341 Week 8 #2

December 14, 2010

In his work, Signs and Meaning in the Cinema, Peter Wollen examined three major ideas of film study- autheur, genre and semiotics and put them all together to find some common ground. His objective was to bridge the gap between contentious theories and to come up with a singular great theory of film from the ways his predecessors had been discussing it. He discusses, analyzes, compromises and combines the arguments of scholars including Levy Strauss, De Seusseur, Saris, Eisenstein.
Wollen doesn’t want to limit his theory of authorship to celebrating the director as auteur theory does. For him finding great directors and separating them from ones that are just mediocre is a process of decoding based in structuralism, that reveals a true cinematic artist in films that were not previously recognized as the work of an auteur. The whole idea is to find great directors in what appears to be just an anonymous cultural product, like a western. He does this first taking the auteur approach, which involves assuming that there is a director who acts as a guiding force. Then he takes a structural approach, which is based on the active interpretation of the viewer, and uses the framework of genre to define the work of the auteur. His theory states that the viewer finds the recurring patterns of story in their thematic oppositions (the idea of binaries taken from semiotics is the structuralist component). Wollen takes this further by identifying them across different films by that director (this is the auteur component) and finally within this larger structure of genre. By pulling all these things together, he is essentially unifying two very different theoretical approaches.
This hybrid theory of authorship is valuable because the viewer has to study each film individually, see them as part of an oeuvre, and also as a part of a culture. Wollen would argue that the auteur is someone who is not just a great artist but a product of their times. Auteur theory studies tend to focus on just one film or another film or one director versus another. Wollen says the viewer needs to examine a wider spectrum of meaning. He focuses on John Ford and Howard Hawks because they are two studio directors who work in various genres. He argues that regardless of the genre they worked in, they have an underlying structure, which can be analyzed in terms of binary oppositions or what he calls “master antinomies”. John Ford’s westerns are about the battle between nature and civilization and so are his combat films and melodramas. What differentiates one director from another is these deep-rooted structural binaries and how they are repeated across genres. This “auteur structuralism”, as Wollen called it, allows the audience or critic to look at these master antinomies, which reveals a whole other level of meaning apart from just the narrative. These are ideas that can only be understood on a profound structural level. Wollen examines how the patterns evolve over the course of a director’s career. It is these deep structures that mark a director. Hitchcock, for example, makes films with a story about a man being accused of a crime he didn’t commit, but Wollen sees this narrative pattern as uninteresting and superficial. What is interesting to Wollen is the deeper idea or theme, the question of guilt vs. innocence for example, that consistently underlies Hitchcock’s work: that is the master antimony. The plot device is a larger superficial component or a vehicle to convey the theme or idea of guilt vs. innocence, where no one is truly guilty and no one is truly innocent. It’s not the plot device but this deep structure that makes Hitchcock an auteur according to Wollen. An inferior Auteur is one whose films don’t really vary over time. They don’t examine this deep meaning and just keep making the same movie, with the same superficial narrative structure.
He tries to move away from the idea of the romantic artist that Saris postulates to an artist that is revealed in the process of decoding. He goes on to say that there should be a distinction between Hitchcock the individual and Hitchcock idea, the idea meaning the structure that we identify as characteristic of a Hitchcock film, whether the director was aware of all the elements of the structure or not. Thus Hitchcock is separate from “Htichcockian”, a term referring to the director using Wollen’s master antimonies and deep structural structural analysis.
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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