A lack of vision

I often think my visual receptivity may be lacking. Yes, I know, I have written on various paintings from time to time on this blog, but I have always focussed on the dramatic content of the painting – on what the painting depicts – rather than on the purely pictorial elements. This is partly because I am not qualified to write on such matters, but only partly: lack of expertise doesn’t generally prevent me from sounding off. My reticence on these matters is mainly due, I think, to my realisation that I can’t respond as keenly to visual stimuli as I can to others.

Take dance, for instance. I have a great admiration for the immense skill of dancers, and their obvious dedication to their art, but rarely if ever has dance affected me to anywhere near the same depth that other art forms have. I can enjoy the grace and elegance of Astaire and Rogers, or the exuberance of the Nicholas Brothers, Ann Miller, or Gene Kelly, but, other than a relatively superficial enjoyment, none of this has ever really meant that much to me; I could quite contentedly live without these things, as I couldn’t, say, without my books, or my music. Ballet, I am sorry to say, leaves me cold; modern dance I cannot make any sense of. Dance is among the most central of art forms in Indian culture (more so, I think, than it is in the West), but the traditional  Indian  dances I have seen  have left me utterly unmoved.

Needless to say, these are not comments on dance as an art form, but on myself. And yet, there is much ballet music that is dear to me – Tchaikovsky, Stravinsky, Ravel, and so on. I love it when the music itself seems to dance, when the sounds convey that sense of movement. “What can dancers add to The Rite of Spring that the music does not itself convey?” I ask myself. The answer, obviously, is “a lot”, otherwise skilled dancers wouldn’t dedicate themselves to it, and neither would discerning viewers go to see it:  the deficiency is, once again, in me.

I can see evidence of this deficiency of mine everywhere. Take plays, for instance. In Hamlet, Claudius says “We shall hear a play” (the emphasis is mine). Claudius thinks of a play as something primarily to be heard – and I agree. Radio drama tends to give me more satisfaction than television drama, especially these days when visual gimmickry (or, at least, what I consider to be such) all too often distracts from the dramatic content. And, despite having seen Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra – a very favourite play of mine – on stage on several occasions, no version that I have seen has given me anything like what I have experienced from various audio recordings. Shakespeare’s language creates its own pictures that the stage, to my mind, can never quite match. For anyone wanting to experience Antony and Cleopatra, I’d direct them first and foremost to the audio recording by Irene Worth and Richard Johnson; or by Pamela Brown and Anthony Quayle; or by Frances Barber and David Harewood. Really – what can visuals add to what Shakespeare has already given us in words? Those words take the mind to places that no visual effect could possibly enhance.

Similarly with opera. A live performance is a special occasion, of course, but when I am at home, audio recordings often satisfy more than DVDs.

I won’t bore you with further examples: I think you get the picture. I am just not a very “visual” person.

I exaggerate, of course, to make my point. It’s not that I don’t appreciate visual elements: of course I do. It’s just that I don’t appreciate them enough. It’s just that words and sounds make a greater impression upon me than light and movement, shapes and colours.

This deficiency of mine, or relative deficiency, takes on greater significance when it comes to my appreciation of the most recent of all art forms – cinema. Nowadays, the word “cinematic” is used to refer almost exclusively to its visual elements: but cinema covers everything – the aural and the dramatic and the literary as well as the visual. Even more so perhaps than Wagnerian opera, it epitomises what Wagner called Gesamtkunstwerk – a confluence of all the different arts. The dramatic construction, the words spoken, the themes addressed, are all contributory factors to a film’s success, no less than are the lighting, the editing, the cinematography. To refer only to the purely visual aspects as “cinematic” seems to me to take a lop-sided view of the medium: there seems to me, after all, no shortage of films of the highest quality that rely primarily on the dialogue, and in which the visual elements, though certainly not negligible, are mere means to an end, and, sometimes, perhaps, little more than functional.

But then, there are films that, equally legitimately, focus on the visual aspects rather than on the literary or the dramatic, and here, I do feel I am at a disadvantage. Recently, I went to see 2001 – A Space Odyssey with a friend who names this as his favourite film. And, needless to say given all I have said above, it is a film I have remained strangely detached from. There is hardly any dialogue; and what drama there is – the conflict between the astronauts and the computer – only starts to develop some half way through the film, and is resolved long before the end. I went along to see it again, my friend’s enthusiasm awakening something of my own; but, while I can see that it is visually imaginative and thematically ambitious; while I can understand why it fills enthusiasts with a sense of awe; all it really awakened in me was a sense of my own deficiency in these matters. What awe I felt was due mainly to the music of Strauss and Ligeti on the soundtrack rather than to anything on the screen. In short, while I could sense why it arouses such powerful feeling in others, I could not summon up such feelings in myself.

So where does that leave me with other films that are more visual than literary? Where the essence of the film lies primarily, or even solely, in what we see? Undisputed cinematic masterpieces such as, say, Tarkovsky’s Mirror, or Bergman’s Persona? It’s not that I am blind to the merits of these films: far from it. But I can’t help feeling that, due to the limitations of my perspective, I am not perhaps getting as much out of these films as many others do.

And there are many other films that are rated very highly indeed, but where – unlike Mirror or Persona, where I can at least glimpse (though not entirely grasp) something of greatness – I can see little or anything at all of any merit. Vertigo, for instance. It is rarely too far from critics’ Top Ten lists, and the last time Sight and Sound held their prestigious critics’ poll, it was actually voted Number 1. Of course, it’s easy (and possibly desirable) to ignore such polls: art is not, after all, a sporting competition. But the fact remains that a very large number of knowledgeable and discerning people see great merit in a work that has always seemed to me (as do many other Hitchcock films) dramatically weak and thematically shallow. But I don’t know that I am in a position to say I am right and they are wrong, that my discernment is superior to others’. Indeed, I don’t think anyone is in a position to take such a stance, though many (rather distressingly, I find), do.

I feel I am on safer ground with literature, but even here, I can’t help but feel that there is so much that,  due to my personal temperament, is closed to me. The older I get, the more I sense this, and the more I question just how much of the vast range of human feeling I am capable of taking in. My own imaginative orbit, in comparison to all that has ever been thought and felt, is minuscule, and I frankly feel overwhelmed by it all.

I don’t really see the arts as didactic, but if they do teach us anything at all, it is how vast the range of human experience is. And I think I should perhaps be content with what I have gained from it, and not worry too much over all that has passed me by. And, the next time I feel like doing a hatchet job on something I didn’t much care for, to take a few steps back first, and take a deep breath. For, after all, it is not just in visual matters that my receptivity may be lacking.

11 responses to this post.

  1. yes – he does say we shall hear a play.

    Reply

  2. Posted by janet on August 2, 2018 at 10:43 pm

    Re: 2001 and Vertigo–yes, thank you. The response to these leaves me perplexed as well. Rear Window, on the other hand, is practically perfect in every way, at least in my book. 2001 has some really fabulous office furniture and that HAL, but otherwise, meh. Monkey with a stick; giant baby in space. I dunno. I’m missing something. Other people see it, whatever it is, so I’m sure it’s there. But come on, Hamadri, there is nothing more sumptuously visual than Lawrence of Arabia–that long shot on the desert horizon, as a tiny dot appears and eventually turns into a camel and two men, would be tricky to translate for radio. I will take you rec for audio on A&C–thanks very much!

    Reply

    • I can actually see why so many respond to 2001:I certainly applaud its ambition.But I remain, I’m afraid, distant from it.

      Freddie Young’s cinematography in Lawrence of Arabia is stunning. As is his cinematography in Dr Zhivago, although it’s a mediocre film (or so it seems to me) in other respects.

      Reply

  3. You could train yourself to any of this. Cultivate the taste. Read a lot about modern dance – and see a lot of dance, sure, but also read a lot. You’d get there. Whether it is worth the effort, I don’t know. The impulse to pleasure matters a lot, too, and at our age we likely have a good sense of how that works. Your last paragraph seems wise to me.

    But you could do it, if for some reason you really wanted to, that’s all I’m saying.

    Except for Vertigo, right. That ranking is auteurist twaddle.

    Reply

  4. Excellent post again – thank you. From all the talks I’ve been to on the subject, I’ve learned that the Elizabethans referred to hearing a play because that was the more important experience for them: the visuals took second place. They had much better aural memories than we do now, hence Hamlet’s ability to recall, after one mear miss, the opening lines of a speech he had heard only once!
    I’ve often had difficulty with audio-only approaches, simply because of my deafness, which wasn’t identified till I was well past school age. We were played various records of Shakespeare plays, but these failed to impress me, mainly because I couldn’t identify who was speaking. Now that I’ve been properly kitted out with hearing aids, I may try the recordings you mention, especially as A&C is a tough one to stage. But for me, the visual side tends to take priority. (Mind you, I’m starting to get the hang of musicals now, so perhaps that’s changing.)

    Reply

    • I’ve long been a huge fan of Shakespeare on audio, and, fortunately, we have a wide choice. Excellent recordings were made of all the plays in the 60s by the Marlowe Society (these have recently been re-issued), and by a company called Caedmon (these are now issued by Harper Collins). And, in recent years, we have had excellent recordings of the plays from Arkangel, Naxos, and BBC. Thus, we have available some legendary recordings such as Gielgud & Ashcroft in Much Ado, Scofield in Hamlet, Macbeth, and Lear (the audio recordings use a fairly full text, unlike the film); and Dorothy Tutin’s glorious performance as Viola. And many more. I have all the plays downloaded on to my iPad, and i really wouldn’t be without them!

      Reply

  5. Posted by Steve Hellmann on August 9, 2018 at 7:27 am

    In the light (sound ) of what you have written here i would be very interested in your take on Stephen Spender’s poem :Late Stravinsky Listening to Late Beethoven

    Reply

    • Thank you very much for that. I hadn’t known this poem before.

      Stravinsky was, of course, a devotee of late Beethoven. (As, I guess, is any composer of any note…) I find it very difficult even to try to imagine how someone like Stravinsky would have heard music. Of course, he had a far, far finer ear than I have; and so profound was his musicality, I’d guess he experienced virtually everything in terms of pure sound. I’m fairly certain that, mush though I love late Beethoven, Stravinsky would have found far greater riches than I am capable of finding. It’s fascinating to speculate!

      Reply

  6. Posted by alan on August 11, 2018 at 10:29 am

    A problem I have is that I can’t usually explain why I like a movie that relies in large part on being a visual experience.
    I liked 2001, I like Solaris, I liked Stalker and I liked Ran but I saw (!) them as largely visual experiences. The tautology is difficult to avoid because people often say ‘do you see what I’m getting at’. Hearing a blind man use that language made me aware of it, as no doubt he intended.
    Lawrence of Arabia seemed to work dramatically as well as visually, but I do wonder what the effect would have been on a small budget. The desert was an important character in that movie. Lawrence is asked why he likes the desert and the answer comes back ‘because it’s clean’. It’s an answer that troubles me, as no doubt it was intended to, since purity is such a two edged sword.
    What does this have to do with 2001? Space is an important character, it couldn’t easily be characterised without a sizeable budget, but unlike in 2001 I don’t get the impression that it’s dramatic importance is the same as the desert, it’s much more sterile and terrifying. I’ve probably only recently realised that 2001 isn’t just the visual experience I thought it was. It is also an aural experience since the music is so important. To give one example: the journey across the moon to Ligeti’s ‘Lux Aeterna’ multiplies the visual experience that seems intended to evoke terrifying desolation, followed swiftly by the banal conversation in the interior of the vehicle’s cabin about the quality of the sandwiches. Kubrick does this a lot: juxtaposing the banal with the sublime. He also juxtaposes the baroque with the unadorned. It’s not clear however if Kubrick is saying the messy business of humanity is any better or worse than some higher purpose. If anything, the movie displays an overarching sadness about existence rather than providing any bold statement.
    The rambling nature of this comment should help illustrate the truth of my opening sentence. I don’t really understand why I like this stuff.

    Reply

    • I think this is an issue we all have. Once we respond to something, once it resonates with us, we may attempt to analyse why it does so: but beyond a point, it remains a mystery.

      This may seem to lead to the conclusion that it’s all a matter of personal taste, but I find that facile. Through conversation, discussion, debate, we may expand the range of what we respond to. Otherwise, all conversation, all discussion, all debate, would be pointless. Analysis of why you respond to 2001, say, may get us only part of the way, but even that is important. There are many things I now love that I didn’t only a few years ago, and talking with people, and then thinking about it myself, all help in expanding the range of our perceptions. Were it not so, we’d all be stuck in the prison of our minds.

      Cinema is a confluence of different arts. And I think you’re right – the aural aspects of 2001 are as important as the visual aspects. Films can have a literary aspect as well: there is many a film where the dialogue and the dramatic structure & pacing are of the utmost importance. This is not to say that such films are merely filmed plays. Take something like Twelve Angry men, for instance: its literary qualities are obvious (in the terms I characterised such qualities), but the visual aspects – the camera angles, the editing, the lighting – all make their impact. It is far ore than actors acting out a play in front of the cameras. But the difference between something like Twelve Angry men and 2001 – or, at least, one of the principal differences – is that in the former, the visual aspects are in service of the drama – i.e. they are effectively a means to an end – whereas in the latter, they are an end in themselves. And it’s there that someone such as myself is at a disadvantage.

      Reply

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