Thursday, 26 February 2015

Yr3 Week 17 (Thurs 19 Feb - MDA3200 Film Theory - Representation)

Returning to the subject of Representation, we opened with an extract from Lars Von Trier's experimental period piece Dogville (2003), which opted to have actors in costume performing the story on a large stage with few props and tape marking the different 'sets' on the stage. Essentially, this was akin to low budget theatre, relying heavily on the power of suggestion and the audience.

Representation is all about choice and expression, which ties back to the discussions relating to language and semiotics we´ve had these past couple of weeks: how do we communicate and what that then creates for the audience (reaffirmation or doubt). It also permitted us to delve more into signs/signification. Not only do signs function relationally (a combination or sequence to create meaning), but there are different types as well, like the iconic (a close tie between sign and signified, like a red traffic light) and the indexical (many things i.e. Big Ben can be London, England, Europe, HP Brown Sauce etc.).

In turns, signs can birth a type of ideology, because a combination can create a meaning which in turn dictates our view of a given 'thing' or subject. It allows for a straightforward, conventional communication of a certain element in a universal manner. Without it, we may cause confusion or be left unsure, which also ties back into past discussions about film language and the avant garde. In theory, after all, we cam ascribe any meaning to any subject, but without a common agreement, it will not work. Film, being photographic, does allow a little more leeway, given that it is a motivated sign system (where there is a direct link signifier and signified), and notions such as the Kuleshov effect demonstrate this.

These ideas of film being viewable as paradigmatic (choice) and syntagmatic (syntax) extend beyond just the mechanics of a film. For example, stories and even whole genres can be broken down in a such a fashion, tropes or elements being delineated in terms of the accepted rules and limited choices i.e., Westerns (Location (Saloons, prairies, railways, canyons etc.), Costume (Stetson, spurs, boots), Transport (Coaches, trains, horses), Weapon (six shooters, rifles, tomahawks) etc.). Similar things can be done to say, genre hybrids like sci-fi westerns or romantic comedies, and can also be applied to say, characters and their archetypes.

This in turn lead us into Stereotypes/Cliches, which are those well trodden paradigmatic and syntagmatic ideas, the conventional exemplifiers i.e  a big burly John Wayne type in a Western. The advantage is its familiarity, quickly communicating a notion to the audience and filling in the allotted role with ease. The downside is the same though: audience have seen it before, and so to avoid it, writers need to have a greater self-awareness of signification and be able to think outside of it. This ties into ideas such as defamiliarization (the familiar in the unfamiliar) and the Sensory Motor Mechanism (how we see familiar patterns and structures).

However, this leads us right back to the issue of interpretation, and the question over ambiguity and clarity. How much do you state, and how much do you leave for the audience? Naturally, a little context is always needed: a training video will need the clarity, while an arthouse film does not. Well, that took us into the seminar, where we viewed two different extracts, and dissected them to see what they were communicating. Those were David Lean's This Happy Breed (1946) and Jean Luc Godard's Two or Three Things I Know About Her (1966).

The first is a Christmas in 1920s Britain in a moderately well off British household. Both the younger and older generations are having a little party, a young sailor stops by to visit his girlfriend, and the parents have a little chat in the kitchen. Seems straightforward enough, and very quaintly British, but underneath, what can be read? Well, among the young there seems to be a strong desire for change, be it the son's Marxist values and spiel during a toast, or the daughter being aspirational and wanting more than to be the future wife of an admittedly nice but plain sailor. Of course, they are also rather impulsive, which is contrasted by the father, who believes that change comes slowly, that it must grow in a manner akin to a garden. However, such ideals play off against the setting of an ordinary, proper and conservative British household of the 20s, complete with Granny and tea. Also, despite the abundant number of women in the house, there is a patriarchal undertone here as most of the scenes are driven not only by the males, but also the prominence of the Father, a very calm and wise figure who gets the meatiest speech.

The second extract is set mainly in a Paris bar in the mid 60s, and is more abstract. In the basic sense, a middle class prostitute goes into a cafe, has a coke, and talks to some friends as well as eye up a young man, while there is construction work going on outside. However, being Godard, it´s not so clean cut: there is frequent cutting back to the construction, often with slightly out of sync sound, as well as a narrator waxing philosophical over the mundane setting. The crosscutting could potentially imply a link between the prostitute and the industrialization in the city, as if saying that French society, a capitalist society, all ties back to some kind of prostitution/selling, and the frequent shots of a stirred cup of coffee naturally could imply space and the greater universe, which mixed with the narrator, feel like the film is being none too subtle about making a point of some sort about France of the time and the people who lived within it. In fact, such an approach is very similar to the other Godard film we saw, Weekend.

This has been one of the meatiest sessions I think I´ve had so far on this course, and naturally, it was quite a bit to take in. However, I feel there is a lot of merit in the concepts presented, and it certainly gives one pause to think more about how even something as simple and straightforward as a sign can have much bigger connotations, and just the sheer variety of them and where they can appear, even if we don't actively think about them or perceive as signs in as obvious a manner as say traffic lights.

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