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- Peter Wollen Signs and Meaning in the Cinema Expanded Edition
- Looking for signs and meaning in the cinema
- Signs and meaning in the cinema
- Back to issue
The British Film Institute exists to promote appreciation, enjoyment, protection and development of moving image culture in and throughout the whole of the United Kingdom.
Peter Wollen Signs and Meaning in the Cinema Expanded Edition
The British Film Institute exists to promote appreciation, enjoyment, protection and development of moving image culture in and throughout the whole of the United Kingdom. The general purpose of this book is to suggest a number of avenues by which the outstanding problems of film aesthetics might be fruitfully approached.
My guiding principle has been that the study of film does not necessarily have to take place in a world of its own, a closed and idiosyncratic universe of discourse from which all alien concepts and methods are expelled.
The study of film must keep pace with and be responsive to changes and developments in the study of other media, other arts, other modes of communication and expression.
For much too long film aesthetics and film criticism, in the Anglo-Saxon countries at least, have been privileged zones, private reserves in which thought has developed along its own lines, haphazardly, irrespective of what goes on in the larger realm of ideas.
Writers about the cinema have felt free to talk about film language as if linguists did not exist and to discuss Eisenstein's theory of montage in blissful ignorance of the Marxist concept of dialectic. Breadth of view is all the more important because, by right, film aesthetics oc cupies a central place in the study of aesthetics in general. In the first place, the cinema is an entirely new art, not yet so much as a hundred years old.
This is an unprecedented challenge to aesthetics; it is difficult to think of an event so mo mentous as the emergence of a new art: an unprecedented challenge and an astonishing opportunity. Lumiere and Melies achieved, almost within our lifetime, what Orpheus and Tubal-Cain have been revered for throughout the millennia, the mythical founders of the art of music, ancient, remote and awe inspiring.
Secondly, the cinema is not simply a new art; it is also an art which com bines and incorporates others, which operates on different sensory bands, different channels, using different codes and modes of expression.
It poses in the most acute form the problem of the relationship between the different arts, their similarities and differences, the possibilities of translation and transcription: all the questions asked of aesthetics by the Wagnerian notion of the Gesamtkunstwerk and the Brechtian critique of Wagner, questions which send us back to the theory of synesthesia, to Lessing's Laocoon and Baudelaire's correspondances. Yet the impact of the cinema on aesthetics has been almost nil.
Universities still continue to parade a derelict phantom of aesthetics, robbed of immediacy and failing in energy, paralysed by the enormity of the challenge which has been thrown down. Many writers on aesthetics have gone so far as to refuse the cinema any status whatever; they have averted their gaze and returned to their customary pursuits.
It is incredible that writers on aesthetics have not seized on the cinema with enthusiasm. Perhaps, at times, Pudovkin, Eisenstein or Welles may be mentioned but, on the whole, there is a depressing ignorance, even unconcern. In the 1 s the Russians - Kuleshov, Pudovkin, Eisenstein - managed to force themselves on the attention. The situation in which they worked, of course, was unique. The Bolshevik Revolution had swept away and destroyed the old order in education as in everything else; academic conservatism was in full-scale retreat.
Experts on aesthetics came into close contact with the artistic avant-garde; this was the heyday of Russian Formalism: the collaboration between poets and nov elists on the one hand, and literary critics and theorists on the other, is now well , known. Indeed, many of the leading critics were also poets and novelists. The cin ema was obviously affected by this. Many of the Formalists - the novelist and literary theorist Tynyanov, for instance - also worked in the cinema as scriptwrit ers.
With the breakdown of the old academic system, there was not a slackening of intellectual pace, but actually an intensification. There was the crystallisation of an authentic intelligentsia, rather than an academic hierarchy: like all intelligentsias, it was built round a revival of serious journalism and polemic. Literary theorists, such as Victor Shklovsky in particular, issued manifestos, wrote broadsides, col laborated enthusiastically on magazines like Lef This was, of course, only an interim period: a new kind of heavy academicism soon descended.
It is possible to dismiss Eisenstein as an auto-didact, to slight him for his lack of serious academic training - or rather training in the wrong subject - but few are now willing to take this risk.
It is quite clear that, despite his own lack of rigour and the difficult circumstances in which he worked, Eisenstein was the first, and probably still the most important, major theorist of the cinema. The main task now is to reassess his voluminous writings, to insert them into a critical frame of reference and to sift the central problematic and conceptual apparatus from the alarms and diversions. Of course, the first wave of popular works on film aesthet ics, in almost every country, shows the very powerful influence Eisenstein exerted, in part, evidently, because of his prestige as a director.
The key idea, which seized the imagination, was the concept of montage. There are any number of pedestrian expositions of Eisenstein's views about this. And, of course, a counter-current has reacted against this orthodoxy, stressing the sequence instead of the shot and the moving as against the stationary camera. It seems to me that what is needed now is not an outright rejection of Eisenstein's theories but a critical reinvestigation of them, a recognition of their value, but an attempt to see them in a new light, not as the tablets of the law, but as situated in a complex movement of thought, both that of Eisenstein himself and that of the cultural milieu in which he worked.
It is not possible to be definitive about Eisenstein at this stage. The 1 s in the Soviet Union is an extraordinarily complex period - not only complex but star tlingly and breathtakingly original. The huge political and social upheavals of the period produced an unprecedented situation in the arts, in culture in general, in the movement of thought and ideology.
In the section on Eisenstein in this book, I have tried to shift the terrain of discussion and to indicate, in broad outlines, what I take to be the main drift of Eisenstein's thought and to locate it in its set ting. But all this is necessarily very provisional. The main stumbling-block for film aesthetics, however, has not been Eisenstein, but Hollywood. Eisenstein, as we have seen, was part of a general movement which included not only film directors, but also poets, painters and architects.
It is relatively easy to assimilate the Russian cinema of the 1 s into the normal frame of reference of art history. Hollywood, on the other hand, is a completely different kind of phenomenon, much more forbidding, much more challenging. There is no difficulty in talking about Eisenstein in the same breath as a poet like Mayakovsky, a painter like Malevich, or a theatre director like Stanislavsky. But John Ford or Raoul Walsh?
The initial reaction, as we well know, was to damn Hollywood completely, to see it as a threat to civilised values and sensibilities. The extent of the panic can be seen by the way in which the most bourgeois critics and theorists manage to find Battleship Potemkin far preferable to any Metro Goldwyn- Mayer musical or Warner Bros. They actually prefer the depiction of the bourgeoisie in Strike or October, hideous, bloated and cruel, to its depiction in the movies of Vincente Minnelli or Douglas Sirk, which appals them much more.
This attitude seems to have very strong roots. It is not surprising that Jean Domarchi gave as his title to a review of Brigadoon: 'Marx would have liked Minnelli. Of course, the reaction to Hollywood was always exaggerated. There are two points which need to be separated out. Firstly, Hollywood is by no means monolithically different; the American cinema is not utterly and irretrievably other.
To begin with, all cinemas are commercial; producers and financiers act. The main difference about American films is that they have succeeded in capturing the foreign as well as the home market. We only see the tip of the French, Italian or Japanese cinema, or East European too, for that matter, but we see a much more broad slab of Hollywood. When we do see more of a foreign cinema, it is usually dismissed in just the same way as American movies: Italian peplums or Japanese science fiction, for example.
Then, a very large number of American directors actually worked in Europe first: Hitchcock is the most obvious example, but we should also consider Sirk, Siodmak, Lang, Ulmer. There is a whole 'Viennese' school of Hollywood directors. One of the more extraordinary convergences of Viennese culture was that between Sternberg.
The whole battle for and against ornament, which exploded in Vienna, is expressed in the work of these two Viennese in exile. In the section of this book on the auteur theory, I have tried to outline the theoretical basis for a critical investigation and assessment of the American cin ema, as a model of the commercial cinema.
I have restricted myself to American examples - Ford and Hawks - but I cannot see any reason in principle why the au teur theory should not be applied to the European cinema. The British cinema, for instance, is in obvious need of reinvestigation; we can see the beginnings of a reassessment in the French studies of Terence Fisher and 0.
Green's Movie article on Michael Powell. The same is true for the Italian and French cinema. It is very striking, for instance, how Godard and Truffaut are still treated with wide spread critical respect, even indulgence, whereas we hear very little today about Chabrol, who seems to have evaporated in the same magical way that was once presumed to have overcome Hitchcock and Lang. Our ideas about the Japanese cinema must be extraordinarily distorted and blinkered. I do not in any way want to suggest that it is only possible to be an auteur in the popular cinema.
It is simply that working for a mass audience has its advantages as well as its drawbacks, in the same way, mutatis mutandis, that working for a limited audience of cognoscenti does.
Erwin Panofsky put the point very forcefully:. While it is true that commercial art is always in danger of ending up as a prostitute, it is equally true that non-commercial art is always in danger of ending up as an old maid. Non-commercial art has given us Seurat's Grande Jatte and Shakespeare's sonnets, but also much that is esoteric to the point of incommunicability.
Conversely, commercial art has given us much that is vulgar or snobbish two as pects of the same thing to the point of loathsomeness, but also Dtirer's prints and Shakespeare's plays. I would not myself use esoteric and vulgar as the pertinent pair of contraries, but the main gist is clear enough. The reason for constantly stressing the auteur theory is that there is an equally constant, and spontaneous, tendency to exaggerate the significance and value of the art film.
Despite all that is fashionable about a taste for horror movies, it is still much less unquestioned than a taste for East European art movies.
What has happened is that a determined assault on the citadels of taste has managed to establish the American work of Hitchcock, Hawks, perhaps Fuller, Boetticher, Nicholas Ray. But the main principles of the auteur theory, as opposed to its isolated achievements, have not been established, certainly not outside a very restricted circle.
However, there are even more difficult problems for film aesthetics than those raised by the popular cinema, by Hollywood and Hawks. In Chapter 3 of this book I try to set out some guidelines for a semiology of the cinema, the study of the cin ema as a system of signs.
The underlying object of this is to force a reinvestigation of what is meant when we talk about the language of film; in what sense is film a language at all. A great deal of work in this field has already been done on the continent of Europe, in France, Italy, Poland, the former Soviet Union.
The Anglo Saxon countries are still comparatively innocent of this. I have tried to combine. The problems which semiologists confront can quickly become complex; I fear it is true to say over-complex and pedantic. The important thing is to remember that pedantry is a necessary by-product at a certain stage of any scientific advance; pedantry becomes dangerous when it is conservative.
There are two reasons why semiology is a vital area of study for the aesthetics of film. Firstly, any criticism necessarily depends upon knowing what a text means, being able to read it. Unless we understand the code or mode of expression which permits meaning to exist in the cinema, we are condemned to massive imprecision and nebulosity in film criticism, an unfounded reliance on intuition and momentary impressions.
Secondly, it is becoming increasingly evident that any definition of art must be made as part of a theory of semiology. Forty years ago the Russian Formalist critics insisted that the task of literary critics was to study not literature but 'literariness'.
This still holds good. The whole drift of mod ern thought about the arts has been to submerge them in general theories of com munication, whether psychological or sociological, to treat works of art like any other text or message and to deny them any specific aesthetic qualities by which they can be distinguished, except of the most banal kind, like primacy of the expressive over the instrumental or simply institutionalisation as art.
The great breakthrough in literary theory came with Jakobson's insistence that poetics was a province of linguistics, that there was a poetic function, together with an emo tive, conative, phatic function and so on. The same vision of aesthetics as a province of semiology is to be found in the Prague school in general and in the work of Hjelmslev and the Copenhagen school.
We must persevere along this. Two and a half centuries ago Shaftesbury 1 7 1 3 , the greatest English writer on aesthetics and the semiology of the visual arts, wrote as follows, in his preliminary notes for a treatise on Plastics:.
Looking for signs and meaning in the cinema
La Politique des Auteurs in Briti This essay charts the emergence of auteur structuralism in Britain from and the polemical debates that erupted between its adherents Jim Kitses, Peter Wollen, Alan Lovell on the one hand, and Robin Wood, a defender of traditional auteur theory, on the other. The essay considers the epistemological values behind the debate, and ends by outlining the incompatible types of knowledge and evidence each side in the debate held. La politique des auteurs is a narrowly focused, evaluative form of film criticism that not only privileges the work of directors over other above-the-line filmmakers screenwriters, cinematographers, producers, etc. Whereas an empiricist epistemology posits its object of study as pre-existing already formed objects that generate knowledge when they are correctly observed, identified, and catalogued , the object of study in a constructivist epistemology is not given in advance and cannot, therefore, simply be observed, but is an abstract entity that needs to be constructed or modeled. The constructivist does not discover a specific object of study, but instead constructs it, for this object is defined as being inaccessible to perception. Focus shifts to the significance of methodologies, for linguists need to follow the same methods in order to constitute the same object of study.
Signs and meaning in the cinema
T he existential value of the work of art, as a declaration about being, cannot be extracted from the adherent signals alone its symbolism , nor from the self-signals alone the medium. The self-signals taken alone prove only existence; adherent signals taken in isolation prove only the presence of meaning. Recent movements in artistic practice stress self-signals alone, as in abstract expressionism; conversely, recent art scholarship has stressed adherent signals alone, as in iconography. George Kubler footnote 1. Movies can be located on a scale, abstract expressionism to absolute naturalism.
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Qty :. First published in , Signs and Meaning in the Cinema transformed the emerging discipline of film studies. Remarkably eclectic and informed, Peter Wollen's highly influential and groundbreaking work remains a brilliant and accessible theorisation of film as an art form and as a sign system. The book is divided into three main sections. The first explores the work of Sergei Eisenstein as film-maker, designer and aesthetician. The second, which contains a celebrated comparison of the films of John Ford and Howard Hawks, is an exposition and defence of the auteur theory.
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Falling upon Signs and Meaning in the Cinema at the time I did was something like postmodem doubt: only through Lee Russell could Peter Wollen recover a.
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Peter Wollen 29 June — 17 December was a film theorist and filmmaker.