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Introduction of Semiotics in Cinema

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Good morning, so we begin this class with an introduction to Semiotics. So, key concept of course, remains semiotics, iconography, symbol, image and index. Let me write these things for you on the board; semiotics, image, index, icon and iconography, iconicity, symbol. So, I begin with the quotation by Frank Capra, the great Hollywood film director, and where he says that film is one of three universal languages, the other two being mathematics and music; that means films is something that are accessible to all, the same way as music and mathematics, that is the idea. But for that also we need to have some kind of an understanding of semiotics, in order to read a film
better. This is an essay that I would like to recommend to you very strongly, called is a lengthy is not exactly an essay, it is a book called, ‘What is Cinema?’ volume 1 and volume 2, by Andre Bazin; what is cinema? Volume 1, volume 2 by Andre Bazin. We have been talking about Andre Bazin for quite for quite some time Cahier du Cinema and Andre Bazin, and critics like him would keep appearing in this course. So, I am what is cinema? Andre Bazin of course, has written two volumes on that, but according to you,
what is cinema? Student: It showcases the life and times of particular period, person or group of individuals.
Life and time of it is, that is biopics and historical.
Student: Or a brief time period about
Any other?
Student: Conveying a concept or a message
Conveying a concept or a message
Student: Through visually
Through visually
Anything else?
Student: Just a story perhaps.
Cinema is telling a story, through a system of signs, through a system of signs, images,
and index; visual representation, visually telling and narrative, so that is cinema. So, you
can expect the lot of things from a film, but film at the core is the set of signs. Film is
often called the most collaborative of art forms, tell me, what is you in all know, what it
is the collaborative effort? But why do we call film Collaborative art form? It is not like
painting or writing a poem or a novel.
Student: In films, so many elements which comes together, we have moving images,
sound, so many different things coming together, so.
Let us imagine a movie set, Vijayalakshmi, let us imagine a movie set; how many people
do you think, you will find on a you just wander on a movies film set, and then who will
you find?

And crew consists of the cast that means the actors, she means cast people who are
acting in the film; of course without actors they cannot be a film. Now, what is the crew,
who are the members of crew?
What happens to the director? You need a director, and you need a cinematographer, and
you need a Sound Recordist, you need a makeup man, a prop person and several people.
So, it is not a one man show. And once the movie is over, do you think it is over till it’s
released? Editing, post production, editing is the very important aspect, dubbing and also
distribution, marketing as we have all seen in a in a case of a very recent film, that how
theater owners can stop or interfere with the process of a film. Someone who has been
working on movie for several years is handicapped by certain external factor beyond his
control. So, this so film therefore is not a one man show, but a collaborative art form,
that is what we mean. A director or a film maker or a producer can never have complete
control over a product. So, therefore film is different from other art forms.
Film has the distinctive language. Now, we use a term called the grammar of cinema, I
want, I am interested in this word, when I heard it for the first time, and I was like taken
back, what it is. Grammar of cinema I mean, for us grammar is only in languages, right?
Sentence. So, sentence has certain components, and we say this is English grammar or
whatever grammar. What is grammar of cinema?
Student: Grammar has structure; likewise Cinema has its own. To create one scene, it
needs structure and it needs certain rules against which matches and certain forms to
stick to it.
Very Good. So, we need certain clues and certain structures in order to understand. So,
in order to read the poem or a novel, you need to have some basic understanding of the
rules, of the language, that is grammar. In order to understand a film, we also need to
have some understanding of the grammar, rules of film. And now what could those rules
be and therefore, our semiotics comes into the picture; give me some example.
How many of you have seen a movie called ‘My left foot’? Only you. Only one person.

And I would like you to watch, ‘My left foot’. It is an Irish movie, starring Daniel Day-
Lewis and he won the Oscar for that in 1990. The movie is all about a man suffering

from an element called Cerebral Palsy, which you know, it is kind of disease where a
person loses control over his limbs. So, he does not have any control over the rest of his

body, except his left foot, which is the only functional part of his body. And the movie
starts with a huge close up of his left foot, and then how that foot manipulates, Records;
you know those old fashion music systems, before cassette players and before music
CDs, we used to have Records. And how the left foot, manages to make a music system
get going with the; you know because the person does not have any control over any
other part of his body, so he uses his foot to listen to music. When you are watching a
movie like this, that is starts with a man’s foot playing a record, setting a record, what do
you think? What if you know the grammar of cinema, if you have watched certain
number of films in your life; would not it tell you that this is this is a story of a man,
whose only functional body part is his foot, would you understand that or not? That
understanding comes from our repertoire of film grammar. We understand certain things,
no one ever told us, but that has come to us, because we know how to watch movies, that
is what is meant by understanding film grammar.
Film is composed of certain set of signs that we are going to look at very soon. And
Christian Metz, a film scholar says, film and this is the problem that most of us often
face, especially if you are a film academician, everybody seems to have a take on films
without going through all this courses or reading academic books on films. Film is hard
to explain, because it is so easy to understand. Therefore, everyone feels that they have
any opinion on, and it is it is quite true everybody seems to have an opinion on films but
then it is the understanding of the filmic signs that makes all the differences.
So, semiotics is also called semiology, and it is a steady of signs. And film makers
choose particular images, precise images to tell a story; and I am going to show you a set
of images, and then you will tell me the story. Peter Wollen, a film scholar, a very
prominent film scholar and he has written a book, called ‘Signs and meanings in the
cinema’. And he talks of signs as a triptych that is something we have been talking about.
Signs consist of index, icons, and symbols. Can you show your index finger to me? Do
not be so shy, that is your index finger; and what are you doing when you use your index
finger, what do you do, what is the purpose? Point. You are pointing towards something,
and when on a movie screen, you often find sign, an image like, a clock; for example, in
the Chinese movie by Wong Kar-wai, ‘In the mood for love’, several shorts of clocks. As
filmgoer, as cine enthusiast, does it tell you something, why is the film maker, so
interested in clocks? Why is he showing us? Close up of clocks, all kinds of

clocks, wrist watches, alarm clocks, wall clocks, why? Well, what does the clock tells
you? Time. So, time may be so important, passage of time would be so important, that is
the core, central theme of ‘In the mood for love’. There is a time in someone’s life, when
they are in the mood for love. So, it is a beautiful, beautiful love story that I recommend
all of you watch, if you have not done, so already.
So, film is the art of visual abbreviation, it tells I mean therefore, when we talk about
adaptation novel, so people also often say that is not as good as the novel. ‘Gone with the
wind’, great movie but if you read the novel, it does not come anywhere close. The
movie does not come anywhere close to the novel, because film abbreviates so many
things. So, that is perhaps the strength or even weakness of film making, it is an art of
visual abbreviation; one shot say something which several pages say in a novel. Film
makers show smiles to denote something, unless it is a different kind of film. In a very
normal regular film; a smile is the smile, a person is happy unless you are talking over
Mona Lisa’s smile, there that could be context, subtext related to that. Scars, scars denote
something you know. Aristotle, talks about the concept of recognition or Anagnorisis.
Scars, says a lot, people recognizes each other. Oedipus is recognized by, by what; by
scar on his foot, the swelling on his foot. So guns, badges, hair style, they all are signs
which tell you about something.
So, I will show you a scene or a shot and then you will understand what hair style such
as. I go back to Roland Barthes again in Mythologies. Mythologies are very secret book
for semioticians, where he says ‘trivial aspects of everyday life can be filled with
meaning including a character’s hair style. So, hair style is a very trivial aspect of live,
but that is also filled with meaning, while watching a film. So, here is a shot from a very
popular movie, from the 70’s; John Travolta, Olivia Newton John’s ‘Grease’. It is a
musical; it is a teen musical or romantic-comedy, a dance movie. It is it is very popular,
highly successful film. How many of you have watched it? Watch, Grease. Look at the
look at this shot for a while and tell me what is happening?

(Refer Slide Time: 15:16)

I mean, I know what is happening but a look at the look at the man’s hair style, cloths.
Look at the girl’s hair style, and cloths, and make up, and so on, and the spaces and the
distance between them. I give you one minute. The boy is all about?
Student: Looks like, the leads he takes in relationship.
So, he looks as if he is making all the moves okay and not the girl. And why does it
appear to us?
Student: Grease is sub-culture of 70’s American view; that is actually specifically that
leather jacket and grease hair at backward. It is actually, the hairstyle itself is taken from
the Elvis Presley’s hairstyle.
Slick and gel hairstyle that is very important. So, we are told that this boy perhaps is an
acolyte of the entire the rock and roll sub-culture, as popularized by Elvis. What kind of
cloths is he wearing? If there is a jacket what kind of jacket?
Students: Leather jacket.

Appears to be a leather jacket. And who popularized leather jacket in American pop-
culture?

Student: James Dean.

James Dean, good. James Dean who is known for a ‘Rebel without a cause’. The
rebellion hero, the rebellious hero, and before that we had Marlon Brando in ‘The Wild
one’. So, James Dean, Marlon Brando, the great heroes or the great actors from the
methods school of acting and also known for their image of disaffected youth, rebellious
youth. So, that is what perhaps he is trying to be, maybe he is not all that rebellious, but
he wants to be a part of a group in his college, which claims to be rebellious. You know,
we all go through our phrases, and you all want to be part of certain groups; so call it
peer pressure or whatever. So, he wants to be like that, he wants to create that image. So,
that kind of hair, and that kind of cloths, reinforce or at least help him get integrated into
that kind of group which demands this kind of image, so group loyalty. So, he is
conforming to a particular group of friends, who would like to be known as the rebels.
The girl? Exactly.
Students: Her hairs were neatly tied-up with a ribbon.
Less makeup not a red lipstick, and a very high-neck collar, school girlish. So, what is
the image being conveyed here? Innocent? Pre-and proper and very respectable. So, a
total opposite of the boy. So Grease plays around with these signs. How we use certain
tropes, certain characteristic, external characteristic of external appearance which are try,
which are can be can be seen as an attempt to reinforce a particular image. So, the good
girl and bad boy coming-together. So, this is the shot arrangement in ‘Grease’ where
Danny and Sandy are sitting in a car, his car and where he attempts to make advances
towards her. And his cloths, and his hair style as we have been talking about; they recall
Elvis Presley, Marlon Brando, who belong to a distinct sub-culture group. Sandy on the
other hand, her hair, her cloths, and her body language conforms to other kinds of
notions; conformity and respectability.
So, this is Danny’s group and this is what he wants to be, so that,.... But by the end of
the movie, when they realize and they discover their true feelings for each other, they
attempt to get a makeover of an image. Then Sandy starts dressing the way a hot, so
called hot-chick-wood. And Danny starts wearying more conservative cloths. So, that is
the way movie ends. It is all about iconography of cloths and hair styles.
Now, coming to this another element called, icon. Icon is a sign which represents the
object mainly by similarity. So, icon is a similar, icon is a sign and it tries to capture the

reality of the object; will look at it, I explain that. So, iconic images are familiar images.
Actors try to form an image, unless you are an extremely versatile actor who never, who
actually tries to, a very consciously try to break away from any kind of image. Otherwise
most actors are popular or successful because of carefully constructed image, that
becomes yours iconicity. A narrative is frozen in an iconic image and let me give you an
example. This is iconic hair style.
(Refer Slide Time: 21:17)

Do you know this guy? Javier Bardem, from?
Students: ‘No country for old man’.
‘No country for old man’. So, I do not think there are many people who can pull up this
kind of hairstyle, but this becomes an iconic hairstyle. And this is an iconic image. What
does it tell you? You have not, let us assume you have not watched the movie but, but the
movie, but this image tells you certain things. What does it tell you?
So, Javier Bardem’s image is over powering, domineering the entire landscape. And the
so called protagonist, the good guy is on the run, but he is he is so diminished by the aura
of this person who is so such an all pervasive kind of a personality; a very dominating,
so that is why, almost a God like or Satan like whatever way you want to understand. So,
a wonderful movie based on a great novel by Cormac McCarthy. And this is an iconic
image. Stars play with their images and create a sort of iconicity.
So, this is Audrey Hepburn from?

(Refer Slide Time: 22:41)

Student: ‘Breakfast at tiffany’s
Good, ‘Breakfast at tiffany’s’. And what images she trying to convey? Social life,
stylish. Who was the fashion designer Vijji for Audrey Hepburn in Breakfast for
tiffany’s? ‘Breakfast at tiffany’s, sorry. So, this is something that you should know
about, stars and images are not an individual construction, but a host of people combine
or collaborate towards constructing an image; a sort of iconicity for a star. So, your hair
dresser, your makeup man, or the camera man who shoots you from the best possible
flattering angle, and also your dress designer. Hubert Givenchy is the name of the
fashion designer who created the Audrey Hepburn’s look, iconic look for Breakfast at
tiffany’s. And of course, all of you are familiar with Marilyn Monroe’s famous iconic
image from Seven years itch.