November 14, 1996
Why should, or do, we prefer (believe) what we see in a film
over what we hear?
This is not really the question we have been discussing.
Instead we have been comparing what we see to what we hear DESCRIBED. To
the extent that that interpretation is accurate, then it is eminently
reasonable to prefer what is (even apparently) immediately present to us
with what is at least one remove from immediacy, namely what is reported.
Carrying this a bit further, we might be less inclined to trust what we
knew to be a heavily edited (series of) pictures of an event compared
with what we took to be an unedited, (ideally) real-time (series of)
pictures of an event.
Back to the original issue. I suggest that we are EQUALLY
willing to accept as accurate:
1. That we have seen what we have seen.
2. That we have heard what we have heard.
The problems come when we translate either into discourse about what we
have seen or heard, particularly when this is interpretative discourse,
especially (perhaps inescapably) commentary. For example, I may be
inclined to say, not just that I saw the two people exchange small items,
but that I saw a drug buy; not just that I heard these few words on a
Nixon White House tape but that I heard Nixon admitting to foreknowledge
(and/or cover-up). In both these statements the interpretation
effectively replaces the immediate experience. Because we commonly treat
events as if they were virtually self-interpreting (put another way, as
if there were one and only one reasonable interpretation, and that one
the obvious one, one available to anyone who would look at the evidence
without bias) we may blur the distinction between what we see (or hear)
and what it means. It seems to me as if some of the discussion on the
relative reliability of seeing vs hearing has traded on this.
When we see an action occur and hear an interpretation of it
inconsistent with what we see, then we are right to prefer that which is
one less remove from the event to what is one more remove. Equally,
though much less often, when we hear a person (or character) speak
"directly" (meaning at least unedited, and with all the context we need
included in the clip/segment) and see an imaginative reconstruction of
the character speaking, we should certainly believe what we hear. Voice-
over is a commentary, the visuals are what is commented upon. I would be
delighted if it were true that we still prefer our own interpretation of
the event (which we will vocalize as our own commentary, one which could
become an alternative voice-over in the second viewing of this part of
the film) to a prepackaged interpretation of that event. Whether this
represents even the present is open to question. How many prefer to
watch, say, a TV debate between Clinton and Dole and form their own
opinions of what happened? How many prefer to select from one of the
commentators' interpretations, whether one watched the event or not?
All that we see in a fiction film is specifically produced for
that film. Therefore all that we see is a fiction; nothing is a "direct"
representation of the "truth." Surely this is true. But is that
relevant? We, the viewers of the film, incredibly naive or especially
knowledgeable, are all viewing the film as if it were a record of the
actual events, or at least as if we were viewing an actual record of
events. We all know this is not the case. But when we inquire about the
relative reliability of what we see and what we hear, I suggest that we
are treating both as if they were simply records. This does not require
a convention that either seeing or hearing is to be preferred. In fact
we seem to prefer a statement about what has happened to either a visual
or aural record, although any statement is much closer to something heard
than anything seen. Of course, the statement we come away with is an
INTERPRETATION, which means that it is not a reproduction of either what
we saw or what we heard.
Complicating all of this discussion is our response to special
effects which are apparent depictions of what we would realize was quite
impossible were we to, even momentarily, ignore the context of the film
to ask whether something like what was shown on screen could possibly
have happened. Siskel and Ebert even noticed this a few weeks ago when
they condemned scenes of characters outrunning disasters which would
surely have caught them in "real life." Now imagine an analog of
Murnau's comment near the end of _The Last Laugh_ to the effect that what
we are seeing is simply made up, could not have happened, and is tacked
on for those who prefer happy endings to reality. While I know of no
films with this contrast between what is seen and what is shown, other
than Hollywood conservatism, I don't see why such a sequence would be
difficult for the viewers to interpret "correctly, namely as a case where
the images were false and the description true.
Showing my ideological (philosophical?) slip: Why does it seem
reasonable that there is a single interpretation of events generally, let
alone interesting and important events? Were there such an
interpretation, one which was adequate even to our own terribly limited
purposes, why should we imagine that the events "wore it on their
sleeves"? If neither seems reasonable to you, then the relative
reliability of either the visually transmitted information or the
verbally transmitted information is a matter of context, not theory.
When the magician "shows" us sawing the person in half, most of us would
treat our neighbor's commentary "He's not really doing that," as more
reliable than what we "saw." That no one on stage says this seems
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