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The Poetic Language of Cinema

Through its century-long history of existence, cinematic expression has continued to reside, at least in its mainstream manifestations, in the domain of prose. The many possibilities for the articulation of meaning, with which the new medium was born, have lent themselves to the rationalistic nature of a particular kind of prose, namely that of narrative. What came to be known as Narrative cinema dominated the new medium and, influenced by the long history of literature and the novel, has assigned itself to a certain relationship with reality.[1]  
It is indeed a legitimate question to investigate why cinema, and its language, has been deemed, since the early beginnings, as narrator rather than a poet, while there are no innate proprieties that force such characteristic upon the new medium. In the contrary, cinema in essence, we will argue, is rather a close relative to the traditions of poetry than those of prose.  This essay is a contribution in reclaiming poetry back into the cinematic expression.

It is worth noting, however, that - for research necessities - we are placing the notion of “poetic versus narrative expression” in cinema, as a way of defining the realm of questions with which we are concerned in this particular study. It is a way in which, we believe, a fruitful course of analysis of the subject of language of cinema can be worked out. We are aware of the many problems that may arise from such clear-cut contrasting of the two features; there are many grey areas in where poetic and narrative features interact, exchange and coexist in one text. This fact will not be ignored and will be pointed out whenever appropriate.
The study is constructed around four parts. The first part is a relatively long chapter in
which we aim to clarify our major theoretical assumptions and explain our approach to the question of poetic in cinema. In it we will set our descriptions and definitions to the concept of poetic cinema in relation to the concept of cinematic language and narrative and answer basic questions on how to understand these terms. The following three parts are case studies of three film texts through which we aim to bring our findings and theoretical framework in this first chapter into practical use, as well as elaborating on those findings and developing further their frameworks.  
Our chief aim therefore to use these examples (the films under critical analysis) as a working material to enhance our theoretical endeavor into the subject.  This working material will indeed be approached with critical tools, but only to serve our investigation into the language of cinema.  
The last part of the study is a short conclusion in which we hope to sum up our approach to the question of poetic cinema.

Part One:

Between Language and Cinema

As a departure point, it is very important to state that this study subscribes itself to a broad assumption that cinema is indeed a poetic medium. It is an assumption that constitutes, at the same time, the core of our investigation and analysis, since we will be arguing and explaining why cinema is a poetic medium in essence. 
The medium of cinema is widely viewed and generally accepted as a form of narration, as a story-telling agent, hence the frequent reference to films as being stories. It is often stated that “both films and novels tell long stories with a wealth of detail and they do it from a prospective of a narrator. [..] Whatever can be told in print in print in a novel can be roughly pictured or told in a film.” [2] 
We seem to take such an understanding of films for granted. This is hardly surprising, bearing in mind that the vast majority of films produced in mainstream cinema, whether European or American, is indeed dominated by the cinema of narration
However, a closer look, even to the most narrative-driven films, may suggest, in our opinion, that the cinema of narration is not exactly a given indisputable fact. The boundaries between narrative and poetic films are somehow exaggerated. 
Among other things, this study aims to discredit such an assumption about the cinema of narration. We claim here that narrative structures and strategies in cinema do not strictly work in the domain of narrative and storytelling.  
At this stage of the study, however, some other assumptions need to be addressed and clarified in this introduction, namely the common use of the term language in relation to cinema. Since our essay will benefit from semiotic terminology in its analysis, we need to establish the use of terms such as language of cinema and cinematic signifiers or expressions such as images as signs and what we mean by language in relation to cinema.

Cinema as a Language?

The immediate popular comparisons between cinema and language take the similarities that exist between them, especially after the advent of sound, to the widest possible horizons. Cinema was declared as a language in its own right, which is comparable to any other language. Images were to be compared to words, sequences to sentences and so on. These views were, in many ways, ground breaking and were not, simply, reductions of the nature of both cinema and language. Such notions were actually influenced and supported from disciplines such as Freudian theories of language and their touch on concepts like (word versus thing.)

As Stephen Heath noted, the containment of language and sound is “part of a complex and entangled history in which cinema condenses and intersects a whole series of issues of sight and sound.”[3]  “The coming of the sound in the cinema is the coming of language through the voice. At every moment that he operates the distinction between “thing” and "word", the antithesis of "visual" and "verbal," finds language everywhere as though involved in a forceful resistance to Wittgenstien's note that (what can be seen can not be said.)” [4] What can be seen, when we view cinema as language, would form an "utterance" in itself and hence give the visual medium of film the power of creating meaning just as any linguistic system. Such views thus needed to break down the elements that form the language of cinema, an unfounded term as at this stage, in order to justify the crowning of the new medium as a linguistic system.


Since Christian Metz's "Cinema and Language" was first published in 1971 it became even more common and acceptable to view and analyse cinema through the different applications of General Linguistics and of Semiology. It became so common to view the way cinema articulated meaning in the same way we view other linguistic systems, such as natural languages. 
Christian Metz
But, as we discovered from linguistic, every linguistic system needs to have two important components for it to qualify into such a category. These are, Langue, which constitutes the code, the set of grammatical rules which governs, constrains and, hence, facilitates a common ground for the instrumental use of any particular language. The other component is Languageor speech, which refers to the individual use of langue, and to the process through which signification takes place and meaning is created. Thus, Metz's main observation in approaching the problem of signification (i.e. understanding how a film text produces, articulates and communicates meaning to its reader) was that, unlike linguistic systems, cinema seems to lack a code that is common to all its users, which makes possible the articulation of individual speech. 
Cinema therefore can not be treated as a language in the conventional sense, since it lacks that necessary code or system of grammatical rules. Thus, to describe, and treat, cinema as a linguistic system in the Sausserian sense is indeed problematic. [5]
In our study therefore we use the term cinematic language outside this normal descriptions of linguistic systems. Our use of the term, cinematic language, is almost a metaphoric one (drawing from the many similarities between these (different systems) without regarding the cinematic language as  identical to natural linguistic systems. H.K.
To be continued

[1] A closer examination of the kinds of narratives dominating mainstream cinema in the early days might prove that social realism with its various manifestations constituted a large portion of this bulk. Notions like art as a mirror -reflection of reality, which had dominated literature at the dawn of the departing century, seemed to have found a magical tool in the seemingly honest instrument known as the Camera. It was assumed that reality could easily be depicted and reproduced; mechanically off course.
[2]  James Monaco, How To Read A Film, 1977, 1981, p.27
[3] Cinema and Language, 1983, S Heath, p4
[4] ibid p.8
[5] It seems that the only common code or grammatical reference cinema might possess, would almost certainly  reside outside the medium itself! We will come to this point in details further on.



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