Watermelons: The Anatomy of an Image, December 2015

When I first started writing and thinking about writing I found the concept of an ‘image’ confusing. Firstly I was confused by what it was, because we call any passage of writing that describes a sense perception an ‘image’. So the ‘the christmas tree smelt of sap and wilderness’ is an ‘image’ even though the sense evoked is olfactory rather than visual. Or rather, it is primarily olfactory rather than visual, because the fact that a christmas tree is named probably invokes a visual image of the tree as well as causing us to think of the smell of the tree, and thinking about the smell of a tree probably brings to mind a visual image of the tree. Similarly, to describe the ‘scratchy pine needles’ and the ‘rough bark’ is to create an ‘image’ of the tree even though the sense is primary touch. Perhaps I would have been less confused if an ‘image’ was called a phrase or passage that ‘evokes a sensory experience’, which would be more accurate, but much less neat.

A second thing that confused me about images was what counted as an image. Does the line ‘At this time of year there are Christmas trees in all the houses’ contain an image? It is not descriptive, the line doesn’t give us an information about the Christmas trees, it simply declares that the objects known as Christmas trees are in people’s homes, though readers probably do respond to the declaration by creating a visual image in their minds. For me, I think of an old-fashioned scene of a Christmas tree next to a fireplace, the kind of scene that you see on Christmas cards. But strictly speaking, the line doesn’t seem to be an ‘image’.

If we recast the line as, ‘At this time of year there are Christmas trees, with their typical Christmas tree smell and scratchy pine needles, in all the houses’, I think we would definitely say that it contained an ‘image’ of Christmas trees. This implies that to contain an image, a line must include some description and perhaps some adjectives. Yet if the line read ‘At this time of year there are Christmas trees, bowls of nuts, paper chains, and greeting cards hung on lines, in all the houses’ we would say, I think, that it contained images, even though it is still a declarative sentence with no description or adjectives. This implies there is something about the intentionality of the writing that influences whether it contains images. The second version of the line, by adding additional detail about the tree is focussing more attention on our sensory perception of it than in the original. The third version of the line adds additional detail about the houses or particular rooms in the houses, and so again invokes an a stronger sensory perception, in this case primarily visual.

Perhaps, therefore, is not so much a case of whether a passage or writing does or doesn’t not contain an image, but more to what extent are sensory experiences intentionally evoked by the writing. In other words, it is a linear scale rather than a binary identity.

The third thing that confused me about images was trying to understand what was the point of them was. This seems a particularly stupid comment for a writer, but it was something that I struggled to get clear in my mind. It was obvious that images were important facets of writing, and equally obvious that it was something that writing was often praised for. But it was much less clear what role they played in writing. I realised that the use of images had something to do with the aphorism ‘show don’t tell’, but in many cases it seemed hard to understand what was being shown instead of being told. When you see a picture of a child jumping up and down and clapping their hands when they are given a present, you are being shown they are excited. But there are lots of instances in stories when you are given information rather than being shown it, and yet the stories still seem to work. On the other hand, many of the images in stories don’t seem to have a clear ‘message’, in which case why is it that the reader is being shown them? Or more importantly, why is it that readers like to be shown those images and don’t find them redundant?

To depart from the Christmas theme, a good example of a slightly mysterious image (in the sense of not having an immediately obviously, abstractable meaning) is the common image of a stall of fruit, and more particularly a pile of melons, getting knocked over in a movie car chase, as described on the website http://www.tvtropes.org:

From Roger Ebert’s dictionary of movie clichés, fast chase scenes require a fruitcart being plowed into, preferably by a Red Shirt in hot pursuit. Almost always pops up in “ethnic” neighbourhoods (i.e. Chinatown, Little Italy, etc.). If a chase scene takes place in one, you’re supposed to chant “Fruit Cart! Fruit Cart! Fruit Cart!” repeatedly until its inevitable destruction in a spray of melon rind. (http://tvtropes.org/pmwiki/pmwiki.php/Main/FruitCart)

If images are there to show not tell, what is the image of a knocked over pile of melons telling us, and why is it so popular with movie directors? One explanation is that it ‘creates atmosphere’ or makes a scene ‘vivid’ or that it is ‘funny’ or ‘entertaining’. All these things may be true, but are they enough for director after director to use the same image, and for audience after audience to accept it? If not, why is it important enough for it to seem worth the space in the film?

I think the answer lies in understanding the context in which the image occurs and the additional information that the image gives us within that context. In the scene some kind of pursuit of happening, generally involving a bad guy chasing a good guy, or a good guy chasing a bad guy. In both cases the pursuit involves a degree of jeopardy; either the bad guy wants to kill or seriously harm the good guy, or the good guy is trying to stop the bad guy doing something bad or bring him to justice for doing something bad. All scenarios mean that there is a great sense of urgency and a sense of imperative, ie they want to get away quickly and it’s very important for them to escape. This means they are willing to break norms and conventions, such as avoiding knocking over other people’s property. And in fact, the more they are willing to avoid norms and conventions, the more urgent and important the viewer assumes the escape is. So for a director, the more dramatic the breach of etiquette the more the urgency is emphasised. Hence watermelons; they are large and fragile, so make a big impact when they are knocked flying, meaning they are an excellent intensifier of what we know already – this guy has to get away quickly. Knocking over the watermelons shows us just how much they want to get away, because they don’t have time to care about the consequences, and the consequences are dramatic.

Of course, it probably helps at subliminal level that melons are roughly head shaped, the flesh bursts in chucks, rather like brain matter, their insides are red like blood and they explode in a satisfyingly human-like way. given all that, it’s easy to see why directors find them hard to resist.

One the thing to note about images is the process we go through to interpret them. Each step from the image and its context to the message is a logical one. There are no illogical, magical jumps. I think this is one of the key things that differentiates them from symbols, where the movement requires a break in logic, and why images and symbols operate in subtly different ways.

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