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Hero Props & Talismans

Hero Props_Mendl Box

A hero prop is an object in a movie that plays a central role – it may be shown often on screen, or become a sort of character within the film. I’m always on the lookout for a good hero prop and Wes Anderson’s films are full of them. There are the Mendl’s boxes in The Grand Budapest Hotel, the wild boar in Royal Tenenbaums and "The Belafonte" in The Life Aquatic with Steve Zissou. 

But Wes Anderson's love of hero props is most prominent In The Darjeeling Limited, a movie where the plot is moved forward entirely by objects. Every time an event happens (good or bad), a hero prop is to blame. The reason these props play such a central role is that it’s a movie about talismans.

Talismans are objects that have been imbued with meaning, magic even. Not all hero props are talismans, but they often are in Anderson's films. He seems to have empathy for inanimate objects and understands our need as humans to cling to tokens and charms and treasures.

When I was a kid, my Mum bought me the film version of The Secret Garden on VHS. It was one of those puffy cases and it came with a plastic silver locket draped over the box.

The locket was a hero prop and one of Mary Lennox's talisman. I wanted this crude, plastic replica to play a similar role in my life. I wanted to cherish it deeply. I wanted it to be that object I’d take with me everywhere, hold on to. I wanted others to see it and think, that’s Taylor’s locket.

But after a week or two, I completely forgot about it and moved onto to some other shiny, disposable thing.

I worry we’re slowly losing our talismans – or maybe our ability to imbue ordinary objects with meaning. In an over-consumptive world, we cycle through possessions so quickly, there’s no time to get attached.

When we care deeply about objects we turn them into talismans and this is distinctly not a consumer act. Talismans arise out of the joy that comes from a well-designed thing that performs a useful task with precision and reliability. We create talisman when we need a companion (a silent, non-judgemental companion). We use talisman as vessels for stories and they become reminders of the things we need to hear.  They are yardsticks of progress and markers of places in time. And when we hold on to them for protection, talismans become manifestations of both our faith and our doubt; their existence is a reminder of our belief in something bigger and our fear of what that force will bring.

My passion for design is related to talismans: It arises out of an empathy for objects and a desire to make things that serve a purpose. It satisfies my urge to turn meaningless ephemera into something valuable and it keeps alive my hope for permanence in a thing that will last.