One Thousand Words – Visual Culture Essay
Some time ago our culture realized that our eyes are much quicker at processing images than they do words. This realization has saved many from countless hours of paying attention to words and to then having to
interpret such words. After all, “a picture is worth a thousand words” (Arlen, 1067-1). Some time ago the film industries realized that if they could take a thousand words and turn it into a single picture, perhaps even a motion picture, and distribute it on a massive scale, countless individuals would tune in to view it. And so it began, “The Tyranny of the Visual”, as Michael J. Arlen so delicately put it. It seems people are no longer interested in the long, romantic soliloquies of the Shakespearian era, but rather they want fun, adventure, pretty lights, bright colours, dark villains (preferably with horns), etc. But, most importantly, no one wants to think when they sit down to be entertained; they don’t want to interpret and rate the believability of any one picture, thus, the assumption is made that the work must be accurate with history, literature, or just life in general. And so, it is these assumptions that are responsible for the intellectual depletion of recent culture.
Though visual effects began as an intriguing new medium, it has somehow monopolized into a culture with little or no verbal intellect. It is so easy to be dazzled by flashy images, which either take us to a happier place or remind us that our own lives are not all that bad, that we rarely bother to weigh the quality of the information being conveyed. Take for instance the film, Zoolander, which actually came with a recommendation to set your brain aside for the duration of the film. The film constituted of a harebrained male model (Derek Zoolander) out to save the Malaysian president from an assassination plot by the corrupt model industry. To demonstrate: after carefully securing the computer with all the information that would provide all the evidence necessary to prove there case against the evil modeling empire, Derek’s counterpart, yet another moronic male model, attempted to retrieve the information from the computer by dropping it a few hundred meters from a second-storey balcony. Needless to say, he was at a loss when the information could not be found amidst the wreckage. Though such blatant stupidity cannot act as a reasonable basis of comparison for all films, the fact that it still grossed 43 million dollars does indicate certain standards among individuals.
However, a much more formal movie, Gladiator, which won the Best Picture award, had much more of the heart-stopping, pulse racing, and edge of your seat flashy images and minute dialogue that captivates an audience. Aside from a great deal of yelling and blood, there was little to interpret from this movie. As a matter of fact, half way through the movie, it was all but forgotten how the leading man ended up with such a thirst for vengeance. The director seemed to have forgotten what relevant role the earlier slayings of his wife and child played in the plot. But the audience was still never at a loss because they instinctively knew that a good cause was being fought for and it was well worth every molecule of blood. But, at the very end, there was a small reminder of the worthy cause which the late grieving husband and father died for; and with this new information in-hand, the audience was able to give a well-informed standing-ovation.
While directors and producers seem to get away with shabby original works and can even gloss over historical details at whim, as they did in Arlen’s example of The Deer Hunter, there are special considerations to be made when dealing with literary works. In The Deer Hunter the events of the Vietnam War are blemished with more contrived information that would best suit the director’s “visual effect” pattern; one which would elicit the most “automated” responses from the audience (be it a yelp or a wince) (Arlen, 1068). However, this technique grows increasingly bothersome when it comes to literary works. Perhaps it is because historical data is there to be manipulated by the most unintelligent of people, but a work of literature is a single idea created by a single person. It conveys with it an individual’s feelings, opinions, and visions; in effect, it is much more personal. To manipulate even a single word would perhaps result in a whole new meaning from what was intended by the author.
In contrast, even if a novel is brought to film production and is accurately laid out word for word, it is considerably difficult to pluck the corresponding thoughts from a writer’s mind and plot them into neat little visuals. Such is the case with Toni Morrison’s, Beloved. The director obviously never anticipated the difficulty a picture to have eliciting sympathy for a woman sawing off the head of her children. How does one use visually convey the severity of slavery to such a degree that any reasonable person could understand an act of infanticide? While the film centered on a single gruesome act and the mother’s subsequent regrets, the literature provided an idea as to the hardships and degradation black slaves endured. This film demonstrated that words cannot always be translated into pictures, for words carry with them ideas which require further interpretations; and when turned into pictures, ideas lose their potential for further interpretation.
A good visual masterpiece will leave no room for interpretations. It will say in a single frame what a thousand words would convey. But, is that really so, or are individuals just too lazy to analyze what their eyes perceive? Can a single picture really say a thousand words? It would indeed be unreasonable to blame directors for people’s poor taste; after all, if there was no audience for a film, then that film would most likely not have been developed. So, even though visual effects aid and abet the deterioration of cultural intellect, if people would show some form of discretion the damage could surely be minimized. Furthermore, although it may seem easy to turn words into images, a great deal is often lost in the translation. Words tend to bring with them an influx of new ideas, but a film is generally the idea, it offers few discourses or channels of thought. In essence, while visual effects tend to nourish aesthetic values, words are intended to nourish verbal intellect.
Arlen, Michael J. “The Tyranny of the Visual.” The Norton Reader: AANP. Ed. Arthur M. Eastman, et al. New York: Norton 2000. 1067-1074