Bridging Picture and Word: My Reluctant Journey to Film Appreciation

~~~…even the place of exhibition itself, the movie theatre, contributes meaning to the experience—its plush carpets, buttery popcorn aroma, and draped, muffled space, offer the sense of security, intimacy, and camaraderie, which many no longer experience in the family living room. ~~~

The truth of the adage, “A picture is worth a thousand words,” is something most of us tend to take for granted; at least I have. I never questioned its veracity, being a visual learner, and probably communicated that ironic sentiment to my English language students in the past. As an essayist, student, and teacher of literature, I have loved and favoured the written medium, but, like many of my generation, I have had to concede the waning influence of great works of writing—classic literature—on the culture. With ready accessibility to screens (sporting enhanced colour, high definition, out-of-this-world-animation, 3-D, holograms and ‘virtual reality’ experiences) at our fingertips, western society has been firmly established as a visual culture. As fast-paced and busy as we are, it is no wonder that we would rather sit, press a button, stream, or buy a ticket to imbibe ideas already selected, processed, and served for us.

I confess to having had a snobbish attitude towards lovers of the world of film/cinema and found myself uncomfortably confronted with the requirement to view more films in eight weeks, at a pace faster than I have ever consumed such uncurated fare in my entire life. This precondition was an aspect of my studies this semester in the ‘Film, Visual Arts and Apologetics” class for the MA in Apologetics (online!) with Houston Baptist University. Under the supervision of Professor Phillip Tallon, the program had my cohort view a diverse range of films spanning decades: from the early, silent, Southern propaganda effort, The Birth of a Nation, in which every African American adult, child, or senior, was portrayed as a cavorting idiot, to the disturbing Jordan Peele psychological thriller, Get Out, which taught me that good acting could be applied to the most foul-mouthed and gory script. I also learned that even visually dreary staging and bland cinematography, as in the film Babette’s Feast, can still portray a beautiful metaphor, such as the loving sacrificial gift of an unearned feast, lavishly bestowed, (even if the director has a history of promoting pornography.) I discovered that I could tolerate a tragedy, remade in any era, if it is cast in the genre of a musical and is wrapped in Hispanic aesthetics, passion, and dance…with lavishly flared skirts, must have the flared skirts! Speaking, of course, of West Side Story.

With a son in the field of film, and my immediate family all avid connoisseurs of popular and artistic film media, I have long been conscious of film as a means of effectively capturing moments of Creation’s wonder, facilitating shared experiences of family bonding and of imparting stories of human excellence across history, space, and cultures. But, just as much, I have observed the stark power and influence of films and the movie industry—in their ability to sow, nurture and foment ideas towards cultural revolution for good or ill, beginning with the unaware viewer. The course’s secular text, The Film Experience, contributed much to my new literacy in film culture and techniques. It supplied surveys illustrating the nature and growth of the contract between film maker and viewer, well-supported by film synopses. This information led me to grapple with the question of whether the medium merely reflects the culture or is consciously manipulating and even dictating its direction.[1] Now armed with the tools of film production and analysis, captured in the delightful French phrase for ‘staging’, mise en scène[2], I have begun to look at movies not just for the meaning and message, as my literary mind is prone to do, but to see and understand how the message is being transmitted. This is virtually the reverse of what C.S.Lewis wrote that the literary mind would do[3]: I may have been robbed of the innocence to merely receive a film as a work of art, and must now forever look to see how it is being used, on me and my world!

Photo by CineDirektor FILMS on Pexels.com

 I have been amazed to grasp, through exposure to ‘Auteur Theory’[4], that the text or script of screenplay is not the sole determiner or carrier of the message and details of the narrative product that is finally delivered to the movie viewer. The moral character, philosophy, ideology, and artistic history of every professional involved with the production is thought to have a shaping effect on the messaging of its final form. The writers of our other main texts, Robert K. Johnston[5], Jeffrey Overstreet[6] and the duo, Timothy Corrigan and Patricia White[7] all attest that, along with mise en scène, even the place of exhibition itself, the movie theatre, contributes meaning to the experience—its plush carpets, buttery popcorn aroma, and draped, muffled space, offer the sense of security, intimacy, and camaraderie, which many no longer experience in the family living room. This ‘safe space’ facilitates an openness to each film’s explicit theme as well as any other ideas worked in through the influence of auteurship and mise en scène.

But back to that adage; despite all the transformation I have personally experienced regarding film and its host, cinema, the jury is still out for me. I am not convinced that a picture is worth a thousand words. “Behold the man”—a mere three words, recorded by the apostle John, as those spoken by the absconding Pilate, when the tortured and flayed Jesus was led back out to the judgement hall. A snapshot or a silent video clip would have drawn a host of varied impressions of ‘that man,’ from a crowd uninformed by words. However, the impression was shaped for them by the words of the spiteful religious rulers. They cast the portrait of the suffering Christ, to Jerusalem’s viewers, in the light of a blasphemous charlatan leading them astray, and made them cry, “Crucify Him!” Later, the dying thief next to the crucified Jesus, hearing words of forgiveness and love coming through on tortured breath, beheld a Lord whose Kingdom he delighted to learn he would be welcome to join, released from his previous, sinful life. And a centurion, though he saw a broken man on a cross, beheld the son of God, when he heard Jesus’ final cry, as he yielded His spirit, crying ‘Tetelestai! (It is finished!).

Perhaps, the picture and the word were forever wedded when God spoke the Word in the beginning and created the visible.


[1] Timothy Corrigan & Patricia White, The Film Experience: An Introduction (Boston. MA: Bedford/St. Martins, 2012), 316.

[2] Ibid., 86.

[3] C.S.Lewis, An Experiment In Criticism (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2012), 27–39.

[4] Timothy Corrigan & Patricia White, The Film Experience: An Introduction, 410–412.

[5] Robert K. Johnston, Reel Spirituality: Theology and Film in Dialogue, Engaging Culture (Baker Academic, 2006), 30.

[6] Jeffrey Overstreet, Through A Screen Darkly: Looking Closer at Beauty Truth and Evil in the Movies (Ventura, CA: Regal Books/Gospel Light Publishers, 2007), 112.

[7] Timothy Corrigan & Patricia White, The Film Experience: An Introduction, 86.

Author: Denise S. Armstrong

An HBU Masters candidate in Cultural Apologetics, Denise S. Armstrong considers herself a lifelong student and educator though a retired English literature and language teacher. She gratefully enjoys a thirty-years-strong marriage, which has joyfully produced three offspring. Jamaican by birth, but now an American citizen, her work reflects their family’s cross-cultural journey. A blogger in poetry, short-form essays, ethnic sketches and musicals, Denise’s work has also appeared in The Caribbean Writer--a literary publication of the University of the Virgin Islands, on SA Radio Cape Pulpit’s – ‘Voices of Change’, as well as on Jamaican television. She considers herself privileged to be a contributor to one of today’s most exciting online communities of Christian artists—The Cultivating Project. At present, she resides in Germany.

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