Structuralism and Film

In film and literature, structuralist analysis aims to deconstruct the how images and ideas are presented to others and aims to explain the subtextual meanings behind these images and ideas through an examination of signs and signifiers. One of the major proponents of structuralism was Ferdinand de Saussure, a Swiss linguist who is considered to be the father of linguistics and one of the fathers of semiotics. Saussure believed that culture could be understood as a system of signs, which would not only provide insight into a specific culture, but also investigate the extent to which signs are understood and their universality. The interplay between signs and signifiers is most impactful in cinema through the simultaneous juxtaposition of narrative and image, or sign and signifier. In film, structuralism helps audiences to better understand the constructs of individual societies while at the same time, multiple oppositions in language must be overcome.

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Structuralism is based on a belief that there are paradigms that dictate structures that should be followed. According to Saussure, language could be understood through a system of signs and signifiers. For Saussure, a sign is the most fundamental element of language and contains both a signifying element and meaningful content (Phillips). For Saussure, the most important types of signs are verbal and audible signs because they are the building blocks of language (Phillips). A signifier, on the other hand, is the actual combination of signs, while signifiers are signified when they invoke a specific audible or visual representation.

In film, signs, signifiers, and what and how it is signified is determined by the director and based on his or her interpretation of the narrative or script. This leads to one of many limitations imposed by structuralism; in order for viewers to interpret a text as the director intends, they must first be familiar with a specific structure. In films, these specific structures can be categorized into genres that include western films, horror, comedy, and adventure among others. These categorizations are also evident in literature. The Bulgarian philosopher Tzvetan Todorov has postulated a theory of narrative in which he argues that every story has a specific structure (Padhier). Walkabout is structured as a bildungsroman, a coming-of-age story that that examines the psychological growth of girl, who along with her young brother, are abandoned in the Australian wilderness and are forced to fend for themselves in order to survive and make it back to their home. At the same time, a young aborigine is forced to undergo a similar experience as part of a rite of passage, and while the girl and her brother undertake the same physical journey alongside the aborigine, the experience is dramatically different for the aborigine. Walkabout incorporates four specific elements into its narrative — conflict, complication, crisis, and climax — while at the same time introducing a parallel journey between three individuals of two clashing worlds. In the film, all three — the girl, her brother, and the aborigine — are faced with an identical conflict: to survive in the wilderness and return to their people, the aborigine to his tribe and the girl and her brother back to their community. Complications within Walkabout manifest in different ways for the characters and they are affected to different extremes. While the girl and her brother are forced to face a wilderness they were not prepared to confront, they continue on their journey, not knowing whether they will make it, or if they will die trying. On the other hand, the aborigine, while he is more prepared to take on the wilderness as it is a rite of passage that is undertaken by the men of his tribe, is more affected by the complication of realizing that the world he thought he knew is nothing like it really is. This is demonstrated through his shock and horror when a group of white men slaughter some water buffalo not because they need to do it for survival purposes, but rather because they have the power to do so. Witnessing this introduces crisis into the aborigine’s life. Additional crisis is added when the girl rejects the aborigine’s advances and he begins to understand — after finding a road that will lead the girl and her brother back to their community — that he can no longer continue with his journey, which thus leads him to commit suicide. While this would normally invoke feelings of hopelessness, the girl and her brother are able to persevere and move on to the final stage: climax. The girl, after witnessing yet another death — having previously witnessed her father commit suicide before abandoning his children in the desert — is psychologically strong enough to continue on her journey and find her way back to civilization. Because the aborigine’s contribution to the girl and her brother’s journey ends as soon as the girl and her brother are on the verge of civilization and prepared to take the final journey home, it can be argued that the aborigine’s journey and personal narrative are not part of the larger narrative, but rather that he serves as narrative symbol whose only purpose was to protect and guide the girl and her brother (Walkabout).

In order to understand how these elements function within the scope of the film, the viewer must be first be familiar with the basic elements of a bildungsroman narrative and how it has manifested itself in their own lives — through their experiences and education — and in films they have previously seen. This leads to the first limitation of structuralism proposed by Saussure in which he comments on the opposition between the diachronic study of language and the synchronic study of language (Thompson 510). In cinema, this opposition is best represented in the language of silent cinema and how it differs from contemporary cinema. In order for an individual to be able to understand how each type of cinema functions, they must become familiar with the language of each type of cinema. Thus, in order for the viewer to connect and understand the journeys undertaken in the Walkabout, they must first be familiar with films that map individual journeys and triumphs and also be familiar with how cultures can clash, as that is a major theme in Walkabout.

However, Christian Metz argues that cinema lacks an established system of grammar and organization and while cinema can be construed as a language, it is not a language system, which supports the second opposition proposed by Saussure, a conflict between langue and parole (510; 512). In “Structuralism and its Aftermaths,” John Thompson writes that langue is “the system, a synchronic totality, that is somehow shared by speakers of the language that allows for comprehension. Parole is what is being said and how it is structured. In Walkabout, communication between the girl and her brother and the aborigine is initially complicated by the fact that they do not speak the same oral language, however, they are able to communicate because they are thrown together into a nearly identical environment and adapt to each other, thus forming their own unique language. While in this instance, parole and langue do not coincide, they are able to overcome this obstacle through the use of signing to act out what they wish to communicate. It is through this interaction that parole becomes substituted with action, which in turn becomes a physical manifestation of a sign and signifier and is transformed into the signified.

The third obstacle that needs to be overcome is opposition between signifier and signified. As previously mentioned, one of the largest obstacles that arises between the girl, her brother, and the aborigine is the inability to communicate in a common spoken language. However, in the construction of the narrative through image, the opposition between signifier and signified becomes much more apparent approximately 41 minutes into the film when the aborigine hunts and kills a kangaroo to feed himself and his companions. The conflict between signifier and signified becomes apparent through the rapid intercutting of the aborigine’s approach to butchering the animal and images of what the girl and her brother consider a butcher to be — a man dressed in a white smock, carefully butchering an indiscriminate piece of meat in a shop. The juxtaposition of these images allows the audience to see the contradiction of signifier and signified and how these contradictions are influenced by differences in cultures. A second example occurs during this same sequence, however, instead of a juxtaposition of images, there is a juxtaposition of the aborigine with the voiceover of a lecture the girl and her brother would have possibly heard at school. In the second part of this image sequence, the aborigine is using the kangaroo’s sinews to make a bow while a voiceover explains the physics and mechanics behind the construction (Walkabout).

The fourth element Saussure comments on is the opposition between the syntagmatic and paradigmatic. The syntagmatic is the utterance of the signifier itself, whereas the paradigmatic are the different possible meanings of the utterance; what it can be and what it cannot be (Thompson 511). According to Phillip Rosen in Narrative Apparatus, Ideology: A Film Theory Reader, “The syntagmatic is comprised of the rule-governed relationships among signs present in an actual, concrete signifying “chain” such as a sentence; it is the realm of combination. The paradigmatic is constituted by the relationships among all the possible…alternatives to each element of a signifying chain; it is the realm of substitution.” In film, this sort of opposition is somewhat diminished because the director of a film dictates how the signifier is represented in a film with a unique image that is representative of the director believes the signifier is signified. Because of the uniqueness of an image within the context of a film, they cannot be substituted; substitution has the potential of changing the meaning of the film’s narrative, which would alter the director’s vision.

Structuralism is beneficial in helping to deconstruct the different elements that make up a narrative and how the images chosen to represent thoughts and ideas within cinema are selected. However, structuralism requires that viewers be formerly familiar with the nuances of a particular genre or that they be willing to learn the constructs of different genres in order for a structuralist approach to be successful in cinema.

Works Cited

Padhiar, Asha. “Film Theories.” SlideShare. 30 December 2011. Web. 4 May 2013.

Phillips, John William. “Structuralism and Semiotics.” National University of Singapore. Web. 4

May 2013.

Rosen, Phillip. Narrative Apparatus, Ideology. A Film Theory Reader. New York: Columbia

University Press, 1986. Web.

Thompson, John. “Structuralism and its Aftermaths.” The Cinema Book. Edited by Pam Cook.

Walkabout. Directed by Nicolas Roeg. Australia: 20th Century Fox, 1971. DVD.