Academic journal article Academic Exchange Quarterly

The Cinematic Imagination: Lights, Sound, Writing!

Academic journal article Academic Exchange Quarterly

The Cinematic Imagination: Lights, Sound, Writing!

Article excerpt


To promote literacy, media studies often stress the social, cognitive, and epistemological differences between language and film, yet the basic practical and psychological problems that students face in writing can be addressed by treating composition theory and practice in terms of film dramaturgy.

I. Staging the Audience: A Cinematic Theory of Writing

"The experience of reading," Gerald Mast complained in 1982, "seems more contemplative and analytical than that of watching a film: perhaps because we have been educated to analyze and evaluate the deductive structures and inductive data of verbal arguments but have not been trained to recognize the methods and devices of film rhetoric" (296). Since then, film education has expanded considerably, through university courses as well as television and print reviewing. And yet, while today's students might have learned to talk intelligently about film devices and rhetoric, when asked to compose an essay on the very same topic, those students still lose control over their expression. Formal writing still feels alien, inimical to the rhythms and intuitions of the spoken voice. Speech, as Derrida theorized, feels more organic because it contains the god-like "pleasure of self-presence ... uncorrupted by any outside" (of Grammatology 250). Writing, by contrast, feels like a civic duty (toward "evidence" and "example" and "logic"), sometimes even like a discipline against the writer's psyche, which must be cut and spliced. Whether expository or creative, formal writing obligates a person to an "outside" beyond the self, and unruly writers, regardless of oral literacy in film, naturally feel how small and deficient this duty to an audience makes them.

Writing, unlike casual talking, forces people to earn their audience--no small task. As E. D. Hirsch explains, writers win an audience by ensuring a rigorous "semantic integration" of every major logical expectation emerging from within their sentences and paragraphs, thus increasing the "readability" of their prose (151-52). Everyday speech is not crafted to fulfill such complex demands precisely because it resists evaluation from the "outside." It preserves one's seemingly natural identity. So getting one's voice, one's own being, down on paper, having ensured its readability through semantic integration, challenges a writer to become something entirely new. For young professional writers, this "search for a style is inexpressibly urgent," explains Helen Vendler; "it parallels, on the aesthetic plane, the individual's psychological search for identity--that is, for an authentic self-hood and a fitting means for its unfolding" (1). One's personal voice no longer matches one's potential public voice. A gap opens, and the writer reaches uncertainly beyond the self. Indeed, at this point, the body's own "vocal apparatus," Garrett Stewart argues, "colludes in a reception of texts in a manner that keeps that body in its place, no longer coincident with person, no longer identical" (137).

Finding the means for an authentic unfolding of self in writing can be elusive and complicated. Students who have previously won an audience through the naive, homely architecture of oral "self-expression" are told that their voices are confused, immature, and irrelevant. Indeed, Derrida's mock description of speech as a god-like revelation of the true self suggests that the speaking self is really a jumble of nervous fits and postures, braggadocio and fear. When tested against written composition, everyday speech suddenly becomes an adolescent refuge from one's adult responsibilities to other voices and wills, a refuge from the semantic, grammatical, and logical principles of readability that always lie outside the speaking self. Students incapable of formal composition thus reject their failure by rejecting their audience. Patricia J. McAlexander observes that "low or basic" students tend to be egocentric, writing "for themselves alone," but that, with time and practice, they can learn to be sensitive "to others and to context" (29). …

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