Construction of Meaning: Film
***** PRYLUCK ********** EJC/REC Vol. 5, No. 1, 1995 *******
CONSTRUCTION OF MEANING: FILM 
Abstract: All languages--French, Russian,
Swahili, and the rest--are deductive systems
interpreted according to clear sets of rules.
Different languages may have different rules; all
languages are rule-bound. Film, by contrast, has
no clear set of rules. It is an inductive system
whose interpretation is based on our general
understanding of events depicted as modified by
production variables such as lighting, camera
angles, and the context of adjacent shots.
"Write something about the construction of meaning and
film," was the assignment. It was like meeting an old girl
friend at a professional conference. I had not really
thought much about the topic for many years, yet there was a
tug of attraction as with all old loves. "Construction of
Meaning?" Did I have anything new to say? Not much really.
I accepted when I realized that there were things in
the compost heap at the back of my mind that might be worth
writing about. What I also realized as I thought about it
and re-read some old pieces was that there were actually two
old friends with whom I have an unfinished relationship.
One was the original object of my curiosity: How does
film work as a system? How does the system construct
meaning for an audience? For me this question has a
cognitive psychology doppelganger: How do audiences
construct meaning from what is given them? I realize that
these questions have relatives from psychoanalysis and other
places. I never knew them, though, and shall not speak of
First I would like to write about construction of
meaning by film and some issues that have surrounded the
question since it was first raised in a 1915 volume by poet
Vachel Lindsay who spoke of film as a hieroglyphic code.
Subsequent authors took a similar approach over the years
leading to the publication of several books about film with
_language_ or _grammar_ in the title.
In its simple form, "film grammar" proved to be a
flawed assumption. Yet the idea seems still to persist in
more sophisticated forms. I would like here to present a
contrasting account of film as a system with no rules--an
inductive system--more closely associated with drama than
with language, with some concluding remarks in cognitive
psychological terms about the construction of meaning and
Permit me a further confession and a caveat before
proceeding. I originally entered this realm of discourse as
a trained filmmaker who had earlier been a teen-age
commercial photographer. Along the way I learned enough
about the methods and theories of psychology to also try to
draw upon ideas from that domain. At the same time, I have
not touched a camera or made a splice in a quarter of a
century. Yet I still feel more comfortable with the ways
that creators think about these matters in contrast to the
lines of thought put forward by most contemporary critics
The caveat is that it has been almost as long since I
concentrated on the issues at hand; only by happenstance
have I thought about these questions recently. Some of the
following passages were drawn whole from earlier versions of
my argument; I offer them without further attribution.
(That is, I shall be shamelessly plagiarizing from myself.)
When I first started writing about these matters my
initial question was what seemed to me to be the linguist's
basic question: How does this thing work? This is still my
question. Several qualified linguists have examined the
question about film under the rubric of film semiotics. I
will have little to say directly about that domain since I
am dubious of the basic premise when applied to film.
In his classic statement of semiotic principles,
Saussure (1959) spoke of signifier and signified in a
relationship as close as "two sides of a piece of paper."
The word is intimately tied to its concept. Others have
suggested that concepts have no realization other than as
In this argument, no one has seen _pencil_. As a
concept, "pencil" describes a generally elongated object
with a pointed tip. A wide variety of actual objects fit
the category. (Try shopping for a pencil in a well-stocked
stationary store.) The concept of "pencil" has evoked bawdy
jokes about "lead in a man's pencil." Whether in serious or
jocular contexts, the signifier _pencil_ continues to be
tied to its signified, "as close as two sides of a sheet of
The rules covering this intimate relationship between
signifier and signified operate at every level of linguistic
analysis: phonemic, morphemic, syntactic, and semantic.
Meaning is created in a verbal utterance on the basis of our
understanding of the rules--that is, through our
manipulation of a deductive system.
By contrast, the relationship in a photographic image
is three-sided: a signified and two signifiers.
Specifically, what is signified in a camera-based
representation draws that significance from two sources:
events in the external world and their physical
representation in a photographic image.
One of the things we learn during our lives is how to
make rough sense of the world around us. We look both ways
crossing the street. We learn that an old man is different
from a young woman. We learn to respond to this difference.
We learn to respond variously according to the particular
circumstances. We learn to create meaning from the world
We form tentative hypotheses, testing some, rejecting
or acting on others. We see a toddler on the street and
smile. The same toddler walking toward the curb evokes an
urge (or action) to prevent further progress. We know what
the toddler does not; moving vehicles can hurt. This is the
stuff of life.
This is also the stuff of film--when the technical
requirement are fulfilled. The minimum requirements for
recording these simple events onto a photographic image are
lighting, a lens, and an angle of view. To render any
camera-based image, some light is necessary even under
"night scope video" conditions. Some kind of lens is
required to resolve the light in the environment into an
array that can be recorded on a physical medium. (This
awkward phrase is intended to incorporate all of the
silver-based and electronic-based ways of storing images.)
From a single position, a camera collects the light through
Whether moving or still, the rendered photographic
image "freezes" this view in a way that is not, in the
classic phrase, "just like life." Our cognitive mechanism
for vision requires constant scanning in "saccades" (jumps)
about four or so times a second. We do this in life; we do
this in the movie theater.
Except that in the movie theater or our living rooms
our scanning is limited by a frame that focuses our
attention. Rarely in life is there a "frame." Rarely in
film is the frame absent. This point is sharpened when one
realizes that various wide-screen processes gain their
effects for the audience through the apparent elimination of
It is not affectation that causes filmmakers to bring
thumbs and index fingers together; even that simple framing
affects how we see. The view from behind a picture window
is not the same as the one from in front.
Subsumed under these general categories are specific
variables of film technique such as lighting angles and
lighting key, size of image, placement of objects within the
frame, lens perspective, and depth of field. All of these
more-or-less independent coding variables could be
consequential in creating meaning; from these variables
there arises the potential for countless possibilities.
This is only the beginning. These variables weave
their magic by obscuring or emphasizing aspects of the
event. Say there is a man, a particular man, with a number
of particular attributes. When photographed full face, as
in a passport picture, a number of these attributes will be
made manifest; we can see the mole on his cheek as well as
his dimples if he smiles. A silhouette of the same man will
obscure both his mole and his dimples, but will emphasize
the general shape of his head, his perhaps prominent nose,
or most of all, the picture will emphasize his general
characteristics as a man, or as a human being. There is a
full range of possibilities between the passport picture and
However rendered, images are inherently ambiguous since
the events photographed are ambiguous. There is no fixed
dictionary definition of the meaning for events or images.
In the end, though, creation of meaning in a photographic
image is undergirded by the meanings of the event rendered,
as modified by depiction. One could show the toddler headed
toward the curb as comedy or tragedy; creation of meaning in
either direction would be contingent on both the event and
Otherwise identical photographs of an old man or a
young woman do not contribute identically to the creation of
meaning. Framing of events further contributes to
facilitating or limiting creation of meanings. One angle of
view reveals what another obscures. A young child sucking
its thumb while sitting in a crib will be interpreted
differently than the same child sucking its thumb while
sitting in the middle of a bombed-out street.
Editing is a further technical requirement for film.
In contrast to a still photograph that can be examined
briefly or at length, a film shot is time-bound. It is
presented for view mechanically for a fixed length of time
and comes to an end. Something marks that end. In crude
showings of home movies it is the glare of the projector
lamp. More sophisticated showings might obscure the lamp in
some way. Even more sophisticated showings can add other
The relationship between succeeding images is direct
and imperative, based on the immediacy of the juxtaposition
between images. When two pieces of film are stuck together
(to use the English translation of Sergei Eisenstein's
phrase) they are separated only by a substantially invisible
marker, the splice. There is direct and immediate contact
between events across a cut in a sequence. All arrangements
have potential meaning; succeeding images qualify each
other. Each juxtaposition can evoke meaning not obviously
present in either element in the pair.
The theoretical possibilities of editing (or montage as
it is sometimes identified) were first argued and
demonstrated in the 'twenties by Russian filmmaker-theorists
V. I. Pudovkin and Sergei Eisenstein.
Pudovkin (1933) wrote of shots as building blocks;
"constructive editing" is his phrase describing "the
resolving of the material into its elements and subsequent
building from them of a filmic whole."
Eisenstein (1957), by contrast, proposed that adjacent
shots clashed and created new meanings not inherent in the
shots on either side of the cut. "From the collision of two
given factors _arises_ a concept" [emphasis in original].
Eisenstein's film, _The battleship Potempkin_, is a
demonstration of his argument.
An ironic side note to this debate is that Pudovkin's
work is rarely seen, but his techniques were well-suited to
an industrial process. During the 'twenties through the
'fifties, in all major United States film studios, shots
were used as building blocks that editors, supervised by
producers, could manipulate while directors were off on
their next assignment.
French critic Andre Bazin's critique of montage (1967,
1971), written during the 'forties and 'fifties, presented a
theoretical rationale which argued that the integrity of
dramatic events is maintained by showing them in a single
long take. _Citizen Kane_ is the reference film supporting
Each of these and many similar claims were part of
aesthetic arguments; they were prescriptive statements about
how films should be made. Each of them, though, points
sharply to the issue at hand: For film there are no rules,
there is no grammar. We understand films inductively, based
on the available evidence.
Yet the lure of "film language" has been remarkably
persistent. For many years serious and respected people
were writing things like an assertion in a 1964 book that
"internal montage (arrangements within a dramatic space)
resembles the intransitive verb while cutting . . . is
transitive" (Lawson, 1964, p. 175).
Once we began to look seriously at a broader sample of
films and at the theoretical basis for language, such a
crude concept as "film grammar" was recognized by most film
scholars as obviously deficient.
Instead of rules, film has sets of conventions which
filmmakers and audiences presumably understand. The
conventions of film are weak conventions; in a highly
flexible system like film, conventions can be only
approximate. At best they are quasi-conventions. Even the
most conventional parts of the system are flexible. To the
degree that filmmakers make films for an audience, they use
a crude estimate of what the audience might be able to
The lack of rules for film underlies a debate during
the late 'fifties in the United States as critics tried to
decide whether Jean-Luc Godard was a genius or lucky amateur
when in _Breathless_ (A bout de souffle) he violated the
basic commercial convention of editing which prohibited jump
cuts. Up to that time, a film student in the States would
likely fail the course for not respecting this near-absolute
"rule" against abrupt leaps in time or space in editing.
There are two sources of looseness in the film process
mitigating rigid conventions: the filmmaker's skill and
intention, and the looseness of the filmmaker's estimate of
the audience. Investigations of these quasi-conventions can
be valuable so long as their status is explicitly clear. In
such analyses, one is dealing with probabilities, not
certainties. In short, one is dealing with an inductive
What I have presented here is not intended as an arcane
technical argument. I believe the distinction, that as
logical systems language is deductive and film is inductive,
is basic, since using an incorrect assumption about the
logic of the system could lead to erroneous descriptions and
conclusions such as those in the film grammar canon.
The assumptions one makes about a phenomenon guides
what one does next. I think this is what has happened in
film scholarship. Phrases like "narrative" or "film text"
point to my concern; they seem to echo an unstated
assumption that equates film and language.
Like a printed book, a completed film is fixed and
unchangeable, except by accident. Unlike film, though, all
languages I have ever heard of have embedded in their
structures ways of indicating tense. In English, it is
fairly simple: past, present, future. Other languages have
more complex structures, including, for instance, a "tense"
marker to indicate something like "this may never have
happened. . . ."
A useful headline definition of _narrative_ is "a tale
told by a teller." Past tense is the normal, natural
("unmarked" in linguistic terminology) condition for
story-telling. "Once upon a time" says it all I think. A
tale is about to begin, regarding events in the past.
The tense structure of language constantly reminds
readers that what is being presented has already happened;
the ending is known to the narrator. This does not mean
that, as a matter of writing technique, one could not use
present tense. But the use of present tense in telling a
story is a recognizable conceit.
By contrast, there is no such constant reminder in film
or, for that matter, on stage. The unmarked condition of a
dramatic presentation on stage or on film is present tense.
It is probably not irrelevant that scripts for films and
plays are written in the present tense.
In the audience we are eye witnesses to the events
unfolding within the proscenium or film frame. It is
possible to mark a dramatic presentation as other than
present, though less easily than in narrative, for the lack
of tense rules. The markers here, as elsewhere in drama and
film, are conventional.
The flash-back in film or on stage attempts to mark
events as past tense. But there is nothing inherent in
either film or stage that serves to steadily mark the tense.
Unless otherwise marked, the "flash-back past" becomes the
dramatic present. Marking the time shift becomes a matter
of technique, in contrast to the systemic markers of
There are obvious cognitive psychological dimensions to
all of this. They are not as psychologically simple,
though, as some of us once thought. At one point I
suggested (and probably still believe) that these
manipulations supplemented (or supplanted, perhaps) viewers'
information-processing capacity. This was not bad as an
initial speculation, I thought.
Nearly ten year later, two graduate students in
cognitive psychology challenged my speculations and put them
to an experimental test. They did the work; I kibitzed and
wrote the final published report (Pryluck, Teddlie, & Sands,
1982). They were right, of course. In a complex four-way
analysis of variance that I only vaguely understood, they
found highly significant main effects for some of the
variables I discussed above in different terms: ambiguity
(p<.001); order of presentation (p<.001); and exposure time
(p<.036). Perhaps more to my point, the main effects were
qualified by significant interactions, including a
significant three-way interaction (p<.002). The salience of
juxtaposed images was implicated in these results in complex
Along about now we come to the obligatory passage about
"more work needs to be done to understand. . . ." One thing
is clear to me: creating meaning from film implicates a
transaction which is likely as complex as any other in art
 This essay is yet another revision of earlier versions
of C. Pryluck (1992), When is a sign not a sign, revised
and reprinted, Journal of Dramatic Theory and Criticism,
6, 221-231, an e-mail copy of which is available from
. It is also related to other
works I have done that are listed with the references
below (Pryluck, 1968, 1969, 1975, 1976; Pryluck & Snow,
1967; Pryluck, Teddlie, & Sands, 1982).
 For convenience, I use _film_ and _photograph_ as
generic words for camera-based representations. If
necessary,specific words such as _motion pictures_,
_video_, or _still photograph_ will refer to particular
technologies. At a more self-conscious time in my life,
I spoke of "image communication." In the course of time
I realized that obfuscation was not useful. I was
talking about photographic images, regardless of the
specific technology used to record them.
Bazin, A. (1967, 1971). What is cinema? (H. Gray,
Trans.). Berkeley: University of California Press.
Eisenstein, S. (1957). Film form/Film sense (J. Leyda,
Trans.). New York: Meridian Book.
Lawson, J. H. (1964). Film: The creative process. New
York: Hill & Wang.
Lindsay, V. (1915). The art of the moving picture. New
Pudovkin, V. I. (1933). Film technique (I. Montagu, Ed. &
Trans.). London: G. Newnes.
Pryluck, C. (1968). Structural analysis of motion pictures
as a symbol system." AV Communication Review, 16,
Pryluck, C. (1969). Structure and function in educational
cinema. Final Report Monograph, United States Office
of Education Project 7-E081.
Pryluck, C. (1975). The film metaphor: The use of
language-based models in film study. Literature/Film
Quarterly, 3, 117-123.
Pryluck, C. (1976). Sources of meaning in motion pictures
and television. New York: Arno Press.
Pryluck, C., & Snow, R.E. (1967). Toward a psycho-
linguistics of cinema. AV Communication Review,
Pryluck, C., Teddlie, C., & Sands, R. (1982). Meaning in
film/video: Order, time, and ambiguity. Journal of
Broadcasting, 26, 685-695.
Saussure, F.d. (1959). A course in general linguistics
(based on student notes of Saussure's lectures ca.
1912) (W. Baskin, Trans.). New York: Philosophical
Author Information: Calvin Pryluck
Department of Television Radio Film
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Philadelphia, PA 19119-1832
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