Out of Sight…

I was listening to a podcast today. Nothing really enormously newsworthy in that, I guess, but I want to make the point that was listening to the podcast. I listen to a lot of podcasts during the week. I used to watch several podcasts, as well, but I really don’t do anything with video podcasts lately. I think the main issue is time. Audio podcasts, or audiobooks, afford me some level of multi-tasking, even if it’s only listening while I’m driving. It’s like free new stories every week. I have certain days “assigned” to certain podcasts. I really like podcasts. But I don’t like making time to watch them.

During the podcast to which I was listening today, the interviewers used a video clip of some breaking news coverage. Now, there are two versions of this particular podcast, and, of course, I could have watched the video had I chosen the video version. In this case, I only had the audio of the interview. My brain filled in the blanks, however. I could imagine the scene very well, see the interview taking place in my head. It happened automatically, really, in a similar way to which my imagination fills in the blanks when I’m reading. I can see the version of what I think it looks like as clearly as if I were watching the actual video.

Sometimes, after listening to a certain correspondent for some time, I’ll have an image in my head of what they look like, and I’m surprised when I actually see a picture, because they look nothing like what I imagined.

I like imaging these sorts of things, because I think it’s sort of like a muscle that needs to receive periodic exercise. I’m listening to an audiobook this week, in which, at the end of Part I, a homicide is committed (it’s a mystery novel). The author wrote just enough detail that I imagined the scene perfectly. I’m sort of scared to see the movie, because I think they’ll mess that up.

Something I’ve always admired about British television and film is that they tend to be much closer to stage productions. In theatre, we design sets and stage action so that there’s just enough seen on the stage to permit the audience to fill in what’s missing with their imaginations. If the scene I had just finished in the audiobook were staged in a play, for example, the gunshots might happen offstage. The actor might rush to a door, the other side of which is invisible to the audience, gasp, and stumble backward. The point is, the audience didn’t need to see the violence, and they don’t need to see the bloody scene that follows (which the author of the novel describes in great detail). They can imagine what it looks like, and staging the action that way encourages them to do so.

In British television and films, there is frequently a similar staging with violence and sexual activity, for example. We see enough to know what’s happening, without being explicitly shown every detail.  American film and television bothers me because it wants to show, in as graphic a detail as possible, everything, from the facial expressions of the actors (a good thing) to all of the violent and sexual details of the story (not a good thing). More than gratuitous shock value, I think what bothers me the most is that it leaves nothing to the imagination.

I wonder if this contributes to the horribly unimaginative state of our society. It’s as though we must have everything shown to us. We can’t imagine anything for ourselves. Certainly, this must be a contributing factor to the illiterate nature of our culture. Many people, youth and adults alike, have lost the mental energy to read a story and imagine it visually in their heads, choosing instead to see it the way a different person envisioned the scene. Why choose to imagine events in war-torn nations when news media will show us all of the bloody details we can handle? Why imgaine sex when anyone can see other people engaging in the activity with a few mouse clicks to the “red light” district of the Internet?

We’re overloaded with images. Even setting the extreme examples I’ve just mentioned aside, we’re so addicted to seeing things through the eyes of others, that we forget that we have the ability to see those things on our own volition, as well. I’m not arguing that film-making is somehow less valid as a form of artistic expression, not at all. I just wonder what the effect would be if all visual media found creative ways to do what a stage production does: show us just enough that we can imagine the rest for ourselves?

I think we would find the muscles of our imaginations receiving a great workout. And I think that would be a good thing.

Photo Attribution: wmbreedveld 

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