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The Poetic Language of Cinema




Part One cont'd

The Cinematic Signifier: A History

The study of signs and the developments in the field semiotics has given the critique of cinema a big leap ahead, although after more than seventy years of cinema’s birth, film studies as a discipline moved from the mere feature-like reviews of the journalist to the systematic study of film as a form of expression that needed fundamental understanding, as well as studying individual texts.
The strong consistent flow of American genre cinema seemed to give the impression that cinema is indeed approachable through the systematic methods of text analysis driven from structural linguistics. “Semiotics promised to track down the units of representation in the aesthetic system [of the genre conventions, and structuralism] to account for the specific narrative shape of the values represented.”
However, it seems that the disciplined approaches of linguistics to the study of sign in cinema proved to be too rigid to accommodate the fluidity of the rhetorical nature of the medium. Later, Christian Metz will expand the notion of the cinematic signifier by moving to the study of figures rather than codes, which was borrowed from linguistics. This meant that signification in cinema could now be studied in the wider possible field of  interdisciplinary activities which will employ semiotics terminology as well as those of “rhetoric (tropes of metaphor, metonymy, irony, etc.) and psychoanalysis.”
Our study is thus informed by such an understanding of the cinematic signifier. It does not limit its work in the filmic text to a narrow mechanical way. It furthermore, accepts that film is not ordered in the same way natural language is but it is ordered “as a set of practices and strategies which are in some way “ready-to-hand,” yet do not constitute a system in the usual sense.

Cinema and Narrative

If cinema does not possess a complete, self-contained language, how can it create meaning? How do we understand the meaning of a scene or a visual sequence without having to rely on spoken or written language?

The most frequent explanation is the relation between cinema and our experience of "reality." In such a relation, it is claimed, we are provided with a way of understanding the new language of the cinema. This way of understanding the process of signification in cinema works by centring narrative as a crucial element in any suggestion of a cinematic language: 

Although it accepts that, in order to understand a film we need not to have a dialogue or a commentary to explain the images we looking at, this view seems to imply that the mere images in films provide us with references to familiar narratives . According to this view, when we see a sequence in a film, with people going places and doing things, we the audience refer to our memories of such events in real life. We extract further specific meanings by decoding the messages sent to us through the reorganisations of these familiar events. Through devices such as editing and composition we get to know why, when, how, etc. things are happening in a particular way or to a particular character. The answers to these questions form the domain of the filmmaker in where specific cultural, ideological, political, etc. meanings are written in the film, (as well as the domain of the interpreter, of course.)
This way of understanding how a film communicates to us, as viewers, is heavily dependent on narrativity and narrative techniques. It seems to suggest that we need to form "stories" with familiar images and narrative components in order to piece together the messages conveyed to us.
However, films can not copy reality by just reconstructing all familiar events in the same way they happen in real life. This is impossible for the simple fact that life is larger than the limited time of films!
It is true that traditions of storytelling, well established in speech and written languages, might aid this language of cinema to create ways of condensing time and space (i.e. punctuating the process of storytelling.) But we understand, from narrative traditions, that to tell and receive a story we need more than words and grammar. And since cinema does not posses a language of its own it would have to rely on the system provided by natural language. Cinema would have to form, therefore, a way or a system of referring to those familiar events from "real life" ; a system of relations and symbols that can bridge the gap between our representations and their references in reality.
Indeed, the problem with this explanation to the way cinema makes sense (which is based on narrativity and the references to reality) is that the most simple techniques of cinema do not conform to the rationality of the narrative. A vivid example is the links between shots in films: 

  • Character (A) takes his hat off in the sitting room.
  •  Cut. 
  • (A) Completes the action (taking the hat off) in the bedroom . 
  • Cut. 
Viewers seems to understand these simple techniques of moving in space and time immediately, while these do not hold any similarity to the real nor to the techniques of storytelling.
It seems that the kind of grammar needed, for this cinematic language to exist, resides in a system of exchange between a language of cinema on the one hand and speech and written language on the other.
Narrative cinema, therefore, does not rely only on dialogues and spoken words, nor does it only draw from the codes that viewers are familiar with, the codes of language.
The code of reference for the cinematic language (the grammar that facilitates communication between users, i.e. audiences and filmmakers,) resides, we argue, in other established systems including natural language itself. However, this code of reference is a complex body of relations, interactions and processes. 

In this code, in this area of interactions and symbolic interdependent living, resides the irrational work of a true language of cinema. A language that is so transcendental and revolutionary that it is poetic by nature.

  The Poetry of Cinema

The dominance of narrative prose in cinematic expression, according to Pasolini, is altogether strange and marks an unexpected development which contradicts the very nature of cinema itself. It is a language that is made of a "peculiar and ambiguous prose, insofar as the irrational component of cinema cannot be eliminated." This irrationality is embedded, Pasolini suggests, in the very nature of cinema. It stems from the fact that the initial materials of cinema, when compared to language belong ultimately to the world of memories and dreams. "Every attempt at memorisation is a series of im-signs (image-sign), that is primarily a cinematic sequence [and that] all dreams are series of im-signs which have all the characteristics of the cinematic sequence: close-ups, longshots, etc." 
Whether we agreed or not with this hypothesis about the origin of the cinematic signifier, it’s quite evident that cinema has indeed taken a different direction since its early beginnings; a direction that, many believe, has nothing to do with the nature of the medium itself. It is a development that has been rather imposed by the political economy of the cinema experience, namely the rendering of cinema as an industry that manufactures its products for mass consumption.A closer look into the elements of the language of cinema will clarify why the medium seems to posse a poetic quality in essence.
The most visible elements of the language of cinema are usually those associated with image. Camera features such as angle, depth of field, movement (zooms and tracks, etc.) are examples of elements that are thought to be unique to cinema. Editing also works as another crucial element in the evolution of cinematic language.
These elements however do not posses entirely independent methods of articulation. Camera has its history in photography and painting, while editing seems to draw from the experience in writing. This should not pose a problem to their originality and uniqueness within cinema, as they manage to establish themselves in a different and independent way. The evolution of stylistic techniques such as the development of the mise en scene and the treatment of space testifies to the originality of these elements in cinema. Looking to a variety of films since the beginning of cinema, David Bordwell describes this evolution: "one shot versus several; single versus multiple camera positions; fairly flat versus deep compositions; distant views versus close ones; special and temporal continuity versus discontinuity.” These are in fact the unique features through which camera composition and editing made cinema a different media.


Sound (dialogue and stories in particular), however, can arguably be described as alien element that needed to be adapted and appropriated within the medium. In other words, it was only through narrative cinema that dialogue had acquired its place in the medium.
Looking into those elements and familiar techniques that cinema has invented and originated, it is possible to find their references in other codes and phenomena. A conventional cinematic technique such the dissolve established in classic Hollywood cinema, would denote the passage of time. This similarity between the technique and a natural phenomenon like the movement of daylight or sunset can suggest that there is a metaphorical sensibility embedded in the core of this conventional technique. Yet, the actual method and material of this particular signifier is completely alien to the field from which it brings its reference. “A dissolve denotes the passage of time today only because it figures that passage palpably through the physical intertwining of adjacent but distinct scenes.”
Dudley’s explanation to Metz’s view on the notion of figures such as the dissolve is indeed an illuminating note to end this section before we go into our case studies.
“While we may be accustomed to thinking of figures as abnormal, disordering embellishments in a well-ordered rational discourse, Metz suggest that they are, especially in cinema, the normal marks of an irrational discourse which becomes progressively ordered.”  H.K.

To be cont'd


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