Roger Ebert Is Wrong, Part 1: Images and Ideas

Today’s column will be the first in what I envision to be a multi-part series, disputing some claims made by noted film critic Roger Ebert.  I think Ebert is perhaps our foremost film critic today, and I agree with much of what he says.  But occasionally I come across something I think is just wrong, and I’d like to talk about those remarks and what I see as their implications.

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Ebert, from his review of the Fellini film :  “The critic Alan Stone, writing in the Boston Review, deplores Fellini’s ‘stylistic tendency to emphasize images over ideas.’  I celebrate it.  A filmmaker who prefers ideas to images will never advance above the second rank, because he is fighting the nature of his art.  The printed word is ideal for ideas; film is made for images, and images are best when they are free to evoke many associations and are not linked to narrowly defined purposes.”

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My response:

What is the proper relationship between images and ideas in the cinema?  Roger Ebert argues forcefully for the primacy of the first.  To an extent, this is understandable.  Images are how we access a narrative film.  They define the cinema in a way that no other aspect can, not even sound – because without them, we quite literally have no story.  And the things we remember most from movies are arresting and iconic images – the snowglobe falling from the hand of Orson Welles in Citizen Kane, Gene Kelly hanging from a lamppost in Singin’ in the Rain, Charlton Heston kneeling before the Statue of Liberty in Planet of the Apes, a boy and his alien friend on a bicycle flying across the moon in E.T.

Ebert’s fundamental misconception, I think, comes when he says “Film is made for images.”  Not true.  Film is made from images, which is not the same thing.  To hear Ebert tell it, the images exist for their own sake.  Why would that be the case?  If that were true, shouldn’t I rush out right now and make a film by capturing only the most arresting and appealing visual moments I could, slap them together in the editing room, and prepare to accept my critical acclaim and Oscar nomination?  Fat chance.  I could try that, but I doubt I’d get anything other than an art house opening – or perhaps, even worse, an “Art’s House” opening.

The reason people go to movies is to experience a story.  The story is told in images, but it involves ideas.  In fact, story fundamentally consists of ideas overlain by a narrative.  The images in a film are simply the tools by which the story and its underlying ideas are conveyed to the audience.  What Ebert says about images being more important than ideas is similar to a literary critic believing that the arrangement of the words, and the style of the author, was more important than the actual story itself.  Sadly, there are quite a few of these.  To them I say simply:  Balderdash.  People go to films to see gripping stories; they pick up novels to read gripping stories.  The images in a film, and the words in a novel, are of no use unless they convey that story to the reader.  And we remember those images and those words to precisely the degree that their ideas capture our imaginations.

In fact, people expect a narrative so much in film that they will try to impose one on a sequence of images even where there is none.  (Obviously, this is not as easy in literature!)  This phenomenon is known as the Kuleshov Effect, named after its discoverer, early 20th-century Russian director Lev Kuleshov.  As an experiment, Kuleshov created a short film wherein he alternated shots of a blank-faced actor with other pictures:  a coffin, for example, or a plate of soup.  When audiences saw the actor and the soup juxtaposed, they interpreted his expression to mean he was hungry.  When they saw the same short of the same actor justaposed with the coffin, they thought his face looked grief-stricken.  It simply is true:  images are not of primary importance in the film.  What is of importance is the story the audience gets or creates from them…or, if you will, the ideas that stick with them.

The images I listed above as iconic are subject to very definite interpretations.  In fact, that’s why we remember them.  They have profound emotional and intellectual content.  The snowglobe falling indicates death; Kelly hanging from a lamppost symbolizes unrestrained joy; the Statue of Liberty is the punchline to a nasty cosmic joke, and so Heston’s beating the sand in front of it symbolizes bitter despair; the bicycle flying across the moon is an awe-inspiring image which carries with it the feeling that anything just might be possible.  Hitchcock’s most iconic images, from films like Psycho and Rear Window, are similarly not images for their own sake – we remember them because they made us feel suspense, or terror.  Even more ambiguous images, like Peter O’Toole striding out of the desert wearing pure white robes in Lawrence of Arabia, have a purpose in the story.  For example, this one tells us that the extremely British T.E. Lawrence has become one with the Arabian landscape, and thus, with Arabia itself.

This is not to say that there is no room for interpretation.  That would be to fall into the equal yet opposite error, and to insist that there is only one right reaction to have.  Different people will have different emotional reactions to these images.  Some may feel satisfaction in Charles Foster Kane’s death, while others will feel pity.  But the fact that his character has died is not up for debate.  No one believes that the snowglobe falling is anything other than a symbol of mortality actualized, which is the story Welles wanted you to tell yourself about the image, the idea he wanted to plant in your mind so deep that even Leonardo DiCaprio and Ellen Page couldn’t root it out.  What the image means is there on the screen.  How you react to it, though, is your own affair.  Just be aware that when you react, you’re not reacting to an image alone, but to the idea it contains.

 At least that’s what I think.  Thoughts from readers?

Published in: on December 8, 2011 at 7:19 pm  Leave a Comment  

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