Thomas Leitch — Fallacies

Are literary texts verbal, while films are visual?

Hmm…I ask this question, because from the beginning of the semester I’ve heard comments from classmates making this distinction. It seemed plausible at the time of hearing, but I always felt unsure about the plausibility of this assertion.

Leitch, in a very simple turn, says this isn’t true. In a general sense he seems to primarily be arguing against the essentialism produced from fallacies such as literary texts are verbal and films visual or novels are better than film. Hmmm…literary texts are verbal, but I’ve never thought they were ever just verbal — or maybe not ever verbal at all. When reading, most people don’t read aloud, which is what I would consider verbal, instead they read in their minds. Is that still verbal? I would says no. Hmmm…But isn’t reading also visual? In that, instead of the images being given to us via a film, we produce our own images from the words we read in our own mind. But even for film — we can say that we are given an image — but even that image is individualized. No? Is it possible that each audience member sees something slightly different, even if they have a general consensus about the film.

Leitch says that films since the silent movie era are not visual. Because of the simple explanation that they are audio-visual, depending on both the audio and visual to engage the audience. To take a step back: aren’t silent movies both visual and literary? The audience has to read and there are images and then they connect those images — the images with the words. What about films with subtitles? Do they function the same way as silent films, except with the added audio component? You have images, sound, but you still have to read? But because of the reading, you don’t get all of the images. The primary mode of understanding comes from text and music.

Leitch points out that even contemporary films have a certain element of literature. When we watch a movie based on a play we wait for the scene with the speeches which are iconic.

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One Response to Thomas Leitch — Fallacies

  1. Marie Mosot says:

    I brought this up in my post for Chatman, though then it was in regards to voiceovers (I nearly quote Leitch on this issue). The binary opposition created by film-as-visual versus literature-as-verbal is absolutely misleading. In fact, you could even argue that the inverse is more true: literature is visual (reading requires sight) and film is verbal (dialogue and soundtrack distinguish film from being mere montages). As someone who’s watched a good amount of silent films, I can honestly say that reading their intertitles is very much a literary act. Melodramas in particular can use up to 100s of intertitles, many of which are just blocks of text that would never pass as dialogue if read aloud; the fact that Hollywood began employing playwrights after the transition to talkies attests to this distinction between written/literary and spoken/theatrical words. Both film and literature are visual insofar as both require eyesight, but even the distinction brought up by perception – literature works internally while film images just wash over you, which is horrendously false and pernicious and total bollocks – is arbitrary because film requires the same level of cognitive thought as literature does to make sense of the story. There is as much a written language as there is a visual one, but because we live in a society saturated in images, we take for granted just how indoctrinated we’ve become to understanding them.

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