341 Week 8 # 1

December 14, 2010

Peter Wollen would say that you have to separate John Ford the man and the John Ford the idea, defined by structural analysis. The beginning of The Searchers shows how the master antimony relates to semiotics. In the first scene of the film a women opens door of the cabin exposing the interior of the cabin to the exterior. Here idea of the interior vs. the exterior is the master antimony, but it’s also paradigmatic and syntagmatic because there is a conflict in the film between the exterior harsh environment and the safety of inside. This is a permutation of the ongoing theme of conflict between nature and civilization. Nature is inside and civilization is outside. These opening shots position the viewer within the confines civilization represented by the inside of the cabin. The women opening the door is really her exposing the audience to this larger cultural story of the settling of the west and the historical conflict between settlers and the natural environment. Later scenes represent the historical conflict between civilizations, more specifically between European immigrants and Native Americans that live in the west. This first scene is really just a sign that contains all this meaning in its cinematography. Metz would agree that it takes several sentences of verbal language to describe all this meaning found in the image. This meaning relates to an ongoing underlying theme that is more profound in terms of being culturally or historically significant than just a mere surface reading, which would simply explain the narrative: a women has opened a door and a figure is outside.
From the very beginning of the film the audience is confronted with this lone figure coming up riding out of the environment. Throughout the movie the main character is a symbol of the west, he literally emerges out of nowhere from the landscape. He is this American icon of masculinity. It is this person of the west the is both part of but not part of the family. He is really part of the landscape both literally, because that’s the way he is framed in the film, and figuratively because he represents the west. Here are all these signs that take so many verbal sentences to explain that summed up in seconds by the language of the film. There is this famous shot of them. Each person is a symbol of something and not just a character in a story. A purely Metz analysis would give you a syntagmatic interpretation referring to the characters and the stories. This would conclude that the story is about the family as a unit of civilization. The family under threat becomes one of the themes. This family unit is being established gradually against the elements. Geoffrey Hunter is a pivotal character- half European and half Native American. He is introduced in a similar but slightly different way from Ethan Edwards- He is framed from inside as coming out of the landscape, but the viewer will notice that there is less open space behind him because he is closer to civilization even though he is part of nature. He represents this compromise and this meeting of two cultures. Another subtle thing that Ford does is frame Ethan with Martha whenever he is in a two-shot. Everyone else is in a larger group. This signfies that he is too much a part of nature to be with her. In this way Ford uses constant visually interplay. They are visually framed differently, meaning different from the way the rest of the family is framed because there is something interesting about their relationship. Syntagmatic analysis of the characters and stories says they were in love, they didn’t get married, and he went off and fought in the war. The paradigmatic is what they represent. Martin was shot by himself outside on the porch. He is not part of the family but has been adopted by them because his family was killed but he is outside the family; this is what he and Ethan share. They are visually compared so that the ideas that they represent will be compared and you’ll be asked to contrast them as symbolic of something. In a reverse shot you see the family shot is really outside and isolated as the local posse is riding up. A paradigmatic analysis would notice when Ethan makes two biblical references: he says he didn’t turn his saber into any plow share and he is the prodigal son. These are paradigmatic notions, which refer to cultural codes. A lot of people are symbols rather than characters and this how one uses semiotics to analyze them in terms as of what their particular signs mean. Notice the color of the hat that Ethan wears. Normally the villain wears the black hat in the western. He is mixing the idea of the hero and the villain. Here the viewer uses codes, which are conventions that they learn over time, to interpret the sign that represents how Ethan is somewhere between a good guy and a bad guy. Ford is interested in this question of the hero and the villain. Ford presents the preacher who is also the law man, someone who lives by the bible and the gun. This relates the idea of settling the west through both cultures such as religion and law and order in a single figure. Another symbol- Martha and Debbie- are deliberately left in the distance. They represent civilization and stability and they are under threat, a threat which the men are riding off to go deal with. Wollen talks about this typical landscape that ford uses. This topography of the southwest dwarfs the people inhabiting it to illustrate how they are powerless against nature. It then becomes a struggle to develop or maintain some sort of stability of civilization or order amongst this empty space. A Syntagmatic analysis of famous shot in the desert, where Ethan is both figuring out what’s going on and thinking about the fact that Martha and the family is in danger, would interpret all the meaning that is summed up in this single image. There is no dialogue but there is more than enough meaning provided by the visual signification contained in this shot. This meaning through signification is all accumulated throughout the movie by the structuralist process of decoding. It is all a system of signification.

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