Like a movie in your mind

On the few occasions I have been on guided tours of Gothic cathedrals – I generally prefer wandering around these cathedrals on my own – I have been told that most people in medieval times were illiterate, and that, as a consequence, the stained glasses telling the Biblical stories were particularly important. Some guides have added that people from medieval days were “more visual” than we are now.

I don’t know how true this is, or even whether such a hypothesis may be ascertained. That most people then were illiterate I accept, although, as that quote spuriously attributed to Mark Twain reminds us, those who don’t read have no advantage over those who can’t. But leaving that aside, is it really the case that mass illiteracy leads necessarily to a greater emphasis on the visual? Seems a bit of a non sequitur to me, frankly. Quite apart from anything else, this seems to ignore the importance of oral traditions: the spoken word can be at least as potent as the written word.

In short, the assertion that more widespread literacy has led to us responding less strongly to what we see seems to me highly spurious. But if – and, I emphasise, if – this is indeed the case, I can’t at times help feeling that we seem to be returning to the state where, once again, we are – as the tour guides would have it – “more visual”.

I cannot insist on this as my evidence is only anecdotal. But let us rehearse a few of these anecdotes anyway.

Take films, for instance. Speak to any graduate of film studies, or any cineaste, or even to any aspiring cineaste, and they will invariably tell you that cinema is, primarily, a “visual medium”. This is not an assertion based on any argument: it is axiomatic. When pressed, they will offer examples: look at 2001- A Space Odyssey, they’ll say; look at Tarkovsky’s Mirror, at Solaris, at the various films of Ingmar Bergman; and so on. In such acknowledged cinematic masterpieces, the dialogue is often sparse, and what little there is of it is of little importance: it is what we see that tells the story, and creates the drama, that communicates everything the film is about. I agree with this, but I offer some counter-examples as well: look at The Maltese Falcon, I say, look at The Apartment, at Twelve Angry Men – and various other films that are still highly regarded, in which it is the dialogue and how it is delivered that tell the story and drive the drama. I am not, I clarify at this point, arguing that cinema isn’t a visual medium: I am arguing against the contention that it is primarily a visual medium. Just as one can think of a great many films in which the visual aspect takes precedence over all others, one can equally point to many other films, as firmly established in the canon, in which it is the spoken word that is central, and where the visual elements act at best but to supplement the story the dialogue is telling us, and, maybe, to provide atmosphere.

I don’t think I have convinced anyone yet, but I argue my case anyway. An argument is always worth engaging in, I feel, even if you don’t convince anyone except yourself. (Or even, for that matter, if you don’t convince yourself either.)

Now let us consider books. My attention was drawn lately to a meme that Goodreads posted recently on social media. Since the meme is now in the public sphere – and has been reposted a great number of times – I think it is OK to reproduce it here:

goodreads

“Do you ever get so engulfed into a book it plays like a movie in your mind?”

This has received a large number of positive responses. The answer to the question posed is, almost invariably, “yes”: books can, indeed, be so very good, that they are just like movies.

Now, I am not such a pedant that I am bothered by grammatical incorrectness, but I do find myself, I admit, vexed by inelegance; and when that inelegance comes from an organisation that aims to encourage reading, and should therefore have, one might at least have hoped, some concern about how words are put together, I find myself quite considerably vexed. Such propensity for being vexed at trifles light as air is, I own, but an eccentricity on my part, but there it is. “Engulfed into a book” may be perfectly correct – I am no expert on grammatical matters – but “engulfed by a book” sounds far better to my ears.

And the latter part of that sentence – “…it plays like a movie in your mind”: once again, this may well be, for all I know or, frankly, care, perfectly correct grammatically, but it sounds to my ears clumsy and cumbersome. If you want to encourage reading, I feel, you should take some care over the words you use, and how you put them together: otherwise you’re missing the point.

But a little more thought into the matter perhaps indicates that it is I who have been missing the point. I had assumed above that those who aim to promote reading should have some concern about “how words are put together”. But let us consider what this meme is actually saying. It seems to me to be saying “Has your experience with a book been so good that you can visualise it as if it were a film?” That is the criterion of literary merit that is put forward – not whether the prose is elegant; not whether it is expressive, or whether it is capable of communicating thoughts that are subtle and profound, or feelings that are elusive and intangible; not whether the pacing and structure satisfy aesthetically; not whether diversity of content is accommodated within the unity of form … No, the criterion is “Could you visualise it, as if it were a film?” And when that is your criterion of literary excellence – “does it aspire towards the condition of a movie?” – who cares about how you put your words together?

I suppose I could bemoan this trend towards the visual, as I bemoan everything else. I suppose it could reasonably be argued that since my evidence is all entirely anecdotal, there is no reason to bemoan any trend at all, since there is no trend, except in my increasingly saturnine imagination. And if we are indeed moving towards becoming “more visual”, as the tour guides insist our medieval forebears had been, then building a few more magnificent Gothic cathedrals would be no bad thing, would it?

15 responses to this post.

  1. Posted by Mark on April 12, 2018 at 1:26 pm

    I agree with the thrust of your post, Himadri.

    I re-watched Dreyer’s The Passion of Joan of Arc at the weekend. Now there is a film from a period when film truly was primarily visual, not least due to a lack of sound. A quick tour of a few silent classics will show you that the language of film was different before the arrival of dialogue and sound.

    As for the forced comparison between text and film: I like reading for many reasons, one the main ones is that I can read at my own pace and engage in my own way. Continual interruptions with recorded music and film is infuriating, but this is not necessarily so with reading, where pauses and contemplation are often required.

    I am currently reading Kaputt by Curzio Malaparte, a dazzling Italian writer who was also a sometime fascist. It’s a masterpiece of sorts but, morally speaking, one of the most troubling things I have ever read, with its slippery and aestheticised accounts of Jewish ghettoes, pogroms, murder, and the Holocaust. I have found I have had to pause frequently and even avert my eyes from the book. I’ve felt anger and disgust at his evasions and sophistry. I’m made of stern stuff and this is a rare book that has shocked me, partly because of the disturbing combination of its moral failings and its literary brilliance.

    This is a prime example of a text, in my view, that should precisely not “play like a movie” but should be taken slowly and interrogated in the quiet, private space of the mind.

    Reply

    • Posted by Charley on April 14, 2018 at 4:46 pm

      Mark, I’m so happy that you brought up ‘The Passion of Joan of Arc’ as that was one of the films that was running in MY mind as read Himadri’s article. The other one was Rex Ingram’s ‘The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse’ from 1921, which I had the great pleasure of seeing in Dublin’s majestic St. Patrick’s Cathedral just last month, complete with a new score. The combination of the setting along with an audience who actually wanted to be there made for a wonderful night.

      I’m a lifelong film fan, but reserve a special love for the silents and early black-and-whites. Yet I will still happily sit down and watch ‘Captain America: The Winter Soldier’, which to me is as good as ANY Art House film. After all, if a film is good, then it’s good. Elitism shouldn’t get in the way.

      As to movies playing in my mind as I read, I’ll have to confess — maybe a bit sheepishly — that this is so for me, all the time. Of course, it’s easy with modern novels because the author is often taking a cinematic, visual stance when he sits down to write. But I’ll even do it with, say, Dickens, imagining even the narrator giving a movie-voice-over.

      No doubt I am truly one of The Damned.

      Reply

      • I think I’d better clarify a bit here, to both you and to Mark…

        I have no problem whatever with an emphasis on visual aspects, either in film or in fiction. Quite the contrary. But I do have a bit of a problem, I must admit, if, as a consequence of focusing on the visual aspects, the verbal elements are diminished. And it does seem to me – and I admit I have nothing other than anecdotal evidence for this – that we do not, perhaps, nowadays value words quite as much, perhaps, as we should. Even when the BBC put on Shakespeare these days (The Hollow Crown) the camerawork and the editing seem almost designed to distract as much as possible from all that boring dialogue.

        And in novels and short stories, the ability of the author to evoke the visual is a fine talent, and I certainly do not mean to denigrate it. But it should not, I think, be regarded as the sole, or even the primary, criterion of literary merit. I have been “engulfed into” many a novel that does not even seek to evoke the visual.

  2. Many readers – they are common on the internet and I have met them in “real life” – put the highest valuable on immersiveness and pageturnability and can’tputitdownness, which may be what is meant by “engulfed into.” It sounds weird to me, too, and there is no book in existence that I cannot put down, so the whole thing is a mystery to me.

    The other puzzle is that I have run across many readers who insist that they do not and cannot visualize scenes in novels (and thus toss out writers who waste their time with descriptive passages). They can’t find this question congenial, can they? Who knows.

    Reply

    • I suppose “not being able to put a book down” is an exaggerated way of saying the book is compulsively readable. For me, on the whole, the best books are the ones inneed to put down regularly to think about what I have just read, but yes, I can understand the appeal of “pageturnability”. I remember as a final year undergraduate student, I was, while deep in my revision for my final exams, also reading the Raymond Chandler novels for the first time. I had my watch next to me: I would read till 7 by the watch, I told myself, before turning to the delights of thermodynamics. (Sorry – that sounds sarcastic, but I didn’t mean it to be: thermodynamics really is fascinating.) I had it all worked out: by the time the watch hits 7, I’ll have finished the chapter I was reading, and that would be a good place to stop.

      But then it came to one minute till 7, and the last line if the chapter read “And then I heard the shot”.

      Reply

  3. Just a thought or two on the on your initial point about stained glass windows (and frescoes in Italy). I am cautious about the idea that they told the stories to those who could not read. For a start, they are often hard to see; but I think they also rely on the viewer knowing the stories to begin with. We know that sometimes they were used as teaching tools – the windows at Chartres, for example – but the people being taught would often be people who could read (ie monks and the like). What I think is more significant, in light of your post, is the visual sophistication of medieval and Renaissance images. We are a highly visual culture today – surrounded by visual stimuli of all kinds, thanks to reproduction and the media, but I think we are a bit lazy and rely on words to explain the finer details. I think the sharpening of visual apparatus was greater in earlier centuries, and that does tie in with many people being illiterate. They could read images in more sophisticated ways than we are often prepared to do, and the images had levels of visual and intellectual sophistication and intricacy that they don’t always have today.

    Reply

    • Thank you for this. We are indeed surrounded on all sides by visual images, and I can’t help wondering whether this is indeed the problem. For the visual images we are surrounded by are often no more than merely spectacular, and mere spectacle doesn’t, perhaps, have the potential for conveying “levels of visual and intellectual sophistication and intricacy”.

      I am told that modern novels are more “cinematic”. I have not read enough of modern novels to comment on this, but if this is indeed the case, I can’t help feeling that’s a loss. Literature has its own criteria of excellence, and it shouldn’t be trying to ape films. Something such as The Golden Bowl, say, is not a lesser work for not being visually evocative.

      Reply

      • I apologise, incidentally, for my post being essentially an unfocused piece of stream-of-consciousness, and lacking the coherence of thought that a subject such as this demands.

  4. Himadri, the way you put it suggests a creative effort on the reader’s part; the way they put it does not. Your wording is “you can visualise it” or “could you visualise it?” You are the actor in this, not the book. Their wording is, “you get… engulfed… it [the book] plays like a movie in your mind.” Whether the preposition is “into” or “by,” it’s a passive construction: you get engulfed. And in the next sentence, it’s not you who visualizes the book – it’s the book that visualizes itself (“plays like a movie”) in your head. That is, once you’ve finished the book, you have no more control over the moving images in your mind than you’d have after taking LSD.

    Reply

    • Hello Alex, whatever the wording, I must admit I am having trouble trying to imagine a book visualising itself. A book may be written in such a way that it may encourage the reader to visualise, but the visualisation must surely be done by the reader. But be that as it may, it did strike me that it was assumed by whoever created that meme, and also by those who responded to it positively, that the better a book may be visualised, the better it is. And this led me to wondering, albeit in a somewhat unfocussed manner, whether we respond more keenly nowadays to visual rather than to verbal stimuli.

      Reply

      • As an example, I haven’t watched Game of Thrones except a few brief scenes, but reading the first episode of A Game of Thrones was like watching a movie for me – actually, like being inside a 5D film, with smells and changing air temperature. I didn’t have to make a conscious effort to bring up those images and sensations.

        (Seeing one of the commenters mention Malaparte’s Kaputt: I’ve started reading it in Italian, wondering now how far I’ll make it.)

      • The effort needn’t be conscious. Indeed, it may not be an effort at all. certain kinds of writing actively encourage the reader to visualise – i.e. to imagine what they read as a sort of film unreeling in the mind. But that visualisation, whether it requires an effort or not, is still the reader’s. The book can, at most, encourage, or make easy, this visualisation.

  5. Posted by Charley on April 24, 2018 at 10:31 pm

    I think, Himadri, that you’ve opened up something here. And I doubt that there will be agreement; but there could be a middle ground.

    ‘2001: A Space Odyssey’ will be shown in selected cinemas shortly to celebrate its 50th anniversary. Now, leaving aside the depressing thought [well, not really!] that I saw it when it was first released, I would have thought that no book can really capture the visceral power of Kubrick’s vision. And yet in its own way Arthur C. Clarke’s book does. I think that you can actually read the book independent of the film. I’m thinking of that line where Clarke talks about the ‘frozen thoughts’ of music composers as the ship sails through the emptiness of the universe.

    I find interesting what Canadian director David Cronenberg said about filming Burroughs’s ‘Naked Lunch’ and Ballard’s ‘Crash’: that there are certain things that filmmakers can do better than the writer but the one thing they really can’t do are interior monologues. They just can’t do that at all. And I know that this opens me to someone giving an example of that; but I’ve yet to see it.

    ‘Naked Lunch’ is a book that I’ve found on several attempts to be simply unreadable (and that’s just me, nothing against those who love this book) and what Cronenberg did with the source material is to make it about the writer and to visually show what was going on in his demented, drug-addled head. ‘Crash’ he approached from a different angle but isn’t it interesting that in both cases, the authors loved what he did. That’s unusual, I think.

    The great British director Ken Russell once said that he is unable to read ANY novel without his own images immediately crashing in. I get that. And it leads once more to whether you can make that jump. I’ll always enjoy ‘Women in Love’ or ‘The Devils’ in a totally different way to the way that I enjoy the books. One doesn’t cancel out the other: sometimes one form even adds richness and texture to the other.

    I went to see a movie this week that no one seems to be watching (in Ireland, anyway) called ‘Wildling’. To me it is a stone cold masterpiece: a beautiful, sad, astmospheric chapter that seems to have been torn from a book on folklore. Yet I cannot see how its beauty would have affected me as much in the written form.

    I’ve gone on long enough; just simply throwing this out there……

    Reply

    • Hello Charley,

      Literature and cinema are two very different media, and while it is natural to compare them – given how often works of literature are adapted to cinema – I can’t help feeling uneasy when the standards of one are applied to the other.

      There is, of course, nothing wrong with written fiction evoking from the reader a visual response. Quite the contrary. The ability to create visual pictures with words, to encourage the reader to imagine what they are reading in visual terms, is a fine talent to have. But the point is that if the author does not aim for this; if the author’s artistic aims are different; then that is not blameworthy either.

      To take an example, Henry James’ The Golden Bowl is most certainly not a work that evokes pictures; it doesn’t encourage the reader to visualise its scenes. That does not make it a lesser work of literature.

      Applying the criteria of cinema to appraise literature seems to me somehow demeaning of literature. Literature has its own rules.

      Reply

  6. Posted by Charley on April 25, 2018 at 6:08 pm

    And we’re going around in a circle here, as I suspected we would, Himadri. Yes, of course, my first love is cinema; but it has never interfered with my love of literature. If anything, since that momentous — for me — day in 1968 when my dear old mum let me see a rerun of the 1931 ‘Frankenstein’ I always knew that I would love this art form forever.

    But that day led me to seek out the source material with Mary Shelly. And when I discovered the Lugosi version of ‘Dracula’ it did the same. I had to see what Bram Stoker was doing.

    One thing always led to the other. And I’ve been blessed that my mother introduced me (albeit unknowingly) to the classics just because she loved horror movies.

    Just as an off-the cuff thing, I’m going to link Stephen Berkoff talking about ‘young actors today’…..in a tangential way, it ties in:

    Reply

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