‘That’s Entertainment’: Making Meaning in Films

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The 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 film on TV, a film on video, or else a film on the silver screen, at the cinema.

Cinemagoers walk away from film theatres satisfied with what they have seen, or disappointed, with some taking a sort of neutral view of the film’s quality. All, however, have been in communication with the messages put forward by the film.

Unlike printed text, which uses the word, or music, which utilizes sound, the medium of film uses several different ‘tracks’ to reach its audience. These are image, music, dialogue, noise, and written material.

These five are mixed by the film’s producers to form a ‘language’, though this is not the language of the word, the sentence or the text, but the language of the sign. All five are projected out to 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 denote the physical form of the sign. In a film, this could be a smile, a red traffic signal, dramatic music, a shout, or the words of a letter someone is reading. Each signifies something, represents something else.

A smile might signify happiness, joy or love, but it might also signify a triumph of some sort for the person smiling. Everyone knows that a red traffic light means ‘STOP’.

Dramatic music could mean that something important is about to happen. A shout usually signifies danger or pain of some sort, but that might depend on the context in which the shout is heard. Finally, the words of a letter someone is reading on screen use the semantics of language, English, French, or Arabic, for example, in ways that we are familiar with. The word ‘dog’, for example, in the English language, represents the canine species so familiar to pet lovers, and that despite the fact that there is absolutely nothing ‘dog-like’ in the letters of the word D-O-G. The word is also a signifier.

These examples of signifiers and the things they signify, the signified, using real items, the referents, point to several important features of the language of the sign. For the signifiers to represent something to on an audience, they must be sufficiently universal to be fully and quickly understood by everyone watching. A green light that stops the traffic would puzzle everyone.

However, it is worth noting that film makers can use these ‘universals’ to some effect. If a person who has just lost a race smiles into the camera rather than frowns, the audience may be alerted to the fact that something out of the ordinary is happening; that the person intended losing the race, for a reason that might become apparent later in the film. In a letter, the word ‘DOG’ might turn out to be code for ‘SPY’, for example, and this points to yet another facet of the sign, that the context in which it appears helps determines its meaning.

A shout heard at a local football match might mean only that a goal has been scored, in a battle, that someone has been mortally injured. Within different contexts, however, a universality must apply. If it does not, that particular use of the signifier would appear either inappropriate, or misleading.

Finding meaning from apparently meaningless events is a very human trait, and the effect discovered by Lev Kuleshov in the 1920s in the former Soviet Union, and after whom it is named, is that two shots shown in quick succession in a film, one after the other, are not interpreted separately in the viewer’s mind. They are interpreted as being causally related. A + B = C, in which A and B are the two shots, and C is a new value that is not originally included in the two shots.

So, for example, if the first shot is of one showing bombs dropping from a plane, and the second shows a village in flames, the audience will assume that the bombs hit the village and destroyed it.

This accords with that peculiar characteristic of humans; their quest for meaning in otherwise meaningless items. This has its equivalent in language too. Two sentences that appear one after the other will invariably be treated as being causally connected, even though there may be nothing to suggest that.

A: The bombs fell from the plane.

B: The village was completely destroyed..

C: It would be assumed here that the village was destroyed by the same bombs that dropped from the plane. What works on film sometimes works with language too.

In today’s films, this is used to great effect, and is reminiscent of film director, Alfred Hitchcock’s advice to would be film-makers; “Don’t tell, show.” This seems to suggest that the five ‘tracks’ of film language are more powerful when used together than merely the spoken word on film. Even Shakespeare commented that, ‘the eye is more learned than the ear,’ suggesting that we do indeed learn more from being shown than being told.

In the well known series of James Bond films, for instance, the utter ruthlessness of the villain, be he a megalomaniac or a drugs baron, is depicted not so much by words about him, but rather by scenes showing an unsuspecting former confidant of his coming to a grizzly end in a tank full of piranhas or something equally distasteful and spectacular.

That he is devious in the extreme is shown in the early sequences by the friendly and urbane hospitality he shows to the hero of the hour -007.

The scenes in which he shows his true colours, come as no surprise to an audience expecting some exotic, high-tech form of brutality from Bond’s adversary.

Those of us who have seen all those films know exactly what to expect and are never disappointed. In a sense, the ‘language’ of the film extends a communication to us over several films, and to that extent, James Bond films may be said to be formulaic and predictable. Giving the public what they want, however, works at the box office; sequels sell.

In terms of what the audience bring to the film-theatre, I suppose by far the most important is expectation, the anticipation that what they are about to see on film is the same as what they expect. Trailers, adverts and the almost innate knowledge of the modern cinemagoer regarding the stars as well as the producers coalesce to ensure that all the industry’s blockbusters make money.

More unconsciously, audiences bring what has been called the ‘willing suspension of disbelief’ to the performance and while this is more in evidence and more necessary for audiences watching live performances on stage, it is still a vital part of an audience’s participation 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 still perceived as being three-dimensional, as evidence that an audience is willing to suspend some of their disbelief. The technology of the film industry giants is so extraordinary though as to render this statement quite meaningless.

In the film ‘The Lord of the Rings’ for example, the appearance of enormous mammoths in the midst of thousands of fearsome looking orcs does not really require much suspension of disbelief; everyone watching this wonderful film is well aware that such creatures do not exist anywhere on the planet. Where disbelief must be suspended initially is in entering Tolkien’s world of dragons, dwarfs and hobbits. The total universe of Middle Earth is more subtly projected. An inability to be fully engrossed in this world may interfere with any enjoyment gained 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 holding and in the choosing what part of nature is mirrored that makes film so fascinating and meaningful. The people watching the film in the splendid isolation of the darkened cinema enjoy a form of  entertainment  in which this one-way communication operates, only bringing to the scene what they can: their participation in the culture in which they dwell, and their wish to know that they are not alone in this world.

It is this identification with the characters in the film that hinders their critical appraisal of it. Bertolt Brecht knew it and took steps to avoid it, but Hollywood revels in it. More identification with the leading character/s sells more tickets. Leave the critical theorizing to Media-studies courses at university. ‘Not a dry eye in the house’ is what every successful film director aims for.

Suspense, letting the audience know something that the person on screen does not know, is one of the many devices used by skillful directors. The screams heard when the woman is stabbed in the shower in the Hitchcock classic; ‘Psycho’ were probably nothing to do with the amount of pain being inflicted by the knife. Audiences cannot really imagine that. The screams were caused by the shock of the situation; the extreme levels of identification with the victim, the feeling of the powerlessness of either the victim on-screen, or the audience off, unable to stop the attack.

Why then do people go willingly to see a film they know, even hope, will terrify them?

They are experiencing something out of their total range of experience, and doing it in comfort too. They are alone, even in a packed cinema. Cinema is not a community event, it is an individualized one. In the cinema, the audience is held enthralled, in a way that is rarely possible watching the TV or a video on TV. The film on the big screen cannot be stopped. The drama unfolds with or without your presence, and few people leave in the middle of a film. That’s  entertainment !


Source by Robert L Fielding

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