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(Response Paper) Looking Beyond the Vestiges of Film Language

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In response to: “Film Language,” from the book “Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings” by Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen

A response paper for my Advanced Film Theory and Criticism class

From formalist to realist to post-structuralist approaches, starting with montage and moving further with psychoanalysis and the system of the suture, the chapter “Film Language” in the book “Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings” by Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohenpresented how different film theorists, through the decades, have paved way to the evolution of film language.

The chapter began with Soviet filmmaker and film theorist Sergei Eisenstein, often called the “Father of Montage,” describing montage as “a kind of collision or conflict” where each shot having “a kind of potential energy that becomes kinetic when the first shot collides with the succeeding one.” For him, cinematic meaning is “the result of the dialectical interplay of shots.” With the many definitions of montage I already encountered, I found much interest in his explanation of how montage works. More than just simply linking two shots, the shots involved “can produce a conflict in their emotional content (happy versus sad), in their use of illumination (dark versus light), in their rhythms (slow versus fast), in their objects (large versus small), in their directions of movement (right versus left), in their distances (close-up versus far shot), or in any combination thereof.” It is worth noting that he and his fellow Soviet filmmaker Vsevolod Pudovkin who also developed influential theories of montage and defining it as “a method of building, of adding one thing to another” acknowledged a great debt to American filmmaker D.W. Griffith in his milestone discovery of the montage as “the fluid integration of the camera’s total range of shots, from extreme close-up to distant panorama, so as to produce the most coherent narrative sequence, the most systematic meaning, and the most effective rhythmic pattern.” This, they said, “contributed to the development of a cinematic language and invented the distinctive art of the film.” As how film history put it, the early years of cinema brought a lot of debates on whether film should be considered as art or as a mere recording technology. 

About three decades after the birth of cinema, the dawn of the talkies gave rise to another series of debates on whether sound film should be considered as art or this would lead to destroying film’s potential as an art form because adding synchronous sound to film meant merely mimicking reality. Given how asynchronous sound effects and music were ingrained in silent films, from this earlier time in film history to transitioning to the sound film era, the reactions of formalist film theorists such as Eisenstein and Hugo Munsterberg in the impending addition of synchronized dialogue in film technology were quite natural, given how people would often resist change, especially something as drastic as revolutionizing half this audio-visual medium’s essence. Meanwhile, with the rise of realism with French film theorist Andre Bazin who argued that “realism is the most important function of cinema,” calling for objective reality, deep focus, and lack of montage, he agreed that “dialogue and montage are incompatible.” He believed that “synchronized speech is a necessary and proper development because dialogue returns film to the rightful path from which montage and silence diverted it.” He didn’t believe on the mere juxtaposition of images to create meaning, as meaning is inherent in the actual visual images. He discounted the analogy between word and shot and he was reluctant in the inclusion of sound as a source of cinematic meaning. Bazin was also key to an important term widely used in filmmaking even up to this present time – the mise-en-scene – which “combines composing with the camera and staging an action in front of it. The mise-en-scene tradition focuses not in the ordering of shots, but the content of the images.”

Bazin noted what he called “analytic” editing, manifesting itself in the dramatic technique called shot/reverse shot, which he believed is a more appropriate innovation geared towards the dialogue film. The milestones in camera technique and film language applied in the works of American filmmakers Orson Welles and William Wyler strengthened Bazin’s realism, particularly the use of depth of field, long takes, and locked framing. All these were important in the evolution of the cinematic language, allowing for “greater realism and encouraged a more active mental attitude on the part of the viewer, who could now explore more fully the interpretive and moral ambiguity inherent in the film image.” Meanwhile, Brian Henderson analyzed French filmmaker and film critic Jean-Luc Godard’s quite different long and slow tracking shots that excluded the impression of depth instead. The so-called “composition-in-depth presents an infinitely deep, rich, complex, ambiguous and mysterious bourgeois world,” leading to “the demystification of the world and its pretenses” through a single flat picture that can be “examined, criticized, and rejected.”

As “film is an art form” further developed through the decades, the rise of structuralism and semiotics eventually made their marks, particularly with French film critic Christian Metz and Italian writer and semiotician Umberto Eco. At this point, the center of film studies was brought on a firm scientific basis in the semiotic tradition of Swiss linguist and semiotician Ferdinand de Saussure. Here, the attempt was to develop a science of “signs.” Metz rejected the idea of assimilation of film language (iconic) to natural language (arbitrary, conventional, and unmotivated), in the same way that he rejected the common analogy between the shot and the word, and instead saying that the shot is equivalent to the sentence of statement. By organizing shots through repeatable, recognizable codes, they become capable of building a story. He noted, “The student of the language of cinema must therefore account for the processes and mechanisms that make it possible for the viewer to interpret them correctly.” He expressed the idea of the “grande syntagmatique” where individual cinematic texts construct their own meaning systems instead of sharing a unified grammar. On the other side of the spectrum, there were also a number of theorists in the tradition of Saussure, French Marxist philosopher Louis Althusser, and French psychoanalyst and psychiatrist Jacques Lacan imposing how cinematic meaning is essentially linguistic, like in natural language, wherein “the relation between the signifier and the signified is arbitrary, conventional, and both culturally determined and culturally relative.” On the other hand, American film theorist and historian Stephen Prince argued that “cinematic coding is not linguistic but is largely iconic and mimetic,” which means understanding the signs has a biological basis and interpretation of these iconic signs “is more a matter or recognizing similarities by transferring real world skills to the cinematic situation than it is a matter of mastering arbitrary, unmotivated, and cultural conventions. Pictorial meaning cannot be explained as a kind of linguistic meaning.” I agree with Prince, considering how we often describe film as a “universal language,” as film viewers from different countries with varying cultures tend to share cross-cultural understanding and appreciation of diverse cinematic offerings.

French social scientist Daniel Dayan led to a post-structuralist perspective following Metz initially structuralist take on cinema. Drawing from psychoanalytic theories of Lacan, he described the system of the suture in how it negotiates the viewer’s access to the film. In his shot/reverse shot sequence, the viewer sees the pleasurable possession of the image in the first shot, which gets disrupted by the discovery of the next shot that wasn’t initially seen in the glance of another spectator called “the absent one.” The reverse shot is said to “suture” the hole opened by “the spectator’s imaginary relationship with the filmic field by the perception of the absent one,” which stands for whatever is lacking to attain clarity of meaning. In this system, a shot’s meaning is said to depend on the next shot and the meaning comes retrospectively through the spectator’s memory. This take on “reading” a film, although it was on a different case, reminded me of the Kuleshov effect, named after Soviet filmmaker Lev Kuleshov, wherein an experiment led viewers to infer the “changing” emotion felt by a man based on the poker-faced shot of his face (constant) and each of the other shots (variable) following the shot of his face.

Work Cited:

Braudy, Leo and Cohen, Marshall. Film Language,” Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings, Oxford University Press, New York, 1999.

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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. 
https://www.riannehillsoriano.com
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