Cine-Semiotics and the Approach Toward Visual Literacy
Since its inception semiology, or the study of signs and their significance in the various modes of communication, has been pervasively used as a foundational philosophy in the dialogue between critics, theorists and creators of cinema. Beyond that, it has also proven to be in itself a point of argument between critics and theorists especially when considering the possible applications that semiology can have in the analysis and critique of the cinematic art in its various incarnations. One of the most primary disagreements in this discussion is whether or not the cinema can be considered its own language, and by extension, whether or not a linguistic theory (such as semiology) can be properly applied to the analysis of cinema and the filmic arts if these forms of communication aren't thought of as operating under a language system.
Semiology has come a very long way since it was first posited by Ferdinand de Saussure in lectures he gave at the University of Geneva. Originally relegated to linguistic application and to understanding simple sign systems (such as text, traffic signs, and hieroglyphs), semiology was rapidly used to explain many forms of communication and expression. One of the first theorists to apply semiology to the study of cinema was Christian Metz, a french linguist and philosopher. Following Saussure's dyadic model of semiotics in which the sign is made up of only the signifier (the referent) and the signified (the implied meaning), Metz theorized that the language of cinema, an idea that was already long hypothesized, could be interpreted as a sign-system or a form of communication that is made up of signifiers whose meaning could be understood without the need for text or spoken translation or augmentation. Metz then went beyond this hypothesis to try to develop an organized cinematic syntax he termed the Grande Syntagmatique. This attempt to typify stylistic film form was met with great skepticism, and even derision mainly due to his lack of specific examples. His theories, however, have been applied again and again in critical and philosophical readings of many films.
For example: in viewing the Soviet Russian film Solaris (1972) by Andrei Tarkovsky many inferences can be made concerning the significance embedded in the images presented by the filmmaker. This is particularly true with a scene towards the end of the film in which the protagonist, Kris, a scientist who has been sent to the space station Solaris to determine whether or not it should stay in operation, hastily returns to the station's library to find that Hari, a figment of Kris' long-dead wife who has been reincarnated via the mysterious disorder that is plaguing the station, has been engrossed in the painting “The Hunters in the Snow” by Brueghel. The audience is then presented with a sequence of close-up pans across the painting, intercut with a close-up of Hari staring at the painting, and a shot of Kris's reaction to the situation. From this presentation it can be inferred that the painting signifies human culture and by extension humanity itself. It is also understood that the shot of Hari's intense perusal may connote her understanding of the painting, and more importantly what it means to be human, a problem that has been plaguing the figment of Hari since her introduction into the narrative of the piece.
A similar understanding of this scene was also reached by Timothy Hyman in a critical review of the film published in Film Quarterly in 1976:
Magically, she is in the landscape, and for some moments we explore it with her; the skaters and the homesteads below, the birds and trees silhouetted against the sky, the men and their dogs as they move across the brow of the hill. When she turns to Kris, we realize that through Brueghel she has been able to apprehend what it is to be a human being on earth. In the cessation of gravity that follows, we watch Hari and Kris as they float together in mid-air, in front of the Brueghel, while around them slowly circles the Cervantes, with Don Quixote riding forth. This sequence must be seen as Tarkovsky's cultural testament. Cervantes and Brueghel are both felt as representative of a humanistic culture that is earthy and realistic, yet transcends naturalism, even as love transcends the weight of matter...
Although the review is focused mostly on the thematic nature of the film, and very poetically written, the analysis of the filmic elements is overwhelmingly semiological. Hyman states that Cervantes and Brueghel are “representative of a humanistic culture,” or in other terms, that Tarkovsky's inclusion of these cultural pieces is an attempt to signify the existence of human culture, and its presence on the Solaris space station. Hyman also states that “when she turns to Kris, we realize that through Brueghel she has been able to apprehend what it is to be a human being on earth,” or again, that Natalya Bondarchuk's performance coupled with the way the shot is framed and the diegetic history of Hari's sub-human predicament all connote a point of realization for Hari of what it means to be human.
These are just a few interpretations of what this scene could mean. To many viewers this scene, and this film could be completely without relevance or significance. Indeed, at the very beginning of Hyman's article he states that “Solaris was the first of Tarkovsky's films to be seen at all widely in the West and, perhaps inevitably, it was misunderstood. Audiences and almost all critics brought to it the most conventional expectations – of a genre film, a sci-fi epic, 'Russia's answer to 2001.' And although it clearly owes part of its continuing availability to this science-fiction label, Solaris has never, I suspect, found the wider audience it deserves.” He goes on to proclaim that Solaris is not actually a science-fiction film but an allegory explaining the lack of humanity contemporary society seems to posses. This proclamation is an example of the disconnect that often exists between the filmmaker's intended significance in his or her imagery and the viewer's ability to accurately read these images as such. But if a filmmaker is knowingly applying certain significance to his or her films then from where does this disconnect stem?
In an article titled “Film Language: From Metz to Bakhtin” Robert Stam makes an attempt to explain the existing theories concerning a cinematic language especially those of Christian Metz. He states that “the question which orients Metz' early work, therefore, is whether the cinema is a langue (language system) or langage (language), and Metz' well-known conclusion is that cinema is not a language system but that it is a language.” What he means by this is that Metz considered the cinema to be a strong form of communication in which significance can be very easily derived from the deliberate construction and juxtaposition of the imagery and sound, but that these texts and their meanings are operating under no established structure or strict syntax.
Pier Paolo Pasolini agreed with this position, and in an address he gave in Pesaro in 1965 Pasolini took this notion further through a comparison between the differing signification processes of writing and filmmaking:
The cinema author has no dictionary but infinite possibilities. He does not take his signs, his im-signs, from some drawer or from chaos, where an automatic or oniric communication is only found in the state of possibility, of shadow. Thus, toponymically described, the act of the filmmaker is not one but double. He must first draw the im-sign from chaos, make it possible and consider it as classified in a dictionary of im-signs (gestures, environment, dreams, memory); he must then accomplish the very work of the writer, that is, enrich this purely morphological im-sign with his personal expression. While the writer's work is esthetic invention, that of the filmmaker is first linguistic invention, then esthetic.
This proposal is an important one, and can offer some insight into the predicament stated above. According to Pasolini, a filmmaker is constantly tasked with formulating understandable meanings in each of his or her images, and then making sure that this signification is coherent and matches their desired vision. Through doing so, a filmmaker has the ability of establishing a code or langue which can be specific to the film, the filmmaker's ouvre, the genre, etc. This process is known as encoding, and is the key tool an auteur has in developing significance, style, and a specific cinematic language system. It is through the encoding process that a filmmaker can truly create a singularly intended significance in his or her work.
And yet, there can still be a disconnect between what the filmmaker intended and what is understood by the viewer. Because the cinema is not a langue and is not governed by a grammatically categorical system, the audience must conduct a converse process of interpretation known as decoding. Through this process the images and their significance are transposed in the mind of each individual viewer which can result in very unique interpretations from viewer to viewer, depending on the individual's cultural background and identity, and their experience understanding codified cinematic texts. Pasolini states in the same address that “it is true that after some fifty years of cinema, a sort of cinematic dictionary has been established, or rather a convention, which has this curiosity – it is stylistic before being grammatical.” Often there arises a syntax of convention in which visual semantics become determined by an overall cultural codification. A low-angle becomes powerfully meaningful in a way by using the audience's perspective and the relative size of the subject on the screen to make the viewer appear, and thus feel small compared to the mimetic image of a person. Conversely, this representation of a person is imbued with a connotation of superiority and power. The first time this technique is used it is a sensation, a spectacle. If it is used a second time to convey the same connotation it has become a convention, and thus a cultural sign. This has not been pre-determined but has grown organically, and can be learned by each individual viewer of cinematic text.
The ability and aptitude of each viewer to quickly and accurately decode a cinematic text has come to be known as visual literacy, a term which was coined by John Debes from Eastman Kodak in the late 1960's, and has since been a topic of study by numerous institutions throughout the world. It is thought that the more saturated with imagery our environment is, the more able we are to comprehend the significance behind each image, or juxtaposition. In a review by Peter Felten titled “Visual Literacy,” he attempts a brief overview of the state of intellectual and pedagogical studies on this topic. He states:
Research demonstrates that seeing is not simply a process of passive reception of stimuli but also involves active construction of meaning. A typical person, for example, perceives a line drawing of a cube to have three dimensions; our eyes project depth onto a flat surface by assembling a familiar shape from a two-dimensional drawing on a sheet of paper. Proponents of visual literacy contend that if the physical act of seeing involves active construction, then the intellectual act of interpreting what is seen must require a critical viewer.
If what Felten has determined is true, or at least possible, then that means that the act of viewing cinema is just as active if not more-so, and demands that the viewer be engaged in a sort of participatory “reading” of the cinematic text. This also means that the successful creation of signifier-signified relationship in a cinematic text is equally the responsibility of the filmmaker to encode meaning in the creation of his or her imagery, and the film viewer to actively read, decode, and interpret the signs included in the text. Felten makes the observation that due to the rapid advancement of technological practices, coupled with the evolution of more complicated and intricate cinematic signs and syntaxes there has been an emergence of a generation that is more intuitively capable of decoding cinematic texts and is in general more visually literate than those prior.
But there is still more to learn. In an interview with Tarkovsky's cinematographer, Vadim Yusov, included in the Criterion Collection's edition of Solaris, he says “By then we had already seen Kubrick's 2001: A Space Odyssey, which served as a basis for comparison... When we saw Kubrick's film we were mesmerized by the film's imagery, its expansiveness and space, the massive flying objects, and much more. But as for the scenes of the birth of humanity, his understanding of it was alien to us. They were logical for Kubrick's interpretation, but for us, who were inspired by different concepts, they could not serve as a good model.” This is telling of how much of an impact cultural identity has upon a viewer's decoding process. It may be that Kubrick's understanding of humanity was more rooted in theories of evolution and conquest, while Tarkovsky's understanding had more to do with cultural contribution and socialization. Whatever the case, there existed the same disconnect in Tarkovsky and Yusov's decoding of 2001: A Space Odyssey, that occurred when Western audiences approached Solaris. This implies that visual literacy is as much a possession cultural socialization as it is determined by the viewer's exposure to the deluge of imagery that exists in most of the societies that exist today.
In the same interview Vadim Yusov states that “all Tarkovsky's films are extremely expressive cinematographically. It's easy to understand why, because through this medium he was striving to express his ideas. We mustn't forget that cinema is a protean art, a visual art, and it conveys its ideas through images.” Tarkovsky's Solairis is evidence of this. Through the masterful creation of it's imagery, the most careful and attentive direction of performance, and the extremely intelligent juxtaposition of image and sound in sequence Tarkovsky was able to create a piece of cinema that is rich with significance and thematic ramification. Unfortunately for him, in some cases this was only half the battle. In order for cinematic signs to carry meaning, that meaning must be extrapolated by the audience in its decoding of the text. It may be the case that this film, and many others have fallen on the blind eyes of the visually illiterate, who were unable or unwilling to actively read the text offered to them. It is the hope of every intelligent filmmaker to create an art that is profound, and whose significance is read and appreciated. In order for this to happen, a filmmaker must have an audience that is at a level of visual literacy which facilitates the understanding and appreciation of such an art. There is evidence that in the future our society will be as able to read, write, and understand cinematic texts just as it is able to read, write, and understand written literature. If this is true, then it may be plausible to determine that the future of the cinema is likely to become more complex, intelligent, and rich with significance, and that society's appreciation of cinematic spectacle will evolve into an appreciation of cinematic literature.