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
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
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.”
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).
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).