The cinematic imagination: lights, sound, writing!
To promote literacy, media studies often stress the social, cognitive, and epistemological differences between language and film, yet the basic practical and psychological problems that students face in writing can be addressed by treating composition theory and practice in terms of film dramaturgy.
I. Staging the Audience: A Cinematic Theory of Writing
"The experience of reading," Gerald Mast complained in 1982, "seems more contemplative and analytical than that of watching a film: perhaps because we have been educated to analyze and evaluate the deductive structures and inductive data of verbal arguments but have not been trained to recognize the methods and devices of film rhetoric" (296). Since then, film education has expanded considerably, through university courses as well as television and print reviewing. And yet, while today's students might have learned to talk intelligently about film devices and rhetoric, when asked to compose an essay on the very same topic, those students still lose control over their expression. Formal writing still feels alien, inimical to the rhythms and intuitions of the spoken voice. Speech, as Derrida theorized, feels more organic because it contains the god-like "pleasure of self-presence ... uncorrupted by any outside" (of Grammatology 250). Writing, by contrast, feels like a civic duty (toward "evidence" and "example" and "logic"), sometimes even like a discipline against the writer's psyche, which must be cut and spliced. Whether expository or creative, formal writing obligates a person to an "outside" beyond the self, and unruly writers, regardless of oral literacy in film, naturally feel how small and deficient this duty to an audience makes them.
Writing, unlike casual talking, forces people to earn their audience--no small task. As E. D. Hirsch explains, writers win an audience by ensuring a rigorous "semantic integration" of every major logical expectation emerging from within their sentences and paragraphs, thus increasing the "readability" of their prose (151-52). Everyday speech is not crafted to fulfill such complex demands precisely because it resists evaluation from the "outside." It preserves one's seemingly natural identity. So getting one's voice, one's own being, down on paper, having ensured its readability through semantic integration, challenges a writer to become something entirely new. For young professional writers, this "search for a style is inexpressibly urgent," explains Helen Vendler; "it parallels, on the aesthetic plane, the individual's psychological search for identity--that is, for an authentic self-hood and a fitting means for its unfolding" (1). One's personal voice no longer matches one's potential public voice. A gap opens, and the writer reaches uncertainly beyond the self. Indeed, at this point, the body's own "vocal apparatus," Garrett Stewart argues, "colludes in a reception of texts in a manner that keeps that body in its place, no longer coincident with person, no longer identical" (137).
Finding the means for an authentic unfolding of self in writing can be elusive and complicated. Students who have previously won an audience through the naive, homely architecture of oral "self-expression" are told that their voices are confused, immature, and irrelevant. Indeed, Derrida's mock description of speech as a god-like revelation of the true self suggests that the speaking self is really a jumble of nervous fits and postures, braggadocio and fear. When tested against written composition, everyday speech suddenly becomes an adolescent refuge from one's adult responsibilities to other voices and wills, a refuge from the semantic, grammatical, and logical principles of readability that always lie outside the speaking self. Students incapable of formal composition thus reject their failure by rejecting their audience. Patricia J. McAlexander observes that "low or basic" students tend to be egocentric, writing "for themselves alone," but that, with time and practice, they can learn to be sensitive "to others and to context" (29). One of the core remedies is to supply "adequate content"--relevant "facts and details"--based on the writer's perception of audience. A corollary tactic is to restrict content "that reveals no understanding or respect for ideas and views different from" the writer's (30).
What students are rejecting, of course, is not writing per se (which they compose frequently in diaries, letters, e-mail, instant messaging, etc.) but the external, audience-centered order imposed by it. Reaching an audience means acknowledging, as Bakhtin puts it, that every utterance is a "complex and multiplanar phenomenon if considered ... as a link in the chain of speech communication and with respect to other, related utterances" (93). In other words, like Hirsch, Bakhtin tells us that writing formalizes the incipient social and semantic obligations in speech itself. By the same token, however, every utterance--written or spoken--has "dialogic overtones" shaping it (tone, world view, perceived response, etc.). Not even writing can put its entire dialogical architecture upon the page. Hirsch's dream of complete readability through logical and semantic integration underestimates the degree to which the unfolding of any "style," of any voice, is a dramatic activity, conducted in an extra-linguistic space. Whether writer, reader, speaker, or audience, one must imagine words enacted from within a "sphere" of palpable interactions with past and future others, explains Bakhtin (92-94). As one then "senses and imagines" the external "addressees" shaping an utterance from inside this dramatic sphere, one slowly determines the purpose or "genre" of the composition (95). Dramatizing the sphere of the addressee, complete with its nontrivial gestural, tonal, and situational elements, requires, in essence, a "cinematic" kind of imagination. Literacy today involves just this kind of staging of one's voice.
The problem in writing classes, then, is that students are sensing and imagining addressees who are defined not merely by texts. When writing about what it means to become a "man" (or a hero or a citizen), students imagine "addressees" for, say, the works of Heath Ledger or Harrison Ford rather than for Beowulf or The Iliad. When questions of "power" and "culture" arise, they imagine the addressees of an Arnold Schwarzenegger film, not a Matthew Arnold essay; or, when definitions of "woman" or "gender" are at stake, they imagine the addressees of Gwyneth Paltrow and Jennifer Lopez, rather than Mary Wollstonecraft and Simone de Beauvoir,. Today's students have not just a different historical context but also a different dialogical structure to their imaginations--a different cognition of the total environment shaping their language--because of their cinematic conceptions of the addressee. Bakhtin, standing at the threshold of 20th-century film culture, understood how deeply dramaturgical language was, how the successful, "completed" utterance exists only through an extra-linguistic imagination of audience.
II. Staging Sense: Examples as Dialogical Context
The challenge of any literacy, then, is to situate this extra-linguistic imagination within a writing pedagogy; the two cannot be kept separate. So we must begin by looking at how the imagination of an extra-linguistic context occurs inside actual writing, it is tempting to over-complicate the issue here, but, in practical (if mildly reductive) terms, the dialogical context of any utterance emerges and evolves through its examples. Abstraction organizes examples hierarchically and contiguously, but examples, by presenting the sensuous sphere of intelligibility in which an utterance achieves its complete meaning, develop an idea within a determinate public space. High-order thinkers often can infer or interpolate examples, but only if a text's abstractions keep to a rigorous continuity. Most writing, though, must flesh out its utterances more patiently and concretely. Instructors who supply examples in order to position and validate a student's utterance do so only from outside the student's shaky imagination of the addressee. Indeed, generating examples for someone else's utterances relieves that person of the adult responsibilities to an "outside" world, to the dialogical sphere of "readability" beyond casual speech. Learning to stage one's voice through one's own well-wrought examples is the only way a writer grows out of fatuousness and egotism.
If people read and write complete utterances only dialogically--that is, within the total sphere of a carefully imagined addressee--then, just as the "TV mosaic image demands social completion and dialogue" (McLuhan 255), modern writing has likewise become a form of scripting and staging an idea through the "multiplanar" senses of the media. Stripped of this larger epistemological environment, writing (or reading) will lose crucial "traces of addressivity and the influence of the anticipated response, dialogical echoes from others' preceding utterances, faint traces of changes of speech subjects that have furrowed the utterance from within ..." (Bakhtin 99). Because of this symbiosis with the media available to us, "expression" itself acquires what Croce called "determinable qualities" only when it is manifested pragmatically within that system of representation; otherwise, "we know nothing about it" (697). Writers learn "semantic integration" and "readability" by imagining how their audience knows the world. The old epistemic devices still exist--analogy, metaphor, comparison, symbol, etc.--but a "complete" utterance is built and tested now from within a televisual imagination. In some sense, our imaginations have always functioned cinematically, but that intrinsic fact only stresses the historical relevance of audio-visual media. We animate our ideas from within the "Vanilla Sky" of modern media, shaping our hazy intuitions into concrete and usable expression. Modern novelists write their science fiction or romance or thriller as much for the cinema as for print, not simply because movies bring more cash (often they don't) but because the dialogical imagination is, today, a cinematic one. An "idea"--even a private one--is mediated by the logic of modern editing, lighting, scripting, acting, directing, and filming. To this extent, teaching writing, like teaching media literacy, naturally entails instruction in how to conceive of and contextualize one's utterances cinematically as well as discursively.
III. Plotting an Argument: Writing Behind the Camera
Of course, a string of examples does not explain itself automatically. The viewer (or reader or writer) must reconstruct and invent meaning, since audio-visual media "both lends itself to and resists interpretation" (Wood 225). By itself, as Michael Wood argues in the extreme, a film has "no and, still less an and then [...]. Films replace grammar and causality by simple succession: then, then, then, then. We invent the missing syntax, supply all the connectives--or rather we invent and supply a good deal more than we usually recognize" (223). If that invention is displaced by too much abstraction--or, conversely, if the material resists interpretation through incoherence--then we lose interest. Both failures characterize the inferior composition, the voice unable to find a self-sustaining style in writing. Perhaps the televisual appeal of the joke is instructive. A joke compresses a discursive utterance into a neat cinematic blip, usually delaying its abstract "idea" until its narrative content has been played out (through metaphor, simile, or anecdote). In fact, a good joke is almost pure example, vivid and palpable. Yet explaining it feels superfluous (unless the comedian has failed to sense and imagine the audience) because, if the joke's examples succeed each other logically, explanation robs the audience of the joy at having reconstructed the idea implicit in those examples. An episode of Seinfeld, for example, dramatizes the idea that sexual compulsion in men might be inversely proportional to their mental acuity and that in women it might be directly proportional. Elaborating this hypothesis discursively would be dull (and perhaps sophomoric), yet the leap the audience makes to it from the episode's verbal and dramatic examples is entertaining and provocative. As the examples are played out, the audience happily plays out the syntax that is already implicit in them. Hearing his companions Elaine and George vow celibacy, Jerry explains to a sex-starved and increasingly stupid Elaine that she is not like George, who in his abstinence can now devote his otherwise erotically obsessed brain to philosophy. Elaine, as a woman, regards sex as if it were trash she could expect "any man in a jumpsuit" to take out at her bidding. When the trash does not get taken, it piles up around the sidewalk, blocking her mind. The verbal joke is then extended to the episode itself, which dramatizes the consequences of this idea. Because George does not expect gratification from women, he suppresses his appetites cleanly, leaving him free to think with clarity and equanimity, solving problems not only in romantic relationships but also in science and engineering. When George finally succumbs to his sexual urges and turns stupid and Elaine regains her intellect, the joke is done--not because the idea is used up but because the examples have been played out: their syntax has been reconstructed--the dots are connected.
Plotting the "syntax" of an idea through its examples poses the real challenge of writing and of interpretation. At its upper limit, an example, as the dialogical context for an utterance, might become the entire utterance itself; at its lower limit, merely a spare image or anecdote. One is too big for an essay; the other, too small. Examples bloat whenever writers conceive of them performatively and expressively, as actors would, wherein examples swell to match the writer's sensations. Examples shrink whenever writers conceive of them teleologically, as a narrative order having a determinate meaning--that is, when writers think as directors think, subordinating actors and scenes to an abstract theme. Too much emphasis in either direction produces either exaggerated or undeveloped examples. So examples, no matter how delicious, must be seen in correct proportion to the idea they serve. Yes, sensuous media like film and television are, as Susanne K. Langer has argued about painting and music, discrete and irreducible to "discursive" language (81-82). And yet, unlike painting or music, films have narrative logic, teleology--usually a linguistic one. One simple approach for illuminating this relationship between examples (as factual dialogical context) and logic (or idea) is to split the two cognitive activities into separate writing activities. I have asked students first to summarize a film plot, for example--in this case, a genetically accessible episode of Star Trek: The Next Generation titled "Who Watches the Watchers--and then to answer a thematic question about it: "Who is the hero?" One activity identifies facts; the other, their underlying logic or theme. Here is a composite summary:
First Officer Riker and Counselor Troi, both in disguise, must rescue anthropologists secretly studying a Bronze Age civilization on the distant planet of "Mentaka." They succeed, but Troi gets caught. A Mentakan father, grieving for his drowned wife, then attempts to ingratiate himself to the "Picard"--whom he had glimpsed while being treated for wounds aboard the magical starship Enterprise--by offering Troi as a sacrifice. Captain Picard, hoping not to contaminate the indigenous culture with such superstition, tries to end the dilemma by revealing his god-like technology only to the village leader, Nuria. But finally Picard must transport to the planet and, with disclosure of his identity to everyone, sacrifice himself to show the desperate father that he is not an immortal being who can bless crops or resurrect the dead.
For some students, who saw in Picard and the anthropologists the arrogance or intrusiveness of science, Nuria heroically preserved her people's dignity and integrity. One student even cast the plot as a critique of Picard's reckless brinksmanship. For other students, who saw in the Mentakans the weakness of superstitious religions, Picard heroically sacrificed himself for the principles of reason and cultural respect, while still other students emphasized the more sustained and terrifying sacrifice that Troi made while held captive. What students find striking, however, is that no one reproduces either the same facts or the same order of facts. Each plot summary skews or organizes facts according to the each writer's answer to the interpretive question. That turns out to be the point of the activity. Facts are essential, but they are just actors; the idea is the director. Without it, examples fall apart; the center cannot hold. Explicitly splitting the experience of film into both a glut of factual sensations and an abstract meta-structure of ideas helps young writers learn to control the work of their own audio-visual imaginations.
IV. Questioning Crisis: Why Start Writing?
Emphasizing the primacy of examples--and using film and television as a way of understanding how a dialogical context is constructed and how addressees are conceived--inverts the traditional order of composition, which says that ideas precede their facts. The reverse might be true, as the Pragmatists would say. Ideas result from facts, from the questions we have about them, when the facts of the world shift and disturb our perceptions of it. Questioning and complicating our perception of the world sets in motion a crisis of uncertainty that challenges the senses both dramatically and rhetorically, whereupon we try to play out the "syntax" of the answer to our questions--through a poem, a film, an essay. Narratives in general "are composed in order to reward, modify, frustrate, or defeat the perceiver's search for coherence" (Bordwell 319). Bad writers reject this crisis of uncertainty, of course; disturbing the universe with questions disturbs the ego.
In film, however, the dialogical context for the film's "idea" is already present intuitively as a set of palpable, non-discursive facts arranged to produce the very question--and the audience--that the film intends to address. Such questions always arise from the crises given immediately and concretely in the film itself. Often the question is stated outright and then escalated, as in The Matrix, which opens with the voice of a man asking a woman over the telephone if she thinks "Neo" is the "one." The one for what? The scene that follows presents the conflict that would produce such a question: what character is key to explaining why the authorities botch an arrest of this same woman, who turns out to be superhuman? From there, larger thematic questions evolve about how reality depends on perception, why free will might not exist, and when a noble end justifies a violent means (innocent police officers within the computer-generated Matrix are dispatched without remorse). The film tests these questions by setting its facts in conflict with each other. In the opening of Shakespeare in Love, a theater owner is half-comically tortured because his hired pen, a young Shakespeare, has writer's block. This financial crisis deepens into a larger conflict between personal and public responsibilities. Shakespeare falls in love with a lady betrothed above his rank, and so the film examines the consequences of love within a caste society. A similar question propels The Sound of Music. The film opens with Maria singing rapturously on a mountaintop, but her lyric itself contains the seed of the central crisis: though a nun in training, Maria prefers the loftiness of nature to cathedral spires, prefers the living sound of music in the hills to the stately choirs of church. Her subsequent relationship with Captain von Trapp and his children both sexually and maternally extends that troubling preference--extending the question treated throughout the film (and stated explicitly in a song by the convent Mothers): "How do you solve a problem like Maria?" How, that is, does one contain an irresistible vitality within a world of pseudo-moral strictures and political oppression? Having fallen in love with that vitality, the Captain allows Maria to rescue him from the restrictive Nazi in himself. No such rescue is possible, however, at the public level: Maria's vitality cannot rescue Austria from Hitler. So the film, as an essay, is testing the uses and boundaries of Maria's iconoclasm. In other words, there is a "thesis" to the film only because there is a question about how certain facts in its world conflict, and that conflict drives the film from the very beginning.
Seeing writing "cinematically" forces writers to imagine the consequences of disturbing the facts of their world, to imagine the dramas that result from questioning one's own voice and answering those of others. Literacy is not merely a form of self-expression; it is a strategy for confronting the anxiety each of us has about failing to cohere as individuals, to integrate as citizens, to empathize as adults, and to question as humans. If our imaginations respond to the content and structure of the public and private imaginations around us, then we must articulate our perceptions from within the media defining them. Plying the cinematic imagination in the classroom aligns writing pedagogy, in other words, with the kind of people we have already become.
Bakhtin, M.M. Speech Genres & Other Late Essays. Ed. Caryl Emerson and Michael Holquist. Trans. Vern W. McGee. Austin, TX: U Texas Press, 1986.
Bordwell, David. Quoted in Louis D Giannetti. Understanding Movies. 7th ed. Englewood Cliffs, NJ: Prentice Hall, 1996.
Croce, Benedetto. Aesthetic. Critical Theory Since Plato. Rev. ed. Ed. Hazard Adams. Orlando, Fl: HBJ, 1992.
Derrida, Jacques. Of Grammatology. Trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak. Baltimore, MD: Johns Hopkins, 1976.
Hirsch, E. D. The Philosophy of Composition. Chicago: University of Chicago, 1977. McLuhan, Marshall. Understanding Media: The Extensions of Man. 2nd ed. New York: Signet, 1966.
Langer, Susanne K. Philosophy in a New Key: A Study in the Symbolism of the Reason, Rite, and Art. 3rd ed. Cambridge, MA: Harvard UP, 1957.
Mast, Gerald. "Literature and Film." Interrelations of Literature. Ed. Jean-Pierre Barricelli and Joseph Gibaldi. New York: MLA, 1982. 278-306.
McAlexander, Patricia J. "Ideas in Practice: Audience Awareness and Developmental Composition." Journal of Developmental Education 20.1 (1996): 28-33.
Stewart, Garrett. Reading Voices: Literature and the Phonotext. Berkeley, CA: U California, 1990.
Vendler, Helen. Coming of Age As a Poet: Milton, Keats, Eliot, Plath. Cambridge, MA: Harvard, 2003.
Wood, Michael. "Modernism and Film." The Cambridge Companion to Modernism. Ed. Michael Levenson. Cambridge, UK: Cambridge LIP, 1999. 217-32.
Loren P. Q. Baybrook, University of Wisconsin Oshkosh
Baybrook, Ph.D., teaches film, poetry, literary theory, and writing.
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|Author:||Baybrook, Loren P.Q.|
|Publication:||Academic Exchange Quarterly|
|Date:||Mar 22, 2004|
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