Film Theory: Formalism, Semiotics, and The Language of Film

Film Theory: Formalism, Semiotics, and The Language of Film

STRUCTURALISM: Closely allied with SEMIOLOGY. Structuralists (like Saussure) are interested in the interrelationship of UNITS and RULES. In language, the units are words, and the rules are the forms of grammar. While there are also units of film (FRAMES, SHOTS, etc.) and a film grammar, the UNITS and RULES of film are rather ambiguous. Structuralism is an offshoot of FORMALISM.

SEMIOLOGY, SEMIOTICS: Uses the theories of modern linguistics, especially Saussure’s concept of signification, as a model for the description of the operation of various cultural languages, such as film, television, kinesics (body language), and written and spoken languages. Theory of criticism pioneered in film by Christian Metz and Peter Wollen.

SIGN: In SEMIOLOGY, the basic unit of signification composed of the signifier (which carries meaning) and the signified (which is the concept or thing signified). In written language, for example, the word “tree” is the signifier, the idea of the tree (or the tree itself) is the signified; the whole sign is comprised of both elements. In film, the signifier and the signified are almost identical: a picture of a tree is much closer to an actual tree, conceptually, than the word “tree” is. A picture bears some direct relationship with what it signifies, whereas a word seldom does, with the exception of hieroglyphics and languages like Chinese and Japanese, which use ideograms (written symbols that visually represent an idea or object). There are three categories of signs: ICONIC, a sign which resembles the signified (portrait, photo, diagram, map); SYMBOLIC, a sign which does not resemble the signified but which is purely conventional (the word “stop”, a red traffic light, or a national flag); and INDEXICAL, a sign which is inherently connected in some way to the signified (e.g. smoke signifies fire).

SYNTAGMATIC RELATIONS: A linear relation between signs in a system. One sign has meaning because of its position within the system. For example, in film, the meaning of the establishing shot is determined by its position in relation to the other shots in the scene. See METONYMY.

ASSOCIATIVE RELATIONS: Associative relations occur within the mind of the viewer/reader. Associative relations occur when you make a connection between an image from a film and another image from the same film, an image from a different film, or an image in your mind. Associative relations are arbitrary. Two viewers of one image might make an entirely different set of connections. See METAPHOR.

METONYMY: A figure of speech that is characterized by the substitution of a word or concept closely associated with the object for the object itself. For example, one might describe a man in a business suit as a “suit.” Or, one might describe a sailboat on the horizon as a “sail.” Metonymy is based on a syntagmatic relation. In film, two juxtaposed shots in a montage could be said to have a metonymic relationship, especially if the meaning of one shot depends upon the presence of the subsequent shot.

METAPHOR: A figure of speech that expresses an idea through the image of another object. Metaphors suggest the essence of the first object by identifying it with certain qualities of the second object. For example, fruit is often a metaphor for original sin. Metaphor is based on an associative relation.

FORMALISM: (1) Concern with form over content. (2) The theory that meaning exists primarily in the form or language of a discourse rather than in the content or subject. In other words, meaning in formalism is derived more from style than substance. Formalist techniques often include rapid cutting, asynchronous sound (sound that does not operate in unison with the image), etc. Arnheim and Eisenstein are often considered the most important theorists of film formalism.

EISENSTEIN: Soviet director of films such as Battleship Potemkin (1925), October (1928), and Ivan the Terrible (1943). He theorized that the shot was only the raw material that the filmmaker used to construct the edifice of his film. For Eisenstein, a shot has no meaning until it is put in contention with another shot in a MONTAGE structure.

MONTAGE: (1) Simply, Editing. (2) Eisenstein’s idea that adjacent shots should relate to each other in such a way that A and B combine to produce another meaning, C, which is not actually recorded on the film. Thus, one shot takes on meaning in relation to the shot that precedes and follows it. (3) A highly stylized form of editing, often with the purpose of providing a lot of information in a short period of time.

Aspects of MONTAGE: For Eisenstein, it is “copulation,” a “collision,” “conflict,” and like the “phalanx”. He also compares MONTAGE to the hieroglyph and the haiku. About the relationship between MONTAGE and the hieroglyph, he writes, “the copulation—perhaps we had better say the combination—of two hieroglyphs of the simplest series is regarded not as their sum total but as their product … The combination of two ‘representable’ objects achieves the representation of something that cannot be graphically represented. For example: the representation of
water and of an eye signifies ‘to weep’, the representation of an ear next to a drawing of a door means ‘to listen’.” Similarly in MONTAGE, two images are “[superimposed],” giving birth to a new concept.


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