words function differently from pictures. in western languages, as saussure taught us, one chooses a word among others in a cluster, each bringing a modulation on the overall theme: say, house as opposed to hut, cabin, duplex, villa, building, or skyscraper. still, no word is ever precise enough to individuate what it refers to. one could even say that words are tongue-shy. each is no more than a temporary, equivocal mark which acquires a more concrete identity only after it stands in line with others in a sentence. when we speak then, meaning arises out of the invisible bridges we spawn between independent, sovereign words, elucidating them in the process. nevertheless, because language is inherently impressionistic, we can never be specific enough to avoid a misunderstanding of some kind.
the russian psychologist vygotsky goes even farther. he believes that words are go-betweens at best, agents which are testing the waters, envoys selected by the mind to express some of what just transpired in it. an inner speech thus precedes actual words and it is made up of unformed meanings as much as concrete thoughts. in this light then, words become nothing more than mouthpieces standing briefly and incompletely for something that is still in the process of synthesizing itself.
pictures on the other hand immediately show, not a general idea of the thing, but the thing itself. we see this bench here or this tree there. but whatever it is we are looking at, it is never that alone. there is always more to it: what it is composed of and what surrounds it. a picture of an eye includes the eyelid, the eyelashes, the dilated pupil, the circle of the iris, the light reflected in the cornea, the bloodshot veins in the sclera, etc. an image of a woman includes all she is wearing as well as part of a car next to her, an oak tree just behind her, and an old man walking a golden retriever in the background. even though we may have the impression of seeing all at once, the eye in fact scans the image one item at a time just as it deciphers words in a sentence or hears them spoken by someone, except that here the sequence is somewhat more open to chance and personal predilection.
at times, it is true, a single area in a picture instantly captures our attention. in the napalm girl from the vietnam war, we cannot but immediately focus on the screaming naked child running away from her village. as a matter of fact we don’t need her surroundings (the road, the other children, the soldiers, the billows of smoke in the background, etc.) to respond to her obvious suffering. we would miss the context but the emotional impact would not be significantly different. most times though, all the components of an image are vital if we are going to be able to figure out what is going on. in other words the larger view is necessary to make sense of the individual parts.
this said, there are instances when an image remains intractably mute. even though we recognize what it is we are seeing, we do not know what to make of it. in other words, a picture shows something (“there it is”) but what we see remains strangely inarticulate. this is very much what happens when, looking through an old photo album, we do not recognize the people in the pictures. the kuleshov experiment in film is another case in point. famously, the soviet director juxtaposed a bland close-up of a man looking straight ahead to a body in a coffin, a child playing, and food on a table. even though the man’s expression never changes, a different meaning appears to emerge from his face depending on the image it is juxtaposed to. as kuleshov intuited, we as viewers project on the man’s face our commonplace reaction to these other images. in this case therefore, the clue that solves the dumbness of the image is to be found not within the rest of the picture itself but in the adjoining image. as words combine to produce meaning, pictures follow each other on the screen to induce a significance that may not have been in any of them.
one more problem: as blanchot suggested, literature arises when the words on the page acquire a reality of their own, that is to say, when they are no longer functioning as mere transparent signposts for the objects they represent. in the movies however, the comingling of the signs and what they portray is simply unavoidable and the artistry of the medium perforce a more complicated matter. the predicament may in fact very well be the opposite of what it is in literature, with the sign in film often occluding the object.
overall though, one could say that words never tell enough whereas pictures leave little to the imagination. is the basic ambiguity of words an advantage or a problem for the screenwriter? should he or she strive to make the dialogue as explicit as possible? should characters rather not say everything thus allowing viewers to make up the rest? is it better strategy to exploit the inherent thereness of images or to withhold things, for instance by defocusing the background, keeping light away from a face, or suggesting the presence of someone off-screen?
although words may not have been the best vehicle to bring about motion pictures, professionals, mostly from the theater, quickly took over and screenwriting was born. one hundred years later, we remain bonded to words to dream up our films. this dependency on verbal expression to provide the backbone of the film operation is probably the reason why movies have taken so long to evolve. yes, story-boards eventually showed up but they only illustrate a director’s idea about how to shoot a scene. they are not employed to forge the narrative.
the digital revolution can put an end to this practice. not only is the world full of pictures, people think nothing of taking them. they communicate with and through them as easily as previous generations used words. why is it still required then to submit a film proposal on paper when we all spend our days looking at images? it is high-time we espouse an altogether different model, one using pictures and voices, sounds and music, info graphics, found footage, drawings, photos, clips from movies, etc.
some directors would benefit more than others. as we know, the new wave promoted the notion of the complete author, the “man of cinema”, the hyphenated writer-director. the problem with this approach is that not many directors are good at writing dialogue. so the aural-visual presentation i’m suggesting would make it possible for them to concoct the skeleton of the future film before inviting others to flesh it with words. in this way, the “film” would precede the dialogue instead of the other way around.
painters used to draw sketches outdoors before going back to their ateliers and reconstruct the scene on canvas. ironically, the former often turned out to be fresher and bolder than the safer, less inventive work that ensued. screenplays however rarely benefit from such revaluation: who cares about the pit once the fruit has been eaten? in contrast, audio-visual proposals could be appreciated for their own sake if they happen to show more sparkle than the films they eventually engendered.
because movies show images, it is thought that the medium is axiomatically visual. a film is thus said to escape the show/tell dilemma inherent in literary fiction: should the action be told from a third person, omniscient perspective or should we find out what is happening from the characters themselves as they converse with one another? put in this context, a film is undoubtedly all show: we see the protagonists, where they are, what they are doing, and we hear what they are saying.
yet isn’t there something called film language? aren’t the shots designed and aligned to provide us with an interpretation of the events we are witnessing? aren’t all the components of the image (the casting, staging, lighting, composition, editing, sound, etc.) in cahoots to uphold a favored perspective, with meaning blithely traveling from one shot to the next? seen in this light, most films tell rather than show.
is there an alternative in film to the whole (the string of shots) dominating the parts (the individual shots)? in i do not know what it is i am like, bill viola focuses his camera on buffaloes grazing on the prairie. in most films a couple of seconds would be enough: buffaloes, we get it, what’s next? here we watch them take their time as they move from one spot to another. one of them eventually takes a long, strong piss. so, instead of quickly abstracting the buffaloes in a mental category, we look at them as they are, in their own time and space. in a fiction film, i don’t want to sleep alone, tsai ming liang has a long take in which a migrant worker cleans up the body of a man he found comatose in a street. the point here is not just to tell us about it but to show the care with which he proceeds: the little bucket of water, the cloth he uses, how he gently turns the body around, the way he wraps the lower body of the man in a sarong before removing the underwear. no plot point is involved here. no twist at the end of the scene. the kindness and humanity of one being for another are witnessed in the time it takes for these attributes to shine through. in rare scenes like these, films can indeed show rather than tell.