The Semiotics of the Cinema

‘The semiotics of the cinema is the theory of films as a system of signs. The idea isthat we are to think of film as a kind of language and are to try to develop alinguistics of this language of film’Discuss the notion of ‘ Film as a kind of language’ using the theory of semioticsand examples to sustain your discussionsNow, more than ever, television and film play a major role in our lives. Throughconstant exposure we learn to read television and film, lending support to the notionthat televisual and filmic codes constitute a kind of language. It is important howeverthat a clear distinction is made between film as a language and all other literarylanguages. To justify use of the word ‘language’ one can suggest that both film andliterary languages make use of several codes and signs in order to constitute astructure or grammar.Literary languages are the model for the sign systems as defined by the theory ofsemiotics. ‘Language is the most characteristic semiotic system inasmuch as therelation between signifier(the material phenomenon we are able to perceive) and thesignified(the concept evoked by the signifier) is most arbitrary’.(Saussure, 1974)Therefore, in developing a semiotic account of cinema, it is necessary to access thefilm as a sign system in terms analogous to those used in the study of linguisticstructures. (Jackson, 2001)Firstly, one can examine the subject of double articulation (which is present in verballanguage) Double articulation enables a semiotic code to form an infinite number ofmeaningful combinations using a small number of low-level units. At the first level ofarticulation the system consists of the smallest meaningful units available e.g. wordsin a language while at the second level of articulation a semiotic code is divisible intominimal units which lack meaning in themselves but serve to differentiate theminimal meaningful units of the first level e.g. the suffix -ly. (Eco, 1977) Somesemioticians such as Christian Metz argued that filmic codes lack double articulationbecause there’s no unit in film that equals the word in language. The image, or theshot, which he believes is the smallest unit in cinema, is already at the same level as asentence or paragraph and therefore film is an example of a sign system that does nothave a second level of articulation. Even if the shot is broken down into singleframes, each frame is an image which is a complex sign that cannot be broken downinto smaller units. There is no set number of specific building blocks of signs incinema: every piece of film shot is an entirely new image and combination of images.(Jackson, 2001) An alternative view has been put forward by Pier Paolo Passolini,who sees the minimal unit of the second level of articulation as a signifying object ina shot and that an infinite number of these signifying objects can be found in any oneshot thus creating a kind of grammar. (Stam 2000)One can also examine denotation and connotation with reference to the language offilm. Denotation is the most literal meaning of the sign whereas connotation is extrameaning derived through cultural association with the denoted sign. Both denotationand connotation are great parts of the cinematic language. Most aspects of the plot ofa film- who the characters are, what they are doing- are indicated by other signswhich is part of the denotation. However, further meaning can be extracted throughspecific contexts in which the sign is used or circulated and this is part of theconnotation. In film the signs can function both to denote and connote meanings atthe same time e.g. what a character is wearing. In the case of language, and the semiotics of language, the signifier and the signifiedare very important and also completely different. For example the signifier may be aword such as ‘penguin’ while the signified is the picture or concept of the bird that istriggered in the mind upon hearing the word. In the cinematic sign the signifier is notso easily distinguishable from the signified. This can serve to create problems whentransferring the literary semiotic theories to the visual cinema. As Saussure agues ‘the visual image of a car is much closer to the actual object than the word ‘car’ is. Wehave been taught that the word ‘car’ is identical with the image of a car, but withoutknowledge of the English language the word ‘car’ is only a collection of letters,without any meaning’. (Thomas, 1995)This leads on to the fact that in the cinema you can’t create your own visual images,because the images have already been chosen for you. For example, readers the worldover of the trilogy of The Lord of the Rings (see figure 1) would have each created adifferent visual image of Frodo to the one the director of the film put on screen andtherefore, in this context, film doesn’t suggest, it states. This is how Metz explains histheory that cinema doesn’t present a language that is available as a code, because theability to create cinematic utterances relies on talent and training. (Stam, 2000) Literary languages are all composed of grammar which forms the basis of anunderstandable and constant language. If film is to be thought of as kind of languagethen does it too have a grammar? As in language where small units are combined tomake sentences, in cinema image and sound are used to create what Metz called‘syntagmas’, which through a series of different views of a house for instance shoewhat the house is like without presenting an event unfolding in time. (Braudy et all,1998) Then by moving from image to image the film ‘speaks’ and communicates toits viewers. While most images in film are different an abundance of films are similarin structure which may be where the ‘grammar’ of television and film comes intoplay. Are there general rules in filmaking on order to make the audience read imagesin a certain way? Herein lies a fundamental difference between literary language andfilm language. The understanding of a literary or spoken language lies in its grammarand because-while there may be certain recommended structures available to afilmmaker-a film cannot in a sense be ‘ungrammatical’ it can therefore be said that‘interpretation(of a film) is driven by the narrative context, not the code’. (Messaris,1994)Therefore, cinema constitutes a form of communication, a one way communicationthat differs form literary language in ways mentioned, yet has been put into a structureand given a grammar so that it can be understood. However, a person who cannot readthe written word can ‘read’ cinema before they have any knowledge of the verballanguage. ‘Cinema is a language…an artistic language, a discourse or signifying practicecharacterised by specific codifications and ordering procedures’