in the audiences’ psyche as they are forced to endure a bombardment of visual mirroring. Incidentally, unnaturalness is a theme within The Shining. Take the symmetry of the identical twin girls in blue dresses that are revealed to have come to a rather horrific end. The unnatural symmetry becomes the supernatural. Even superficially the link to symmetry breaking (savage mutilation as breaking of symmetry) is unnerving, twins being aesthetically identical only serves to contribute to the discomforting experience when faced with other aspects of symmetry in the film. I’m not only talking about the cinematography here, although there is an abundance to recognise – the constant symmetrical framing of Jack Torrance as he slips further into madness, the one-point perspective as Dick Halloran walks the hallways only to be axed in the back, the lifts that pour blood etc.; all symmetrically shot, not only is the unnatural perspective disturbing but it’s backed up by horrifying imagery. It should also be noted what the effect of symmetry has on the characters psychological status. Notice the set design of the hotel, in particular the carpets that have a sickening red with yellow hexagon pattern. Not only in a stylistic way is this distasteful but the fact that the shapes embroidered have a six-fold symmetry adds to this idea. To continue the point, the hallways have rooms that are mirrored on either side despite being architecturally impossible and again, when Jack is attempting to write he is dead centre facing a symmetrical set of stairs (also being the setting where his wife smashes him on the head with a baseball bat, more symmetry breaking through violence perhaps?). All these unnatural settings play on Jack’s psyche and subsequently he goes insane, and if that wasn’t enough the supernatural involvement through symmetrical motifs certainly play their part also.
In fact, symmetry in the psychological sphere is an interesting avenue to go down. This is portrayed particularly vividly in Kubrick’s seminal work of science fiction, 2001: A Space Odyssey. A psychiatrist named Arnold Mandell when describing chaos, a branch of mathematics that gave birth to the fractals that I described earlier, said “is it possible that mathematical pathology, i.e. chaos, is health? And that mathematical health, which is the predictability and differentiability of this kind of structure, is disease?” (Chaos: Making A New Science, pg. 298). This perfectly sums up the HAL 9000 computer. The human mind is built to be able to cope quite sufficiently with the very naturally occurring chaos (natural systems containing almost infinite amount of variables), it is a system that is constantly in flux and able to adapt when tackling new information. What we have with HAL is perfect psychological symmetry; he is described at one point as being the most perfect computer system ever made and capable of human emotions. Like a spinning top that is balanced, the slightest imperfection or fluctuation causes it to topple and HAL topples quite dramatically. Even his design is the archetypal picture of symmetry, a circular all seeing eye. HAL represents unnatural symmetry wielding to natural asymmetry through means of entropy, things of order will always tend to disorder. HAL’s simulation of human emotions is the imperfection and fluctuation in the system; his psychological symmetry can’t adapt to the natural chaos of human consciousness and subsequently deteriorates into paranoia and eventually homicidal madness. Not to mention the ominous black monolith that disrupts the prehistoric Earth’s natural asymmetry with its perfection thus causing our apelike ancestors to scream frantically in utter fear and disgust. This being mirrored when modern humans find a similar monolith buried under the surface of the moon that emits a high-pitched frequency, which causes much of the same reaction. The monolith acts as a symmetrical curiosity that drives the human race into travelling through space and time to discover its power only for Dave, one of few surviving interplanetary explorers, to wind up decrepit and trapped between dimensions. The parallels with Icarus are more than significant to be mentioned again.
I can pick many examples of symmetry that Kubrick employs to create a sense of mistrust, despair and general nausea. In Full Metal Jacket we see Private Pyle, predominately shot using one-point perspectives, slowly succumb to complete psychological breakdown ending in his suicide. Another example occurs when Joker is looking over the mass grave of dead Vietnamese villagers where, again, Kubrick uses symmetry to put the audience in a similar psychological mind-set of disgust and unease. Eyes Wide Shut has much of the same for very similar reasons; the ritualistic orgy is shot in this mirrored fashion creating a mistrust that contributes to the overall mysterious and dreamlike narrative structure.
Stanley Kubrick’s cinema is symmetry as abhorrence, something unnatural that appeals and repulses a deep seeded emotional and psychological distrust. To draw on the relationship with the doomed flight of Icarus once more, symmetry is seen as a cultural ideal, a natural perfection but when faced with a true visual representation of symmetry the effects are quite adverse. Mistrust and repulsion of this ‘perfect’ photographic and thematic equilibrium is the feeling that comes out on top and I argue that it is because of a deep natural asymmetry underlying all things that is the cause.
I recommend watching this video not only to give visuals to my references but also because it’s a brilliant homage to one of the greatest filmmakers in history.