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Various academic texts have already been published in the field of semiotics and structuralism, ultimately reaffirming the assertion that our psychological makeup is swayed by exposure to media. The above observations are cross referenced with topics written on the subject in order to underpin the argument that signs utilising prior schemata result in meaning being conveyed as intended by film makers and curators alike and not necessarily by accident.
There are three primary agendas which motivate and subsequently propagate consumption of media content, be it film, television, radio or the internet. Though this is not exhaustive of the mediums deployed, emphasis will be on the film industry, concentrating on the way the industry is financed and with particular reference to signifiers which have been traditionally projected in the darkness of the cinema where distractions are reduced.
iv) Financial - Return On Investment
v) Leverage - Springboard Effect for a Company’s Produce
vi) Political Currency – Positive Portrayal of Government
Whilst the above stem from manufacturers’ incentives, the public tend to have very different expectancies such as;
d) Master craftsmanship in terms of the finished artefact
e) Good performances by actors
To address the above and understand the processes involved it becomes necessary to touch on cinema’s history in the making, both British as well as American. The uninitiated might even be forgiven for believing in the existence of the British Film Industry. Those that reminisce with fervour about the national institution which churned out classics such as the ‘Carry On’ series, ‘Hammer House of Horror’ instalments starring Christopher Lee and Peter Cushing ** (take out sherlock holmes) may have witnessed the last bastion of what gave the world British films which are part of our national pride.
But which component of the film making process can we honestly proclaim to being British? There is abundance in creative talent matched by an equally impressive bank of technical expertise throughout the length and breadth of the UK, but the national identity of the films produced during the last decade has been diluted by factors such as Distribution, Studios, Finance, Location, and Exhibition Houses. The following paragraphs illustrate why some home grown films end up being an international product of US or Canadian origin.
Financial - Return On Investment
It goes without saying that films need to be commercially viable, at least those not intended solely for the art houses. When you consider general film going audiences expect the high production values we have become accustomed to when watching Hollywood based films, it comes as no surprise then that multi-million dollar budgets become essential in keeping with the production houses’ financial requirements to produce a movie with bankable actors, in addition to costs associated with marketing and distribution. At best, investing in movies is the antithesis of a secure investment. Simply put, film making is a high risk business.
Investing in movies produced by independent studios, in some cases, does offer a return on investment from the profits of a given movie but as with the stock market, one of the ways to minimise risk and maximise potential profits is to spread that risk over a number of projects. Given that a single project can cost millions, it becomes painstakingly obvious that the major studios are better equipped with resources such as accounting, legalities including clearance of intellectual property rights, licensing of media formats and related merchandise.
Goldcrest Films attempted to adopt the American business model by investing heavily in three major film projects in the UK for international markets with Absolute Beginners, The Mission and Revolution. Unfortunately even a slate of three films was not enough to diversify the risk and proved disastrous. Hollywood majors have an average portfolio of ten to twenty films per annum **(Hill, 1999: 77). Even adopting an alternative approach by investing in cheaper style productions aimed for the US audiences proved futile in terms of market penetration. **remove[Casualties included British companies such as Handmade and Palace (Hill, 1999b). In order to understand reasons for this one needs to look at other parts of the supply chain once the produce is ‘in the can’].
1) Distribution Company. Inevitably films destined for cinema houses need to be marketed with such ferocity in order to compete with the majors. Depending on territory this exercise alone can exceed the cost of producing the movie. Distributors which are part of a larger conglomerate tend to have equity stakes in various multiplexes as in the UK. Against this backdrop alone it rapidly becomes clear that vested interest by major US studio houses in UK based Cinemas result in preference towards exhibiting those films that are made by its US counterparts **e.g. VUE cinemas which were formerly known as Warner Village was jointly owned by Village Roadshow and Warner Bros. and has recently been taken over by SBC International Cinemas who CEO, J. Timothy Richards used to work for Warner brothers, Paramount and Universal Studios. (source: BNU Filmgroup) The flavour is still American.
2) Straight To Video/DVD
High returns can be enjoyed merely via sales and rentals of DVD and video **remove [which has quadrupled in recent years (Selwood, 1996)]. However since the major rental stores in the United Kingdom are owned by US production houses, this means less prominent space on the shelves for indigenous films that lack the vast resources enjoyed by the majors.
The kudos attached to publicly exhibited films has the positive effect of creating market awareness prior to its launch on video and DVD formats. Also, a certain level of market testing will have been provided with pre-screened titles (exhibited outside Britain) making the film more attractive to terrestrial/cable/satellite broadcasters as well as rentailers. This accentuates the challenges faced by British producers on home ground since the majority of rental chains in the UK are predominantly owned by US interests. Additionally, the rental cost to the exhibitor for a film which has recouped most of its costs in the US alone becomes considerably cheaper, hence attractive compared to UK based productions which have yet to see the light of day. This practice makes the task of recouping production costs more difficult for independent British film makers.
The alternative is departing from the formulaic Hollywood style film making and maintaining the quintessential essence of a ‘made in Britain’ movie. These may be period dramas where the location setting and caste are essentially British such as Merchant Ivory’s Room With A View or the more recent success of Love Actually written and directed by Richard Curtis and starring Hugh Grant (Working Title Films).
Although Merchant Ivory’s stable of films could make one feel the films are wholly British, the company is in fact US based as Merchant Ivory Productions **remove[(MIP)] is based in New York. Similarly Working Title Films’ arrangement with American based Universal Pictures owes much of its current successes to the distribution network it has access to by its association with the Hollywood giant.
Leverage - Springboard Effect for a Company’s Produce
An interesting point to note; even US films have been known to perform miserably at the box office. But this does not equate to overall loss of revenue for the conglomerates whose business interests in media extends to other platforms such as terrestrial/cable/satellite broadcasting companies, publishing houses and even theme parks. The cinema has in this scenario become a vehicle to extend the appeal of a product by association. Whether it is product placement or social engineering on a mass scale, the role of semiotics has never been more pronounced then when audiences have been exposed to the narratives supported by consumer goods. This is perhaps more obvious during seasonal releases of movies during Christmas for example.
Claude Lévi-Strauss lends support to the idea that individuals manifest within sub-cultures by social grouping. In the case of some films audiences tend to place themselves in the shoes of the characters and consequently subscribe to similar lifestyles. This is based around the principal that we identify ourselves with the aid of consumerism. Claude Lévi-Strauss states:
‘…it seems not untrue to say that some modes of classing, arbitrarily isolated under the title of totemism, are universally employed: among ourselves this “totemism” has merely been humanised. Everything takes place as if in our civilisation every individual’s own personality were his totem: it is the signifier of his signified being’ (Lévi-Strauss, 1966).
The notion of a British film set against the backdrop of quintessential Britain starts blurring since the media landscape of today is being shaped by those conglomerates that have their fingers in several pies which greatly influences lifestyles. In other words, Britain today is much different then what it was a few decades ago. This puts a profoundly different slant on whether British Cinema can be seen as a National Cinema, considering a film produced in England in the 21st century would adopt the landscape (both psychological and commercial) that has been influenced by America amongst other nations.
Conversely Bend It Like Beckham with its ethnically rich/multi-cultural input is considered a British film since the film was scripted, produced and filmed with UK demographics in mind thus maintaining a sense of identity.
Hollywood films in general due to vast budgets tend to titillate audiences with exotic locations and special effects combined with use of merchandise. Quite powerful when one considers the diverse business interests of the majors. A more simplistic example would be a motorcycle manufacturer co-producing or sponsoring a racing film which would appeal to their target consumer group. If high circulation figures for the publishing industry are appealing to advertisers then put into context; US majors’ share of UK film distribution in 1997 was a massive 80.6% (screen International). Considering cinema admissions around the same time were in the region of 137 million (Screen Digest), every aspect of the film making process and the commercial enterprises concerned are part of a very serious business indeed, notwithstanding the fact that figures (below) indicate over 167*** million admissions in 2002.
UK box office breakdown 2003**
Source: Screen Finance/Dodona Research/CAA/Nielsen EDI/RSU analysis
The most successful British Films that spring to mind in terms of UK box office success are Four Weddings and a Funeral (partly financed by Film Four) and The Full Monty although it is useful to note that this film was indirectly funded by Fox Searchlight, a Hollywood major, in its aim to target niche markets which, according to John Hill, “…benefited from the distribution and marketing advantages that association with a Hollywood major brought” (Hill, 1999: 76).**
**take out Hill J. British Cinema in the 1980s: Issues and Themes. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999b.
Political Currency – Positive Portrayal of Government
Government attitude towards the film industry as a whole is in need of a paradigm shift. There is a growing trend for UK production companies to rely on co-funding arrangements with overseas organisations, either directly with major studios or via government initiatives similar to those with Canada which in 2005 saw 11 bipartite projects with circa 50/50 fund share of 34 million dollars with one institute alone (Telefilm Canada) ***. To exacerbate matters the British government has reduced the number of incentives such as state support for a quota system whereby cinema houses were bound to exhibit a proportion of indigenous films. Also abolished was the Eady Levy which brought additional revenue for the producers directly from exhibitors’ box office revenues (Hill, 1993: TAKE OUT)**. In May 2004, ‘Section 48’, an incentive for the corporate sector to mitigate tax liability by investing in UK films expired. All that remain are a few consortia which are responsible for disbursement of National Lottery funds for the Arts Councils, British Screen and a few local enterprise schemes designed to regenerate growth in local communities such as the London Development Agency (LDA: 2006**) particularly in Newham (Newham 2006**) which already boasts several studio facilities including London’s Three Mill Studios. Having won the 2012 Olympic bid has meant more inward investment, ensuring the region becomes a centre of excellence.
Films like Love Actually appealed to audiences’ political bias by portraying the British Prime Minister as a morally outstanding gentleman who is in touch with his electorate’s ‘common’ values and a leader that is not dictated or influenced by the United States. Ironic considering the film was partly US funded.
It is clear that a major strategic overhaul is necessary to maintain a viable UK film industry. There needs to be in place, a distribution network which provides the springboard to penetrate overseas markets on the buzz created by local success. At the very least it would provide a platform for local product to be showcased on a nationwide basis. From cinema houses to video rental stores, satellite broadcast to print and media publishing not forgetting distribution companies, the US have practically covered all stages of the film making process, from script to screen. In this Information Society what remains unclear is what effect greater empowerment, in terms of broadband access, will have for smaller organisations by levelling the playing field.
Master craftsmanship in terms of the finished artefact
So how do consumers digest information derived from films? A look at the movie Devil’s Advocate (Warner Brothers:1997) as an example may provide some answers by describing elements of the film with academic references to demonstrate an understanding of the codes and conventions of narrative fiction. The mechanics of film making in general is also addressed from a psychoanalytical, structuralist and semiotic perspective.
Devil’s Advocate is about a successful country lawyer who is enticed to work in New York for an attractive pay package with all the material trappings to match. From humble beginnings to working for the most successful law firm over a short time span comes as no surprise due to an impressive success rate. Keanu Reeves has been cast as the lawyer Kevin Lomax who has never lost a case. Charlize Theron (pre Oscar winner) plays the role of Kevin’s wife Mary Ann. With an air of innocence emanating from a relative newcomer in Hollywood’s machinery Charlize breathes vulnerable life into Mary Ann’s character. Connie Nielson plays the vamp in true Hollywood style providing bait for Kevin.
Good performances by actors
Kevin’s boss John Milton is played by Al Pacino, Hollywood’s heavyweight in terms of a string of successful film performances spanning over three decades. Thus starts an affinity with a film that could have been relegated to second rate horror movies had the star attraction been absent, consequently creating a vacuum void of memories which serve to reinforce cognitive culture. In other words the respect and admiration for Al Pacino created in the mindset of audiences who have viewed his earlier work in films like Godfather (Paramount Pictures**:1972) and Scarface (Universal Pictures:1983) provide credibility to the film from the start. Otherwise Al Pacino’s character might simply have been perceived as the antagonist from the outset. Convention dictates the good guy or ‘hero’ to be the binary opposite of all that represents evil. Yet as spectators our empathy lies in part towards Al Pacino, not the character that is enacted. Richard Maltby argues in Hollywood Cinema (Maltby R, 1995: 78-97) in favour of Vladimir Propp’s construct wherein the three-act structure of classic storyline remains constant. However the function of a character can shift within the same narrative. For example in Devil’s Advocate, John Milton is the villain, but not before being perceived as the good guy who offers wealth and fortune to Kevin Lomax. This characteristic is also explained by Propp when referring to ‘Transference’ in terms of Spheres of Action when a character assumes one or more responsibilities in the narrative.
The above concept is equally applied to Kevin’s character in the first instance when highly suspicious of his client’s integrity, continues to defend him. When the scene is revisited towards the latter part of the film, it concludes with Kevin’s memory intact and his newfound wisdom influences his decision not to defend the man he suspects of being guilty of child abuse. There are many layers to this film as much as there as subplots, all relating to good and evil, right and wrong, domestic bliss versus the hunger for career success. This creates a moral dilemma in a film where sacramental connotations are embedded throughout. The narrative arc is played against free will because we as the audience are acknowledging the mise-en-scène with duality, one that identifies with the character while at the same time admiring the artistes’ performance. The crucial point here is when a film is being surveyed, what could be considered a successful attempt at understanding the author or what the film maker intended to communicate, could in fact be the result on our part in lending meaning to film. I use the word ‘lend’ with purpose since with each revisit to the same film, we flavour signifiers with newly formed implication based on exposure to other media and experience. We’ve all heard people say “I had read the book, but the movie wasn’t as I had imagined, or it was”. One could say cultural references are at play.
The shot sequences described above encompasses most text book theories associated with film making including semiotics. For example, temporal condensation and spatial manipulation is approached in contrast to each other from a shyuzet style plot driven structure (syntagmatic/series of cause and effect) in the church scene to parametric narration in the second scene which is moved forward within boundaries afforded by technicalities of film making. The key aspect of this argument is that whilst alternative creative art forms are expressed with pre existing tools such as paint and the canvass in the case of painting for example, camera equipment was produced with the purpose of making films in the first place. Therefore when the phrase ‘parametric narration’ is used, whilst it can be assumed to inhibit creativity by the limitations or boundaries of the mechanical processes involved, the very fact that the functionality of these machines were designed to aid the capture of moving images increases the scope of story telling as opposed to confining it to a mere compromise. It is important to emphasise that the plethora of equipment such as lighting, camera, sound and editing can also be viewed as a bottleneck but it is a combination of these factors that enables films to be put together in the first place.
Metz also subscribes to this notion, extending it further to incorporate structuralism that Lacan addresses whereby the apparatus mimes the mirror stage at time of viewing at projection stage. Even Laura Mulvey refers to this anthropomorphic relationship with machinery associated with cinema in The Nature of The Gaze, her psychoanalysis of the mise-en-scène reflected on screen, albeit more as a counterpoint to highlight the physical obsessions of the society responsible for producing the machinery associated with film making. Paradoxically, scopophilia is a common trait that goes against the grain of these rendered processes, yet conforms to voyeuristic attributes recreated when enveloped in darkness at the movie theatre. In other words, it is we as a society who has conjured up the inanimate mechanical systems such as the projector and the screen, yet it is we that forget its deadness and substitute the resulting illusion with meaning and emotional attachment.
Although primarily a Christian institution depicted in the image, the arbitrariness of the composition needn’t preclude it from being understood by the rest of the world. This phenomenon may be a result of exposure to media such as films from the west, but it once again highlights what Ferdinand De Saussure refers to as the diachronic aspects of language (Saussure:1989). The diachronic connotation is what our collective mindset has developed historically, in this case a symbolic representation of God’s arch-nemesis and fallen angel within a ceremonious backdrop.
The construction of these scenes is in keeping with prior schema which in turn transfers the shift of power from audiences (under the illusion that their respective views and opinions are unbiased) to creators of the pro-filmic event who recognise and thereby exploit the power of the medium. Organisations responsible for funding movies do so with prescribed strategies in mind especially where sponsorship is the guise being used to promote a lifestyle or company’s product. Let us further explore the psychologies at play in another scene where the protagonist’s half sister enters the frame.
Here the direction of photography has been designed to create momentary tension/suspense whilst allowing scopophilia to manifest prior to revelation of character, for spectators’ benefit. The notion of the ‘invisible observer’ is brought into focus since the protagonist would have had the benefit of immediate recognition by virtue of sharing the same diegetic space. The voyeuristic reference made here is quickly transformed to an objective view of the onscreen characters. However we would be forgiven for stepping into the shoes of the characters portrayed. This is explained by Claude Lévi-Strauss when he implies the existence of a channel ‘from a point of view centred on subjective utility to one of objective analogy and ‘from external analogy to internal homology’ (Strauss:1973). The assertion here that we take pleasure in what is shown is elevated to the discourse of essentialism in its bid to redress the balance left in the wake of a patriarchal approach to social engineering. An interesting concept when juxtaposed against a predominantly patriarchal mindset of the 1800s with similarly rendered films to match the male chauvinistic attitudes prevalent in abundance at the time. Although in the following statement we are led to believe it to be not exclusive to the males’ mindset. The plurality of the gaze is referred in Chris Weedon’s suggestion that a particular version of female sexuality is paramount. Chris makes the following observation:
…It is a form of femininity in which women direct themselves totally to the satisfaction of the male gaze, male fantasies and male desires and gain an arguably masochistic pleasure in doing so. This contrasts with other versions of femininity, which stresses women’s asexuality, exalting either virginity or motherhood…(Weedon, 1994: 172)
Whether or not likening womanhood to that of virgin, mother or whore sits comfortably in our mind, these conceptions exist and are widely consumed in our everyday lives. However, if sexual inferences can be made by even the remotest imagination in relation to films in general, surely representation of the intended act itself could contain a second level signifier for the text. This premise was depicted in the climax of the sequence in Devil’s Advocate where the intended act of sex is used as a counterpoint with itself i.e. power and weakness in the context of free will.
**remove whole paragraph [Focalisation is another method by which audiences read meanings on screen. In Narrative Comprehension And Film (Brannigan:1992) the following reference is made: “The spectator’s task is to identify the story world with the mental understanding of a specific character”. In Devil’s advocate there are several scenes where only the spectator through internal focalisation is able to determine what is going on in the mind of the central character, e.g. dream sequences or hallucinations via point-of-view shots etc, whereas other characters who may be occupying the same diegetic space at the time do not have this insight. ]
In arranging the sequence of events in a particular order as an instrument to enhance the unravelling processes of the master narrative, one cannot resist the temptation to argue that this increases accommodation for palimpsest where writing can be affected by other writing in many guises. While we may be unconscious in our understanding of the hierarchical processes involved in structuring layers in the film narrative, even while somatic, our recognition of what is being revealed… or concealed, is paramount. Surely there has to be some form of stimulus that provides structure. Michael Foucault’s assertion is of interest:
It is not simply at the level of consciousness, of representations and in what one thinks one knows, but at the level of what makes possible the knowledge that is transformed into political investment **(Foucault, 1977: 185)
It is important to emphasise that however complex some of the conceptual arguments may appear during learning stage in whichever discipline, the rudimentary values which form the make up of instruction is sutured into our psyches. This is where praxis i.e. the marriage of theory and practice in terms of technical proficiency becomes** greater than the sum of its parts.
In keeping with the spiritual theme of **Devil’s Advocate, whether or not one believes in the concept of God’s existence on the basis ‘if evil exists then goodness must be a manifestation of God’s being’, a slightly different parallel based on Derrida’s theology on religion provides insight into a far greater concept which makes a film like **Devil’s Advocate acceptable, regardless of one’s religious persuasions. This is expanded on in Derrida’s Religion : A Theology of Différance by Janus Head:
With Augustine, Derrida posits the importance of the witness who does not proceed by way of knowledge. With Kierkegaard, he takes a passionate leap of faith into the unforeseeable abyss where no philosophy is certain. Like both of these thinkers, Derrida de-emphasizes the visual. However, unlike either of these thinkers, Derrida sees faith, and its accompanying blindness, not as a longing for the presence of a deity, or a supernatural experience beyond the limits of reason, but as a passion for what is impossible, namely the experience of something unforeseen, never knowing whether or not that unforeseen something will ever be realized. And to give witness to this faith, as it reveals itself in existence, as that which is believed but can not be seen, is the manner in which all truth is overpowered, rendering faith deconstructive rather than philosophical or theological. **(Head, 2003: 146)
The comparison here, though abstract, is that as with many hegemonic beliefs, the positioning of individuals in society can mirror the above without tangible absolutes but with an air of verisimilitude, which validates that belief.
To summarise the essential elements of the discussion up to this point, the scenes chosen include a multitude of codes and conventions used in the construction of narrative in the moving image. Psychoanalysis, essentialism, scopophilia and mechanical implementation have been explored in relation to human behaviour toward inanimate objects and their consequent reading of meaning into a film which is in constant state of flux, or put another way, anthropocentric traits that form our frames of reference which are continually changing.
Another form of manipulation takes place when we visit the museum. Take the Ephesus section in British Museum for example. The grossly enlarged black and white photograph which adorns the corridor leading to room 82 on the lower floor of the British Museum vies for your attention. It measures approximately ten feet across and five feet high and depicts the ancient city of Ephesus, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world.
What is amazing is the sheer scale and order of the municipality. The monumental buildings include a theatre, museum, stadium, library, and gymnasium. A sense of power emanates from the grouping of these buildings in close proximity to one another. The elevated position of the picture was taken from a distance in order to accommodate an overall view of the location surrounded by hills so that one might appreciate the planning which went into the construction of the city including the roads. Left in its original format the details could easily be lost in a tiny photograph, hence the enlarged print now fastened to the wall like a tapestry. A sense of familiarity begins to materialise. Not because one might have caught a glimpse of this splendid city during a television broadcast, but because the incredible way in which each place of interest was positioned could remind one of London, England, heart and Capital of the British Empire. The ruins used to be the second largest city of the Roman Empire, known now in modern day Turkey as Efes (Ephesus Guide).
Ephesus may have been privileged in terms of political, commercial and religious significance but as a visitor to this part of the museum and ‘discovering’ an obscure part of the building, the association made is how similar the man-made settings appeared to the present civilisation in England. How then could such a remarkable exhibit end up being relegated to a less prominent part of the British Museum?
Could it be part of the curators’ overall scheme of direction? According to Eilean’s **remove[(Hooper-Greenhill, Eilean 2000)] reference to Master Narratives, the trail may not have been random after all. Eilean **(Hooper-Greenhill, 2000: 24) states that:
Museum Narratives are constructed through bringing together onto one site diverse objects from a range of different sources. Brought together, they are then sorted, classified, and ordered through display into a visual narrative. Each individual item is given its significance by being placed within a larger group, and by the story that is told by this particular conjunction of artefacts. The master narratives that museums construct depend on a number of techniques of inclusion or exclusion.
In keeping with Eilean’s theory of Master Narratives, the photograph of Ephesus is prominently displayed at the entrance to the main hall containing Roman artefacts thereby emphasising the importance of the period. Specific buildings are identified by numbers superimposed on respective areas along with textual references at the bottom of the image ensuring spectators gain sufficient information at first glance. In the first instance this anchors the photograph like a mini museum within the British Museum and secondly, acts as the main menu to what can be found by way of relics in the rest of the department relating to that period. Dedicating an entire room to Ephesus accentuates the glory of the era. Here the subtext in the guise of artefacts and photos support the master narrative. One could be forgiven to think the British Museum was placing greater emphasis on showcasing a civilisation/epoch more superior than Great Britain. Surely that could not be the remit of the British Museum, funded as an institution largely by the state.
What is actually happening is clearer to the discerning observer once the immediate fascination with what is being observed is superseded by self-awareness. The revelation that the Master Narrative plays on our intellect on a second or higher level is profound. That we are actually able to recognise a great civilisation on its own merit, consequently matching it in terms of present day reality or life in a vibrant metropolis such as London reaffirms how great we are as a nation, as an individual. Eilean **(Hooper-Greenhill, 2000: 24) supports this by saying:
Museums are major apparatuses in the creation of national identities. They illustrate the nation as cultured, as elevated in taste, as inclusive and as paternal. Visual representations are a key element in symbolising and sustaining national communal bonds. Such representations are not just reactive, depicting an existing state of being, they are also purposefully creative and they can generate new social and political formations. Through the persistent production of certain images and the suppression of others, and through controlling the way images are viewed or artefacts are preserved, visual representations can also be used to produce a view of the nation’s history.
The connection between museums and education can be nicely summed up by the following excerpt quoted by Henry Cole:
‘Indeed, a Museum presents probably the only effectual means of educating the adult…By proper arrangements a Museum may be made in the highest degree instructional… **(Hooper-Greenhill, 2000: 26)
Movies provide entertainment as well as being informative. The credence given to museums however is greater owing to the fact they are institutionalised by governments and housed in huge buildings which are architecturally significant. Here a prior schema of what the public considers to be factually accurate in terms of importance influences our perception.
Another argument that supports the idea that media, whatever form it may take, actively influences our point of view is studying the way media reproduces essentialist gender identities. Unless one recognises the clear distinction between sex and gender identities, one runs the risk of freefalling into the abyss perpetuated by mindsets reflected in and created by society. To help explain this we need to visit the opposite of Essentialism, i.e. Postructuralism.
Postructuralism is the awareness of socio-cultural influences that shape the way we see ourselves in relation to race/sex/gender issues that leads us to categorise that which we are…as well as that which we are not. This notion is expanded on below and we shall explore a small selection of media representations to support the debate.
Feminism takes a higher pedestal in the discourse of essentialism in its bid to redress the balance left in the wake of a patriarchal approach to social engineering. It would appear that language in its diachronic form is responsible to a large extent to the way in which we not only see the world but how we place ourselves subjectively in that world. Being historical, meanings of signs remain in a constant state of flux, changing all the time. Or put another way, we evolve with a set of constructs to which we attach the notion of common sense values or institution which takes on a different meaning over time. Those who question the discursive nature of langue stand a far greater chance of proceeding to a conclusion through reason which provides a greater understanding of how belief systems develop. The arbitrary nature of language lends itself to Derrida’s argument whereby:
Différance can be understood as signifying inequality and distinction, as well as identity and non-identity. At the same time, it is neither word nor concept, thought nor image, active nor passive. Différance prefers to play in the middle. **(Derrida, 1973: 130).
Even with the simple act of admiring the curves on a motorcar man falls prey to the fetish involved with the symbol of the phallus according to Freud’s psychoanalysis. Yet again a myth perpetuated by frequent inference of man as predator in a patriarchal society. Television advertising during the nineties played on the conscious awareness of target audiences and feminists alike with dual layer messages encoded in the narrative. The following paragraph by Chris Weedons addresses the role of women directly:
In conservative discourse the family is the natural basic unit of the social order, meeting individual emotional, sexual and practical needs, and it is primarily responsible for the reproduction and socialisation of children. Power relations in the family, in which men usually have more power than women and women more power than children, are seen as a God-given natural order which guarantees the sexual division of labour within the family. The naturalness of women’s responsibility for division of labour and childcare is balanced by the naturalness men’s involvement in the worlds of work and politics. Both partners are equal in worth but different. The organisation of society in family units guarantees the reproduction of social values and skills in differential class and gender terms. To be a wife and mother is seen as women’s primary role and the source of full self-realisation. The natural; structure of femininity will ensure that women can achieve fulfilment through these tasks. **(Weedon, 1994: 179)
The plausibility of such a statement whilst true in its appearance merely reinforces the myth, yet serves to raise the profile of womanhood in a positive manner by association of natural order and reference to God. Again it is language that comes to the fore which is supported by the plethora of women’s magazines that exist today. To reiterate, it is appropriate to identify with frames of reference against the backdrop of ones’ socio-cultural upbringing which forms the backbone of our general knowledge. It is in relation to these assumptions that editorial content is interpreted. And it is precisely these expectations which form the basis or vehicle to dispense strategically constructed content by editors. After all, contrary to imaginative fiction, articles or indeed news stories are not invented, rather selective information told from the writer’s perspective. It is further interpreted via social filters on a scale influenced by demographics and geography. So what part does this and for that matter semiotics, play in rendering of news? The most crucial point touched on so far are the possible motivations that exist behind most media content, the publishers of which are commercially driven, ultimately by its readership, but regulated by our representatives, political or otherwise.
The key aspect of this argument is that whilst information relayed via various media can be arbitrary, its interpretation is up to us. In this context our bias towards what is considered to be a fair assessment of events is misaligned due in part to the subjective nature of reporting on the one hand by the journalist and our reaction to the article in terms of where we stand individually as well as where we stand as a nation to the rest of the world. This is important since as an example the act of disbursing a proportion of our hard earned cash to our chosen brand/product is a direct consequence of how we perceive the information imparted to us, both from the source of the information in addition to assertions made by the respective advertisers vying for our patronage.
It must be emphasised that whether we are subjected to print media in the form of broadsheets or television broadcasts via cable/sat/terrestrial channels, rather than recognising the images to be symbolic in nature, we automatically assume an indexical link vis-à-vis a physical connection between the images and the picture. This debate is supported by the following paragraph:
The claim that documentary can present a truthful and accurate portrayal of the social world is not only validated through the association of the camera with the instruments of science but also depends upon the cultural belief that the camera does not lie. This is predicated on two things: the first is concerned with the power of the photograph, and the second with the discourses of realism and naturalism. Together these provide the basis for our strong cultural assumptions about documentary, while also allowing issues of ideology to be side-stepped in our evaluations of the form. **(Roscoe & Hight, 2001: 11)
The above paragraph encompasses the dilemma faced by society as we know, as we have shaped it. It is a reflection of how we view it through our own separate prisms. But these filters have been constructed in part by external influences such as the media now being referred to. Whether it is a piece of news documentary, text based information in the daily tabloid or a billboard directly targeting you in its advertisement, due to the arbitrary nature of information, whilst the totality of the message may appear different to the respondent in varying degrees, the general meaning conveyed to a collective consciousness is not dissimilar to what was intended by the producer of the message, which has been edited, dramatised and even sexed up to enhance its appeal.
We have visited several areas of how the media in its recognition of semiotics and its construction of adverts and news articles manipulates it readers consequently reproducing essentialist gender identities. We have seen examples of this in the form of print and television broadcasts in addition to discourse provided by academic authors such as Derrida and Judith Williamson. Most importantly it is we who perpetuate this mindset by subscribing to the notions inherent with gender stereotyping.
Can it be possible then that we choose to believe in rendered broadcasts via television where rather than the cinema hall, we could switch off our television sets? How could we as a nation fall into the habit of receiving a daily dose of television? It is interesting to note that during the early days of transmission, people switched off their lights in order to view their television sets. In a way this recreated a cinematic ambience to the entertainment process and enabled audiences to focus on the program. Many of the first timers were affluent, for only they could afford what was the equivalent of seven times the average monthly wage packet.
Thus was born the daily ritual of returning home to view the list of programs scheduled for that day. It had become a talking point at public places like the barbers, pubs etc. Particularly the broadcasting of the queen’s coronation. Ordinary folk had not even seen royalty before. This was a profound experience for many. And a comfortable one too, rather than being exposed to the elements in the open air to get a fleeting glimpse of her the Queen’s carriage. At home you could be enjoying a delicious cup of hot tea whilst the queen was in full view on your television set. Sales of television sets doubled. 20 million people witnessed the event with the less well-off enjoying television viewing at their local club or public house where families would gather round during the evenings. Television viewing now took priority over other forms of social or official engagements, which were being scheduled around television time tables. Ludicrous though it may sound, but this pastime was certainly impeding on quality time interacting with friends and family on a more interpersonal level. Some people blamed television for sleepless nights and the dulling of intelligence amongst younger school students. Even church going numbers dwindled.
While news programs formed the staple diet of viewers in the UK who paid for the privilege through licences, the Americans recognised the colossal opportunity now being presented in terms of audience ratings. Not being encumbered by the licence fee, this was big business. Advertisers were quick to realise advantages of promoting their wares via the medium of television. More programs were now needed to feed the manufactured hunger. Appetite for this relatively new form of entertainment grew rapidly. During the fifties, the old team comprised mainly of radio broadcasters and technicians had to be retrained to fulfil the skills shortage created by the advent of television.
This trend was gradually taking shape in other parts of the world albeit fuelled by different motivations. Polarisation in terms of ethnicity, gender and political bias was now common place as audiences could be ‘moulded’ to specific mind-sets. Television broadcasts had now become the ideal propaganda tool for politicians. Even the stereotypical housewives were depicted in most commercials promoting domestic appliances or cleaning material against the backdrop of a kitchen. This cultivated a civil conformity that suited male dominated governments at the time. In addition, politicians recognised the advantage television could have on swaying public opinion. Eisenhower realised this during the fifties. However the most prolific political debate occurred in 1960 between Vice President Richard M. Nixon and Senator John F. Kennedy. Although radio listeners favoured the vice president, JF Kennedy’s photogenic appearance propelled him to win the elections. The milestone event thrust the broadcasting media into a central role in the American political process.
By now television had overtaken radio. 1962 saw the communications satellite launch into orbit. Another achievement heralded as providing the linkup of ‘our world’ had a 66% success rate, failing full participation by all countries concerned due to fear fuelled by speculation that national security would be compromised.
However on the 20th July, 1969, Apollo 11, the first manned mission to land on the Moon was to be televised. The first steps by humans on another planet were taken by Neil Armstrong. This spectacle was watched by 723 million people across 47 countries which represented 20% of the world population at the time.
Television was here to stay. In developing nations like India this medium was exploited to benefit rural development by empowering teachers in under privileged areas with 2000 satellite and television sets. These were operated by the teachers themselves and the villages received a regular dose of agricultural education during an experiment which lasted one year. Television now had a global audience. What was needed was content. Entertainment was varied. Japan focused on the arts. Russia included ballet and opera. Occasionally the medium of television broadcasts would be hijacked by terrorist organisations that capitalised on a captive audience. The kidnapping of the Israeli weight lifting team at the Olympics in exchange for the release of a Palestinian prisoner from an Israeli prison was one such tragedy resulting in the deaths of all captured.
Viewing habits developed to the extent soap operas depicting the trials and tribulations of fictional characters became a regular event. Dallas was one such success story in terms of audience ratings and was dubbed into 90 different languages. At the other extreme mythological drama serials in India resulted in television sets being the focus of prayer where actors/actresses transcended all expectations by becoming deities in the minds of their viewers. The absurdity manifested itself in the form of ensuing riots caused by a transmission failure resulting from a power shortages. No surprise then when the gods of the screen consequently won subsequent parliamentary elections.
From the dawn of television broadcasts to the present day, the now ubiquitous television set is here to stay. It’s what we want. It is no longer merely a status symbol or trophy. Whether its cutting edge news reporting or light entertainment, it literally has become our window to the world. All that is needed is a content rich schedule provided by responsible program makers. But how far do today’s news media play a democratic role in our society?
Amidst an ever growing concern over the risk of the Iraq war issue becoming stale fodder, for both press and political leaders alike, as with events of 9/11 being labelled by one PR official as a good day to bury bad news **pp?(Sparrow, 2001), it is with such irony that the Tsunami catastrophe which has claimed hundreds of thousands of lives in one fell swoop should have provided measured relief to the news agencies and politicians on a global scale in providing unity in times of such humility.
In fairness to the news media services it must be recognised then that whilst information may be manipulated to serve the interests of a few or provide a career springboard for journalist, were it not for these calculated risks taken in the first place then lack of dissemination of news to the public would create a void worthy of equal if not greater criticism of reporters not doing their job. And it is precisely these expectations which form the basis or vehicle for powerful sources such as military agencies or multinational conglomerates or other primary definer to dispense strategically constructed news information. After all, contrary to imaginative fiction, news is not invented, rather it is factual based story telling from the journalists perspective. It is further interpreted via social filters on a scale influenced by demographics and geography. So what part does this and for that matter semiotics, play in rendering of news?
This question yields another façade to disasters, the opportunities that arise in the wake of large scale material and human loss. Unlike man made destruction such as the recent spate of wars including the gulf war, natural disasters caused by floods and earthquakes under the guise of ‘Acts of God’ legitimise the ensuing relief operations such as rebuilding infrastructures that include large scale civil engineering projects, propagation of differing religious faiths which form the banner of many a charities and of course, bilateral peace talks with turnkey commercial projects to line the pockets of beneficiaries. Cynical? In the case of charities the act of disbursing a proportion of our hard earned cash to our chosen charity is a direct consequence of how we perceive the information imparted to us, both from the source of disasters in addition to assertions made by the respective charities vying for our donations.
Today’s news media does play a democratic role in our society. However there is substantial evidence which indicates that semiotics plays a vital role too, particularly in relation to news coverage of particular events. This is aided by the arbitrary nature of signs used in the form and structure of news media. Our belief systems are re-engineered time and time again against the backdrop of the exchange that takes place on each occasion that we engage in the act of deciphering signs. We have seen how one set of events can be interpreted differently to suit varying agendas whether the beneficiary is a charity organisation looking for donations, countries looking at providing services and technical expertise in improving infrastructures or relatives clutching at the hope that their missing loved ones may still be alive.
With this in mind, it is of little surprise that advertisers for consumer goods, publicity campaigners for political parties, religious camps expressing ideologies or news editors who orchestrate strategic exposure are fully aware of how to mould audiences’ mindsets. Would knowledge of this practice create discomfort in our minds? Apparently not. Why we have resigned ourselves to repeatedly accept such influences can be summed up by Professor Terence Hawkes in his introduction to Structuralism and Semiotics;
Once ‘structured’ by man, the world of ‘nations’ proves itself to be a potent agency for continuous structuring: its customs and rites act as a forceful brainwashing mechanism whereby human beings are habituated to and made to acquiesce in a man-made world which they nevertheless perceive as artless and ‘natural’. **pp?(Hawkes, Terence: 1997)
In essence, what the mind conceives, it rightly or wrongly perpetuates in becoming a self-fulfilling prophecy. As time passes by, we’re anaesthetised in accepting the construct without contest.
There is substantial evidence which indicates that semiotics, schemata and psychoanalytical motivations which shape the narrative in films and other forms of media will continue to evolve. We visited complex theories and comprehensively explored concepts in relation to a chosen narrative as in the film “Devil’s Advocate” to illustrate the multitude of codes and conventions used in the construction of narrative in the moving image. Psychoanalysis, essentialism, scopophilia and mechanical implementation have been explored in relation to human behaviour. These are systematically cross-referenced to produce a remarkable insight into the prolific world of filmmaking. The fusion of technical parameters and structuralist theories are accountable for the way we witness and read the pro-filmic event and it is at this level of understanding of the mechanical and cognitive processes involved that premeditated planning and execution can inform the minds of consumers, thereby planting the seed that will create the illusion that one has free thought whilst being manipulated by the codes contained in the finished artefact. In other words media exposure recreates us as the ultimate product designed to consume media and what it sells.