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‘That’s Entertainment’: Making Meaning in Films
Cinema has become, perhaps after television, the most popular form of visual entertainment in the modern world. Every night, millions of people sit down to watch either a movie on TV, a movie on video, or otherwise a movie on the silver screen, in the theater.
Cinemagoers walk away from theaters satisfied with what they saw, or disappointed, with some having a neutral view of the film’s quality. Everyone, however, interacted with the messages presented by the film.
Unlike printed text, which uses words, or music, which uses sound, the medium of film uses several different ‘tracks’ to reach its audience. These are images, music, dialogue, noise, and written material.
These five are mixed by film producers to form a ‘language’, although it is not the language of words, sentences or texts, but the language of signs. All five are projected onto the audience, and each of the five constitutes a sign, a signifier, for something else. The language of film is the language of semiotics, the language of the sign.
The term ‘signifier’ is used to refer to the physical form of the sign. In a movie, it could be a smile, a red traffic signal, dramatic music, a shout, or the words of a letter being read by someone. Each indicates something, represents something else.
A smile can indicate happiness, joy or love, but it can also indicate a victory for the person smiling. Everyone knows that a red traffic light means ‘STOP’.
Dramatic music can mean that something important is about to happen. A cry usually indicates danger or pain of some kind, but that may depend on the context in which the cry is heard. Finally, the words of a letter that someone reads on the screen use the semantics of the language, English, French, or Arabic, for example, in ways that are familiar to us. The word ‘dog’, for example, in the English language, represents the type of dog familiar to pet lovers, and despite the fact that there is absolutely nothing ‘dog-like’ in the letters of the word DOG. The word is also a signifier.
These examples of signifiers and the things they indicate, the signified, using real things, the referents, point to some important features of sign language. For signifiers to represent something to an audience, they must be general enough to be fully and quickly understood by all viewers. A green light stopping traffic will puzzle everyone.
However, it is worth noting that filmmakers can use these ‘universals’ to some effect. If someone who loses a race smiles at the camera instead of frowning, the audience may be alerted to the fact that something unusual is happening; which the man intends to lose in the race, for a reason that may become apparent later in the film. In a letter, the word ‘DOG’ can be code for ‘SPY’, for example, and this points to another facet of the sign, whose context in which it appears helps determine its meaning.
A scream heard at a local football match can only mean that a goal has been scored, in a fight, that someone has been injured. Within different contexts, however, a universality must apply. Otherwise, the particular use of the signifier appears inappropriate, or misleading.
Finding meaning from seemingly meaningless events is a human trait, and the effect that Lev Kuleshov discovered in the 1920s in the former Soviet Union, and for whom it is named, is the two shots shown in quick succession in one film, one after another, is not interpreted independently of the mind of the viewer. These are interpreted as causal relations. A + B = C, where A and B are the two shots, and C is a new value not originally included in the two shots.
So, for example, if the first shot is a showing of bombs falling from an airplane, and the second shows a village on fire, viewers will think that the bombs hit the village and destroyed it.
This is in accordance with the peculiar nature of the people; their search for meaning in meaningless things. It also has a linguistic equivalent. Two sentences that appear in sequence will always be treated as causally related, even though no one may suggest that.
A: The bombs fell from the plane.
B: The village was completely destroyed..
C: It is assumed here that the village was destroyed by the same bombs dropped from the plane. Sometimes what works in film also works in language.
In today’s films, it is used to great effect, and it is reminiscent of film director, Alfred Hitchcock’s advice to would-be filmmakers; “Don’t tell, show.” This seems to suggest that the five language ‘tracks’ of the film are more powerful when combined than the spoken word in the film. Even Shakespeare commented that, ‘the eye learns more than the ear,’ suggesting that we learn more from what is shown than what is told.
In the famous series of James Bond films, for example, the sheer brutality of the villain, whether he is a megalomaniac or a drug baron, is not so much described by words about him, but rather by scene showing an untrustworthy former steward of his coming to a gray end in a tank full of piranhas or something both unpleasant and fantastic.
That he is deviant in the extreme is shown in the first sequences of the friendly and urbane hospitality he shows the hero of time -007.
The scenes where he shows his true colors, come as no surprise to a viewer expecting some exotic, high-tech form of brutality from Bond’s adversary.
Those of us who have seen all those movies know what to expect and are never disappointed. In a sense, the ‘language’ of film extends our communication to certain films, and to that extent, James Bond films can be said to be formulaic and predictable. Giving the public what they want, however, works at the box office; sequels are sold.
In terms of what the audience brings to the cinema, I think the most important thing is the expectation, the anticipation that what they see in the film is the same as what they expect. Trailers, adverts and the almost instinctive knowledge of the modern cinemagoer about the stars as well as the producers combine to ensure that all the industry’s blockbusters are profitable.
More unconsciously, the audience brings what is called a ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ to the performance and while this is more in evidence and more necessary for the audience watching live stage performances, it is an important part still the participation of the audience in the cinema. . Some film theorists point to the fact that a three-dimensional image, with depth and field, is projected onto a two-dimensional screen and yet is still perceived as three-dimensional, as evidence that a viewer is willing to suspend some of their disbelief. The technology of the movie industry giants is so rare though to make this statement meaningless.
In the movie ‘The Lord of the Rings’ for example, the appearance of a massive mammoth amongst thousands of terrifying looking orcs doesn’t really require much suspension of disbelief; everyone who watches this wonderful film knows very well that such creatures do not exist anywhere on the planet. Where disbelief should be suspended at the outset is entering Tolkien’s world of dragons, dwarves and hobbits. The total universe of Middle Earth is more subtly projected. The inability to fully engage in this world may interfere with any enjoyment derived from watching the film, or may prevent that person from seeing the film in the first place.
Art is not nature, art holds a mirror up to nature, or so we are told, but it is the grasping and choosing of what part of nature is mirrored that makes the filmmaker so fascinating and meaningful. . People watching a movie in the wonderful isolation of a dark theater are enjoying a form of entertainment where one-way communication works, bringing to the scene only what they can: their participation in the culture they live in, and their desire to know that they are not alone in this world.
It is this identification with the characters in the film that hinders their critical assessment here. Bertolt Brecht knew this and took steps to prevent it, but Hollywood is proud of it. More identification with the leading character sells more tickets. Leave critical theory to Media-studies courses at university. ‘Not a dry eye in the house’ is the goal of every successful film director.
Suspense, letting the audience know something the person on screen doesn’t know, is one of the many devices used by great directors. Screams are heard when the woman is stabbed in the shower in the Hitchcock classic; ‘Psycho’ probably had nothing to do with the amount of pain the knife caused. Audiences can’t really imagine that. The screams were caused by the shock of the situation; the intense level of identification with the victim, the sense of powerlessness of either the victim on screen, or the audience did not prevent the attack.
Why then will people willingly watch a movie that they know, even expect, will terrify them?
They experience something from their total range of experience, and do so with comfort. They are alone, even in a full movie theater. Cinema is not a community event, it is an individual. In the cinema, the audience is enthralled, in a way rarely possible watching TV or video on TV. The film cannot be stopped on the big screen. The drama unfolds with or without your presence, and few people leave in the middle of a movie. that’s entertainment!
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