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Theoretical framework of film semiotics

Film semiotics should be regarded as a certain application of general semiotics to the specific object of cinematographic language with its signs and meanings. The first question, which immediately arises in film semiotics is rightly voiced by Metz, who asks whether it is applicable to all genres in cinematograph (Metz 65). And answers, that it relates mostly to narrative films, which use wide spectrum of ‘figures of the semiotics of the cinema’, including montage, sequences, camera movements, relations between music, speech and image and other techniques, which represent semiotic specifics of cinematograph (Metz 66).

Film semiotics, as it was noted above, functions within narrative framework. The narrative is constructed by means of cinematic syntax, represented by certain formal mechanisms of image presentation such as close-up, montage etc. The abovementioned techniques and their semiotic meaning may be understood through the procedures of denotation and connotation, following basic linguistics (Metz 67).

Film denotation includes narrative itself, events, characters and landscapes, other spatial and temporal dimensions of the plot, while connotation includes special affects, soundtracks, montage techniques and camera work, which in sum creates certain connotative impressions and meanings, which are closely connected with denotation (Metz 68). In this way, denotation and connotation are united in a single narration (Metz 68). Paradigmatic and syntactical elements of film language are, however, different from ordinary language.

The creation of image represents creation of the sign, rather than reproduction of the pre-defined meaning. That is why, film language is assertive in nature (Metz 70). The concept of paradigm is applicable to the creation of image, because it includes using elements with similarities, which help unite them to produce a single meaning. The latter implies that film shot is different from a word. A word exists in a language’s vocabulary, which was formed in the process of historical development.

Instead, film shot every time creates new meanings. The use of signs is motivated in the cinema. For instance, denotative signs are identical to concepts, which they present. Their identity is explained by simple correspondence between film image and idea, notion or concept, which it represents. For instance, when we see a tree, we think of its notion; when we see courageous deeds of protagonists we think of heroism etc. However, even partial distortion does not destroy their directly motivational meanings (Metz 72).

Unlike denotation, connotation in film semiotics is characterized by a larger extent of arbitrariness and symbolic role. Their arbitrariness should be understood in terms of existing possibility to use wide spectrum of signs to reflect the same meaning. Certain signs such as soundtracks, tunes if introduced to the movie, may play a connotative function in its future course (Metz gives an example of main protagonist’s tune, which if then repeated makes us think about main protagonist even if he is absent from the shot) (Metz 73).

There is no denying the importance of the fact, that such techniques may be compared with a trope, named metonym. The denotative and connotative signs are usually realized through certain cultural and specialized codes. Cultural codes represent interiorized human practices, which are understood without explanation, because there are connected with nationality, economic necessity, relations between sexes, colleagues, friends etc. peculiar to a given culture. Cultural codes help spectators to identify themselves with protagonists and interpret film meaning.

Specialized codes include technical signifying practices, such as montage, camera angles, sequences etc (Metz 75-76). The entire spectrum of film semiotic elements, according to Metz consists of 8 autonomous segments, which are subdivided into two distinct categories – autonomous shot and syntagmas. The latter present the core of film’s semiotic structure and include achronological syntagmas (Parallel and bracket syntagmas) and chronological syntagmas (descriptive, narrative: alternate, linear: scene, sequences: episodic, ordinary) (Metz 78). Let us examine several types of syntagmas.

Parallel syntagmas, which belong to a group of achronological syntagmas are one of the most widely used semiotic practices in the film language. Parallel syntagmas are expressed in parallel sequences, which represent different temporal, spatial or eventual aspects of the entire narrative, which are, however, not explicitly denotated (Metz 79). In this way, parallel syntagmas help divide narrative into certain subnarratives, characterized by the explanatory power and dialectical unity with a film plot. Another type of achronological syntagmas is presented by bracket syntagmas.

Bracket syntagmas represent completed semiotic meanings, which are taken separately from the entire narrative. They have no direct temporal and spatial relation with main plot, but actualize certain ideas and perceptions through the use of special visual and audio affects (Metz 80). Godard’s Two or Three Things I Know about Her (1967) in light of film semiotics The above discussed conceptual edifice of film semiotics may be directly applied to Godard’s film Two or Three Tings I Know about Her, to trace basic semiotic techniques and grammar, which are used in Godard’s film.

The basic framework for such an analysis should focus on realization of Godard’s role in creating a completely revolutionary approach to film-making, known as the New Wave (Wollen 525). Godard’s film evidently breaks certain semiotic conventions, which were discussed by Metz. First of all, as far as narration linearity and transitivity are concerned, Godard’s approach is different from Hollywood style narration, which is based on psychological causality, motivation and coherence, derived from basic cultural semiotic codes peculiar to Western civilization, that is rationality and common sense.

First of all, the identity of main protagonist is completely destructed by means of delinking signifier and signified. We do not know for sure, whom does Godard present: Juliette Janson or Marina Vlady. This is realized through parallel syntagmic structure of narration: Godard shows the main protagonist both as actress in a movies, house wife and a ‘call girl’. However, these parallel lines are only technically parallel, because they are not meant to be united in a single denotative meaning, which would provide us with a well-grounded framework of understanding.

Instead, Godard portrays the absence of identity in modern life, its schizophrenic duplicity (Wollen 527). Moreover, it should be noted, that Godard tries to make the image sequence arbitrary to portray the accidental nature of sign and meaning. The latter is realized through documentary technique, which is not peculiar to Hollywood-style narrative films. There is no denying the importance of the fact, that Godard utilizes wide spectrum of connotative techniques, reflected in images and sounds to create perceptual atmosphere of industrial reality of the city.

In such a way Godard tries not to create the reality, but reconstruct the structure of existing life, which is close to the aspirations of Italian Neorealism. For instance, Godard often uses montage technique to make insert images of building cranes and utilizes contrasting modulations of sound: ranging from silence to construction noises. Often connotative images are not obviously tied into the fabric of the plot, presenting singular meanings, which should be addressed as separate semiotic meanings, such as long conversation between strangers in the bistro, camera close-ups of foam, coming from the coffee cup, the images of pinball machine.

These two sequences of conversation and coffee foam bear all characteristics of bracket syntagmas, described by Metz. First of all, they are delinked from the core narrative and have no temporal and structural relations with denotated meanings. Moreover, their connotative meaning are not explicitly defined, hence, we can not understand what directly is implied. The latter means that these sequences represent separate realities, which should be interpreted as perceptual actualization of certain meanings.

The fixation on coffee is evidently aimed at transmitting the atmosphere of intellectuality and conversation, peculiar to Parisienne cultural and scientific boheme. Long conversation of strangers may denote the spontaneity of city life, its accidental character etc. Apart of specialized syntagmic rules, constantly broken by Godard in this film, the structure of cultural codes, described by Metz as the structural elements of spectators’ understanding are criticized and debunked by Godard.

The latter includes the representation of new-borne consumer society, which was portrayed in the end of the film with Godard’s famous shot of household products, properly arranged near a suburban house. Works Cited Metz, Christian. “Some Points in the Semiotics of the Cinema”, Braudy and Cohen, 1974, 65-72. Metz, Christian. “Problems of Denotation in the Fiction Film”, Braudy and Cohen, 1974, 72-87. Wollen, Peter. “Godard and Counter Cinema: Vent d’Est”, Braudy and Cohen, 1974, 525-533. Godard, Jean-Luc. Two or Three Things I Know about Her Jean-Luc Godard, Argos Films. 1967.

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