Film-Philosophy

Journal | Salon | Portal (ISSN 1466-4615)

Vol. 5 No. 12, April 2001

 

 

Torben Grodal

Old Wine in Old Bottles

 

 

 

Warren Buckland

_The Cognitive Semiotics of Film_

Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2000

ISBN: 0-521-78005-5 (hb)

xi +174 pp.

 

In most ears the book title _The Cognitive Semiotics of Film_ sounds a bit

strange. Warren Buckland has set himself the goal of demonstrating that it

is possible to combine semiotics with cognitive science and to build a

bridge between these two fields of research, and this is indeed a very

valuable idea. However, Buckland has made it easier to make a pair out of

semiotics and cognitive film studies by not allowing all strands of

cognitive film studies to be included in this effort of bridge-building. He

states that, 'I do not report on the knowledge generated by the well-known

cognitive film theorists in North America . . . but discuss the much lesser

known film theorists working in the cognitive tradition in Europe' (1). The

project becomes even easier because Buckland only wants to deal with

Francesco Casetti, Christian Metz, Roger Odin, Michel Colin, and Dominique

Chateau, of which only Michel Colin would ordinarily be thought of as a

cognitivist, the rest being semioticians. And he further excludes those

three European film scholars that he himself mentions as three out of seven

'pure' cognitive film theoreticians (myself, Ed Tan, and Murray Smith),

because they belong to an 'American' paradigm. The project therefore does

not seem to be one of bridge-building, but aimed at conferring the honorary

title of 'cognitivists' to some European semioticians.

 

The fundamental problem of the book is that it systematically promises more

than it is actually able to deliver. Buckland claims that (cognitive?) film

scholars 'successfully demonstrate that the impression of unity and

continuity is based on a shared, non-perceptible underlying system of codes

that constitutes the specificity of, lends structure to, and confers

intelligibility on the perceptible level of film' (10). But, as I will

show, even by Buckland's own standards, the 'cognitive semioticians' have

not come close to identifying such a system of specific film codes. On the

contrary, the book makes it obvious that Bordwell's demonstration of how

film comprehension is based on general cognitive schemata and heuristics is

far superior to a description of a system that should make up a specific

film language. Whereas natural languages are based on specific innate

dispositions, films draw on a series of general perceptual and cognitive

competences.

 

Another problem of Buckland's presentation is that he claims that whereas

the North American cognitivists break with 'contemporary' film theory, the

cognitive semioticians continue that tradition. However it is Bordwell that

represents innovative continuity within film theory. He integrates and

innovates classical film theory (formalism, realism) into a modern

framework of cognitive psychology that continues the way in which classical

film theory was often based on perception psychology (Munsterberg,

Eisenstein, Arnheim, Mitry, et al.). Bordwell (and Kristin Thompson)

further integrates some of the valid insights of structuralism into film

theory. Bordwell integrates work on narrative theory (e.g. Gerard Genette,

partly via Meir Steinberg); and he and Thompson combine ideas of excess

(Barthes and Heath) into a cognitive framework, just as the idea of

parametric narration is inspired by structuralist thoughts and aesthetic

praxis. Metz's heavy reliance on linguistics is a break with strong

traditions within film theory, and his concept of narrative is in some

respects a dead end compared with central structuralist thought, as worked

out by Greimas and Genette (and Barthes in the 60s). Furthermore, Metz was

forced (by Eco, among others [1]) to relinquish those aspects of his

thoughts that pointed to psychology in order to accept Eco's belief in the

fully cultural foundation of visual perception. Thus, in many respects

Bordwell is much closer to classical and modern film theory than Metz, and

his important innovations are made possible by that fact.

 

_The Cognitive Semiotics of Film_ is divided into five chapters, an

Introduction (that I have already commented on), a chapter on an

application of Lakoff and Johnson, a chapter on enunciation, a chapter on

Odin's semio-pragmatics, and a chapter on film grammar. The chapter 'on'

Lakoff and Johnson, 'The Body on Screen and in Frame', is (contrary to the

rest of the book) special by being mostly based on Buckland's own

theorizing. Buckland needs Lakoff and Johnson in order to make some trendy

remarks on the way in which meaning is embodied. A further reason for

including Lakoff and Johnson is to claim that what is wrong with David

Bordwell is that his schemata are transcendental (despite the fact that

Bordwell himself has pointed to Lakoff and Johnson in 'A Case for

Cognitivism' and used their terminology in _Making Meaning_). Buckland does

not mention those European cognitive film scholars (myself, Tan, and Smith)

that have analysed a central aspect of embodiment: emotions in film viewing.

 

However, Buckland has fatally misunderstood Lakoff and Johnson, especially

their basic term 'embodied' in relation to their schema-theory. Buckland

uses Lakoff and Johnson's idea of embodiment as if they think that embodied

schemata means schemata about the body. But the correct description is that

'embodied' means that the interaction between the embodied mind and the

world is the basic foundation of meaning. Lakoff and Johnson's idea of

embodiment is not a theory of the body, but a theory of the embodied mind

in interaction with the world.

 

The crucial point where Buckland goes astray is on page 47 where he claims

that: 'To say that the frame and diegesis are understood in terms of a

kinaesthetic image schema is to suggest that they are comprehended in terms

of our experience of our bodies as containers.' In this sentence Buckland

confuses 'the body' as one instantiation of the 'container schema' (caves,

jars, etc., are other objects that afford the container schema) with an

erroneous belief that container schemata are always representations of the

body. The implicit argument must run as follows: the body is a container,

image schemata are embodied, the film frame and the diegetic world are

containers, ergo: the diegesis and film frame are 'comprehended' as

metaphors/schemas of our bodies. But the fact that the body is comprehended

as a container schema does not entail that all other containers are bodies.

Buckland is led into arguments very much similar to those of

psychoanalysis, for instance when he claims that 'the fixed frame of

painting reaffirms the fixed boundary of the body' (49). Again, this

argument is based on the erroneous belief that the body is the prime or

only basis for container schemas. The misapplication of Lakoff and

Johnson's concepts culminates on page 50, when Buckland thinks that 'the

spectator's projection into the film [?] is in fact the result of the

container schema. This schema, directly motivated by the spectator's body,

is metaphorically projected onto the film by the spectator'. Buckland

confuses the fact that many spectators try to construct a unified diegetic

world by means of container schemas (that are embodied in the general sense

of reflecting basic bodily interaction with the world), with a belief in a

projection of the body on the screen. Although Buckland elsewhere has

admitted that the critique of psychoanalysis that has been made by

cognitive film theoreticians is well-founded, he nevertheless (and probably

without being consciously aware of this) re-launches a (slightly modified)

version of Metz's psychoanalytical idea of primary identification as if it

was warranted by Lakoff and Johnson. A better understanding of the

cognitive film theories about emotions in film would have spared Buckland

this inconsistency.

 

Chapter three on 'reflexivity, enunciation, and film' is a strange one.

Buckland shows how Metz in his last work, _L'Enonciation impersonelle, ou

le site du film_, criticises Casetti's very linguistic ideas of the film

experience as based on a model of verbal communication (I = addresser, you

= addressee, he = characters). And he notices that Metz was influenced by

Bordwell's critique of the linguistic model: 'Metz comes close to

Bordwell's rejection of the narrator' (66). Buckland even concludes that

'Metz's innovation therefore seems to be primarily negative -- a critique

of Casetti's analogies between film and natural language' (75). In order to

provide some positive and linguistic results to the chapter, Buckland, for

instance, discusses the way in which the spectator produces a context of

production when receiving some types of audiovisual communication. It is

certainly true that we, as argued by Buckland, may feel that old black and

white films are 'dated', that we perceive its historical context of

production. But it is only because Buckland refers to that process by the

linguistic metaphor of 'deixis' that this process has any special relation

to enunciation in a linguistic sense, based as it is on general cognitive

competences. Buckland also includes a discussion of some

'deconstructionist' Anglo-Saxon theoreticians (Rodowick and Conley) as

padding, but why this is important for the main theme is unclear. The

bottom line is that regarding 'enunciation' the chapter has not provided a

cognitive-semiotic alternative to Bordwell, but on the contrary shown that

even Metz nearly accepted Bordwell's position as it was argued in

_Narration in the Fiction Film_.

 

Chapter 4, on Roger Odin's semio-pragmatics, is less problematic,

especially because it is more pragmatic than semiotic. Odin's idea that

there are different modes of attention when watching different types of

films is a rewarding one. His comments on documentary are very much in line

with the positions taken by the American cognitive film scholar Carl

Plantinga. [2] Furthermore, Buckland point out some inconsistencies in

Roger Odin's terminology.

 

The last chapter, on film grammar, is, however, just as problematic as

chapters two and three. Buckland himself mentions that most linguists have

abandoned the idea of a transformational generative grammar. But

nevertheless he argues, in the beginning of the chapter, as if such a

grammar is still a valid procedure, and as if Michel Colin had actually

transformed Metz's *grande syntagmatique* into a transformational

generative grammar.

 

Buckland does not discuss whether Metz's grand syntagmatics really is

similar to a grammar and does not discuss the status of the so-called

'syntagmas'. Metz's grand syntagmatics is full of inconsistencies and

problems, perhaps because it was made as a quick sketch to the seminal

number 8 of _Communications_ in 1966 and has really not been rethought

since. One of the basic problems is a confusion of a technical and a

cognitive definition of 'units' (e.g. 'segments'). Metz thinks that 'shots'

are some well-defined minimal units, so therefore if, say, a film has a cut

to a close up of an object, it has a special status of being an explanatory

insert, but he does not say that the same effect might be constructed

without any cut (e.g. by tracking and panning, or by zooming). Mitry has

pointed out that it is impossible to make a clear-cut distinction between

cutting and representations by other means, like camera movements and mise

en scene. And when does a scene with some action and some panning stop

being narrative and start to be descriptive? Metz describes 'scenes' and

'sequences' as alternatives (based on unclear ideas of how some cuts are

not really felt as cuts, but as long takes), but most 'sequences' will in

ordinary parlance be described as a series of scenes. His distinction

between episodic and ordinary sequences only makes sense if we take those

two types of sequences as two prototypes with all kinds of intermediary

forms. Thus grand syntagmatics is an interesting catalogue of different

types of representation, although with many unclear aspects (partly due to

developments in film narration). But it is not a grammar, and its

presentation of the sequences by means of a 'tree' of alternatives is

misleading, because if you go down through the tree to, for instance, the

ordinary sequence, you may of course sometimes find the different inserts

that in the 'tree' was placed in a different branch (the autonomous shot).

 

Fortunately for Buckland he does not use the grand syntagmatics for any

analytical purpose, and he is thus spared the task of solving the problem

of a typology that poses as being a kind of grammar. He only analyses a

deviating series of events in Godard's _Pierrot le fou_ (the scene in which

Belmondo and Karina leave a flat). The scene could perfectly well be

analysed by Bordwell's description of how to transform syuzhet information

to fabula information (influenced by Genette's discussion of 'order'). So

if we said that for expressive reasons Godard has scrambled the logical

order of the scene, but that spectators by using their standard schemata

and heuristics about processes and actions can reconstruct the logical

order we would have all the tools we need. And all the tools that Buckland

actually uses. Later Buckland amplifies his own analysis of the Godard

example by retelling Bordwell's fifteen years older analysis of Resnais's

_La Guerre est finie_. It would have been more honest to go the other way

around: to retell Bordwell's analysis and then explain whether Buckland's

own procedure could add something new to the analysis of scrambled

sequences or not. But Buckland's only 'contribution is to say (with a

metaphorical reference to Chomsky's trace-theory) that there are 'traces'

in the scrambled events and shots that makes it possible for the spectator

to reconstruct the unscrambled version. The bottom line is that he has

re-invented Bordwell's fabula-construction without saying so, but

Bordwell's description is much richer and more complex.

 

Colin's (and Buckland's) project of building a 'transformational generative

grammar' on top of Metz's loose typology on some modes of film

representation becomes further problematic when Buckland -- as mentioned --

at the end of the chapter admits that even within the linguistic community

the idea of a transformational grammar is nearly abandoned. Many linguistic

scholars further acknowledge that 'competence' is based on a series of

cognitive functions that are not linguistic in any specific sense.

 

I have much sympathy for Buckland's project: to build a bridge between

French film semiotics and cognitive film theory. I also have sympathy for

his theoretical ambition: film studies need theoretical reflections, and

maybe even grand theory. But the book does not deliver the promised

results: there are few, if any, contributions to cognitive film theory, and

no proofs of how semiotics may enrich cognitive film theory. The problems

in _The Cognitive Semiotics of Film_ are derived from the way in which he

leaves out major aspects of cognitive science and cognitive film theory.

Cognitive science has shown how natural languages are built on top of a

series of (often older) non-linguistic cognitive functions, for instance

visual perception, motor schemata, and emotional processes. Films access

language, but they also access a series of other cognitive competences.

Despite the fact that Buckland claims to be an adherent of a 'decentered'

approach to human cognition, the consequence of his linguistic approach to

the film experience works against this position. In contrast, cognitive

science is a pragmatic (decentered) approach to human cognition that points

out how our cognition is based on a series of different mental activities

that interact pragmatically, they are not part of a 'system' in any

linguistic sense. There are few traces in Buckland's book of the rich

discussions within the cognitive science community of how the human mind

works. Furthermore his description of cognitive film theory does not

reflect the diversity of theories and methods (Carroll's relations to

analytical philosophy; Branigan's language-orientation; the theories of

emotions in the works of Tan, Smith and myself; Anderson's ecological

approach; etc.). The failure to truly bridge-build is last, but not least,

partly caused by Buckland's inability to see how cognitive film studies has

been deeply influenced by the rich semiotic discussion in France in the

60s, and has avoided the influence from the problematic mix of Lacanianism,

hard core culturalism, and fragments of old-fashioned linguistics that

derailed film theory in the 70s.

 

University of Copenhagen, Denmark

 

 

Footnotes

 

1. Cf. Grodal, _Moving Pictures_, p. 75.

 

2. See Plantinga, _Rhetoric and Representation in Nonfiction Film_.

 

 

References

 

Anderson, Joseph, _The Reality of Illusion: An Ecological Approach to

Cognitive Film Theory_ (Carbondale and Edwardsville: Southern Illinois

University Press, 1996).

 

Bordwell, David, _Narration in the Fiction Film_ (London: Routledge, 1985).

--- _Making Meaning: Inference and Rhetoric in the Interpretation of

Cinema_ (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1989).

 

Grodal, Torben, _Moving Pictures: A New Theory of Film Genres, Feelings,

and Cognition_ (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1997).

 

Metz, Christian, _L'Enonciation impersonnelle, ou le site du film_ (Paris:

Meridiens Klincksieck, 1991).

 

Plantinga, Carl, _Rhetoric and Representation in Nonfiction Film_

(Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997).

 

Smith, Murray, _Engaging Characters: Fiction, Emotion, and the Cinema_

(Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1995).

 

Tan, Ed, _Emotion and the Structure of Narrative Film_ (Mahwah, New Jersey:

Lawrence Erlbaum, 1996).

 

 

Copyright © _Film-Philosophy_ 2001

 

Torben Grodal, 'Old Wine in Old Bottles', _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 5 no. 12,

April 2001 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol5-2001/n12grodal>.

 

  

 

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