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You've got some important paperwork to get rid of, and the paper shredder is not working. Or, well... it's just not symbolic enough, really. Because this paper is Very Special to you. Get the kerosene and the matches. It's time to build a fire.
Not just any fire, either. This is almost always a special Hollywood fire that knows exactly what parts of the documents that you're burning that are the most important to you. Be it a loved one's face, your own face, an important phone number, whatever -- the Hollywood fire will make sure that's the last thing that burns, as the camera closes in for a nice lingering shot of the consuming flames. How the fire knows to do this is a mystery, but it is always so.
A variation on this with the paperwork is to mark up or disfigure the important picture instead of burning it. But that's sort of for wusses. We recommend you go with the bonfire.
The phrase that names this trope was coined by Activist Bill Epton, who was said to have been the first person since the Red Scare of 1919 to be convicted of criminal anarchy. Supposedly for saying those three words.
- Fullmetal Alchemist:
- Ed and Al burn their house when they choose to leave.
- Another example would be when Mustang burns the paper which had SELIM BRADLEY IS HOMUNCULUS on it.
- One Piece with the crew burning the broken Going-Merry in a viking fashion.
- Mamimi in FLCL, watching the elementary school she was bullied in burn. Though she isn't seen setting the fire, she's the only character shown carrying a lighter.
- In The Bourne Supremacy, Marie has just been shot dead by a sniper. Bourne proceeds to burn her false passports in a fire. We get a lingering shot of her passport slowly burning up.
- Memento had a scene like this, in which Lenny burned some things that had belonged to his late wife, including her favorite book.
- In The Terminator, Sarah Connor's picture burns in a symbolic manner in one of Reese's dreams (or memories; it's hard to tell).
- Actually, it was Sarah's dream. She was dreaming about what Kyle's world must be like. ("It's pretty terrifying", she would say.)
- The letters from Hogwarts in the Harry Potter and the Philosopher's/Sorcerer's Stone movie.
- The biopic The Life and Death of Peter Sellers showed Peter Sellers burning his collection of everything from his previous movies just before making Being There. It is unknown whether this actually happened or was just a fabrication of the story.
- According to the BBC documentary The Peter Sellers Story - As He Filmed It, he did burn many of his home movies near the end of his life. The documentary is compiled from what he didn't burn, and as he was a serious amateur photographer from the 1940s onward, there's hours upon hours that survived. In fact, some were recreated for that biopic!
- The ending to The Butterfly Effect.
- In What's Eating Gilbert Grape, the title character's mother, who has not left the house in years, and is too obese to fit through the door, dies suddenly. To save her from becoming a laughingstock by being hauled out of the house by a crane, they move their possessions onto the street, and burn the house down on top of her.
- In the Blake Edwards-directed comedy S.O.B., Felix is shot by the police after brandishing a water pistol as if it were a real gun. His friends decide to steal his corpse, take it out to his boat, put it on a rowboat and set it on fire, as in a Viking Funeral, in celebration of his life and at least one of the movies he made Pagan Plunder.
- In Monster's Ball, Hank (Billy Bob Thornton) burns his corrections officer uniform after quitting the job.
- In the movie of The Hunt for Red October Ramius burns the submarine's real orders.
- The documentary Touching The Void has a interesting real life subversion where a mountain climber falls into a ice crevasse and is believed to have died by his comrades. Turns out that he survives the fall and after crawling back to camp (on a broken leg no less!) is understandably upset to discover that they had burned his trousers in grieving.
- In Coraline, the titular character burns the doll of her parents that the Other Mother made.
- In The Dark Knight, Alfred burns Rachel's letter to Bruce (saying she was going to marry Harvey Dent, and that they can only be friends due to him never giving up on being Batman) after the police declares a manhunt on Batman.
- In Pump up the Volume, when Mark decides to stop broadcasting as Hard Harry, he has a symbolic burning of his notes and letters that he was keeping as a pirate DJ. This is interrupted by his romantic interest, Nora, who is upset because many of the things he was burning had been written by her as "the Eat Me, Beat Me Lady."
- In the movie Hard Boiled, the police do this with the ID papers of cops who die in the line of duty (such as Tequila's partner from the opening shootout and Alan at the end of the movie).
- Conner MacLeod burns the home he shared with his mortal wife after burying her, leaving his clan sword beside the grave.
- In Citizen Kane, the last shot is of Kane's childhood sled burning. Ultra close up on the sled's name, which is Rosebud but come on, you should know this already.
- At the end of The Big Red One the squad burn a propaganda pamphlet to provide light so they can give first aid to a German sergeant Lee Marvin's character stabbed. The flame is shown consuming the words saying that Germany has just surrendered and the war is over.
- Jean Leloup, a popular Québecois rock musician, made a documentary called Exit in which he chronicled his last tour under his stage name and cool-but-fake stage persona. At the end of the film, we see him put a guitar on a little raft, which he sets on fire and casts adrift in a mock Viking Funeral. (He went on to release one album under his birth name, Jean Leclerc, before reverting to the Jean Leloup act. So much for the symbolism.)
- In The Scarlet Pimpernel, one of the Pimpernel's partners tries to burn a piece of paper with his instructions by holding it to the flame of a candle. Unfortunately for him, a sneaky woman that wants to discover the identity of the Pimpernel (and who just happens to unknowingly be the Pimpernel's wife) snatches the paper out of his hands, pretending to believe he was trying to use the smoke of the burning paper to revive her from a dizzy spell.
- Invisible Man ends with the narrator hiding in a sewer systematically burning everything he has collected during his entire life while New York is burned to the ground above him. Symbolic indeed.
- Misery has Paul setting the finished manuscript of the novel Annie forced him to write on fire... and then takes it one step further by having Paul SHOVE THE BURNING MANUSCRIPT DOWN HER THROAT.
- Well, an early copy at least. He saves the real manuscript so that he can publish it when he gets home.
- In one Valentine's Day episode of Friends, the girls ritualistically burn some items from their various ex-boyfriends in a "cleansing ceremony." The fire gets a little out of hand and the fire department is called in. They then dated the firemen.
- In an episode of Angel, Angel burns the sketches his drew of Darla in a previously unseen incinerator he just happens to own. This one also counts as Foreshadowing because shortly afterwards he sets Darla and Drusilla alight using some motor oil and a calmly dropped cigarette. They survive.
- In another episode, Wesley attempts to do this to Lilah Morgan's contract with Wolfram & Hart, but another copy appears in its place.
- Upon discovering that the "promised land" is a nuked wasteland, Laura Roslin burns the Prophecies of Pythia that led them there page by page in Battlestar Galactica.
- Around the same time, Starbuck burns her own corpse on a pyre.
- Slightly subverted in Lost, when Kate burns Joanna's passport. She purposely burns only the picture, so that she can pass herself off as Joanna when they are rescued. We get a lingering shot of the picture burning.
- Oz. When Kareem Said finds himself falling in love with Tricia Ross, he burns a picture of her in an attempt to kill that love. It doesn't work, and when knowledge of the affair becomes public knowledge among the black prison population he's ousted as head of the Muslims.
- Cracker. Jane Penhaligon burns her clothes after she's been raped, causing Fitz (who's unaware of the reason) to quip that burning a bra is "a bit too Sixties."
- Spaced: In a shot similar to the funerals of Qui-Gon and Darth Vader in Star Wars, Tim burns all his Star Wars paraphernalia because he hates The Phantom Menace so much.
- Annie burned all her memorabilia of Owen after learning that he was her killer in Being Human. Unfortunately, due to her housemates being subject to a mistaken Paedo Hunt at the same time, she caused a little panic that the house might be on fire...
- Averted in Misfits, when the long-suffering Woobie Simon had a major Freak-Out and tried to burn down the (currently empty) house of the guy who bullied him through school. He started the fire, but realised there was a cat inside the house. Not wishing to kill an innocent creature, he put the flames out by urinating through the letterbox. Um...aww?
- In the two-part season 5 opener of The X-Files, a man surveilling Agent Mulder's apartment from the next floor up realizes he has been found and tries to burn incriminating evidence, which doesn't work quite as planned.
- Mission Impossible: "This message will self-destruct..."
- This turned up in a Kiss video. Not only did the woman burn his picture, but she flamed his car too.
- Taylor Swift:
"As far as I'm concerned"
"You're just another picture to burn!"
- In the original play as well the off-Broadway incarnation of the musical Spring Awakening, Moritz dramatically burns Frau Gabor's letter right before he kills himself.
- In La Boheme, Rodolfo, desperate to get a fire going in his frigid flat, decides to burn one of his plays. He and his friends reflect on the drama going up in flames, act by act.
- In one of Foamy's Fan Mails, Foamy gets so pissed off at all the redundant mail he gets, that he collects it all into a large stack and sets it on fire and burns down the studio as well, so he never has to do a Fan Mail episode again. Fires back at him when he has to do the next one in the burned out remains of it. The episode is appropriately names "Burn, Baby, Burn".
Foamy: "And what do we have here? It's a fucking pack of matches! Uuhhaaaaa..... Matches!!! Fire on a stick! Woo-hoo-hoo-hooooo!!!"
- The Simpsons: Homer torches his high school diploma after he gets accepted into college.
- Avatar: The Last Airbender: Happened at the end of "The Beach", where Zuko burned up his childhood family pictures. The flames burn slowly until only his face is still showing, and in a nice touch, the flames mimic his scar.
- In Kim Possible, there is a scene in 'Stop Team Go' where Shego burns photo booth pictures of herself and Kim Possible with her green plasma.
- In 2002, a Colorado forest ranger allegedly chose to burn some letters from an estranged husband despite a fire ban. The fire escaped the pit and resulted in the Hayman Fire, the largest forest fire in Colorado history.
- Truth in Television: Cryptographic one-time pads for intelligence operatives were sometimes printed on highly flammable nitrocellulose, since it burns quickly and without leaving any residue.
- Spy planes have thermite igniters in case they are ever downed. Not for the crew to defend themselves with, but to burn computers and equipment that are classified. Nothing says Burn, Baby, Burn like Thermite.
- Also common practice with un-salvageable military vehicles on the battlefield, as described in Black Hawk Down. Accounts from Operation Iraqi Freedom identify M1A1 Abrams tanks as the most difficult to properly sanitize.
- In America, at least, once a homeowner has successfully paid off their mortgage in its entirety, it's customary to burn said document (this was demonstrated on MASH).
- During the Vietnam war, anti-war protestors burned their draft cards, which soon became a federal felony.
- However, contrary to popular belief, there were never mass bra burnings.
- In Disney Animated Canon's Beauty and the Beast, the Beast scratches out his human portrait to make his portrait take on his current appearance.
- Similarly, during Mufasa and Simba's funeral (though the latter survived and escaped) in The Lion King, Rafiki actually scratches out the painting he drew of Simba after thinking that he, like his father Mufasa, is dead. When Rafiki finds out that Simba is actually still alive, he immediately draws another painting of Simba, but this time it's one showing him as an adult lion instead of a lion cub.
- There's a parody of this in Discworld where the Librarian, who was transformed into an orangutan, tears out his page in every copy of his graduation yearbook he can find, leaving only the smell of bananas, so that the other wizards at Unseen University won't be tempted to look up his true name and turn him back into a human.
- In the film O Brother, Where Art Thou?, Everett casually tosses a newspaper on the nightly campfire, and as the front page burns away, it momentarily reveals an article he would have been very interested in reading.
- Likewise, a Garfield TV special had the warning note "Killer panther around the lake, evacuate the area" accidentally falling on the dead campfire, and promptly burning before Jon and his pets could read it.