A Feminine Discourse: Representation, Seduction, and Identification

2.1 Composing Filmic Discourse

A sequence of images is projected onto a screen in rapid succession (the standard is twenty-four frames per second nowadays) with objects shown in successive positions with slight changes so as to produce the optical effect of a continuous motion in which the objects move; technologically, that is film. Besides, film is also referred to as an art (usually called as the “seventh art”), a commodity and an industry. In this research, I examine the film as a discourse.1 The term “discourse” used here is discourse in a Foucauldian sense which is studied as a system of representation, and which will be specifically discussed later. To develop my argument, I need to demonstrate how film is composed and functions as a discourse. That is why I start my arguments with the technological features of film.

Film is a sequence of flowing pictures; moreover, these sequential pictures can reflect nature, can record events, can tell stories, can represent. Some theorists like Andre


Bazin highlight film’s achievements in realist aesthetics while underlining its photographic essencetes. Some filmmakers, represented by Lev Kuleshov and Sergei Mikhailovich Eisenstein, explore the creativity and artistic expression of film by applying montage (especially expressive montage) technique. Although these discussions between the realistic and expressionist aesthetics in film studies are not so relevant to this research, they testify to the duplicity of filmic pictures. On the one hand, the photographic image is a mechanical reproduction of reality, and it can only re-present “the present”, so that it “shares the being of the model, whose reality is transferred to it”2

. In Bazin’s words:

The photographic image is the object itself, the object freed from the conditions of time and space that govern it. No matter how fuzzy, distorted, or discoloured, no matter how lacking in documentary value the image may be, it shares, by virtue of the very process of its becoming, the being of the model of which it is the reproduction; it is the model.3

On the other hand, the filmic pictures are always created on the basis of deliberate choice and arrangement, because the camera is manipulated. As Rudolf Arnheim argues, if cinema were the mere mechanical reproduction of real life it could not be an art at all.4 While I do not deny the recording function of the camera, I examine films from the latter viewpoint. First, everything that appears in front of the camera lens – sets, props, actors, costumes, lighting, as well as the positioning and movement of actors on the set – is pre- arranged. At the same time, the photographer controls the camera angle, camera


Leo Braudy & Marshall Cohen ed, Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings (New York: Oxford University Press, 2004), 136.


Andre Bazin, What Is Cinema? trans. Hugh Gray (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967), 14. 4

movement and photographic effects. All these human interventions are summarised as mise-en-scène, a French term originally meaning “having been put into the scene”, which was first applied to the practice of stage direction and then applied to film direction as well.5 Therefore, though the pictures are generated through the automatic process of photochemical reproduction, the issues of what to record and how to record it, as well as all the elements which are recorded, are designed through the artificial process of mise- en-scène. What is more, human intervention affects not only the level of denotation, but also that of connotation. A house filmed from different angles and in different lights provides the audience with different perceptions of the space and shape, and also creates different atmospheres and emotions. A woman’s face appearing behind a barred window can connote a trapped woman (physically or mentally). From this technical and practical aspect, the pictures do not give the object, they express it. This is “cinematographic language” in Metz’s term.6

He argues that the art of film is located on the same semiological “plane” as literary art in a semiological approach:

The properly aesthetic orderings and constraints – versification, composition, and tropes in the first case; framing, camera movements, and light “effects” in the second – serve as the connoted instance, which is superimposed over the denoted meaning. In literature, the latter appears as the purely linguistic signification, which is linked, in the employed idiom, to the units used by the author. In the cinema, it is


David Bordwell & Kristin Thompson, Film Art: An Introduction (Reading, Massachusetts: Addison- Wesley Publishing Company, 1979), 75.


Christian Metz, Film Language: A Semiotics of Cinema, trans. Michael Taylor (New York: Oxford University Press, 1974), 92.

represented by the literal (that is, perceptual) meaning of the spectacle reproduced in the image, or of the sounds duplicated by the soundtrack.7

Metz further distinguishes the shot from the word, because a shot “always refers to reality or a reality (even when it is interrogative or jussive)”8. Thus, the shot is “a unit of discourse”, “like the statement”: “The image of a house does not signify “house”, but “Here is a house”.9

Roland Barthes points out photographs are produced mechanically, so that photographs have an authenticity which writing cannot match.10 Nevertheless, the image is not the reality but the analogical reproduction of it. These “imitative” arts project two messages: “a denoted message, which is the analogue itself, and a connoted

message, which is the manner in which the society to a certain extent communicates what it thinks of it.”11

Stuart Hall argues that the film sign is an “iconic sign”12, in which reality exists outside language but is constantly mediated by and through language. “Since the visual discourse translates a three-dimensional world into two-dimensional planes, it cannot, of course, be the referent or concept it signifies.”13

Moreover, the filmic denotation per se is constructed, organised and codified, because a film is composed of many photographs through montage and its myriad consequences. The same set of photographs linked in different orders and with different rhythms can tell a completely different story and generate an utterly different atmosphere. 7 Ibid., 96. 8 Ibid., 116. 9 Ibid. 10

Roland Barthes, Camera Lucida: Reflections on Photography, trans. Richard Howard (New York: Hill and Wang, 1981), 85.


Roland Barthes, Image, Music, Text, trans. Stephen Heath (New York: Hill and Wang, 1977), 17. 12

Charles Peirce’s terminology, “Speculative Grammar”, in Collected Papers (Cambridge, Mass: Harvard University Press, 1931), 58. Quoted from Stuart Hall, “Encoding/decoding”, 131.


And meaning can also be created out of pictures by means of the link of two unrelated pictures; for example, the linkage of a picture of wedding and one of funeral can connote that the marriage is miserable. Of course, this association does not create an exclusive or closed connotation. In a word, meaning is generated not only in the photos but also in the way they are linked. Barthes argues that the cinematic image does not have completeness, because the photograph in the cinema “is impelled, ceaselessly drawn toward other views”.14

In Metz’s words,

[I]t is the syntagmatic considerations that are at the centre of the problems of filmic denotation. Although each image is a free creation, the arrangement of these images into an intelligible sequence – cutting and montage – brings us to the heart of the semiological dimension of film. … While no image ever entirely resembles another image, the great majority of narrative films resemble each other in their principal syntagmatic figures. 15

Through the semiological studies of film, Metz concludes that cinema can be considered as language.16 On the other hand, he argues that cinema is not a language system (or

langue in semiotic terms), because “it contradicts three important characteristics of the linguistic fact: a language is a system of signs used for intercommunication”17.

Whether film is a language system or not is less important for the arguments in this thesis. At least, I agree that film is a language and filmic signs are coded signs – even if


Barthes, Camera Lucida, 89. 15

Metz, Film Language, 101. 16

Ibid., 105. 17

their codes work differently from those of other signs.18 Certainly, the filmic signs construct the meanings and the statements. Moreover, these meanings and statements exist only within what Foucault terms a definite discursive formation:

Whenever one can describe, between a number of statements, such a system of dispersion, whenever, between objects, types of statements, concepts, or thematic choices, one can define a regularity (an order, correlations, positions and functionings, transformations), we will say, for the sake of convenience, that we are dealing with a discursive formation … The conditions to which the elements of this division (objects, mode of statement, concepts, thematic choices) are subjected we shall call the rules of formation. The rules of formation are conditions of existence (but also of coexistence, maintenance, modification, and disappearance) in a given discursive division. 19

Foucault further argues that “[a] statement belongs to a discursive formation as a sentence belongs to a text … the regularity of statement is defined by the discursive formation itself”. 20 Discourse, in Foucault’s approach, consists of “a group of statements in so far as they belong to the same discursive formations”21. It is “merely representation itself represented by verbal signs”22

, it is “about the production of knowledge through language”23

. What is more, he insists that nothing has any meaning outside of discourse.24


Hall, “Encoding/decoding”, 132. 19

Foucault, Archaeology of Knowledge, 38. 20

Ibid., 116-117. 21

Ibid., 117. 22

Foucault, The Order of Thing, 82. 23

Stuart Hall, “The West and the Rest”, in Formations of Modernity, ed. S. Hall & B. Gieben (Cambridge: Polity Press; Te Open University, 1992), 291.


Stuart Hall, “Foucault: Power, Knowledge and Discourse”, in Discourse Theory and Practice: A Reader, ed. Margret Wetherell, Stephanie Taylor & Simon J. Yates (London: Sage, 2001), 73.

Meaning and meaningful practice is therefore constructed within discourse, and will always change from one culture or one period to another, because things do not have in themselves any fixed, final or true meanings, rather we within human cultures make things mean and signify.25 Foucault has not extended his arguments on discourse into the film domain. Nevertheless, if film is a language, and film language composes representation, then film production and its circulation take place in a discursive formation. In other words, filmic representation is also constructed within discourse, according to Foucault’s view that “[a]s long as representation goes without question as the general element of thought, the theory of discourse serves at the same time”26


What is more, discourse is formed by power in a Foucauldian approach:

…if, since the time of the Greeks, true discourse no longer responds to desire or to that which exercises power in the will to truth, in the will to speak out in the true discourse, what, then, is at work, if not desire and power? True discourse, liberated by the nature of its form from desire and power…

Thus, only one truth appears before our eyes: wealth, fertility and sweet strength in all its insidious universality.27

In Foucault’s opinion, power not only constrains and prevents, but also produces and circulates.


Stuart Hall ed., Representation: Cultural Representations and Signifying Practices (London; Thousand Oaks, New Delhi: Sage Publications in association with the Open University, 1997), 61.


Foucault, The Order of Things, 337. 27

It produces new discourses, new kinds of knowledge (i.e. Orientalism), new objects of knowledge (the Orient), it shapes new practices and institutions.28

Everyone – the powerful and powerless – is caught up, though not on equal terms, in power’s circulation.29

From this perspective, the filmic discourse is also produced by power.

Some may argue that if we set up a fixed camera with wide angle lens and leave it alone with rolling film (or tape) for some time (like a traffic surveillance camera), the video recorded by this camera can be regarded as natural and real. Undoubtedly, the camera can record the reality – the objects and events – more or less. However, in Foucault’s perspective, things mean something and are “true” only within a specific historical/discursive context.30 Stuart Hall applies Foucault’s theories in the media studies sphere to argue that the apparent fidelity of the representation to the thing or concept represented in video works, which is usually called naturalism and realism, “is the result, the effect, of a certain specific articulation of language on the ‘real’. It is the result of a discursive practice.” 31

Thus, as soon as the objects and events are re-produced and re- presented (especially being re-presented as an artwork), they are no longer purely natural or real, but artificial to a certain degree. As soon as the video consisting of the shots has meanings, it becomes a representation and a piece of discourse.


Hall ed., Representations, 261. 29 Hall, “Foucault”, 261. 30 Ibid., 74. 31 Hall, “Encoding/decoding”, 132.

With the help of poststructuralism and deconstruction, we know that the chain of signifiers may never lead us to the signified. Barthes, in his essay “The Death of the Author”32

, suggests removing the author from reading a text, because the meaning of the text is created – re-constructed or deconstructed – by the readers. Stuart Hall also indicates that the video production structures “do not constitute a closed system”, because “[t]he codes of encoding and decoding may not be perfectly symmetrical”.33

The circulation of filmic discourse is not closed by production. Nonetheless, this thesis focuses on the “composing”, not the “reading” of filmic representation. Through analysing the selected films, I aim to identify the discourse constituted within these filmic representations. In other words, what discourse do these directors represent/construct through their filmic narratives with their female-protagonists?

In document Being Feminist as a Discourse?Investigating Narrative Cinema with Female Protagonists Directed by Chinese Post Fifth Generation Filmmakers (Page 46-54)