Thursday, March 8, 2007

Interpreting Cinematic Images (Language and Cinema II)

Over at Observations on film art and Film Art, David Bordwell recently posted an excellent piece on the nature of interpreting film images and creating meaning; in this particular entry, he looks at the creation of suspense. Adopting a more cognitivist approach to cinema, as he has done before in several other essays, Bordwell closely examines the relationship of the moving image and the brain's ability to interpret that image.

Depending on your field of discipline, cognition is defined very broadly to fit any number of interpretations. Some simply define it as making sense of stimuli through experiences with senses and making sense of that experience. But how this actually occurs is often the subject of great debate. Personally, I would argue that there is are strong social factors contributing to the interpretation of narrative images. In the hypothetical scenario that you have someone who has never been exposed to moving images on a screen, which is almost impossible, I'd be interested to see what kind of sense that person would make of the images. While the brain allows for such systems of communication like language to exist, it is through language that human beings are able to make sense of anything in the unique manner that we do. Even an illiterate individual is part of a very literate world; one that has spawned insitutions and an entire social reality that exists for everyone, even those without language. Therefore, we are all languaged in a sense.

Taking this into the realm of images and cinema, language and communication has conditioned us to be "pattern-seeking animals," to use Jim Emerson's phrase. Therefore, when it comes to interpreting cinema, the relationship between then image and the viewer is such that there is not only a literate context in which those images exists, but there is an agreed upon relationship specifying that images are made to be consumed and understood, and from those patterns do image makers condition their own capacity for making those images. In other words, viewers and producers of images participate in a mutual relationship meant to form understanding. Hardly ever does a produced image just exist without a context or without meaning. It must have purpose; one that reflects the purpose that language itself provides. An image must "mean" to exist, whether or not that meaning is instrinsic to the image itself, which I would argue that it isn't. Out of these patterns and ways of seeing, perceiving, and interpreting arise certain tendencies, both in the structure of narrative and how its components are visually presented. Therefore, image interpretation, despite being a fundamentally more complex experience than communicating via language, it is subject to many of the same conventions since visuality has emerged from orality, literacy, and textuality.

One of the greatest factors in determining interpretation in both language and images is context. Every element of these system only takes on meaning when judged in relation to other components. Therefore, while the technologies and media used to create moving images are relatively new, narrative has existed as long as language has, because to use a language is to engage in a narrative. Therefore, the way in which images are positioned in relation to what is seemingly a built-in desire and understanding of narrative is crucial in the assessment of cinema and its interpretation. No film, no image exists in a vacuum, and one's experience with it depends upon experiences had with previous narratives, images, and experiences within the realm of literacy and visuality that define or beings and conscious selves.

I'm not trying to shortchange the details of how images are interpreted by the brain; the study of these things is actually crucial to understanding the role of images in cultures and individual existence. David Bordwell and his wife, Kristin Thompson, are front runners in the rhetorical approach to film studies. They propose that critics turn their analyses inwards toward the specific details of images and how they work upon us. Some may think that they propose to disregard Jungian, psychoanalytic, or feminist approaches to criticism, but they actually claim that in order to make sense of these areas of criticism, it's best to first understand the medium itself and then branch out to its theoretical, philosophical, and psychological implications regarding how it constitutes the production of meaning.

Now that cinema has ingrained itself in our collective conscious and unsconscious, it's essential to look back through its history to observe these stylistic techniques that have cemented themselves in our minds regarding how we see the world, and how grander ideas have emerged from them, one being (as Bordwell notes) suspense. In his book, Visual "Literacy": Image, Mind, and Reality, Paul Messaris analyzes the relationship between the images of electronic media and the images that human beings interpret through their eyes and brains. Obviously, electronic media have been designed as extensions of ourselves and our eyes in the sense that the camera functions "like an eye," capturing depth perception in similar though distinctly different ways. But now that cinema and visuality are such a strong component of our social makeup, it's becoming harder to make the claim that from our perception and interpretation of external stimuli via our eyes and brain in "lived experience" stems these other forms of seeing through technological media. Quite simply, these media constitute our ability to understand and perceive anything. So in terms of the question of which influences which, the issue has become increasingly clouded, since much of lived experience is now processed based on the conventions of how we understand seeing through these various media.

McLuhan stated that media are in fact extensions of ourselves and define how we relate to and understand ourselves. Therefore, is it not fair to assume that with the increasing amount of visual media, humans' relationship to language and our understanding of identity, perception, and culture are different, and the means through which we process those meanings have shifted? To me, these are crucial areas in the context of visual and verbal communication and cinema. Cinema after all is a visual dreamscape in which feelings of the collective unconscious are manifested (which is a Jungian approach to criticism, I'm aware). That is why it is so important to consider each advancement made in how images are made and consumed. In light of the dawn of the "digital revolution" of cinema, these issues are ever so important as we move ahead as critics.

I make no claim to have the key to the process of interpretation and meaning production. And to attempt to do that in a series of posts would be impossible. I instead would like to stress the importance of such issues as cinema and criticism further evolves. It is important to ask these questions of the medium itself as well as address thematic aspects of narrative. But the current more literary approach to academic criticism is in need of a shift back towards the mechanics of interpretation and the fundamentals of literacy, narrative, and perception.


Tram said...

Wonderful post!

I echo your sentiments. While I believe in the old adage that a picture is worth a thousand words (apply that to film, which is a moving picture, and you're entering into even more complex territory), cognitive approaches like Bordwell's help us understand how we consume these images.

P.S. I also worship at the temple of St. Deleuze.

Ted Pigeon said...

Once one is exposed to Deleuze and can eventually begin to understand it, it's hard not to subscribe to his perspective of cinema. It's so different than any previous approach that I'm aware of, and it opens so many avenues of understanding the act of interpreting film images. It's nice to see a fellow blogger as inspired by Deleuze as I am!