Semiotics, as de Saussure conceived it, is still in its childhood, but any work bearing on one of the nonverbal "languages," provided that it assumes a resolutely semio- logical relevance and does not remain satisfied with vague considerations of "sub- stance," brings its contribution, whether modest or important, to that great enter- prise, the general study of significations. The very term "cinematographic language" already poses the whole problem of the semiotics of film. It would require a long justification, and strictly speaking it should be used only after the indepth study of the semiological mechanisms at work in the filmic message had been fairly well advanced. Convenience, however, makes us retain, right from the start, that frozen syntagma — "language — which has grad- ually assumed a place in the special vocabulary of film theoreticians and aestheti- cians. Even from a strictly semiological point of view, one can perhaps at this time give a preliminary justification for the expression "cinematographic language" not to be confused with "cinematographic langue" language system , which does not seem to me acceptable — a justification that, in the present state of semiological investigations, can only be very general.
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Semiotics, as de Saussure conceived it, is still in its childhood, but any work bearing on one of the nonverbal "languages," provided that it assumes a resolutely semio- logical relevance and does not remain satisfied with vague considerations of "sub- stance," brings its contribution, whether modest or important, to that great enter- prise, the general study of significations.
The very term "cinematographic language" already poses the whole problem of the semiotics of film. It would require a long justification, and strictly speaking it should be used only after the indepth study of the semiological mechanisms at work in the filmic message had been fairly well advanced.
Convenience, however, makes us retain, right from the start, that frozen syntagma — "language — which has grad- ually assumed a place in the special vocabulary of film theoreticians and aestheti- cians. Even from a strictly semiological point of view, one can perhaps at this time give a preliminary justification for the expression "cinematographic language" not to be confused with "cinematographic langue" language system , which does not seem to me acceptable — a justification that, in the present state of semiological investigations, can only be very general.
It could be answered that it depends simply on what one wants to study— that the cinema possesses various "dialects," and that each one of these "dialects" can become the subject of a specific analysis. This is undoubtedly true. Nevertheless, there is a hierarchy of concerns or, better yet, a methodological urgency that favors — in the beginning at least — the study of the narrative film.
That, over all these possibilities, the cinema could evolve into a machine for telling stories had never been really considered. From the very beginnings of the cinematograph there were various indications and statements that suggested such an evolution, but they had no common measure with the magnitude that the nar- rative phenomenon was to assume.
The merging of the cinema and of narrativity was a great fact, which was by no means predestined — nor was it strictly fortuitous. It was a historical and social fact, a fact of civilization to use a formula dear to the sociologist Marcel Mauss , a fact that in turn conditioned the later evolution of the film as a semiological reality, somewhat in the same way — indirect and general, 1 though effective — that "external" linguistic events conquests, colonizations, trans- formations of language influence the "internal" functioning of idioms.
This purely numerical and social superiority is not the only fact concerned. Added to it is a more "internal" consideration: Nonnarrative films for the most part are distinguished from "real" films by their social purpose and by their content much more than by their "language processes.
It is by no means certain that an independent semiotics of the various nonnarrative genres is possible other than in the form of a series of discontinuous remarks on the points of difference between these films and "ordinary" films.
To examine fiction films is to proceed more directly and more rapidly to the heart of the problem. There is, moreover, an encouraging diachronic consideration. We know, since Except, of course, for specific lexical facts. As in statements like "The short was terrible, but the film was great" or "What are they showing tonight? Now, it was precisely to the extent that the cinema confronted the problems of narration that, in the course of successive groupings, it came to produce a body of specific signifying procedures.
Historians of the cinema generally agree in dating the beginning of the "cinema" as we know it in the period It so happens that these procedures were perfected in the wake of the narrative endeavor. Men of denotation rather than of connotation, they wanted above all to tell a story; they were not content unless they could subject the continuous, analogical material of photographic duplication to the articula- tions — however rudimentary — of a narrative discourse.
Jean Mitry, who has written a very precise synthesis of these problems, examines the first occurrences of a certain number of procedures of filmic language— the close-up, the pan shot, the tracking shot, parallel montage, and interlaced, or alternative, montage — among the film primitives. I will sum- marize the conclusions he reaches: The principal "inventions" are credited to the Frenchmen Melies and Promio, to the Englishmen G.
Smith and J. Williamson, and to the American E. Between and , Griffith made a whole series of films having, more or less consciously, the value of experimental probings, and Birth of a Nation, released in , appears as the crowning work, the sum and the public demonstration of investigations that, however naive they may have been, were nonetheless systematic and fundamental.
Thus, it was in a single motion that the cinema became narrative and took over some of the attri- butes of a language. Today, still, the so-called filmic procedures are in fact filmic-narrative. This, to my mind, justifies the priority of the narrative film in the filmosemiological enter- prise — a priority that must not of course become an exclusivity. The semiotics of the cinema can be conceived of either as a semiotics of connotation or as a semiotics of denotation.
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. The study of connotation brings us closer to the notion of the cinema as an art the "seventh art". As I have indicated elsewhere in more detail, the art of film is located on the same semiological "plane" as literary art: The properly aes- thetic ordenngs and constraints— versification, composition, and tropes in the first case; framing, camera movements, and light "effects" in the second— serve as the connoted instance, which is superimposed over the denoted meaning.
In the cinema, it is represented by the literal that is, perceptual meaning of the spectacle reproduced in the image or of the sounds duplicated by the soundtrack. In American gang- ster movies, where, for example, the slick pavement of the waterfront distills an impression of anxiety and hardness significate of the connotation , the scene rep- resented dimly lit, deserted wharves, with stacks of crates and overhead cranes, the significate of denotation , and the technique of the shooting, which is dependent on the effects of lighting in order to produce a certain picture of the docks signifier of denotation , converge to form the signifier of connotation.
Film aes- theticians have often remarked that filmic effects must not be "gratuitous," but must remain "subordinate to the plot. The study of the cinema as an art— the study of cinematographic expressive- ness—can therefore be conducted according to methods derived from linguistics. For instance, there is no doubt that films are amenable to analyses comparable mutatis mutandis to those Thomas A. Sebeok has applied to Cheremis songs, or to those Samuel R. Levin has proposed. But there is another task that requires the careful attention of the film semiologist.
For also, and even first of all, through its procedures of denotation, the cinema is a specific language. The term was introduced into the framework of the cinema by Etienne Souriau. How does the cinema indicate successivity, precession, temporal breaks, causality, adversative relation- ships, consequence, spatial proximity, or distance, etc.?
These are central questions to the semiotics of the cinema. One must not indeed forget that, from the semiological point of view, the cinema is very different from still photography whence its technique is derived.
Human intervention, which carries some elements of a proper semiotics, affects only the level of connotation lighting, camera angle, "photographic effects," and so on.
And, in point of fact, there is no specifically photographic procedure for designating the significate "house" in its denotated aspect, unless it is by showing a house. In the cinema, on the other hand, a whole semiotics of denotation is possible and nec- essary, 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.
In film a "house" would be shot of a staircase, a shot of one of the walls taken from the outside, a close-up of a window, a brief establishing shot of the building, 2 etc. Thus a kind of filmic articulation appears, which has no equiv- alent in photography: It is the denotation itself that is being constructed, organized, and to a certain extent codified codified, not necessarily encoded.
Lacking abso- lute laws, filmic intelligibility nevertheless depends on a certain number of domi- nant habits: A film put together haphazardly would not be understood. I return to my initial observations: "Cinematographic language" is first of all the literalness of a plot.
Comparative studies of visual perception, both in "real" and in filmic conditions, have indeed isolated all the optical distortions that differentiate between the photograph and the object. But these transformations, which obey the laws of optical physics, of the chemistry of emulsions and of retinal physiology, do not consti- tute a signifying system.
We know that the modern cinema has partially abandoned the practices of visual fragmentation and excessive montage in favor of the continuous shot cf. This conditon modifies to the same extent the semiotics of filmic denotation, but it in no way dismisses it.
Simply, cinematographic language, like other languages, has a diachronic side. A single "shot" itself contains several elements example: switching from one view to another through a camera movement, and without montage.
It is not that there is no filmic paradigm: At specific points along the chain of images the number of units liable to occur is limited, so that, in these circumstances, the unit that does appear derives its meaning in relation to the other members of the paradigm. This is the case with the "fade-dissolve" duality within the framework of the "conjunction of two sequences": 1 a simple commutation, which the users — that is to say, the specta- tors — perform spontaneously, makes it possible to isolate the corresponding sig- nificates: a spatiotemporal break with the establishing of an underlying transitive link dissolve , and a straightforward spatiotemporal break fade.
But in most of the positions of the filmic chain, the number of units liable to appear is very much open though not infinite. Much more open, in any case, than the series of lexemes that, by their nonfinite nature, are nonetheless opposed to the series of grammatical monemes in linguistics.
For, despite the difficulty, already emphasized by Joseph Vendryes in Le Langage, of accurately enumerating the words of an idiom, it is at least possible to indicate the maximum and minimum limits, thus arriving at the approximate order of magnitude for example, in French the lexeme "lav-" exists, but the lexeme "patouf does not 2.
The case is different in the cinema, where the number of images is indefinite. Several times indefinite, one should say. For the "pro-filmic" spectacles 3 are themselves unlimited in number; the exact nature of lighting can be varied infinitely and by quantities that are nondiscrete; the same applies to the axial distance between the subject and the camera in variations which are said to be scalar — that is, scale of the shot , 4 to the camera angle, to the properties of the film and the focal length of the lens, and to the exact trajectory of the camera movements including the stationary shot, which represents zero degree in this case.
It suffices to vary one of these elements by a perceptible quantity to obtain another image. The shot is therefore not comparable to the word in a lexicon; rather it resembles a complete statement of one or more sentences , in that it is already the result of an essentially free combination, a "speech" arrangement. In such cases, their value is different. The "profilmic" spectacle is whatever is placed in front of the camera, or whatever one places the camera in front of, in order to "shoot" it.
The actual scale of the shots constitutes a continuous gradation, from the closest to the furthest shot. Codification intervenes at the metalin- guistic level studio jargon in this case, and not on that of the language object that is, cinemato- graphic language. Mikus would say. Let us note in this connection that there is another similarity between the image and the statement: Both are actualized units, whereas the word in itself is a purely potential unit of code.
The image is almost always asser- tive — and assertion is one of the great "modalities" of actualization, of the semic act. It apepars therefore that the paradigmatic category in film is condemned to remain partial and fragmentary, at least as long as one tries to isolate it on the level of the image. This is naturally derived from the fact that creation plays a larger role in cinematographic language than it does in the handling of idioms: To "speak" a language is to use it, but to "speak" cinematographic language is to a certain extent to invent it.
The speakers of ordinary language consitute a group of users; film-mak- ers 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 spectator rather than of the film-maker.
The situation has a rough equivalent in linguistics: Some linguists connect the speaker with the message, while the listener in some way "represents" the code, since he requires it to understand what is being said to him, while the speaker is presumed to know beforehand what he wants to say. But, more than paradigmatic studies, it is the sy ntagmatic considerations that are at the center of the problems of filmic denotation.
Although each image is a free creation, the arrangement of these images into an intelligible sequence — cutting and montage — brings us to the heart of the semiological dimension of film. It is a rather paradoxical situation: Those proliferating and not very discrete!
While no image ever entirely resembles another image, the great majority of narrative films resemble each other in their principal syntagmatic figures. Filmic narrativily — since it has again crossed our path — by becoming stable through convention and repetition over innumerable films, has gradually shaped itself into forms that are more or less fixed, but certainly not immutable.
These forms represent a synchronic "state" that of the present cinema , but if they were to change, it could only be through a complete positive evolution, liable to be challenged — like those that, in spoken lan- guages, produce diachronic transformations in the distribution of aspects and tenses.
The originality of creative artists consists, here as else- where, in tricking the code, or at least in using it ingeniously, rather than in attack- ing it directly or in violating it — and still less in ignoring it. Instead, as an example, I will simply indicate some of the characteristics of one type, the alternating syntagma for example, image of a mother-image of her daughter-image of the mother, etc. The alternating syntagma rests on the principle of alternating distribution of two or more diegetic elements.
The images thus fall into two or more series, each one of which, if shown continuously, would constitute a normal sequence. The alternating syntagma is, precisely, a rejection of the group- ing by continuous series which remains potential , for reasons of connotation — the search for a certain "construction" or a certain "effect. In it, one saw images of a mission surrounded by Boxers during the rebellion of that name alternating with shots of marines coming to the rescue.
The alternation defines the form of the signifier, but not necessarily, as we shall see, that of the significate — which amounts to saying that the relationship between the signifier and the significate is not always analogous in the alternating syntagma. If one takes the nature of the significate of temporal denotation as a relevant basis, one can distinguish three cases of alternating syntagma.
In the first case which might be called the alternator , the alternation of the signifiers refers to a parallel alternation of the significates analogous relationship.
Concepts[ edit ] Denotation and connotation Film communicates meaning denotatively and connotatively. What the audience sees and hears is denotative, it is what it is and they do not have to strive to recognize it. At the same time these sounds and images are connotative and the way the scene is shot is meant to evoke certain feelings from the viewer. Connotation typically involves emotional overtones, objective interpretation, social values, and ideological assumptions. A low angle shot of a rose conveys a sense that the flower is somehow dominant or overpowering because we unconsciously compare it with an overhead shot of a rose which would diminish its importance. Syntagmatic connotation would not compare the rose shot to other potential shots but compare it with actual shots that precede or follow it. The meaning adheres to it because its compared to other shots we actually see.
Film Language: A Semiotics of the Cinema
Christian Metz (critic)