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A GUIDE TO PhD RESEARCH
Author: ADMIN (ukstudent at gmail dot com)
Published: Wed, 13-May-2015
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Auteur Film Theory and the Semiotic Deconstruction of Film Texts Using a Quantitative-Based Research Methodology

During the 1950s, several film critics working for the French film magazine, Cahiers du Cinema, raised questions about film authorship (Caughie, 1981, p.9). Critics such as François Truffaut, André Bazin, and Jean-Luc Godard formulated the idea that the authorship of a film lay with the director, although Bazin later offered criticisms of the theory (Watson, 2012, p.149; Andrew, 1993, p.78). These critics later went on to be the primary proponents for the French New Wave, or Nouvelle Vague (Cook, 2007b, p.405; Klinger, 1994, p.3).
In an influential article published in the January 1951 issue of Cahiers du Cinema, the French director and film critic François Truffaut criticised the prevailing attitude of French film criticism. Truffaut argued that in spite of the French cinema producing as many as a hundred films a year, “only ten or twelve merit the attention of critics and cinéphiles” (Truffaut, 1976, p.225). Truffaut argued that critics only validated certain films because they could attend film festivals across the world and use these films to “defend the French flag twice a year at Cannes and Venice” (Truffaut, 1976, p.225). According to Truffaut, French film critics were only interested in a certain type of film. In other words, French film critics were only interested in films that were deemed prestigious or of a quality similar to French literature. The emphasis on films that were similar in quality to literature is a point made by the film theorist John Caughie (1981). According to Caughie, prior to Cahiers, critical discussion of films usually identified the author of the script as the main focus of artistic self-expression behind a film (Caughie, 1981, p.9).
The response of primarily French film critics during the 1950s towards the prevailing view that films produced under the Hollywood studio system were devoid of artistic self-expression, led to a reappraisal of the films of several directors. As a consequence, films by directors such as Howard Hawks, John Ford, Nicholas Ray, Orson Welles, Douglas Sirk, and many others were re-evaluated in terms of personal authorship, which were made in spite of the demands of the Hollywood studio system (Watson, 2012, p.150)
Truffaut’s original polemical article was developed by writers of Cahiers du Cinema, into what became known as the politique des auteurs (Cook, 2007a, p.388). The identity of an auteur was rapidly promoted by other film magazines and film critics, most notably Movie in the UK, and Andrew Sarris in the US (Caughie, 1981, p.9). In arguing that the primary creative film artist (or auteur) was the director, critics like Truffaut could reclaim a large number of films, which had been made earlier under the studio system (Andrew, 1993, p.77). Furthermore, auteur theory, which was first used by Andrew Sarris in 1962 (Sarris, 2009, p.451) serves to validate filmmaking as a legitimate art form. As Caughie has pointed out, accepting auteurism meant, “a film, though produced collectively, is most likely to be valuable when it is essentially the product of its director” (Caughie, 1981, p.9). Accordingly, greater emphasis was placed on the director as a producer of the final ‘artistic’ product.
Applying the auteur theory to American cinema has raised a number of problems and contradictions. As Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen have pointed out, “the Hollywood studio […] resembled a factory where goods—motion picture entertainments—were manufactured for a mass audience” (Braudy and Cohen, 2009, p.445).
The American studio system or the classical Hollywood style of filmmaking, according to David Bordwell, is defined by the following three levels: Devices, Systems, and Relations of systems (Bordwell, 1985, p.6). Bordwell’s analysis was intended to offer a counter argument to the politique des auteurs and served to support critics of the auteur theory, such as André Bazin (Bordwell, 1985, p.4). Bordwell’s three levels are directly related to the technical aspects of filmmaking, such as three-point lighting, continuity editing, dissolves to denote the passage of time, image composition, and narrative logic” (Bordwell, 1985, p.6). These three levels are the main identifying filmmaking characteristics used in American films made under the classical Hollywood studio system, and they are dominated by a particular set of cinematic codes and conventions (Kuhn, 2007, p.45). These codes and conventions are used by some filmmakers as a way of subverting the way that classical Hollywood films are made. Directors such as Alfred Hitchcock, Howard Hawks, and John Ford all worked and produced films utilising the classical mode of the American studio system; however, the films made by these directors are distinguished by the way that they have used these codes and conventions. It is worth noting that these codes and conventions can also be viewed as ideological constructions. This is a point made by the cultural theorist Stuart Hall. When Hall argued that, “At a certain point the broadcasting structures must yield an encoded message in the form of a meaningful discourse” (Hall, 1974, p.3) he was pointing out that media messages must be constructed in such a way as to offer a culturally or socially recognisable image to the viewer.
Before auteur theory became accepted, directors were only considered as auteurs if they worked in art cinema or the avant-garde (Bordwell and Staiger, 1985, p.374). Nevertheless, Janet Staiger has conceded that within Hollywood there was a recognisable movement from the 1930s onwards to assume “that one individual ought to control almost all aspects of the filming so that that individual’s personal vision can be created” (Staiger, 1985, p.336); albeit as a part of a larger producer-unit and or package-unit mode of production, which utilised the skills of many different individuals on the filmmaking set (Staiger, 1985, p.336). As a consequence, Hollywood films become merely a commodity product “at the service of the laws of the capitalist economy” (Cook, 2007a, p.387). Moreover, the industrialisation of the filmmaking method of production served to prevent “a single authorial voice” (Cook, 2007a, p.387). In other words, the Hollywood studio system was designed to actively work against the desires and artistic aspirations of the director. Auteur theory was an attempt to challenge the existing orthodoxy of the American Hollywood filmmaker as being merely a maker of an economic product.
Nonetheless, auteur theory gave theorists and critics a deeper and more analytical framework “to argue for the artistic respectability of cinema and to attribute the status of creative artist to those working within the industrial system of Hollywood” (Crofts, 1998, p.311). In order to provide a theoretical framework from which the proponents of the auteur theory could begin to evaluate Hollywood studio films, they rejected the previous emphasis on the script or original story, as a repudiation of earlier literary precedents in film criticism, and embraced the stylistic criteria of the mise-en-scène (Crofts, 1998, p.313). Film theorists such as Suzanne Speidel refer to the mise-en-scène in terms of the technical aspects of filmmaking such as setting, props, costume, performance, lighting, cinematography, special effects, editing, and sound (Speidel, 2012, pp.87-102). Nevertheless, it is the way that directors made use of the mise-en-scène as expression of personal style, which was used to support the auteur theory. In this respect, the auteur was distinguished from the filmmaking style of the metteur-en-scène, or the manufacturer of a scene “whose use of mise-en-scène […] did not transform the script material into an original work” (Crofts, 1998, p.313). As a consequence, the films of a genuine director as auteur could be differentiated from metteurs-en-scène who were viewed as merely technically competent, and possessed nothing in the way of a distinguishable stylistic or thematic coherency (Watson, 2012, p.151).
The question to ask is here is can films made by auteurs such as Hitchcock, Hawks, Sirk, and Ford be deconstructed by using a research method such as semiotic analysis. In other words, can the films of these directors be unpacked as a method of determining what the ideological message contained in these films might be. In order to develop an appropriate research methodology, it is necessary to understand what is meant by semiotic analysis.
Christine Geraghty has stated that, “Work on representation in the media is crucially marked by the development of semiotics in linguistics and the application of its techniques to communication systems that also involve images” (Geraghty, 2000, p.363). Therefore, it is important to understand what semiotics is and how it has been applied within media studies. In simple terms, “Semiotics is the study of everything that can be used for communication: words, images, traffic signs, flowers, music, medical symptoms, and much more” (Seiter, 1992, p.32). In addition, semiotics demonstrated that “the key relationship within a language system was not between a word and its referent” (Geraghty, 2000, p.363). In semiotic terms, the referent is the “object to which the word referred” (Geraghty, 2000, p.363). Semiotic studies argued that, “a word’s meaning was established through its relationship with other words” (Geraghty, 2000, p.363), or as Daniel Chandler has noted, “each text exists in relation to others” (Chandler, 2002, p.201). In this respect, Hall’s encoding/decoding theory integrated “a semiotic and sociological analysis which [balanced] structural notions of influence and control with the possibility of individual agency and meaning making” (Lewis, 2002, p.260). In other words, the freedom for individuals to construct meaning is based on which dominant ideological and semiotic system exists at the time of the reading (Lewis, 2002, p.260).
Furthermore, Hall argued that, “culture is formed and shaped into codes (signs, symbols, images, language, etc.) by text producers (Lewis, 2002, p.260). Media producers select and shape these codes in order to offer a text that is intended to be easily understood by the consumer, i.e. spectator (Lewis, 2002, p.260). The viewer then utilises the “same body of culturally available meanings, signs and ideology to interpret or ‘decode’ the messages presented in the text” (Lewis, 2002, p.260). However, this position assumes that meanings are fixed, and therefore, will be decoded by audiences in the same way. This position was taken by earlier media theorists and took the view the receiver was always passive, and that broadcasters were always intent on influencing or persuading the viewer of their messages (McQuail and Windahl, 1993, p.14). Nonetheless, subsequent work into the media arrived at the conclusion that ideological effects could not be obtained from analysing the features of a text but that the cultural context needed to be understood (Willis, 1995, p.184; Jakobson, 1971, p.233).
Finally, an appropriate methodological research framework must be developed in order to apply the selected research method. The choice for researchers is either a quantitative or qualitative research methodology. In order to arrive at a suitable methodology, Karl Rosengren’s four paradigms of media theory have been evaluated. They are the functionalist paradigm, which favoured “empirical, quantitative research” (McQuail, 2004, p.14); the interpretive paradigm, which uses “qualitative methods to investigate cultural issues of meaning and content” (McQuail, 2004, p.14); the radical-humanist paradigm, which serves to expose “the hegemonic role of media or to advance the aspirations and perspectives of the powerless in terms of class, race, or gender” (McQuail, 2004, pp.14-15); and finally, the radicalstructural approach, which examines the media as a political-economic force (McQuail, 2004, p.15). “Quantitative research seeks statistical descriptions of social and cultural phenomena” (Lewis, 2002, p.261). In addition, quantitative research “generally adds things up and tries to identify how often a particular event may occur” (Lewis, 2002, p.261), for example, gathering statistical information about audiences and the type of programmes they like to watch. Therefore, examining the films of Hitchcock, for example, may discover that the director has a predominant selection of shots that feature women in danger. The research methodology selected for this study has used a quantitative methodology. In the final part of this paper, the findings and results of this study will be published.

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