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Over the last hundred years, cinema has engendered numerous critical approaches, from political to purely esthetic perspectives, from economic analysis to pure historiography. The semiological approach-studying movies as systems of signs communicating with their audiences-developed first in France in the 1970s. This was about the same time that the serious study of film was being allowed into the academic canon in the U.S. (Before 1970 in the U.S., movies were considered just popular culture-not worthy of academic study.) Semiology was used (and misused) by some would-be film academics to give their subject of study a cachet.
A number of theories and approaches have come and gone in the last 30 years, but the semiological approach has stood the test of time. The approach of looking at the world as language continues to reveal new truths. Now, from advertising to movies, from branding to pop stars, from how we dress to marketing theories, we most often view the world as language. Semiology is the basis of our understanding of how we communicate.
What Is Semiology and Why Should I Care?
Semiology is the study of signs, their meaning, and the way in which they mean something. Semiologists look at the world, not in language, but as language. Our culture is seen as a set of systems of signs-units of meaning. And each unit has two parts: the signifier and the signified. We already know this from formal language; there is the word and then there is the meaning of the word. There is a strange force that runs between the word and the thing, the signifier and the signified.
In my opinion, Jean-Luc Godard is to film as James Joyce is to the novel. He is the great postmodern filmmaker. His movies are more about the essence of cinema than they are about people or other ideas. Breathless was the most dramatic break with the film style that had dominated in France as well as the U.S. for 40 years. No other filmmaker has such a delicate and prodigious sense of the semiology of film.
Godard was a student of philosopher Brice Parain who taught us that, "a sign forces us to see an object through its significance." He also featured Parain in one of his movies. So it shouldn't surprise us that Godard is the premier philosopher of film.
His movies aren't masterpieces in the sense that Citizen Kane or even 2001: A Space Odyssey is. But they are remarkable essays on film, more aware of the nuances of the language of film than any other movies made.
So, if you are intrigued by film semiology, Godard's your guy. How can you resist an artist who decides to shut off the camera for a few minutes in order to remind you that sound is at least as important as image in the film equation?
You've never seen such a meaningful (and pretty) black screen!
Take these lines from British poet Gerard Mainly Hopkins's "Pied Beauty":
Glory be to God for dappled things-
For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow;
For rose-moles all in stipple upon trout that swim;
"Pied" is an old-fashioned word for multicolored (as in the "pied Piper.") Hopkins is clearly inspired by the signified, the multicolored marvels of the world, but he is in love with the signifiers-those strange-sounding words that indicate that state: "dappled," "couple-colour," "brinded," "rose-moles," "stipple." (There are a lot more as the poem continues.)
This is what artists do: they love their materials and techniques as much as they admire their subjects. And when they do it well, there is a unity between the signifiers and the signified.
Filmmakers are no different from poets-they just have more signs to play with. They have images and sounds, colors and angles, movement and stillness, montage and mise-en-scène, as well as all the words the poets have.
Developing a culture (whether cinematic or poetic) means understanding more about the denotations of all these signs as well as their connotations (by abernathy). The denotation is the dictionary definition; the connotation is the feeling or implication we associate with the sign. Hopkins clearly enjoys the connotations of all those strange words in "Pied Beauty." Similarly, the more we understand the flavors, allusions, and echoes of a piece of film, the more fun we'll have with it. Taking a shot apart to examine its signs is the way we do that.
At the end of his pied list, Hopkins summarizes it this way:
All things counter, original, spare, strange
What a good definition of signs with rich connotations.