Semiotics

SEMIOLOGY AND FILM THEORY

While Barthes's methods still play an important role in the development of film theory, it was Christian Metz, one of the giants of French film theory, who became best known for the use of semiology as a method to analyze cinema. In Film Language (1968), Metz argued that cinema is structured like a language. Adopting Saussure's models, Metz made the distinction between "langue," a language system, and "language," a less clearly defined system of recognizable conventions. Metz contends that film cannot be regarded as comprising a "langue," in the sense of having a strict grammar and syntax equivalent to that of the written or spoken word. Unlike the written word, film's basic unit, which Metz argues is the shot, is neither symbolic nor arbitrary but iconic; therefore, it is laden with specific meaning. Metz suggests that film is a language in which each shot used in a sequence works like a unit in a linguistic statement. In his theoretical model, known as the "grande syntagmatique," Metz argues that individual cinematic texts construct their own meaning systems rather than share a unified grammar.

These ideas were developed upon and expanded by a wide range of theorists including Raymond Bellour in The Unattainable Text (1975), who largely supported Metz's views. Metz's ideas were nonetheless controversial and became the catalyst for heated debate amongst theorists during the 1970s and the 1980s, especially among Left Wing cultural theorists in Britain and the United States. The Italian Umberto Eco argued in "Articulations of the Cinematic Code," that the photographic image is arbitrarily constructed, just as the linguistic code is arbitrary. Stephen Heath challenged Metz's arguments, suggesting in Questions of Cinema (1981) that all cinema is concerned with representation and that representation itself is a form of language equivalent to Saussure's linguistic model of "langue." In a similar vein, Sam Rohdie took issue with some of Metz's key statements while calling for a continued investment in the systematic textual analysis that semiology makes possible (1975).

By the mid 1980s, the version of semiology that Metz had developed had increasingly lost favor and had become largely replaced in film studies debates by an interest in Lacanian psychoanalysis. This shift was perhaps due to a range of factors, including the waning interest in the radical leftist politics espoused by most structuralist thinkers and the emerging interest, especially amongst feminist academics within film studies, in psychoanalysis as a theoretical paradigm. Indeed, Metz himself had moved away from his investment in semiology to emphasize psychoanalysis during the mid-1970s, thus forecasting the direction that film studies would take as an academic discipline.

Barthes, Roland. Mythologies , edited and translated by Annette Lavers. New York: Hill and Wang, 1972.

Bellour, Raymond. The Analysis of Film , edited by Constance Penley. Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 2000.

Braudy, Leo, and Marshall Cohen, eds. Film Theory and Criticism , 6th ed. New York: Oxford University Press, 2004.

Eco, Umberto. "Articulations of the Cinematic Code." In Movies and Methods , edited by Bill Nichols, 590–607. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1976.

——. A Theory of Semiotics . Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1976.

Heath, Stephen. Questions of Cinema . Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1981.

Metz, Christian. Film Language: A Semiotics of the Cinema . Translated by Michael Taylor. New York: Oxford University Press, 1974.

Peirce, Charles S. Selected Writings . New York: Dover, 1966.

Rohdie, Sam. "Metz and Film Semiotics: Opening the Field." Jump Cut no. 7 (1975): 22–24.

Saussure, Ferdinand de. Course in General Linguistics. Translated by Wade Baskin. New York: McGraw Hill, 1966.

Stam, Robert. Film Theory: An Introduction . Malden, MA: Blackwell, 2000.

Stam, Robert, Robert Burgoyne, and Sandy Flitterman-Lewis. New Vocabularies in Film Semiotics: Structuralism, Post-Structuralism and Beyond . New York and London: Routledge,1992.

Wollen, Peter. Signs and Meaning in the Cinema , 2nd ed. London: British Film Institute, 1997. First edition published in 1969.

John Mercer

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