Obstacles – Stripes (Part 1)

Obstacles can be considered as an extension of overlays. The difference lays in that characters are covered with shapes instead of uniform ‘veils’. Still, their function is essentially the same: to prevent direct access to characters. In return, the audience associates the frustration they experience with the relationship characters have with the action.



The symbolism of obstacles can give the right feeling about the action. In Jaws (S. Spielberg, 1975), a pair of locals are about to catch a giant shark at night with a pork roast as a bait. The following shot frames the men through a fisherman’s net drying on the beach, suggesting that they are about to fall into their own trap.

“Don’t worry. The Chief lives on the other side of the island.”

“Am I coming in straight?”

“Don’t worry about it. Just keep rowing.”

In Raiders of the Lost Ark (S. Spielberg, 1981), Jones, feeling responsible for Marion’s death, is in a gloomy mood. In Resident Evil: Extinction (R. Mulcahy, 2007), Mikey and the team stay confined in a bus with grated windows to protect themselves from swarms of crows. In both cases, we unconsciously associate the character and the netting covering his face, which conveys his feeling of being caught in a net.


Gratings and bars

In Gandhi (R. Attenborough, 1982), Charlie Andrews pays a visit to Gandhi who has been put on custody by the British occupier. Obviously, prison bars are necessary here; they are part of the set, not just a symbol of the character’s detention. But what is interesting is how one of the bars is used to cross the character’s figure behind. Not only is that necessary to convey his feeling of being imprisoned, but more importantly, it literally ‘draws a line’ under what he represents.

“Not quite. They’re only holding me until the magistrate’s hearing. Then it will be prison.”

But many times, prison bars are just suggested. In Midnight Express (A. Parker, 1978), Billy — held in a Turkish prison for drugs smuggling — is about to be beaten up by Hamidou. In Aliens (J. Cameron, 1986), Newt is stuck in a sewer below a grid, waiting for Ripley and Hicks to rescue her. As said before, we unconsciously associate the obstacle with the characters behind. In both cases, those obstacles recall prison bars — even though they are not — which convey the characters’ feeling of being imprisoned, along with our feeling of helplessness.


“Climb down, honey. We’ve gotta cut through.”


Louvers and beaded curtains are commonly used to cut characters in slices. In Hard Boiled (J. Woo, 1992), Tequila — a police officer in Hong Kong — watches medical staff try to bring back his informer and friend Foxy. The louvers of the operating room draw slashes over the character like prison bars, only horizontally. This makes him look as though he was imprisoned, conveying his — and our — feeling of helplessness.

“Somewhat dilated. Nurse, give him some oxygen.”

In Little Big Man (A. Penn, 1970), Jack — who has just witnessed the death of a friend — leaves Ms. Pendrake — who has turned into a prostitute — to her fate. In The Man Who Would Be King (J. Huston, 1975), nobody seems to be able to reason with Danny who has decided to become the king of Kafiristan, not even his best friend Peachy. The first snapshot depicts a man fed up with humanity, unable to escape life’s vagaries. The second one also depicts a man whose life has turned into a prison, unable to quit game before it’s too late. In both cases, the curtain also represents a boundary between two opposing worlds (read more in Overlays – Distorting veils).


“[Oh, and] Jack, if you’re ever [in Washington do look me up.]”


“Peachy, I know you’ve got my best interests at heart but the choice has been made.”

What’s up?

For obvious reasons, the prison metaphor is never far from stripe-shaped obstacles. Whether they take the shape of nets or bars, they ‘draw a line’ under what the characters represent and bring out our own inability to help them. In part 2, we will explore more subjective kinds of stripes.


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