Film philosophers have long debated the importance of narrative and semiotics in film, exploring whether signs and symbols are more important to understanding the meaning of films than the narrative. In modern film studies, it seems that semiotics has taken a more dominant position, with the narrative of the film present only to help develop the world of the signs and symbols. Films are reliant on signs and symbols to create an unconscious reconfiguration of background knowledge and cultural understandings in the viewer. The narrative of a film remains only on the consciousness of the viewer, which can only change a person's perspective so much. Yet, signs and symbols seep into the subconscious of a viewer, which works to decode the symbolic images presented in the language of the film, reshaping a person's cultural understanding and perception of the world entirely.
The formal style of the film produces emotion in the viewer that continues on with them even after the film has finished. The viewer doesn’t have to be consciously aware of why or how the film has produced these emotions, but the sheer exposure to these formal qualities is enough to produce a reaction from the viewer and reconfigure their understanding of the world. In Andrei Tarkovsky’s work, for example, the meanings and themes of his films are not explicitly stated in the narrative. Rather, his extensive use of formal elements and symbolic imagery to create coded meanings about the world and humanity’s relationship with it. In his film Solaris, Tarkovsky never explicitly explores the relationship between humanity and nature in the macro-narrative, yet he creates this relationship with codes, most notably having characters interact with nature (or lack of nature while in space) and overlays many of the philosophical dialogue in his film with images of nature (the ocean, clouds, landscapes). The viewer isn’t conscious of the codes Tarkovsky creates, but they are nonetheless unconsciously affected by the symbols and formal qualities of the film. Similarly, in Jordan Peele’s Get Out, formal qualities and symbolic imagery allows Peele to counteract the stereotypes associated with races in film, challenging the traditional representation of Black people on screen. Without making the macro-narrative about African-American history and the black experience in the United States, Peele is able to convey an array of ideas and themes just through the imagery and codes he puts throughout this film. Although narrative plays an important role in the conscious storytelling of a film, the codes and signs crafted by the filmmaker through symbolic imagery and formal qualities transcend beyond the film itself, leaving the viewer with an emotional and unconscious relationship with the underlying themes long after the film has ended.
Some philosophers have poses arguments against the use of semiotics and instead have argued that the macro-narrative is more important in film. An argument against semiotics in a film is the misreading of the codes and symbols by an uninformed audience. Unlike a narrative, which is much more objective, symbols can be misinterpreted and misunderstood by viewers, creating a reading of the film that is separate from its philosophical intentions. A narrative is less ambiguous and more clear when conveying the film’s message to an audience. In Get Out, the themes of race and racism are explored, not explicitly in the macro-narrative of the film, but through signs and symbols. Peele includes a number of references to African heritage (the Swahili lyrics to the score’s main theme, Chris’s use of cotton to save him for losing his brain, and the buck used both as a reference to the derogatory term for black people and the black person becoming the hunted) juxtaposed with references to White colonization and slavery (the Armitage’s plantation-like home, Missy’s teacup, and the “whitening” of Andre, Georgina, and Walter’s person and clothing). A viewer who is misinformed or insensitive to race and racism in America may misinterpret these signs and miss the true meaning behind Peele’s film.
Similarly, some philosophers would say that the macro-narrative is essential for the viewer to “understand” a film. Following the same example of racism in Get Out, if the macro-narrative had explicitly stated that the film was about the black experience and the impact of modern-day racism than the message of the film would have been more clear to the average viewer. The macro-narrative allows the viewer to “figure out” the themes and meaning for themselves, rather than having the viewer become frustrated because they don’t understand what the symbols represent. An understanding of the macro-narrative could be more beneficial for the viewer to consciously “understand” a film, but the unconscious emotions and full-bodied experience created by the style of the film can have a longer lasting effect on the reconfiguration of the subconscious of the viewer.
Signs and symbols also propagate a passive viewer because it is so reliant on the unconscious experience. A passive viewer is not aware of how the film is restructuring their background knowledge and cultural understanding; they are just aware that the film has had some profound impact on them. In Solaris, Tarkovsky’s style and use of coded language are not entirely processed by a passive viewer. Yet, after the film is over, the viewer, who had been completely submerged in the world created by Tarkovsky, has a visceral reaction to the film. The viewer can feel that film has changed something within them, but they cannot consciously articulate that change. On the other hand, the macro-narrative creates an active viewer. The narrative encourages a viewer to actively and rationally think about the film and its meanings. Again, this cognitive approach to film philosophy relies on a conscious understanding of the film, whereas the codes of film trigger unconscious emotions in the viewer.
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