Film-Philosophy

ISSN 1466-4615

 


 

Liora Moriel

The Sign of Zero

Semantics of Seeing, Perceiving, and Believing

 


  

 

_The Film Spectator: From Sign to Mind_

Edited by Warren Buckland

Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 1995

ISBN 90-5356-131-5

258 pp.

 

'[S]pecifically, the collection highlights that one of the major insights of film semiology has been the fact that the 'meaning' of a film cannot be adequately determined by its formal syntactic and semantic characteristics alone' (16).

 

This quotation, which the editor presents up front in the introduction, is actually a great summary of this anthology, for while the book pays meticulous attention to the language of film (replete with diagrams) it seems to stop short of stating what any of it means and how any of the theories it presents actually helps make meaning of any particular film, whatever the genre. Because of my own bias, which is mired in critical questioning and requestioning, I am left bereft by the book's singular lack of any 'therefore' approach; theory is left to explain nothing but the need for further study to take care of post-classic trends and spectator differences. While promising to tease out Christian Metz's desire 'to understand how film is understood' (thirty years after film studies first entered the academy) by bringing forth the latest thinking on this fascinating subject, the book delineates an overview of the history of film semiotics and its evolution from linguistic determinism to cognitive pragmatics that, alas, fails to lead to practical applications.

 

Editor Warren Buckland and his contributors assume that film has a language of its own that can be parsed like any other, using the full array of language theories that this nearly-concluded century has to offer. The book is an homage to Christian Metz and his idea of a 'grande syntagmatique'; an attempt at a systematic reading of film to reveal meaning through film language (for example, shots, sequencing, *mise en scene*) alone. Metz was the first academic film critic to consider film a language, albeit without a *langue*, or tongue (it sounds best in French -- 'language sans langue' -- and loses much in the translation).

 

Ours is the cinematic century. It is also a century marked by terrible wars fuelled in equal measure by ancient hatreds and modern technology. It is a century of meticulously documented genocide and nuclear devastation; of environmental collapse and cultural collapsing; of mass transport, mass media and mass psychosis; and the paradox of widespread illiteracy coupled with limitless web surfing. We seem to live in the Age of Information, but we use the endless data printouts the way previous generations used newsprint: to wrap yesterday's supper rather than discover tomorrow's map. In this Age of Willful Ignorance, passion and apathy vie for cynical supremacy. And then there is film.

 

The twentieth century was ushered in by the cinema and the next century will probably be just as influenced by images, so I read _The Film Spectator: From Sign to Mind_ expecting enlightenment. Perhaps that was an order no single volume could fill. (As Ludwig Wittgenstein noted in a lecture delivered at Cambridge seventy years ago, 'if a man could write a book on Ethics which really was a book on Ethics, this book would, with an explosion, destroy all the other books in the world'. I take this claim to mean that any totalizing book on any important subject would obviate all others in the field -- and that while this may be the pursuit of many, it can be attained by none.) The book begins with an introduction by Thomas Elsaesser, General Editor of the series Film Culture in Transition, of which this is the sixth volume: 'Few can doubt that the encounter between linguistics and film which began in the early 1960s was a crucial moment in the life of film as a theoretical object' (9). Immediately we are informed that film is the theoretical object of linguistics for the purpose of discussion in this anthology, and we are plunged into the book's first section, Film Semiology, Transformational Generative Grammar, and Cognitive Science. Composed of detailed analyses of deep structures of grammar and other basic elements of language, this first section left me clueless -- and wondering who the book's intended audience is besides the already conversant and converted. The volume is European in approach and emphasis, with nods to US semioticians and no acknowledgment of Third World thinking or perception. For a theoretical anthology of the 1990s it is seriously devoid of post-colonial concerns. I have a clear bias for concise, lucid texts that elucidate meaning in coherent paragraphs, and this book did not elicit one moment of Zen. The theories of choice for the writers whose articles make up this anthology are semiotics and cognitive psychology. If your idea of intellectual stimulation is cutting through the jungle with nail scissors, paying particular attention to every leaf on every tree and the forest be damned, then this is the book for you. It is clearly laid out, with a double introduction and three well-defined sections progressing from background history to suggestions of future research trends. With the exception of an article by Jan Simons on 'Enunciation', the chapters are reprints and translations, dating from 1976 to 1992.

 

I am sure there are many potential readers out there who would be pleased with the book, and I wish I could be one. I love film. I have a passion for cinema since seeing the first print dancing on the side of a neighbor's wall when I was a child in Israel. As was and still is the case for many developing nations, not every far-flung village has a movie theater, but most places have movie buffs, eager for the chance to spend an evening alone with the stars in the company of like-minded star-gazers. And there are the other visuals, of course: the size of the image, the thrill of the music, the close-ups, the fades and cuts and panoramic shots -- the unfolding of magic in the dark. Why do we love the movies, what do they say to us, multitudes of us all over the globe? How do we understand the story line and the subtexts even if we know nothing of the language spoken and cannot read subtitles? What makes cinema that special venue so wondrously depicted in Giuseppe Tornatore's 1988 movie, _Cinema Paradiso_? Do spectators in China, Nigeria, Fiji, Canada, New Zealand and Finland see the same movie when they watch the same images? Is the meaning of a film merely a matter of translation?

 

I was hoping this book would shed light on this mystery. After all, as Michel Colin notes in a chapter entitled Film Semiology as a Cognitive Science, 'film semiology . . . must describe the rules governing the links between the visual representations of 3-D scenes and conceptual structures' (106). I was hoping that this concept would be taken a step further, to actually translate images to meanings, but alas, such a leap is beyond the scope of this book, which is perfectly happy to describe, rather than to solve the problem of how a spectator turns an image to meaning. The point seems to be to prove the importance of semiotics and cognition rather than any particular function or application.

 

Section two, Film and Enunciation Revisited, is devoted to the pragmatic use-value of the theories proposed in the first section. Buckland and Jan Simons introduce this section by arguing that:

 

'It is quite legitimate, of course, to consider films as 'signifying systems', comparable in many respects to languages: they are usually not randomly arranged strings of images and sounds, and meanings ascribed to films are generally not idiosyncratic interpretations of individual spectators but normally meet a large degree of interpersonal agreement. In the history of film some fundamental, stable and pervasive norms of filmic construction and comprehension can be observed, which not only allow spectators to comprehend canonic instances of a particular mode, but also to comprehend innovative forms and stylistic devices they could not possibly have encountered before, etc.' (114)

 

The paragraph leaves much to supposition; it states rather than persuades; 'etc.' elicits discomfort at what might be left hidden, unnamed. Where's the proof that spectators everywhere, historically, or only recently, or perhaps someday soon, will all agree on what any shot means, any more than President Clinton and Congress can agree on the meaning of that previously-innocuous word 'is'? Indeed, Francois Jost, later in this very section, notes that to see film, 'is not to be presented with an enunciating system which is as rationally organised as the nesting of Russian dolls . . . We have to accept that: the spectator is not the monolithic being described by semiology, he is rather a tissue of hesitations' (190). This admission is refreshing, but sadly not developed further in the book.

 

In fact, in the thrid section, The Pragmatic Tendency in the New Film Semiology, the stuffy approach of most of the writers here is still in evidence, despite their move from semiotics to pragmatics. As explained by Elena Dagrada in the book's final chapter: 'In pragmatics, the notion of reader as passive recipient of a meaning that is independent from him, is transformed into the notion of reader as active agent who attributes meaning to a text' ( 237). For Dagrada, reader and spectator follow the same rules and the same theories apply to both. Indeed, the premise of the book in its entirety is that film is a language like any other and that it must and can be understood only by using the tools for meaning-making that science -- for example linguistics and psychology -- rather than art -- for example, literary or cultural theory -- proposes. Ultimately, the book's agenda is to lay the case before the reader that while film itself may be an art, understanding it is a science.

 

Thus, in his state-of-the-field, distilled definition of 'spectator', Roger Odin in 'For a Semio-Pragmatics of Film' argues (after a nod to the Metz definition, which admits that for the researcher the spectator is not 'a whole, concrete person, but only a part of him which goes there') that the spectator 'can be defined as *the point of passage of a bundle of determinations*' (215). Odin then admits that classic film may be the only 'institution' for which classic semiotics may pertain, 'for everyone has assimilated the norms of fiction film' (221). Assuming that this assertion is universally true (and I doubt it can be so), for Odin it follows that the reason we cannot understand experimental and documentary films using classic film semiotics is due to a 'conflict' between these institutions and the classic one. But he fails to offer any tool for parsing non-classic film. I admit that I am therefore not fully and entirely convinced that this chapter is useful to those outside the cocoon of film semiotics, pragmatics and diagramatics.

 

_The Film Spectator_ is a valuable addition to the culture debates as they relate to core studies and the notion of what every educated person must know to be so described. In addition, it is a valuable book for the ongoing discussion of what the field of film studies is (or should be) all about. For the race to make film studies an acceptable academic area seems to have left the field captive in soft science rather than hard art, and I for one would like to see it expand to embrace both disciplines, and more. As Walter Benjamin noted sixty years ago in 'The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction', once the 'aura' of the icon is replaced by the democratic principle of the wholesale dissemination of an image, most especially cinema, the entire world is transformed. Film has changed the way people -- at any rate, those who have access to it -- see themselves and others. It is not only a mirror image of who we humans are, but it is also a tool for presenting possibilities for who we can be. Thus, it is a powerful tool for social change. And like all tools of social change it can be used equally for good and for evil. When the study of film is placed exclusively in the field of linguistics and cognitive psychology it can become mired in esoteric minutiae and die the bureaucratic death of the imagination. It is time to disentangle that knot and let the field breathe the air not of pragmatics but of pragmatism, of the pursuit of meaningful, not esoteric meaning.

 

University of Maryland, USA

 

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Liora Moriel, 'The Sign of Zero: Semantics of Seeing, Perceiving, and Believing',  _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 2 no. 34, November 1998 <http://www.film-philosophy.com/vol2-1998/n34moriel>.

 

Copyright © _Film-Philosophy_ 1998

 

 

 

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