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(Response Paper) Film Semiotics in the Earlier Lens of Christian Metz

In response to: The chapter “Some Points in the Semiotics of the Cinema” from the book “Film Language: A Semiotics of the Cinema” by Christian Metz

A response paper for my Advanced Film Theory and Criticism class

Being not very much used to the way it approached its scientific methodology, particularly his semiotic approach to film studies, I found the chapter “Some Points in the Semiotics of the Cinema” from French film theorist Christian Metz’s seminal work “Film Language: A Semiotics of the Cinema” a very challenging read – especially when side by side the other readings for the course. Metz said that semiotics was still in its childhood when he wrote this, and perhaps, this added to the challenge of understanding it in the level I expected myself to have after reading it more than once. I also felt that maybe, just maybe, the translation from French to English rendered a lot of parts to become more than a handful to be readily digested by somebody like myself who is primarily a film practitioner (a production person) currently taking graduate studies.

From my understanding, this semiotic study by Metz works as a tool for understanding the relationship between ideology and aesthetic expression and exploring the meaning of films through the outward symbolism of their images. Instead of codes that are content with their original meanings and unified grammar, this structuralist thinker argued that individual cinematic texts construct their own meaning systems. His primary reason for rejecting rigid analogies of film to that of language as French or English is based on his claim that the image, unlike the written word, is not a discrete unit that can be reduced into smaller basic units and be analyzed accordingly.

It is worth noting how he told the history of film as a technology invented by the Lumiere brothers in 1895, which led to its various uses and how people that time disagreed on whether filmmaking should be utilized as a means of preservation or archiving, an auxiliary technology for research and education, a new form of journalism, or an instrument of sentimental devotion for private and/or public use. At that time, the idea of using cinema for telling stories didn’t occur in their minds. Yet, there came that natural tendency of cinema to merge with narrativity, which reminded me of how humans are naturally born storytellers and story audiences. Parents read stories to a child during bedtime. The homily of a priest or even the speech of a life coach or an inspirational speaker often involves anecdotes. Gossip, sensational stories, and controversial happenings capture people’s attention. An unexpected encounter with a grade school classmate 20 years after typically prompts questions that suggest telling certain details about one’s own life story.

From my understanding, in trying to know the meaning of a text, semiotic study in film attempts an analysis where there is no separation of specialized codes of a particular medium and the cultural codes mediated by it. Metz, considering photographic images being too “natural” to be subjected to analysis, looked to larger units in the film text and decided that “the essence of cinema and the units most amenable to study are the large units of the narrative.” As semiotics attempts to describe the organization of meaning of the object of study, he presented the semiotics of connotation (a feeling or idea that is suggested by a word in addition to its basic meaning, or something suggested by an object or situation) and the semiotics of denotation (a direct specific meaning as distinct from an implied or associated idea). Elaborating further, he said that “Both directions are interesting, and it is obvious that on the day when the semiological study of film makes some progress and begins to form a body of knowledge, it will have considered connotative and denotative significations together.” Moreover, he explained how in photography, as French essayist, critic, and semiotician Roland Barthes showed, “the denoted meaning is secured entirely through the automatic process of photochemical reproduction; denotation is a visual transfer.” In such case, human intervention only affects the level of connotation through lighting, camera angle, and other visual techniques. Meanwhile, in cinema, he explained how “a whole semiotics of denotation is possible and necessary, for a film is composed of many photographs (the concept of montage, with its myriad consequences)—photographs that give us mostly only partial views of the diegetic referent.”

I found it a good insight to see cinema in the lens of having “dialects” and each of these “can become the subject of a specific analysis.” Perhaps, these dialects can be film genres or formats, maybe narrative features, short films, documentaries, advertising films, or some other? At some point, nonnarrative genres including “the documentary and the technical film have become marginal provinces, border regions so to speak, while the feature-length film of novelistic fiction, which is simply called a “film,” the usage is significant**—has traced more and more clearly the king’s highway of filmic expression.” Later on, he explained, “The basic figures of the semiotics of cinema—montage, camera movements, scale of the shots, relationships between the image and speech, sequences, and other large syntagmatic units—are on the whole the same in ‘small’ films and in ‘big’ films.”

Metz’s work looks helpful as a beginning for thinking about films, in terms of a culturally and ideologically determined “heterogeneity of codes.” However, reading further, complicated insights and a lot of terms and definitions that consistently overlapped with one another overwhelmed my sense of understanding more and more. Of course, I tried my best to get a good grasp of whatever I could. In his theoretical model, he argued somehow that cinema is structured like a language. He explained that cinema can be considered “a language, to the extent that it orders signifying elements within ordered arrangements different from those of spoken idioms— and to the extent that these elements are not traced on the perceptual configurations of reality itself which does not tell stories.”

Adopting de Saussure’s models, he made the distinction between “langue,” a language system, and “language,” a less clearly defined system of recognizable conventions. Moreover, he explained how “cinematographic language” should not be confused with “cinematic langue,” which is a language system that for him does not seem acceptable. He contended that film couldn’t 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 argued is the “shot,” is neither symbolic nor arbitrary but iconic; therefore, it is laden with specific meaning. He suggested that film is a language in which each shot used in a sequence works like a unit in a linguistic statement. He believed that cinema should not completely rely on the linguistic model. In fact, he discarded the use of a theoretical model for film based on verbal language. Nevertheless, he still believed that the semiotics of the cinema can learn much from linguistics but only with the greatest caution. He particularly mentioned how linguistics can help serve as “a constant and precious aid in establishing units that, though they are still very approximate, are liable over time.” He added, “The study of the cinema as an art—the study of cinematographic expressiveness—can therefore be conducted according to methods derived from linguistics.”

The key points in the semiotics of the cinema in this reading carried a lot of information for me to process. It took much effort in understanding much of them. But at the end of the day, I still appreciated how all these insights allowed me to better articulate my own understanding of cinema both as a filmmaker and as a part of the film audience. I also wanted to quote Metz here when he said, “The speakers of ordinary language constitute a group of users; filmmakers are a group of creators. On the other hand, movie spectators in turn constitute a group of users. That is why the semiotics of the cinema must frequently consider things from the point of view of the spectator rather than of the filmmaker.” Such words would turn out helpful not only in discourse involving the filmmaking process, but also discourse involving film criticism and scholarship.

Works Cited:

Barthes, Roland. “Myth Today,” Mythologies, Hill and Wang, New York, 1984.

Metz, Christian. “Some Points in the Semiotics of the Cinema,” Film Language: A Semiotics of the Cinema, University of Chicago Press, Chicago, 1991.

Related Readings (Film Theory and Criticism):
Rianne Hill I. Soriano
Rianne Hill Soriano is a freelance production artist working as a director, writer, educator, and consultant in film and commercial productions.

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