Freudian psychoanalysis, first written upon by Sigmund Freud and later contributed to by Jacque Lacan and Melanie Klein, had been applied to cinema theory previous to Metz. Jean-Louis Baudry, for example, had previously written psychoanalytical film theory in regards to dream states and the cinematic apparatus. By applying Freudian psychoanalysis to the film going experience, Metz illustrates how a film satisfies three important desires: the desire for ego, the desire to desire, and the desire for the object through fetishism. By incorporating the earlier elements of this first section, the reader comes to a deeper understanding of what drives Metz and how he came to his conclusions, which will be expounded upon within the later sections of the book.

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Metz opened the way in the s to the establishment of film theory as a new intellectual discipline. Along with other intellectuals of his generation who were inspired by the structuralist impulse cf. Much of his knowledge of film history, and of specific films which often serve as examples for his theoretical work, actually come from these activities.

In addition, Metz did translations from German and English, specialising in works on jazz. In short, while there was no shortage of film criticism, almost nothing had been done on film as a medium.

Transparency in film, Metz saw, was intimately tied to its realism — or verisimilitude. Not that film is more real than theatre.

Just the opposite. The actors on stage might constitute a real presence for the spectator by contrast with the celluloid image of film, but theatre, in relation to the drama that is enacted, lacks the power of illusion based on verisimilitude which, Metz will come to emphasise, is the mark of film as a medium.

At least this is so unless the theatre audience were primarily interested in the presence per se of a great actor. Realism and the Impression of Reality By comparison with theatre, the real power of film derives from its capacity to create an illusion of reality.

See entry on Lacan. This is tied to the requirement that the spectator suspend his or her disbelief because film as a medium — as a vehicle of representation — is an illusion in relation to the supposedly true reality beyond the representation. In particular, Metz was interested in the way the film signifier, by comparison with other media — other signifiers — succeeds in presenting a narrative diegesis , intrigue, description, drama, etc.

The key point here concerns the way film as such presents a narrative structure, and not the way specific films unfold and may be interpreted in light of this unfolding. In other words, the point is not to interpret particular films in which case the film signifier becomes incidental , but to analyse film as a structure of signification.

At all times in his early work, Metz keeps in view the fact that the filmic story, or subject-matter, is always realised through the image the filmic signifier , and that the latter, although an essential element of fascination, is not what a film is about. How then is it possible for a series of images to present a story which is, however minimally, always narrated i.

A documentary film can resort to a voice-over in order to give the images presented in time an order and coherence. Some feature films, it is true, resort to the same device; but most do not. What is the basic syntax of the unfolding of the feature film — the film of fiction? Neither Greimas nor Metz were interested in interpreting a specific text they are not, to repeat, working only at the level of the signified , but set out to achieve a much more daunting objective: a description of the basic syntactic order of every possible text — be it of literary or of filmic form.

In effect, film images are always organised in a specific way; they are never simply given in a raw, descriptive form, although, to be sure, descriptive sequences can occur within the film diegesis. As a discourse, then, film has to be understood in terms of parole — or process — rather than langue — or system.

Furthermore, film is not a language langue but an art of both connotation unlike music or architecture and expressivity it uses natural objects which do not invoke a code. Translation modified. Due to its reliance on the presentation of images in time and space, film tends to privilege the syntagmatic, or horizontal axis, over the paradigmatic, or vertical axis. Caution leads us to ask exactly why this is so.

The answer is that although a page of graphic text might also appear to unfold syntagmatically, a word, as Lacan said, is a knot of largely conventional meaningswhich thus renders fragile the horizontal flow of language. An image to repeat is not a word, however. It is produced in time and space by the filmic discourse, a discourse that is not only realised through the direction taken by the camera, but also through the procedure of montage — the act of linking one image with another through contiguity.

This is not to deny the existence of certain stereotypes heroic cowboy in film, nor to deny the use of symbols to create oppositions e. However, Metz, at least in his essays of the s, points out that such paradigmatic features are extremely fragile. The Syntagmatic Dimension of Cinema Metz in any case chose to base his most rigorous construction of a film syntax on the syntagmatic axis of signification. This construction, which he calls la grande syntagmatique the great syntagmatic chain , we shall now briefly summarise.

The great syntagmatic chain is divided into eight autonomous segments. These are: 1 Autonomous plan: this is not a syntagm, but a syntagmatic type. It is equivalent to the exposure in isolation of a single episode of the intrigue. Inserts — e. Here, no precise relationship between syntagms is evident. This is an a-chronological syntagm. This syntagm is also a-chronological. For example, a face, then the person to whom it belongs, then the room or office where the person is located Metz gives the example of a view of the countryside, bit by bit.

A descriptive syntagm is chronological. Through alternation, the montage presents several series of events which are then understood to be happening simultaneously. A linear syntagm produces a discontinuity of facts. The Imaginary Signifier By the mids, Metz had come to see that the semiotic approach to film tended to privilege the level of the structure of film discourse and to neglect the conditions of film reception — the position of the spectator.

This shift in focus from signification to film reception coincided with his interest in a psychoanalytical i. Freudian and Lacanian study of cinema. The spectator, then, has assimilated the positive cue associated with going to the cinema institution because he or she is part of that very institution. Because the cinema is structured in this way, Metz shows, discourse on the cinema is often part of the cinema institution.

Only rarely, therefore, is cinema discourse critical of the cinema institution. In other words, film poses in an acute form the problem of distinguishing a judgement of what is good, or objective, from an expression of what is desirable. This brings the drive aspect into consideration: the way the image fascinates, that way the viewing of film approximates dream, and that way metaphor and metonymy approximate primary process thinking based on condensation and displacement.

The irreality of the cinematographic signifier invites a comparison between dream and the image in the mirror. Also, the spectator is quite aware that the image is only an image. Scopic passion, voyeurism and fetishism in particular come to the fore. Each of these stimulate the drives which, to a certain extent, do not need a real object for achievement of satisfaction.

Voyeurism evokes the primitive scene of the child being present while its parents have intercourse. The voyeuristic position is one of passivity, entailing a gap between eye and object. The fetish is equivalent to a substitute for the penis in castration. To the point of delusion and hallucination? Metz almost implies as much at certain points, so concerned is he to emphasise the fact that spectator, qua spectator, disavows cinematic irreality.

The analogy is made to be too complete. For whereas dream and hallucination often lead to a confusion between reality and illusion this is why Freud called a dream a psychosis see Freud 29 , the distinguishing mark of the cinematic signifier, it could be argued, lies precisely in its being experienced as an illusion.

Freud, Sigmund [] , An Outline of Psychoanalysis, trans. Celia Britton et al. Celia Britton, et al. Donna Uniker- Sebeok, Berlin: Mouton. Block de Behae, L. See Odin, R. Henderson, Brian n.


Christian Metz


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The Imaginary Signifier: Psychoanalysis and the Cinema



Christian Metz (critic)


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