Lecture 8: Semiotics of Film and Ideology

Power of Movies

  • Film at the level of signifier is chain of images only. We read films at the level of the signified. How those chain of images affect us, mean to us
  • DVDs, VHS, home theatre
  • The Rise of Blockbusters: People not going out to movies because movies became available at DVDs, VHS. However, the attendance of going to a movie theatre to watch a movie has not dropped. Because watching it in a theatre is a spectacle. People like to watch movies before it comes out on DVD
  • Going to a movie is a communal events (going out with friends, a get together) and a social act
  • No other social institution engaged in the construction and distribution of public discourse has the pervasiveness and volume of consumption as the mass media. Because of pervasiveness of movies, people tend to and watch movies in theatres
  • Syntagmatic: The structure of the film. Most films are structured the same (Ex. Lighting, beginning, middle and end, speech). Each sign complements each other to build this structure
  • Paradigmatic: The choices made in the film by the director (Ex. Is the movie violent, why did the director use a gun in a certain scene instead of a knife, what was not put into the film and why). Therefore it is the study of the structure of movie
  • Syntagmatic Axis: Contrasting between the existing signifiers and signified in the film. The Syntagmatic axis is the arrangement of the shots in the film
  • Paradigmatic Axis: Why the characters in the film acted in a certain way in a shot
  • Auteur Theory: The theory holds that the director is the designer of the film. He holds the creative mind directing the films. They pick a certain style to be implemented in the film

Signifier and Signified in Film

  • In film, we are not always sure what is being signified, so we feel a distinct need to give what we’re seeing some sort of meaning
  • Thus, there is a gap / separation between the signifier and signified
  • This has three important implications. First, the image as signifier and its relationship to any accompanying sound is the raw material with which the filmmaker works. It’s like a painter trying to give meaning to his painting by what he puts on the canvas. Nicholas says there is a cinematic catalogue that the filmmaker relies on to shape his / her film and give it right tone, feeling and meaning. Second, despite this, it is still up to the viewer to assign meaning to what he/she is seeing and hearing. Therefore, we make relationship to what we see. Third, a film signifier does not necessarily mean the exact same thing to everyone and these variations cannot be controlled by the filmmaker
  • Still ideology is at work because you are relying on your connotation of the film which as we have learned involves your culture, background, experiences, something that we often share similarities in with each other. Therefore, we read images in the movies different ways (but some of can read it the same way). For the viewer, the meaning is at the signified level because we tend to make meanings of images

Schindler’s List

  • Filmed in black and white
  • Ends on a positive and uplifting note: narratives are structured in ways that end with a positive note
  • It satisfies two requirements for historical American films. First, a quest for authenticity, the story must have actually happened. Second, the demand for a human story, one of determination, decency, courage, and a final triumph of will in which good beats out evil

Post 9/11 Films

  • What have emerged in films are the cinematic representations of the apocalypse, which have been much more pessimistic post-9/11, thus demonstrating that Hollywood science fiction, or sci-fi, can facilitate wider sociopolitical concerns while continuing to provide the expected spectacular, audio-visual displays
  • The impact of 9/11 also had a profound effect on the American popular imagination and its manifestation in mass culture
  • How has Hollywood transcoded these fears in society into film around the events of 9/11?
  • To transcode is to translate and organize the prevalent social attitudes, representations and discourses into cinematic narratives
  • We see a movement away from end of world narratives that happen as a result of biblical stories to narratives of the end of the world as a result of human actions, pandemics, alien invasions. Hollywood does not directly reference 9/11, but uses metaphors of the event to make narratives of apocalypse films (Ex. War of the Worlds, where the chaos in the city where buildings fell, the ground breaks, people covered in dust. It is not directly referencing 9/11, but through such representations it is doing so indirectly. It valorizes the status quo by showing it under threats by disaster. It’s a chance to start clean
  • Since Obama was elected, we start to see more optimism, more hopes as reflected by the election of Barack Obama


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