The City in Fiction and Film, week four

SH_BLUE-01One of the many other things to take into account when designing a coherent degree programme is when and where to fit in all the other things that a HEI is now often expected to provide during scheduled classes – things like study skills, careers, etc, etc. So rather than screen a film this week, this module was responsible for the first library training session, beginning with basics (such as where the library is and what resources and services it provides) and building up to a detailed online workbook (locating different kinds of sources, assessing their reliability, how – and why – to quote and/or paraphrase them, how to reference them, etc). The workbook takes maybe two hours to complete – and in a couple of weeks, students will have their first assignment – an online quiz that tests their knowledge of the library, referencing, etc. Our Faculty Librarian designs and presents this workbook and the quiz, and machines mark it for me!

Back in my day, you were given a library card and told the card catalogue was probably quicker to use and more reliable than the rather basic computer catalogue… Kids today, honestly they don’t know they’re born!

Class began with an informal test about all the semiotic terminology encountered last week – students were free to draw on any resources to help them reformulate the ideas in their own terms to a) probe their understanding of those ideas; b) probe the ideas themselves; and c) tame an alien vocabulary and make it useful.

Next, we took on the James Bond exercise we did not have time for last week. At the start of chapter 25 of Ian Fleming’s From Russia, With Love (1957), called ‘A Tie with a Windsor Knot’, Bond is joined on the Orient Express by psychopathic SMERSH assassin Red Grant posing as an MI6 agent sent by M called Captain Norman Nash. After an exchange of codewords, we are treated to a description of Nash through Bond’s eyes from which Bond extrapolates the character and life story of his new acquaintance. Several codes are evoked to suggest that Nash is untrustworthy or at least unseemly.

He has ‘thick lips’ which writhe briefly rather than forming a smile – whether a friendly greeting or an ironic grin at the ‘childish’ password ‘ritual’. Those lips suggest a racialised sensuality – rather than possessing the British character associated with a stiff upper lip, Nash has stayed behind in the Mediterranean after the war, to ‘avoid the rigours of England’ and to take a foreign girlfriend or marry an Italian.

It gets worse. Not only does he speaks with ‘a hint of … cheap brogue’, so perhaps his off-whiteness can be traced to Irish ancestry, his curious accent is probably also a consequence of speaking a ‘foreign language all the time’. He has simultaneously “gone native” and let the veneer of English civilisation slip sufficiently to reveal beneath it a not-Englishness. Perhaps that is why his calling card mentions his rank, Captain, and that he is a member of the RAC. They are desperate attempts to assert an identity he does not quite possess; and they give themselves  away as such to Bond’s trained – or perhaps merely bigoted –  eye.

Nash’s lips might be given to bestial writhing, but his eyes are at once dead – there is ‘no light in them’ – and a ‘very pale blue’, watery perhaps and lacking resolve. Certainly the career trajectory Bond imagines for him – from ‘minor public school’ (so not from one of the best English families, maybe even from an Irish family) through the Royal Engineers (perhaps not the most frontline of wartime active service, and a bit close to skilled manual labour) to stumbling into a position with MI6 because all the more senior and more qualified men returned to the ‘rigours of England’.

His clothing suggests some mismatching of colours – reddish-brown tweed, pale yellow shirt, blue and red regimental tie, a red bandana handkerchief (that flops out of his breast pocket), a ‘gold signet ring with an indecipherable crest’, a battered silver watch with a leather strap. And then there is that tie tied in a Windsor knot. To Bond, the knot signals Nash’s vanity; it is after all ‘the mark of the cad’ – and was in popular consciousness linked to Edward VII, who after his abdication was seen as a potential pretender to the throne (especially as he was not exactly as unsympathetic to Hitler as one might have hoped).

Throughout, the meanings generated by Nash’s appearance rely on the connotations evoked by specific word choices and combinations, which in turn rely on shared codes through which we understand those connotations. And we can push beyond codes to what Roland Barthes called ‘myth’ – especially around class, masculinity and the colonial imaginary – and thus to ideology.

As Jonathan Bignell explains, for Barthes, ‘myth’ refers

to ways of thinking about people, products, places or ideas which are structured to send particular messages to the reader or viewer of texts … Media texts often connect one signified idea with another, or one signifier with another, in order to attach connotations to people and things and endow them with mythic meaning. (Media Semiotics, 2nd edition, 16, 17)

Fortunately the British press, British Prime Ministers and Fox News never let you down when you want a contemporary examples, so we began by questioning why The Times (14 September 2015) described Jeremy Corbyn’s favoured mode of transport as a ‘Chairman Mao-style bicycle’. Why would a right-wing newspaper want to connect the new moderate centre-left leader of the Labour Party with the head of a brutal communist dictatorship?

We then took a look the first half at this segment from John Oliver, in which he explains why it is problematic for David Cameron to call refugees ‘a swarm’, and why Fox News cannot heavily imply all muslim men and/or refugees are terrorists while claiming that they are not implying precisely that.

In each of these examples, signifiers connote and those connotations draw upon and reinforce Barthesian myths. (We also took a look at Barthes’s own famous example of the Paris-Match cover in which a young black cadet salutes the French flag, thus apparently justifying colonialism.)

After all this (and a break!), it was time for some urban fiction, beginning with Arthur Conan Doyle’s ‘The Blue Carbuncle’ (1892) – the one in which a lost hat and abandoned Xmas goose lead Holmes to solve the theft of the eponymous gem. Our main focus was on the passage in which Holmes performs a semiotic analysis of the hat (though we also considered the simple techniques Doyle uses to persuade us of the accuracy of Holmes’s reading).

There were some indexical signs: several tallow splashes on the hat suggest its owner, Horner, lives in a house where gas-lighting has not yet been installed; and, more ridiculously, the size of the hat leads Holmes to conclude that Horner has a large head and therefore must be ‘highly intellectual’ – later, Horner’s mannered expression and use of the term ‘disjecta membra‘ will serve to confirm this absurdity. (The story was published the year before HG Wells’s essay ‘The Man of the Year Million’, which led to the design of his Martians and thus all those later big-brained aliens with puny bodies – so clearly something was in the air, not least because Horner is also sedentary and out of shape.)

There is also plenty of evidence of myth, as the connotations Holmes draws from his perusal of the hat reach out into the dimension of Victorian morality. Horner, who is no longer as foresightful as once he was, who has fallen on hard times, who  is not as attentive to his appearance as he used to be, and who has taken to drink, is obviously undergoing ‘a moral retrogression’ and has a ‘weakening nature’, though there are vague hopeful indications that ‘he has not entirely lost his self-respect’. In this aspect of Holmes’s analysis, meanings are converted into values – myth, and behind it ideology, in action.

This can be seen even more starkly in Holmes’s conclusion that Horner’s wife no longer loves him.

This hat has not been brushed for a week. When I see you, my dear Watson, with a week’s accumulation of dust upon your hat, and when your wife allows you to go out in such a state, I shall fear that you also have been unfortunate enough to lose your wife’s affection.

Patriarchy, anyone? Normative gender roles much? (It took mere seconds to come up with a half a dozen other reasons for Horner’s hat not having been dusted recently.)

We also took a quick look at the sequence from the first episode of Sherlock, in which Frumious Bandersnatch explains his initial reading of Bilbo’s character, history and current situation – culminating in a moment in which his reliance on heteronormative codes leads him to mistake the gender of his new friend’s sibling. (Other parts of his semiotic analysis were also questionable – were Iraq and Afghanistan really the only sunny places overseas British troops were stationed in 2009/10? why are scratches around the port on the phone evidence of the previous owner having a drink problem when we already know the current owner has a hand that sometimes shakes uncontrollably? Etc.)

We also took a look at the start of Holmes’ crime-scene analysis (damp clothes indexing rain, etc). And the handy bit when we see Holmes work along syntagmatic and paradigmatic axes to make sense of the victim’s message scratched in the floor with her fingernails: RACHE. In what languages is that a word? German, meaning revenge. Doesn’t seem very likely. What letter could be added to it to complete an English word? An L? Rachel! It’s a name. That’ll do nicely.

We finally took a look at William Gibson’s ‘The Gernsback Continuum’ (1981), but we were all flagging a little by this time. Its main significance for this class is twofold:

  • that there came a point – Gibson argues for the 1930s – when design started to dominate function in the construction of commodities and thus we started reorganising the way we purchase things in terms of their readable connotations;
  • and that that we live in built environments which are to varying degrees designed, and can thus be read for their meanings, which may well change over time. (And that all around us lurk semiotic ghosts.)






The City in Fiction and Film, week three

tumblr_l30hu35gF41qz6k9qo1_1280Week 2

One of the issues in designing a coherent new programme is working out at which level, in which module and when in that module (in relation to the other modules) to deliver certain kinds of material. When we designed the BA Film Studies twelve years ago, we decided to concentrate a lot of the film theory and critical theory in a compulsory level two (i.e., second year) module, whimsically entitled Currents in Film Theory. On the new BA Literature and Film Studies, in which students will encounter literary theory as well as film theory and critical theory, such a module seemed inappropriate, so part of our design process involved deciding what of this kind of material students needed to encounter and how best to divide it up between modules and levels.

All of which is a long way round to saying that today’s class involved an introduction to semiotics, ably supported by the first chapter of Jonathan Bignell’s Media Semiotics: An Introduction, still by far the best book of its kind – and I’m not just saying that because he used to teach me. (There will some structuralism, Marxism and feminism soon.)

By the end of the lecture, we had covered these terms/ideas from Saussure and Peirce:

diachronic vs. synchronic
langue and parole
the sign is arbitrary and conventional
sign = signifier + signified
the referent
syntagmatic vs. paradigmatic
symbol, icon and index
denotation and connotation

There was, as always, much exemplification through the medium of cats. (Back in the day, it was always trees, but over the last couple of decades this arboreal hegemony has fallen to a relentless feline insurgency – probably something to do with the internet and the ‘mind-control’ parasite Toxoplasma gondii.)

We’ll nail down these terms with a test at the start of class next week. A revision aid can be found here.

We looked at three texts this week – John Huston’s film of The Maltese Falcon (1941), Edgar Allan Poe’s story ‘The Man of the Crowd’ (1940) and Virginia Woolf’s essay ‘Street Haunting: A London Adventure’ (1927).

The vagaries of timetabling mean that each week the screening comes before the lecture, which is normally not a problem, but the challenge today was to come up with screening questions that are basically asking questions about semiotics without using semiotic terminology. Such as:

What kind of man is Sam Spade (Humphrey Bogart)? How do we know these things about him? How does he differ from Miles Archer (Jerome Cowan)?
How do we know Joel Cairo (Peter Lorre) is gay?
How do we know Kasper Gutman (Sidney Greenstreet) cannot be trusted? Is he also gay? Is Wilmer (Elisha Cook Jr) his lover?
How many roles does Brigid O’Shaughnessy (Mary Astor) play? How does she imply these differences?
How does Brigid differ from Iva Archer (Gladys George)? How do they both differ from Effie Perrine (Lee Patrick)?
How do we tell Lt. Detective Dundy (Barton McLane) and Detective Polhaus (Ward Bond) apart? In what ways does Polhaus resemble Sam Spade? In what ways does he resemble Dundy?

Although we did not get to work through all these questions in detail, it became very clear very quickly how much information is conveyed by costume and manner. We were obviously in the realm of signs – of signifiers and signifieds, of denotations and connotations.

When Miles walks into the office and finds Spade interviewing Brigid, the contrasts between the two men are clear and shape our understanding of each of them in relation to the other. Spade is in a tailored suit with subtle stripes, buttoned up with a precisely knotted tie; his manner thus far has been similarly professional, slightly patronising. Miles, a taller and slightly gangly figure, wears a baggier suit, unbuttoned, his shirt and tie not as neat; he makes no effort to conceal his sexual interest in Brigid, seating himself on the edge of Spade’s desk. Archer’s desk faces the window, Spade’s the door. He lacks Spade’s composure, his air of competence; Archer’s death, then, comes as little surprise.

Joel Cairo’s card smells of gardenias. He is small and feminised, his costume dapper, his hair neatly oiled curls. He wears gloves to keep his hands soft; he fiddles nervously with his cane, constantly positioning it near his mouth, suggesting some kind of oral fixation. His accent is exotic, as are the overseas places he has visited – and his surname. It is difficult to tell how much of his ‘deviant’ persona from M, which had been a hit in the US, is carried over, but it is clear that The Maltese Falcon – like many American crime films – uses queerness to connote wrongness and villainy. Some of this is evident in the corpulent Gutman, too, with Wilmer just the latest in what appears to be a succession of young men he picks up to work as his henchmen (and catamites?). However, there is an intriguing countercurrent at work. Perhaps it is the appeal of the exotic, perhaps just the brilliant performances of Lorre and Greenstreet, but neither character is particularly loathsome – and both in various ways are quite likeable.

We also noted the importance of transience and anonymity again in the representation of the city: Brigid goes by three names and at least that many personas; no-one knows their neighbours or lives in a discernible community; the closest thing to a friendship we see is between Spade and Effie (boss and employee).

Walter Benjamin says that Poe’s ‘A Man of the Crowd’

is something like an X-ray of a detective story. It does away with all the drapery that a crime represents. Only the armature remains: the pursuer, the crowd, and an unknown man who manages to walk through London in such a way that he always remains in the middle of the crowd.

We began with the moment in which the narrator first spots this mysterious man – whose appearance is a parole (speech-act) which the narrator struggles to filter through the available langue (sign system):

As I endeavoured, during the brief minute of my original survey, to form some analysis of the meaning conveyed, there arose confusedly and paradoxically within my mind, the ideas of vast mental powers, of caution, of penuriousness, of avarice, of coolness, of malice, of blood-thirstiness, of triumph, of merriment, of excessive terror, of intense–of supreme despair.

And then we took a step back to the start of the story, in which the narrator describes looking out at the crowd on a London street, abstracting himself from it, presenting himself as some kind of disembodied neutral observer, who fantasises about his ability to see without being seen. For two pages, he divides the crowd into distinct groups, and distinguishes between them by their costume, demeanour and behaviour, producing a catalogue of types, descending from the respectable professional classes down through clerks and swells, gamblers and pickpockets, prostitutes and drunks. The narrator reads the character of these people from their appearance; and the author persuades us of its accuracy and truthfulness through his careful selection of signs (words) for their denotative and, perhaps more importantly, connotative powers. No wonder, then, that ‘the man of the crowd’ comes as a shock, an epistemological limit that might undermine the certainty with which the narrator has described everyone else.

We also had a think about the following:

How does the story express the anonymity of life in the city?
How does it contrast day/night, different districts, different social or economic classes?
Who is the man the narrator follows?
What does the ending mean?

Virginia Woolf’s essay does some similar things. We thought about the connotations of the place names she includes:

the area between Holborn and the Strand
Oxford Street
Waterloo Bridge

Some of them retain similar connotations; others, such as ‘Brixton’, which then evoked a middle class suburb with green spaces, connotes something very different now. (Next semester we will look at some Windrush era and post-Windrush representations of London.)

Woolf begins by talking about the very personal connotations of items in one’s own room, where

we sit surrounded by objects which perpetually express the oddity of our own temperaments and enforce the memories of our own experience.

But there is an important slippage between this investment of personal meanings in a bowl or a stain on the carpet, and the connotations for readers. For the narrator, the bowl recalls the holiday in Mantua where is was purchased. For the reader, the buyer’s fond memory of the woman who sold it reeks of English class condescension, and the bowl connotes wealth, because who but the well-off could afford to spend a summer in Italy?

There is a curious passage also when the narrator visits a shoe store. A female dwarf, accompanied by two regular-sized women, reveals her perfect, full-sized, ‘arched and aristocratic’ foot. Its revelation alters her demeanour, and thus that of the people in the store. At the same time, the narrator is infected by the fantastical imagery of dwarves and giants (the regular-sized companions), and this spills over into her phantasmagorical description of the often-foreign working class denizens of the area around Seven Dials and Covent Garden. It is as if she cannot bring herself to directly describe this area and the people there. And, like Poe’s narrator, Woolf’s narrator is suddenly shocked by the appearance of a stereotypical Jew, with all the long and terrible anti-semitic baggage that evokes.

Woolf also fantasises about seeing without being seen – she describes herself as stripping away the shell of her home and becoming like the pearl in the oyster, which promptly transmutes into a giant eye, capable of observing the surfaces of things, the plane of signification. As a consequence of which, I now imagine Virginia Woolf looks like this:



I also had the opening of chapter 25, ‘A Tie With a Windsor Knot’, from Ian Fleming’s From Russia with Love (1957) to hand, but time as always was our enemy – will probably kick off next week’s class with it. (My colleague teaching the Cultural Value, Literature, Film and Consumption module will be doing some work on James Bond in the coming weeks, so it will make a nice crossover; she has been working on Sherlock Holmes this week, so I will be building on that next week.)

Recommended critical reading
Bignell, Jonathan. Media Semiotics: An Introduction. 2nd ed. Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2002.
Chandler, Daniel. Semiotics: The Basics. London: Routledge, 2002.
Monaco, James. How to Read a Film. 4th ed. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2009. See chapter 3, “The Language of Film: Signs and Syntax.”
Stam, Robert, ed. New Vocabularies in Film Semiotics: Structuralism, Post-Structuralism and Beyond. London: Routledge, 1992. See part II, “Cine-Semiology,” on how semiotics was developed in relation to film.
Turner, Graeme. Film as Social Practice. 4th ed. London: Routledge, 2006. See chapter 3, “Film Languages.”

Recommended reading
The opening and closing pages of Nikolai Gogol’s “Nevsky Prospect” (1835) capture the bustle and variety of a modern city street.
Virginia Woolf’s Mrs Dalloway (1925) repeatedly leaps from the mind of one character to another as they walk across London.
John Huston’s film is based on Dashiell Hammett’s hard-boiled crime novel, The Maltese Falcon (1929).

Recommended viewing
Women take on the role of detectives and attempt to make sense of the city, solve crimes or discover their own identities in Phantom Lady (Siodmak 1944), Desperately Seeking Susan (Seidelman 1985) and In the Cut (Campion 2003).

Week four