Humanity was once an aural species.
Because the general populace was illiterate and poetry originated as a spoken form of entertainment, we listened better pre-1400’s; music sounded richer, poetic meter was appreciated, and nature functioned as more than a cacophony of background noises. Then the printing press arrived, crippling our listening comprehension skills by turning us into textual learners. This is why we tune instructors out, mull over grocery lists in business meetings, and use storytelling as a bedside novelty. What was once humanity’s primary method of understanding has become mere background noise—a soundtrack for our personal life.
Or so the scholarly belief goes. How true this is, nobody knows.
This theory implies the primary form by which we comprehend reality changes according to the medium most accessible and rewarding to us. The printing press offered literacy to non-aristocratic society, toppling age-old oligarchies in just a few centuries while providing escapist entertainment for the masses. Since then, film and television have usurped the novel as the most broadly embraced form of entertainment, and likewise we have shifted towards a visual format. This evolution didn’t start with the invention of film, however.
A couple of millennia ago several clans left paintings on cave walls; most are familiar with the famous smudgy buffaloes of France and Africa. What is often overlooked or ignored is the handprint next to the buffalo—the ancient signature indicating “I WAS HERE”. Millions of scientists have interpreted these prints millions of ways–none definitive or conclusive– but the handprint will always represent its artist—was symbolically defined by his very shape.
Since entering the arts, humanity has striven to memorialize itself through production. This is why artists sign their paintings and vandals scrawl “_______ was here” on bathroom stall doors. Hoping our work survives the entropic cycle of history, we give no heed to interpretation or understanding. My super-realistic sketch of Miss Piggy scrawled on the back of a Wal-mart receipt may be all that survives an unforeseen nuclear holocaust. Thousands of years from now, societies may believe my pig a portrait—that it reflected human appearance. They may read the receipt and think “BLK SOX” is an animal because of this note I wrote:
“Hey Tiffany, I’m gonna take these sox for a walk”.
They may utilize it like a Rosetta Stone and misinterpret every piece of written information available.
This has already happened. And it will happen again.
This drive for leaving an indelible memoriam to ourselves led to the invention of the camera—man’s time machine. With this device we could not only prove “I was here” but could effectively freeze time, capturing moments in a way never before possible. While artists provide multiple interpretations of events through their work, photographers merely reproduce a reality which begs interpretation—the longer an image exists, the further removed it becomes from context. Unlike Emanuel Gottlieb Leutze’s “Washington Crossing the Delaware”, which will always be Washington Crossing the Delaware, the photo below is utterly quizzical.
Who is he? What’s with the thumbs up? Where is this? Why am I seeing it?
Photographs are memories documented as secrets; they lose identity with age. Like the light of stars, the further a photograph travels from its owner, the more ghostly it becomes—something long past and possibly forgotten.
We have clutched onto photography partially because it’s more passive than reading, and partially because it documents and reflects us as a people. Actors aren’t entirely envied for their affluence or fame; through their career they have fulfilled the subconscious desire of remembrance, not only on a mental level, but in-person, on-screen, in an almost tangible way. The irony is that actors are captured playing roles—are mere ciphers for writers’ whims. In many ways, this serves as a microcosm for film’s function in every capacity. Though I may have a photo of myself staring longingly into my college-sweetheart’s eyes, that’s no longer who I am, and may very well never have been. It’s simply what the photo conveys. Pictures construct realities of fleeting moments, leaving interpretation to the viewer.
Cinema directs your attention through millions of photos in a methodical way to construct a story. Comics are more lenient, allowing readers to choose what they pay attention to, but at the cost of reflecting life less realistically. In this, the great divide between reality and interpretation is laid clear. Cinema represents singular realities—guides you through a series of events interpreted by the director, writers, and actors which will always be the same. Comic panels are open for broad interpretation—because they lack dictatorial control over readers in the same way film does its viewer, comic books are interpreted and reinterpreted thousands of different ways across time. It’s why historical revisions are allowed in the comics realm—why the Joker can have four different origin stories, each slightly different than the first. It’s also why fans knee-jerk whenever a film is remade. Tampering with the history of cinema renders the very reality we inhabit malleable—suggests mistakes could be undone and events erased. Because of the very reason humanity clutched onto the medium—its reflection of ourselves—it has been limited by our own constructs.