Thursday, March 1, 2007

Breaking Down Film Language

[The following argument is a broad encapsulation of ideas that require greater exploration, consideration, and scrutiny. I don't propose to possess the key to challenging our interpretive sensibilities or comprehending stimuli, but it's a place to start. I'm sure there is much I have left out, as this was a sort of "stream of conscious" experiment, so feel free to challenge, expand upon, or downright call me out on anything. Again, I stress that this is a broad overview of some of the introductory concepts of visuality and language. I steered clear of dropping names and citations, as it would have become too cluttered. So here are a list of scholars and thinkers who I credit for allowing me to think about such concepts. They are Deleuze, Metz, Barthes, Thayer, Berger, McLuhan, Ong, Burke, Mitchell, Messaris, Bordwell.]

As terms such as "media literacy" are routinely being pushed down our throats, now is as relevant a time as any for a greater discussion of the notion of "film language." Some accept the term without question, and I would argue that such a mindset can be incredibly damaging in the increasingly visually culture of which us internet users are now apart, and most other people for that matter. Of course, saying that visuality is replacing textuality is perhaps too broad a claim to make. However, a rigorous review of that claim and its potential implications reveals a greater discussion about language and images that is currently only being considered in the academic realm, but is even rather spare there. Just thinking about language and images as systems of representation inevitably brings to mind their relationship, one that we quickly realize is too problematic to simply accept without questioning. These very issues are at the center of cinema studies and criticism and they are a great focus of what constitutes our social environment and ability to interpret anything at all, which is why it is so crucial to consider them no matter how frustrating it may be.

How do images work? Certainly, the answer to that question depends on which of the various disciplines and divisions amongst those disciplines to which one subscribes, because, ultimately, a broadly stated question like that boils down to ideology. Some attempt to study the mechanics of images (how they are produced, the elements within them and how they are positioned, etc.), whereas others would claim that interpreting images is more reliant on social environment; still others claim that its narrative familiarity and being able to accept conventions of narratives and certain images associated with particular narrative styles or genres. While there are many possible ways of answering the question, there is no one right answer. Because, quite honestly, images are incredibly complicated in how they create meaning. There are surely components that are cognitive, social, phisiological, linguistic, and who knows what else. It would be impossible to treat this situation in a vacuum because, like anything else related to development and functioning as a member of society, perceiving, interpeting, and understanding a given stimulus requires the interaction of many different things, not the least of which is language.

A fully functioning human being can (in very simple terms) see. Systems of communication such as language allows us to break down what we see, to understand it in a certain way, and have it make sense. Therefore, our social, economic, and cultural institutions are constructed around and according to the principles that language deleneates, the most prominent of which is separation and categorization. But language came from somewhere, and our ability to form it at all is rooted in the brain, obviously. But given that we know so little about the brain, it is more important to analyze the systems through which all stimuli are interpreted and understood, which are rooted in communication and language. But the important thing to note is that human beins were born seeing before talking or communicating. Now, this is a bit different since all of us are born into this great web of discourse. But for the sake of making my point, I am discussing "the caveman." Since human beings could see before communicating, the need to communicate arose from the ability to see and interact with the visible and aural world. It is no surprise then that the roots of language, for thousands of years, are in oral traditions; sounds, noises. We see the beginnings of systematically interpreting signals. Noises became more refined, more accessible over time and oral culture began to take shape. All of this communicating was a way for humans to make sense and order of the stimuli to which they were exposed. Whether the need for order was intrinsic or resulted from language is another argument entirely.

From there, oral became literate, and when the written word was used, represented the oral aspect of language in visual form. A word somehow exists in a more permenant way that the sound of one doesn't, which is more dependent on memory of that sound. So as we understand language as a visual and oral representation of systematic categorization and translating the world into forms, technology further developed and gave us the printing press, which represented the visual emobodiment of the visual aspect of language. As cultures became literate, oral traditions never died. That's why it's so important to understand that media and technologies, even today, emerge from previous knowledge of existing media and technologies. From orality came literacy. From literacy came textuality. And with electronic media, from textuality came visuality. The important thing about these four components is that although they represent a progression, each one depends upon the other in order to exist in any kind of meaningful way.

Now that I've covered human communication over thousands of years in one paragraph (well, maybe not all of it), we can now explore the relationship of visuality to how we currently constitute time and space and make sense of "the world outside." Since I don't want to write a dissertation here, I'll limit visuality (for the time being) to cinema. How does cinema work? Certainly, in a narrative sense, it has emerged from the traditions of literature and theatre, both of which are heabily influenced by orality, literacy, and textuality in different ways. Many spectators had an understanding of storytelling based on those media and were able to interpret film images, most of which were based on the theatre. The camera rarely moved, rarely edited, and demanded little from the audience in terms of interpretting a space and time. As it has evolved, however, cinema has progressed in an infinite amount of ways, at least regarding the relationship of the image and the spectator. This has resulted from the advancement of many electronic media and technologies, for sure, but also from a greater knowledge of the practices of cinema, of positioning elements compositionally within a frame and allowing the spectator to understand the narrative. It should be noted that even non-narrative films borrow heavily from narrative tradition.

When current norms are challenged and stretched, it's often met with skepticism by some and embrace by others. Gradually, audience expectation in terms of style and narrative techniques were stretched and whole genres became associated with the visual aspect of cinema, such as the film noir. But more to the point, how do we interpret images? Quiet simply, interpreting an image is very much like interpreting letters and words. The elements are different, of course, but seeing images in the context of a narrative is a similar system of representation to language. However, I would argue that even though cinema and visuality is informed and made possible by literacy and textuality in many ways, they can and do function differently, and are an entire different system of representation altogether. Of course, terms like "new," "original," and "different" are being used here not in the sense something being entirely new, because that's not possible. What I mean by new or different is stretching the capacity of understanding that previous conventions of that understanding allow, thus forming a new understanding.

With language, you have a series of pre-determined elements with which to work. In terms of the English language, you have 26 elements, or 26 digits. With those 26 components must one communicate thought. Being that language is a symbol system and exists for the purpose of interpreting outside stimuli, it is based on the idea of seeing. But, language also structures experience so greatly that it by and large determines what we see to the point that so much of the physical matter we see is a direct result of media, technology, and literacy in general. Taking this into the spectrum of cinema, the spectator familiarizes him or herself with the images based on how images are typically presented, a knowledge that influences how not only they are seen, but how they are created. There is most definitely a strong relationship between spectator and image maker; they exist because of the relationship they share and are defined by each other. Therefore, the images of a film are very much made to embody a system of representation very similar to a language, but the components that make an image, while limited to an understanding of language and communication, can indeed transcend it. There is no end to the componenets that make up an image. Only through our understanding of language, one that we really cannot escape, do we understand and make sense of these possibilities. Like all other aspects of the stimuli we comprehend visually, cinema images are broken down, categorized for comprehensive consumption. They do not intrinsically exist as such, however; something that language does. So, while images of cinema may be byproducts of language and literacy, they encompass a much greater way of seeing, comprehending, and experiencing. With the emergence of "new" images, we can aesthetically consume images and narratives in new and challenging ways, transcending the confines of language to the greatest extent that we can. Ideas represented by language become abstract, unintelligible by way of the old way of seeing, thus moving into a new realm.

Only if we let go of this ideal of film language or media literacy can we come to embrace such new ways of perceiving, interpreting and understanding images, feelings, and thoughts. While our visual media and technologies will never be totally removed from literacy and textuality, they can transcend their current positioning and represent new ideas, new feelings, and new images.

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