ISSN 1466-4615

Volume 3 Number 25, June 1999



Karla Oeler

Signs of the Times

The Thirty-Year Trajectory of _Signs and Meaning in the Cinema_





Peter Wollen

_Signs and Meaning in the Cinema_

Expanded and revised edition

London: British Film Institute, 1998

ISBN 0-85170-646-0 hbk; 0-85170-647-9 pbk

188 pages


'Incompatible elements in a text should not be ironed out but confronted.'


The 1998 expanded edition of Peter Wollen's _Signs and Meaning in the Cinema_ is not simply a reissue of a seminal text in film aesthetics; it delineates a history of intellectual trends since the book was written in May 1968. In addition to the three original essays on Sergei Eisenstein, auteur theory, and film semiotics, the text includes the Conclusion to the 1972 edition, a series of articles written by Wollen under the name of 'Lee Russell' for the journal _New Left Review_ in the 1960's, and a 1997 Afterword in which 'Lee Russell' interviews Peter Wollen. The Conclusion and Afterword reveal Wollen's intellectual trajectory as he metamorphoses from structuralist to post-structuralist to one who refuses either label. The original text withstands all these transformations, and the questions it asks of film aesthetics are as relevant today as they were 30 years ago: What are the principles of cinematic language? How are we to practice film criticism? And what is the relationship between film aesthetics, ethics, and politics? Wollen addresses these questions as they relate to realism and constructivism, the mainstream and the avant-garde.


Chapter one, 'Eisenstein's Aesthetics', was one of the first comprehensive English-language accounts of Eisenstein's filmmaking and film theorizing. Wollen traces Eisenstein's development in the schools of revolutionary politics and avant-garde theatre. Eisenstein trained with theatre director Vsevolod Meyerhold, who was part of the riotous, irreverent Russian avant-garde of the early twentieth century. Aesthetics of Meyerhold's time were boisterous. The Hylaea group was writing the Futurist manifesto 'Slap in the Face of Public Taste'; literary critic and Futurist sympathizer Victor Shklovsky was taking his galoshes to poetry readings in order to throw them at disgruntled audience members. Eisenstein, working after the Revolution, imbibed the raucous, confrontational tendencies of this pre-revolutionary milieu, and Wollen traces the consistency of the agitating and agitational aspects of Eisenstein's aesthetics, beginning with his earliest, theatrical concept of a 'montage of attractions' -- the assembly of spectacles such as gymnastics and trapeze artistry, guaranteed to capture an audience. (Eisenstein's own essay 'The Montage of Attractions' (1923) has been available to English-speaking readers since 1957 in _Film Form: Essays in Film Theory; and The Film Sense_, a collection of Eisenstein's essays edited and translated by Jay Leyda. [1] It is one of the drawbacks of the new edition of Signs and Meaning that, like previous editions it contains no footnotes and no bibliography.)


If Meyerhold's experimental theatre inspired Eisenstein's development of the concept of 'attractions', it was, according to Wollen, documentary filmmaker Dziga Vertov who spurred his theories of film editing: 'Eisenstein was to tell Hans Richter . . . that Vertov should be credited with the invention of musical rhythm in the cinema, governing the tempo of the film by the measured pace of the cutting, and hence with a decisive breakthrough in montage principles' (24). Anyone who has seen _Man with a Movie Camera_ (1929) with the Alloy Orchestra soundtrack (based on musical instructions written by Vertov) will surely agree; yet it is interesting that Wollen neglects to mention the influence of D. W. Griffith, whom Eisenstein frequently mentions in connection with montage.


Eisenstein distances himself from documentarist Vertov and his group, the 'kinoks' or 'kino-eyes' with the famous polemical quip, 'I don't believe in kino-eye, I believe in kino-fist'. This remark reflects what Wollen considers to be the strength of Eisenstein's filmmaking -- its 'lampooning edge' (29). According to this criterion, Wollen ranks _Strike_ (1925), _October_ (1928), and _Ivan the Terrible_ (Part One, 1944; Part Two, 1946) as Eisenstein's three best films, arguing that 'Eisenstein was at his strongest when he was working within the theatrical tradition which exerted such influence on him in the 1920's' (29).


While Wollen sees lampooning 'attractions' or 'stimuli' -- the superimposition of the police informants in _Strike_ with the animals after whom they are named, or nondiegetic inserts such as the mechanical peacock in _October_, which represents the vanity of Kerensky -- as successful features of Eisenstein's films, he notes a tension, fatal to Eisenstein's writings on aesthetics, between the Pavlovian, materialist theory behind this 'montage of attractions' and a dialectical conception of montage. According to this conception, one shot collides with another to produce a meaning that is greater than either shot, or both, considered individually. There are other collisions as well, such as collisions of graphic elements within the shot, and in the sound era, collisions within the sound track and between tempo of the sound track and tempo of the cutting. Wollen is quick to dismiss Eisenstein's attempt to think montage through the Hegelian dialectic:


'At an epistemological level, [Eisenstein] was never able to resolve clearly what he intended by the Marxism to which he was fervently committed. It fell into two unrelated shells, and lacked a binding core. On the one hand was a 'scientistic' materialism, which sought a physiological explanation for all human activity. On the other hand, there was a purely formal and abstract concept of the Hegelian dialectic, mechanically applied and eventually degenerating into an empty stereotype' (47).


Wollen could do more to support this judgment; it is possible to think of instances where the Hegelian dialectic is not such an empty model. David Quint, for instance, in the final chapter of _Epic and Empire_, describes a rich dialectical relationship between images of the motley Russian army and the homogeneous German lines in _Alexander Nevsky_ (1938). [2]


Wollen's decision to open his book with a chapter on Eisenstein was strategic. Written at a time when the intellectual establishment still considered popular film unworthy of serious attention, his rigorous analysis of Eisenstein (an accepted figure for such inquiry) paved the way for an analysis of popular cinema, which would employ an analogous methodology -- auteur theory. This methodology, which focuses on thematic and stylistic patterns in the oeuvre of a single director, was developed specifically in regard to Hollywood films when they flooded French movie houses after the war. There are two main critiques of the theory. First, its critics claim that it fails fully to account for the collaborative nature of filmmaking. Second, it risks avoiding consideration of cinema as inflected by such factors as ideology and unconscious desire. Wollen's 1968 essay is particularly vulnerable to the first critique. He writes, 'sometimes these separate texts -- those of the cameraman or the actors -- may force themselves into prominence so that the film becomes an indecipherable palimpsest. This does not mean, of course, that it ceases to exist or to sway us or please us or intrigue us; it simply means that it is inaccessible to criticism. We can merely record our momentary and subjective impressions' (71). Wollen here implies that auteur theory is the only viable means for criticism. It is only in its first phase, however, that Wollen's conception of auteur theory supersedes all other approaches. In his 1972 Conclusion he writes that auteur theory, 'cannot simply be applied indiscriminately. Nor does an auteur analysis exhaust what can be said about any single film. It does no more than provide one way of decoding a film, by specifying what its mechanics are at one level. There are other kinds of code which could be proposed, and whether they are of any value or not will have to be settled by reference to the text, to the films in question' (115). Thus by 1972, auteur theory is no longer, in Wollen's view, the only method available to the serious critic.


The second critique, that auteur theory ignores psychoanalytic and Marxist contributions to hermeneutics, while perhaps apt for auteurism as practised by Andrew Sarris, has never been applicable to Wollen's shrewd version of this method. Nevertheless, Wollen clearly feels compelled to qualify auteur theory after the post-structuralist death of the author. Indeed, it is through auteur theory that we can best observe Wollen's approach to cinema shift, as it emerges from structuralism to confront the waves of post-structuralism and, for want of a better term, post-post-structuralism. The original essay is structuralist in its approach, specifically in its famous comparison of the films of Howard Hawks and John Ford. [3] In the 1972 Conclusion, however, Wollen clearly feels compelled to qualify auteur theory after the post-structuralist 'death of the author'. He writes:


'The structure [which underlies the film and shapes it] is associated with a single director, an individual, not because he has played the role of artist, expressing himself or his own vision in the film, but because it is through the force of his preoccupations that an unconscious, unintended meaning can be decoded in the film, usually to the surprise of the individual involved. The film is not a communication, but an artefact which is unconsciously structured in a certain way. Auteur analysis does not consist of re-tracing a film to its origins, to its creative source. It consists of tracing a structure (not a message) within the work, which can then post factum be assigned to an individual, the director, on empirical grounds' (167-168).


In the 1997 Afterword, Wollen reflects on his 1972 qualification:


'Basically, I felt that Barthes's and Foucault's famous pronouncements on [the death of the author] were, well, ridiculous. They were extreme tropes generated by their theories of text and discourse. All the same, I still felt called upon to revise my own section on auteurism and give it a Post-Structuralist gloss, pointing out the difference between the manifest 'author' and the latent 'author', so to speak. The author became a kind of effect of the text, which is not so far wrong in itself, but also served to occlude the question of the relationship between the actual author and the textual 'author effect'' (179).


What is at stake for Wollen in rejecting the 'death of the author' is the possibility of making theoretically informed judgments of taste -- a possibility for which auteurism provides one framework. Wollen sees judgments of taste as intimately connected with ethical and political judgments, and his critical commentary on various filmmakers often emphasizes the relationships between these domains. Surprisingly he cites the early-eighteenth-century moral and aesthetic philosopher Shaftesbury as model thinker for film theorists because 'Shaftesbury consistently stressed the links between aesthetics, ethics, and democratic politics' (182).


Wollen's stance brings him into potential conflict with partisans of identity politics and cultural studies, and he acknowledges these tensions in his 1997 Afterword. He discusses the former in terms of the canon, asking himself: 'Isn't the canon debate really about identity politics?' And he replies: 'All I want to claim is that when we set out to revise the canon, we should be able to argue our position on aesthetic grounds' (180). His position in regard to cultural studies is more oppositional: 'I never liked the idea of culture or 'Cultural Studies'. I wanted art and aesthetics' (174). He proceeds to give a concise, informative history of cultural studies, tracing its development by thinkers such as Richard Hoggart and Raymond Williams, who were united in valuing British working class culture and in opposing the threat to that culture posed by mass culture, specifically, the Hollywood film. He also cites thinkers such as F. R. Leavis, who resented the idea of culture as the property of an elite rather than the people as a whole. Describing his own position vis-a-vis these thinkers, Wollen writes, 'I am afraid I came down on the side both of aestheticism and the mass media . . . I felt that British culture was stifling, from top to bottom, across classes, and my conclusion was that it needed input from abroad to break up its provincialism and insularity' (175).


It is a rhetorical strength of Wollen's argument that he historicizes cultural studies in its debate with aestheticism, but the real test of his own position lies in seeing where his aestheticism leads him (and where it potentially can lead) in the realm of cinema. Chapter three, 'The Semiology of the Cinema', although it predates his 1972 and 1997 responses to post-structuralism, takes up a linguistic line of inquiry into the aesthetics of film, which may suggest some answers to this question. In this chapter Wollen argues that the linguistic theory of Charles Sanders Peirce constitutes a more accurate model of cinematic language than does the linguistic theory of Ferdinand de Saussure. Unlike Saussure's model, which insists on the importance of the arbitrary sign to the exclusion of other linguistic categories, Peirce conceives of three categories: the iconic, the indexical, and the symbolic. An icon is a sign which represents its object mainly by its similarity to it; 'the relationship between signifier and signified is not arbitrary but is one of resemblance or likeness'. An index is a sign by virtue of an existential bond between itself and its object -- the weathervane, the sundial, Friday's footprint in the sand in _Robinson Crusoe_. A symbol, which corresponds to Saussure's concept of the sign, has an arbitrary relationship with the signified -- a relationship determined solely by convention. According to Peirce, all three categories of sign frequently, even invariably overlap or are co-present.


Wollen uses his claim about the superiority of Peirce for cinematic aesthetics to analyze the work of earlier theorists of the cinema. He writes, 'the aesthetic richness of the cinema springs from the fact that it comprises all three dimensions of the sign: indexical, iconic and symbolic. The great weakness of almost all those who have written about the cinema is that they have taken one of these dimensions, made it the ground of their aesthetic, the 'essential' dimension of the cinematic sign, and discarded the rest. This is to impoverish the cinema' (97). Wollen's insight into the pertinence of Peirce's categories of the sign for study of the cinema leads to tour de force assessments of the work of such theorists as Andre Bazin (whose work emphasizes the indexical) and Christian Metz (whose theories emphasize the symbolic).


In his 1997 Afterword, Wollen reaffirms his interest in an interdisciplinary approach that would combine linguistics and film aesthetics: 'I was eventually forced to reject both Saussure and Chomsky as models, but I still believe that film has a grammar' (165). Such an approach is obviously fruitful in terms of understanding the work of film aestheticians, but the book only hints at the possible results of a linguistic approach in terms of engaging directly with film narratives rather than with film theorists:


'if we look at the way in which verb forms develop, specifically in relation to storytelling, as Givon has described it, we find that they differentiate first between tense, mode and aspect. Tense signals a departure from the main time-line of a narrative. Mode indicates a shift into the non-factual or doubtfully factual -- the subjunctive, the conditional, or even, in some languages, the future. Aspect signals that actions are habitual or ongoing, rather than completed events. In the cinema, flashbacks are tense-like; dream sequences are mode-like; montage sequences are aspect-like' (165-6).


It seems to me that such an approach can be successful only when coupled with a serious effort to think through the differences between language and image. Exactly to what extent are linguistic structures applicable to moving pictures? To answer such a question would entail a reconception of the relationship between viewer and film, and an awareness of the ways in which a film exceeds the linguistic structures with which we address it.


In addition to reaffirming his interest in the intersection between linguistics and film, Wollen, in his 1997 Afterword, claims, 'I am still an auteurist' (159). The epigraph with which I began this review, taken from the 1972 post-structuralist Conclusion to _Signs and Meaning_, applies, of course, to Wollen's own text. The 'incompatible elements' or changes in his thinking over the past thirty years reveal, in my view, the richness of his own single-author and linguistic methodological models as they traverse and transform intellectual history. [4]


Yale University, New Haven, Connecticut, USA





1. Sergei Eisenstein, _Film Form: Essays in Film Theory; and The Film Sense_, ed. and trans. Jay Leyda. (New York: Meridian Books, Inc., 1957).


2. _Epic and Empire_. (Princeton, New Jersey: Princeton UP, 1993), pp. 361-368.


3. In brief, Wollen divides Hawks's films into two categories, which exist in tension with each other: the buddy movies and the screwball comedies. The buddy movies feature primal male bonding in and through danger. Women are excluded as are men who don't make the grade; the heroes distance themselves from society. In the screwball comedies, on the other hand, women are the strong figures and men, in comparison, are helpless and passive. Of Ford Wollen writes: 'A number of Ford films are built round the theme of the quest for the Promised Land, an American re-enactment of the Biblical exodus . . . This theme is built on the combination of two pairs: wilderness versus garden and nomad versus settler' (67). Wollen praises the 'richness' of the shifting relations between these pairs, and suggests that this richness makes Ford's work more profound than that of Hawks. Thus auteur theory serves not only as an interpretive model, but as a means for defending judgments of taste.


4. I am indebted to Alex Woloch for looking over this review and making his usual useful comments.



Copyright © _Film-Philosophy_ 1999


Karla Oeler, 'Signs of the Times: The Thirty-Year Trajectory of _Signs and Meaning in the Cinema_',  _Film-Philosophy_, vol. 3 no. 25, June 1999 <>.




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