Copyright 2011 by Gary L. Pullman
Of the five senses, the primary one has always been sight, but until the advent of audio-visual technology, humanity has been able to use sight (and sound) as a communication tool only in rudimentary ways, one of which has been to agree with others that certain letters should represent particular sounds and that these sounds, voiced or unvoiced (that is, written), should signify the things that the sounds were intended to represent. Such communication is not only imperfect, but also indirect and abstract, rather than immediate and concrete.
However, with the advent of audio-visual technology, especially motion pictures, some of these limitations have faded and, today, audio-visual media, especially motion pictures, have become the main way by which humans communicate ideas. Progress marches apace, leaving the poor storyteller who is dependent upon the mere use of words behind. The best he or she can hope to do is to create word-pictures, or images, through descriptions.
However, if one cannot “beat them,” he or she may “join them,” and authors of fiction can learn, from their brothers and sisters in the film business, how to use images more effectively than, perhaps, they have done in the past, when readers were not as inundated by filmmakers’ sophisticated and subtle dramatization, rather than narration, of stories.
Trevor Whittock’s Metaphor and Film is a study in this and other aspects of the use of language, both linguistically and cinematographically. His book opens with three examples that indicate the nature of his text’s concern, one from “a director,” Alfred Hitchcock, another from “a scriptwriter,” Paul Schrader, and a third from “a film critic,” James F. Scott, before inviting his own readers to consider whether it makes sense to speak of “visual metaphors” at all and, if so, in what way and to what extent. The examples, like Whittock’s book in its entirety, are both interesting and enlightening.
“At the beginning of the film [The Birds] we show Rod Taylor in the bird shop. He catches the canary that has escaped from its cage, and after putting it back, he says to Tippi Hedren, “I’m putting you back in your gilded cage, Melanie Daniels.” I added that sentence during the shooting because I felt it added to her characterisation as a wealthy, shallow playgirl. And later on, when the gulls attack the village, Melanie Daniels takes refuge in a glass telephone booth and I show her as a bird in a cage. This time it isn’t a gilded cage, but a cage of misery . . . . It’s a reversal of the age-old conflict between men and birds. Here the human beings are in cages and the birds are on the outside. . . (1).Schrader points out:
James F. Scott observes:In the case of Taxi Driver, the theme was loneliness. Then you find a metaphor for the theme, one that expresses it. In Taxi Driver, that was the cabbie, the perfect expression of urban loneliness . . . (1).
White-light fog is used in the underwater sequence of The Graduate in which Benjamin, donning flippers and goggles, flees to the bottom of the family swimming pool, presumably to escape the overbearing camaraderie of his parents and their circle of friends. As the camera assumes his point of view, the world becomes a gloomy blur, shimmering but indistinct, agitated by the motion of the water and toned in a bilious, washed-out green. While the metaphor of diving reflects Benjamin’s introversion and retreat, the color quality of the image indicates the psychic cost of his escapism. He has ducked away from the plastic gewgaws of suburbia but only to set himself adrift in a turbid world of ghastly color and uncertain shapes (1).
Are the examples of visual metaphors or are these devices more akin, as W. B. Stanford believes, to “symbolism, parallelism, analogy, anything but metaphor”? (2). It is precisely this question, and others associated with it, that Whittock takes up in his fine study of Metaphor and Film, to which I will return in future posts.
Whittock, Trevor. Metaphor and film. Cambridge New York: Cambridge University Press, 1990.