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We know that a picture is worth a thousand words and one of the merits of film and TV is that a shot captures any dreary amount of description. The ‘dreary’ here is all about slowing the action; impeding our characters from doing things. All those words about a room, landscape, moving cars etc slows down the action which is better done by a camera.

It’s a common view but not on the mark. It states that prose is occupied with describing the world and movement. In part, yes, but the most gripping part of prose is all the abstract words: the material that cannot be shown. For example a screenplay has to show, not tell, which partly explains why movie characters tend to vomit under stress and/or smash a room to pieces when angry: quite common ways of showing anger/despair/turmoil. In a book they might be pensive and a whirl of ideas might play through their minds.

There are many times when characters are feeling something else which does not compel them to throw-up or smash the crockery. Prose has the capacity to be anywhere. This fragment from Spoken which the in the mind of someone in the middle of a returning nightmare :

…their hair scented in pine as though from houses built in cedar and dressed in silks, they glide in the night’s eye serene but they speak with resentment, they accuse and they despise, and with good reason, with reason enough to make the night pass as it has, all the same, all the time; and suddenly the sound of the word aceldama comes to the mind of the person who has created all this world, and it means nothing and then it vanishes instantly to be replaced by the voices in twos and threes,
Imagination is more terrible than the world,
Imagination and memory are worse,
Worse than all the world could be imagined;
and the echo becomes more intense as it is every night, at this time, at the time in the field that is bare and wide, open in the place the voices speak aceldama, which still means nothing, but it is possible that its meaning will be understood tomorrow, in daylight with a book, whenever tomorrow comes, or it may be yesterday when it was better and things were understood, but is the same day that has passed, the same day as the beginning of these nights…

With images this type of word picture is not possible above the literal. This dimension is mostly taken over by the music soundtrack.

The soundtrack is in many respects gives meaning to a film which without it is series of images of the world and people in it which might interpreted ambiguously. I suppose that is what Kim Novak was saying in her inchoate way about the use of Bernard Herrmann’s Vertigo music in The Artist. To her the meaning of that music was intrinsic to Vertigo, not with anything else.

Guy Cranswick
11 May 2012