Images Revealed: An Application of Barthenean Codes to Film

Gretchen Schmidlin
Western Connecticut State University

 

 

 

 

 

Abstract

In this study, Barthes’s ideas are applied to film. An analysis similar to that of S/Z is done to a segment of the skit "Penthouse, The Man from Hollywood" in the film Four Rooms. This will illustrate how to observe signs more critically. The application of a linguistic theory to film reveals the universal notion of signs in culture and encourages all to seek deeper meaning through a variety of texts.

 

 

 

 

 

Semiotics, Roland Barthes, and Film Theory

Barthes’s study focuses on the application of five codes. The concept of such codes stems from the communication theory of semiotics. Semiotics is "a study of signs as products of human culture and as means of communication," (kirjasto). Signs can be considered to be "words, images, or anything from which meaning may be generated," (georgetown). Every sign consists of two parts, a signified and a signifier. The signifier is what form the sign takes, it is the literal, physical, aspect of a sign. The signified is in turn what the sign represents. Within the field of signs also reside denotative and connotative meanings. Denotation refers to the obvious, straightforward, meaning of a sign while connotation deals with the deeper meaning a sign possesses, what can be interpreted.

A code is essentially a message conveyed through a sign. The Barthean codes used in S/Z and which will later be applied to film are hermeneutic, semic, symbolic, proairetic, and reference codes (which are sometimes referred to as cultural codes). Hermeneutic codes are considered to be the codes of enigmas, they raise a question from a reader or viewer. Semic codes suggest a deeper connotation be sought from what is signified. Symbolic codes represent something other than what their denotation reflects. Proairetic codes are codes of actions or behaviors, (1972).

The significance and usage of these codes will become more apparent upon their application in the film analysis. However it is first crucial to have a strong grasp of how the concept came to be in the first place and why it is believed to be so useful.

One of Barthes’s earliest works is the text titled Mythologies. Here he combines signs, signifiers, and their signified into what he refers to as myths. Barthes dissects a multitude of objects through the consideration of aspects like advertising, functions, and history. He tackles wrestling changing it from what some may see as an entertaining sport into a "great spectacle of suffering, defeat, and justice," (p.18). Barthes considers a variety of elements before coming to this conclusion like the colors that wrestlers wear and the way they communicate with the audience.

Mythologies is a useful tool in the study of Barthean interpretation. It makes the clear point that so many signs in culture go overlooked and that by taking time to seek out and find meaning in such signs one might achieve deeper insights into just about anything. This opens doors in the field of film analysis by encouraging a viewer to take everything represented in a shot into consideration; rather than merely focusing on what one is directly led to through following a story line. The tone of Mythologies comes off with hints of sarcasm throughout however I interpret such tones as encouragement to readers to seek their own meaning in a text rather then relying solely on what Barthes believes, or anyone else for that matter.

The freedom which Barthes puts in the hands of a reader (or observer) is again reflected in the essay "System Vs Code: A Semiologists’s Etymology" by Jean — Jaques Thomas featured in McGraw and Ungar’s work (1989). When speaking on codes Thomas makes the point that they are ". . . empirically defined and open," (p.58). This basically states that the meaning derived from a code relies heavily on how it is observed. Thomas goes on to make note of how Barthes always maintains that different readers will pull different codes out of texts. Therefore the codes that Barthes picked out of S/Z and those examined in Four Rooms might greatly differ or closely compare with the insights of another. The issue at hand, however, is not what codes are chosen; it is how they are applied to create meaning.

Ungar, in McGraw and Ungar (1989) raises the issue of Barthes’s overall ambivalence towards film. According to Ungar it is such ambivalence which implies a resistance. He describes Barthes’s relation to film as being "tied to his attempts to articulate the interplay between deep and surface phenomena," (p.152). The surface phenomena of a film can be associated with denotation. The picture being viewed is what’s obvious and straightforward. The deeper meaning perceived from a film thus corresponds with connotation.

Barthes’s ambivalence towards film arises once again in his reflections on Cinemascope. He writes his thoughts of film in a manner which lead a reader down a twisted path of trying to decipher whether Barthes considers film to be an asset or liability to creating meaning from text (which in the case of cinema is essentially the film being viewed). In reference to viewing a wide screen picture Barthes writes ". . .I move effortlessly within the field’s range, I freely pick out what interests me, in a word I begin to be surrounded,"(socialchass). This quotation can be closely associated with Barthes’s position as a linguist. Dealing with language gives an interpreter the freedom to pick and choose what’s interesting. Barthes simply carried that notion over to film. However seeing as this is all leading to a visual analysis as opposed to something strictly print based, it is also important to consider the aspects a viewer does not control or freely pick and choose from, the technical aspects.

When making the move from linguists to film the first elements to consider are camera positions, angles, and distance. Dealing with angles, a camera placed below a subject shooting up might represent power. In opposition a camera angled to look down on a subject could be used to make someone appear weak or cowardly. The distance of a camera brings forth the concept of using close-ups, long shots, and medium shots, for example, to create different moods or suggestions.

Lighting and colors are another two film elements to be considered. Phillips makes the point that "…lighting often conveys meaning and mood in subtle yet significant ways," (1985, p.62). The same can be said of color. Granted both have the potential to be used in harsh ways as well. For example back-lighting might be utilized to give a character a wicked appeal. That same character might be dressed in all black to reinforce a sense of evil.

Montage deals with editing and the assembly of shots into sequences. A common shot transition is a cut however the type of cut used could possibly be used to create meaning. Is a match cut applied so the image in the second shot closely resembles that of the first? Or perhaps a jump cut is used where the shot a viewer is led into is abruptly different from the fist? Fades, dissolves, and wipes are also forms of shot transitions to consider. A fade or dissolve might often represent a lapse in time or perhaps a dream sequence. A wipe is not a common transition but is another possibility to lead a viewer into a new scene.

The role of sound in film is equally as important as the video aspect. Sound holds in a vast array of elements from musical soundtracks and sound effects to spoken dialogue. All of which should be considered in a film analysis.

The final aspect of film analysis to be discussed, and perhaps most important in terms of this study, deals with the shot itself and what it contains. According to Phillips, a shot can be considered to be "a continuous segment of film" (1985). Within each shot resides the mise-en-scene. Mise-en-scene incorporates all of the elements placed in front of a camera from actors to props to costumes and so on. In doing a Barthean analysis the elements of mise-en-scene in each contain the physical signs to be analyzed will be pulled from. Such signs are incorporated with the technical aspects previously spoken of and together codes will be deciphered.

Methods

The first four minutes of the skit from the film were viewed. During this time frame an adequate amount of codes are represented so meaning could be derived. After the segment was viewed it was then broken down into sections similar to the lexias used by Barthes in S/Z. Also similar to Barthes, the codes were abbreviated, then followed by the meaning they create.

Results

Chester Rush is a famous Hollywood director staying in the hotel where Ted works as the bellboy. It’s the end of the night on New Year’s Eve and Ted is preparing to finish up work and be done with being a bell boy for good. Upon delivering the requested room service Ted encounters Angela, a guest he had dealt with previously in one of his many obstacles of the evening. He then meets Chester, Chester's friend Norman, and his accountant Leo.

It turns out the request for Ted’s presence wasn’t only to deliver the desired supplies (a block of wood, a hatchet, and a bucket of ice) Chester, Norman, Leo, and Angela want him to partake in a reenactment of the Alfred Hitchcock episode, The Man From Rio: Chester bet Norman his 1964 Red Chevy Chevelle that Norman can’t light his cigarette lighter ten times in a row. If Norman succeeds he gets Chester’s car, if he loses his pinkie finger gets cut off. The reason they requested Ted’s presence is because they need someone to chop his finger off should he lose.

After a bit of sweet talking and $1000 cash for his services Ted agrees. Norman’s lighter fails upon the first flick, Ted chops off his pinkie, and walks out the door.

With that brief summary in mind we come to the actual application of Barthes’s linguist study to film.

Key:

HER-hermeneutic code
PRO-proairetic code
SEM-semic code
SYM-symbolic code
REF-reference code

VOICE

"Get your skanky asses the fuck out of here!"

Shot: Medium long shot of two naked women running out of the room.

SEM: The naked women being thrown out in such a manner denote power on behalf of Chester, nakedness represents humility.

HER: Why are the women naked? What’s going on in the room?

TED

"Room Service."

Shot: As Ted approaches the door with his cart there is a match

cut jumping from Ted himself to a shot of his perspective. His view reveals a medium shot of the room’s doors which zooms into an extreme close up.

HER: Who is behind the door? What is he delivering on the cart?

SEM: The ECU of the doors makes them look enormous, this denotes

a luxurious room, obviously expensive, thus foreshadowing the wealth within.

SYM: Ted is dressed in blue, which associates with the working

class, the service class, such a officers or EMT’s.

PRO: The movement of Ted pushing the cart lets a viewer know he’s

going into the room.

ANGELA

"Hello Theodore."

Shot: Medium close up of Angela answering the door

SYM: She’s dressed in a bathrobe with a towel on her head

suggesting a shower or something of the nature

TED

"What the fuck are you doing here?"

Shot: Begins with a medium close up of Ted, upon seeing Angela he

is startled and jumps back into a medium shot.

PRO: The retreating backward represents Ted being uncomfortable.

ANGELA

"Having a drink."

REF: It’s New Years, people often drink to celebrate the holiday.

SEM: Drinking with others represents socializing.

HER: Why is she really there? How did she end up in that room?

TED

"Is Sigfried here?"

ANGELA

"Are you kidding he’ll probably be asleep till Christmas. Hey everybody the bell-boys here."

SEM: Sleeping until Christmas stands for being passed out, cold.

HER: Who’s everybody?

GROUP

(Cheers)

Enter Bellboy!

Shot: Medium Long shot of Ted entering, he enters into a Medium

Close Up

HER: Why are they all so excited?

SEM: The notion of Ted moving into the MCU signifies the

beginning of things to come.

TED

Ahhh Mr. Rush. I’m sorry I’m late but I think you’ll find that I have everything you need sir.

Shot: Pans from medium shot of Ted to long shot of Chester

(establishing shot of room, contains bright royal blue

carpet with red furniture and red curtains on the walls). Proceeds to pan from Chester to Angela.

PRO: The panning camera movement insinuates quick moving pace,

something often associated with Hollywood & movie stars, "life in the fast lane".

SYM: Red is a color of power, Chester comes off powerful, being

surrounded by red.

CHESTER

No Problema El Bellboy no problema.

ANGELA

His name is Theodore.

SYM: Angela is dressed in a white robe with a white towel on her

head, the color of neutrality, goodness, and purity. Throughout the skit she remains to be the neutral character.

TED

Actually it’s not Theodore it’s Ted, it’s Ted sir.

SHOT: A medium shot of Ted pans to a medium long shot of Chester.

PRO: The use of a pan movement rather then an edit represents the

quick pace the skit carries throughout.

CHESTER

So, Ted the bellboy would you care for some Champaign as I was saying (laughs) that wasn’t what I was saying but would you care for some Champaign?

SEM: Chester refers to Ted now & throughout the skit as "Ted the

Bellboy." This portrays Ted more as a figure in a story

rather then an actual individual. It foreshadows the

notion of Ted playing a role in the Hitchcock skit to be

reenacted.

REF: The Champaign associates with socializing in our culture.

TED

Uh, I’m on duty sir.

CHESTER

Duty Shmooty come on it’s like Crystal, it’s the very best that they make and I didn’t like Champaign till I had Crystal and now I love it, come on.

SEM: "Duty Shmooty" denotes Chester not taking Ted’s job

seriously.

SYM: Drinking such expensive Champaign symbolizes Chester's

wealth and status.

TED

If I must sir.

CHESTER

Yes, as I was saying chin chin for odd purposes promptness is far behind thoroughness. Drink up lad. What’d you say?

SHOT: Chester moves into a close-up shot that is perceived

through Ted’s perspective.

SYM: The close-up shot of Chester represents his control over the

conversation.

HER: What odd purposes are Chester referring to?

TED

Thank you sir.

CHESTER

No not thank you, what do you say about the tasty beverage?

TED

It’s very good.

CHESTER

Fucking good, it’s fucking good Ted.

ANGELA

(in background)

Do you have a light?

SHOT: Angela exits off to the left.

HER: Who is she talking to?

SYM: With Angela out of the shot Chester is again represented

with complete control.

CHESTER

Let’s try it again shall we? So Ted, what do you think about that tasty beverage?

TED

It’s fucking good sir.

SYM: The control Chester has over Ted, being able to get Ted to

say what he desires. This represents the concept that

money talks.

CHESTER

It’s fucking Crystal, everything else is piss.

NORMAN

(off camera)

Bell boy, bell boy, bell boooy…

HER: Who is that yelling in the background?

CHESTER

Shut up, shhh shhh shhh, you’re making my friend Ted here nervous, chill out man, chill out dude. Pay no attention to Norman here he just, y’know that’s from Quadrophenia, he’s just fucking with ya. Now me personally. When I think of bellboy I think of The Bellboy with Jerry Lewis. Did you ever see that film Ted?

REF: Quadrophenia is a film that takes characters originated on

The Who’s same titled release and puts them into a story

of sex, drugs, and rock and roll.

REF: In the film The Bellboy Jerry Lewis is a comedic, clumsy

Bellboy.

TED

Ummm, no sir.

CHESTER

Awww you should man, it’s one of Jerry’s better movies. He doesn’t say a word through the entire film it’s a completely silent performance. Y’know how many actors can pull that off? And I gotta tell ya that guy, he’s gotta go to France to get respect. That says it all about America right their y’know just that one little sentence that says it all about America right there. The minute Jerry Lewis dies every newspaper in this fucking country’s gonna be writing articles calling the man a genius. Y’know it’s not right. It’s not right and it’s not fucking fair. But why should that surprise anyone? When the hell has America ever been fair, y’know we might be right every once in awhile but we’re very rarely fair.

SHOT: Continued close-up of Chester until he’s done speaking

followed by a pan to a close up of Ted.

REF: The French reference stems from the fact that Jerry Lewis

won the best director award eight times in Europe and three

of those times were in France. French critics also spoke

very highly of Lewis.

PRO: The camera panning movement leads a viewer from witnessing

events through Ted’s perspective into that of Chester’s.

TED

Ahhh, ummm, where should I put this sir?

SHOT: Medium close-up of Ted.

CHESTER

You in a hurry there Ted?

PRO: Chester walks into the shot and stands next to Ted as

opposed to standing across from him.

SYM: The movement symbolizes a pressure to stay.

HER: Why does Chester want him to stay?

TED

Ahhh, ummm, not particularly.

SHOT: Chester puts his hand on Ted’s shoulder.

REF: Such contact after a brief first meeting can often be

perceived uncomfortable in cultures such as ours.

SYM: Chester’s actions represent the pressure he is putting on

Ted to stay.

SEM: "Not particularly" doesn’t take a definite stand, it’s an

ambivalent, some what wishy-washy term which foreshadows

that Ted will stay.

CHESTER

Good gotta stop playin beat the clock OK. Lemmie introduce you to everybody now, see that girl over there? All right that’s our friend from downstairs we just met her at the pool.

SHOT: As the introductions begin Chester points in a particular

direction leading the camera to who will be introduced

next. There are still no edits, only panning. The camera

pans from a medium close up of Chester to a medium shot of

Angela.

SYM: The medium shot of the two creates a comfortable, social,

Feeling between the two.

PRO: Again the lack of edits and reliance on camera movements

Creates a very fast paced, Hollywood, type feel.

REF: The fact that they met Angela at the pool explains her

attire.

ANGELA

Yeah Theodore and I go way back, don’t we Theodore?

SEM: The repetition of Theodore stems from Angela knowing

he doesn’t like being called that; mockery.

REF: Stating they "go way back" is a reference to Ted and

Angela’s previous encounter.

TED

Actually the name’s Ted, Angela. I only let people with loaded guns pointed at my head call me Theodore.

REF: Angela’s husband held a gun to Ted’s head earlier that

evening, initially insisting he be called Theodore.

CHESTER

The man sittin in this chair with the Jim Bean in his hand yellin Bellboy at you is Norman, Norman say hello to Ted.

PRO: Chester points at Norman guiding the camera to a medium

shot for the introduction.

SYM: The medium shot upholds the feeling of friendly

introductions.

REF: Norman was the one yelling bellboy upon Ted’s arrival.

NORMAN

What’s up Ted?

SYM: The bottle of Jim Bean Norman’s holding represents his

state of intoxication and can be tied in with the task

they expect Ted to perform.

TED

What’s up sir?

END OF SEGMENT ANALYZED

Discussion

When compared to the results Barthes achieved in S/Z these were of similar success. Like Barthes, a text was studied and meaning was deciphered through the use of five semiotic codes. A variety of signs and state the significance of their role(s) in the film was studied. In so many of his works Barthes stressed the freedom within a viewer to create meaning in a text. Through utilizing such freedom, studying Roland Barthes, and focusing on the art of film criticism Barthes’s theory of language was constructively molded into a successful film analysis. Bordwell makes a relevant point stating "Taking meaning-making as a constructive activity leads us to a fresh model of interpreting films," (1989,p.13).

The reason these results were achieved is because of the tight correlation of all the sources involved. For example the deeper the theory of semiotics was concentrated on the more it was related to the many elements involved in the study of film theory. When focusing primarily on film theory many of the aspects associated directly to Barthes’s codes. Film, literature, and the theory of semiotics appear to hold the face value of three very different fields. However when individually studied in depth a variety of inter-linked associations surface. Such associates are successful results were accomplished.

The most important implication of the results is that what originated as a textual study could be transferred to something visual. This implies the notions that codes might be applied to a variety of fields, verbal and/or non-verbal. Whether language, film, or general signs in culture are being concentrated on, Barthenean codes might be used to create meaning.

The segment analyzed initially comes off as a mere mode of entertainment, something funny to amuse a viewer. The codes applied and combined create something much deeper. This skit is not just one of comic relief, it deals with the issue of power, the life in the fast-lane Hollywood lifestyle, and eventually leads to just how far one is willing to go for money. For example the various camera shots of Chester create a collection of symbolic codes representing power and control. Symbolic codes are also used to identify the roles people play within the skit like dressing Angela in white to keep her as a neutral character or Ted in blue, in association with service and the idea of blue-collar workers. The lack of edits acts as a proairetic code of the quick Hollywood pace within the room. The five codes all work together to create meaning which most likely would not be initially perceived by a viewer.

Doing the project over a separate research section would be performed on other studies that have been done using Barthenean codes as a primary focus. Through studying the methods others use to apply the codes of Roland Barthes (as opposed to film application) more could be learned of how others perceive Barthes’s ideas some new or different insights might arise. Using the studies of others as a reference would have offered traces of both encouragement and feedback in this particular application.

Future projects this work suggests would entail making the jump from fiction to reality. For example it would be interesting to attend a political meeting or rally of some sort with a notebook and make close note of speakers, attendants, the environment, props people bring (flyers, drums, etc.) and apply what’s observed directly to the five codes. This would reveal so much more about meaning behind motives. The five codes could definitely be utilized in some type of study on human behavior.

With all said and done this study will conclude with a quotation from James Monaco that beautifully summarizes the work and is incredibly insightful: "Film is difficult to explain because it is easy to understand. The semiotics of film is easy to explain because it is difficult to understand. Somewhere between lies the genius of film," (1981, 140).

Sources

Barthes, R.(1974). S/Z, New York: Hill and Wang.

Barthes, R.(1972). Mythologies, New York: Hill and Wang.

Bordwell, D. (1989). Making meaning, Cambridge: Harvard University Press.

McGraw, B.R. & Ungar, S. (Eds.). (1989). Signs in culture: Roland Barthes today, Iowa City: University of Iowa Press.

Monaco, J. (1981). How to read a film, New York: Oxford University Press.

On Barthes, On Cinemascope [Online]. (No date). Available: http://www.socialchass.ncsu.edu/jouvert/v3i3/barth.htm .

Phillips, W. H. (1985). Analyzing film: A practical guide, New York: CBS College Publishing.

Rockwell, Alexander & Tarantino Quentin (Producers), Anders, Allison, Rockwell, Alexandre, Rodriguez, Robert, & Tarantino Quentin (Directors), (1995). Four Rooms. [Film]. Los Angeles, CA: Miramax.

Roland Barthes [Online]. (1994). Available: http://acnet.pratt.edu/arch543p/hel/Barthes.htm.

Roland Barthes (1915-1980) [Online]. (No date). Available: http://www.kirjasto.sci.fi/rbarthes.htm.

Semiotics for Beginners [Online]. (No date). Available: http://georgetown.edu/grad/CCT/505.semiotic.htm.

 

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