Of Movies and Imagination

I have always thought of movies as the laziest of arts. I do not mean their creation. I have seen movie sets. I know how many people it takes to create only a minute or two of film. There is nothing of laziness in that.

I am thinking of those of us who watch them. Where reading a book requires you to be actively engaged in the creation process, movies are handed to you in their finished form. The imagination part has been done for you. All you need to do is sit back and take it in.

When I pick up a novel and begin to read, I am really picking up a blueprint of sorts. The writer might describe a character but his or her final form is left up to my imagination. The Sherlock Holmes of my imagination never looks wholly like the Sherlock Holmes of yours. This is even more so when the writer is someone like Hemingway who often provides no description of the character at all. We create out of our imaginations everything that we see in our mind’s eye.

In a movie, the director takes care of such things for us. When Ethan Edwards comes out of the sun-baked desert toward the shaded house in The Searchers, he is John Wayne. John Ford imagined the scene for us one way and it happens just like that– for us and for anyone else who sees the movie. It is perfect, but requires nothing from us and we contribute nothing to it. For this reason, I am an impatient movie watcher, and generally speaking a reluctant one.

If it sounds like I am saying that film is a lesser art form, I do not mean that at all. The written word, ultimately, is limited. It is limited first to those who can read, then those who can read that particular language, and finally to issues of interpretation and meaning. Reading after all is always interpretation.

Film as a visual art can transcend the limitations of language. I could watch an Akira Kurosawa film in Japanese, understanding none of the words spoken, and still be haunted all my life by certain scenes. In this way, film is iconic like painting and universal like music.

Each art form has its limitations and its strengths. When we engage different arts we expand ourselves, open ourselves up unfettered to truth and beauty. Each art uses us in different ways. Poetry and prose primarily use our imagination then our ears. Movies primarily use our eyes and then our ears. When we live a life immersed in all the arts, we are constantly changed and challenged.



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