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Introduction to the film theory of Semiotics - paying close atention to the film Midnight Cowboy

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  1. 1. Semiotic Film Theory<br />An introduction<br />
  2. 2. Signs<br />
  3. 3. How films ‘signify’<br />Semiotics is the study of signs; or, how films ‘signify’<br />A way of understanding how meaning is conveyed through the various methods human beings employ to convey messages.<br />Body language<br />Gesture<br />Letters <br />Words<br />Pictures<br />Visual Illustrations<br />
  4. 4. Look at the following signs...<br />
  5. 5. In film, semiotics is a useful analytical tool for studying the ways by which visual images form a system for the communication of meaning. Any given moment can be rich in visual meaning. But, we cannot be too scientific about it. Sometimes a train is just a train.<br />
  6. 6. (closely related to) Structuralism<br />Elements within a structure do not possess meaning as individual units but gain their meaning through their relations to other elements.<br />Structuralist film theory emphasizes how films convey meaning through the use of codes and conventions not dissimilar to the way languages are used to construct meaning in communication.<br />
  7. 7. Structuralism<br />An example of this is understanding how the simple combination of shots can create an additional idea: the blank expression on a person's face, an appetising meal, and then back to the person's face. While nothing in this sequence literally expresses hunger—or desire—the juxtaposition of the images convey that meaning to the audience.<br />
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  9. 9. Unraveling this additional meaning can become quite complex. Lighting, angle, shot duration, juxtaposition, cultural context, and a wide array of other elements can actively reinforce or undermine a sequence's meaning.<br />Look at the following exercise. The meaning of the last frame has been created through the questions asked in the first few shots.<br />
  10. 10. The Sign<br />
  11. 11. The sign<br />A sign can be anything in a film shot (visual or aural) that stands for something else<br />A person’s face<br />A prop<br />A background detail.<br />There are three main components to remember: The (1)sign is composed of a (2)signifier -- the material form of the sign -- and (3)the signified -- the concept it represents. <br />Sign -- The written word STOP<br />Signifier -- The letters S-T-O-P<br />Signified concept -- The motion category "stop"<br />In semiotics, the sign is divided into two parts: the signifier and the signified<br />
  12. 12. The signifier and the signified<br />The signifier<br />The aspect of the sign we perceive physically<br />The signified<br />The mental concept to which the sign refers.<br />Meaning is conveyed by the relationship <br />Signifier ------------------------------- Signified<br />Denotation ------------------------------- Connotation<br />
  13. 13. Denotation and Connotation<br />In semiotics there are different 'orders of signification' (levels of meaning). Semioticians distinguish between denotation - what a sign stands for - and connotation - its cultural associations.<br />Connotation involves emotional overtones, objective interpretation, socio-cultural values and ideological assumptions. A car can connote virility or freedom in Western cultures, and so on.<br />Think about Midnight Cowboy. What do the following things connote?<br />Joe Buck’s cowboy outfit<br />The city street<br />The greyhound bus<br />
  14. 14. CODES<br />Codes are the systems of meaning into which signs are organised.<br />Different types of codes<br />Cinematic Codes (eg Editing/shot types)<br />Cultural Codes (eg class, status, handshakes)<br />Generic Codes (Western/ Buddy )<br />Aesthetic Codes (gestures)<br />
  15. 15. codes<br />"The way we watch television and the way we perceive [everyday] reality are fundamentally similar, in that both are determined by conventions or codes. Reality is itself a complex system of signs interpreted by members of the culture in exactly the same way as are films and television programmes. (Fiske)<br />
  16. 16. Paradigmatic and syntagmatic meaning<br />If a film maker has chosen to employ a particular sign at one point from a range of possibilities that is a ‘paradigmatic’ choice. (e.g. what costume to choose for a character).<br />If a sign is related to the signs that occur around it than that is a syntagmatic relationship. (e.g. the final shootout scene in The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly we see shots of eyes, guns and graves. They work together to create meaning.)<br />
  17. 17. Myths<br />Myths are ‘powerful chains of concepts’ by which we understand our world. (Think of the ‘myth’ of clean green New Zealand.) Myths are constructed but often appear natural, a part of reality itself.<br />Is there a myth of Wellington College? Storyboard how you would present this myth in five shots.<br />What myths are being presented in Midnight Cowboy?<br />
  18. 18. Metonymy<br />Metonymy refers to the ability of a sign to represent the ‘whole’ of something while literally being only a part of it. The Eiffel Tower is a metonym for Paris, a palm fringed beach is a metonym for Tahiti, a TV news graphic of a tank passing a village church is a metonym for the war in Bosnia.<br />Film uses metonyms a lot because as signifiers they are economic users of time in a text.<br />
  19. 19. How to use Semiotics when reading a film – (eg Midnight Cowboy)<br />Semioticians look closely at film shots in order to break down their messages into systems of signs and codes. What signs are prominent in Midnight Cowboy?<br />Think about how Joe Buck’s costume is a signifier.<br />The radio.<br />The greyhound bus<br />Look at how the film subverts myths and codes.<br />The American Dream<br />The myth of the West.<br />Generic Codes (i.e. Western codes subverted)<br />What syntagmatic relationships can you uncover?<br />Let’s watch some...<br />
  20. 20. Some further reading<br /><br />- Semiotics for Beginners by Daniel Chandler. As good a place to start as any.<br />