Wednesday, May 03, 2006

Hostage to the Visual OR How Modern Culture Misses A Lot

Lets cut to the chase: We live in a visual age of television, movies, billboards, posters, magazines and colorful packaging. If the visual did not dominate so heavily, there would be nothing wrong with this. But by focusing primarily on what can be shown, we miss a lot such as the almost invisible play of emotions, the complexity of thought and the quiet communication that happens between people.

When I was getting my Masters Degree in Media we were taught over and over, "Don't tell me, show me." While this is good advice for people writing movie scripts or ad copy, it reveals what is wrong with an exclusively visual age: some things are actually better told than shown.

Visual media often requires the use of 'things' rather than subtle exchanges between people. For example, a man who wants to show a woman that he is interested, will send her flowers. Flowers photograph well and they serve as great props for the story line. They can be carefully cradled by the woman who received them and then lovingly placed in a vase or they can be angrily thrown in the trash. So in movies the delicate interplay of love is often replaced with boxes of candy and gifts of jewelry.

To take an opposite example, the powerful and deep felt emotions of James Joyce's book The Dubliners, a collection of short stories, is not suited to the big screen. At the end of each story the characters experience an epiphany, a sudden profound understanding. Considered to be some of the finest short stories ever written in the English language, they do not translate well to the visual media. And as many readers know, novels and stories often do not do well on film because they are not visual.

Joyce's character Stephen Hero defined epiphany as, "a sudden spiritual manifestation, whether in the vulgarity of speech or of gesture or in a memorable phase of the mind itself. He believed that it was for the man of letters to record these epiphanies with extreme care, seeing that they themselves are the most delicate and evanescent of moments."

I have an undergraduate degree in English and a graduate degree in Media, so I can see both sides of the coin. Visual art can be marvelous yet the culture should allow more of a range so different art forms that deal with other ideas and emotions can be brought into play.

The problem with an emphasis on the visual, is that we are focused on 'things' which means we will become increasingly hardened consumers. For example, guns, cars, fancy houses, elegant clothes and upscale restaurants are all part and parcel to telling a story on film.

But more than this, the camera lies. "The camera lies all the time; lies 24 times/second," said director Brian De Palma. And we are exposed and influenced by this false reality for much of our waking life.

According to A.C. Nielson (the authority on TV viewing) the average American spends about 4 hours a day watching television and the TV is on about 7 hours a day in the average American household. In addition Americans rent tons of videos and go to movies on the weekends. The unreality of movies and TV has become a major part of the reality of most people's lives. And it is inevitable that the bias of the visual media will rub off and also shape our values. Which means consumer goods, and things and more things.

I'll have a lot more to say about this in future articles, so stay tuned.


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