Semiotics - Roland Barthes
What does narrative mean?
Lev Kuleshov in the 1920’s advised that when we watch a film or programme we try to create meaning and connect events to see a line of cause and effect. Even if there is no connection between people or events we try to make one to make sense of what we are watching. If films are not shown chronologically we try to order the events in our minds and quickly link flashbacks to the present.
Todorov proposed a basic structure for all narratives. He stated that films and programmes begin with an equilibrium, a calm period. Then agents of disruption cause disequilibrium, a period of unsettlement and disquiet. This is then followed by a renewed state of peace and harmony for the protagonists and a new equilibrium brings the chaos to an end.
The theory is simply this:
Here narrative is not seen as a linear structure but a circular one.
The narrative is driven by attempts to restore the equilibrium.
However, the equilibrium attained at the end of the story is not identical to the initial equilibrium.
Todorov argues that narrative involves a transformation. The characters or the situations are transformed through the progress of the disruption.
The disruption itself usually takes place outside the normal social framework, outside the ‘normal’ social events.
E.g. a murder happens and people are terrified
Someone vanishes and the characters have to solve the mystery
Vladimir Propp’s theory was formed in the early twentieth Century. He studies Russian fairytales and discovered that in stories there were always 8 types of characters evident. These are: the hero, the villain, the donor, the dispatcher, the false hero, the helper, the princess and her father. He did not state these characters were all separate people e.g. the provider could also be the helper. However, this is easily relatable to films and programmes today.
Film as Fairy Tale
Vladimir Propp, a Russian critic, active in the 1920’s, published his Morphology of the Folk Tale in 1928. While the Soviet cinema was producing excellent films, Propp was essentially interested in the narrative of folk tales. He noticed
Folk tales were similar in many areas. They were about the same basic struggles and they appeared to have stock characters. He identified a theory about characters and actions as narrative functions.
Characters, according to Propp, have a narrative function; they provide a structure for the text.
Characters that perform a function
Propp’s theory of narrative seems to be based in a male orientated environment (due to his theory actually reflecting early folk tales) and as such critics often dismiss the theory with regard to film. However, it may still be applied because the function (rather than the gender) of characters is the basis of the theory. E.g. the hero could be a woman; the reward could be a man.
Critics argue that Propp’s strict order of characters and events is restrictive. We should rather apply the functions and events randomly as we meet new narratives. E.g. the hero may kill the villain earlier than Propp expects. Changing the traditional format will change the whole way the text is received.
Some critics claim there are many more character types than Propp suggests and we should feel free to identify them. E.g. the stooge in a sci-fi film, who is usually nameless and usually killed early on to suggest the power of the alien force, is a typical modern character type.
It applies to Fairy Stories and to other similar narratives based around 'quests' IT DOES NOTAPPLY TO ALL NARRATIVES.
WHY THE THEORY IS USEFUL
It avoids treating characters as if they are individuals and reminds us they are merely constructs. Some characters are indeed there just to progress the narrative.
He stated that there need to be a binary opposition within a film or programme. This is usually presented through good vs. evil. Other binary oppositions include:
Binary oppositions in ‘The Lord of the Rings’ (Dir. Peter Jackson)
In this book, Campbell studies many hundreds of fairy tales, folk tales and legends in order to unearth a common “pattern” in the structure of stories. Campbell defines this as the “monomyth” – the typical trajectory of a story, across all cultures and religions. This monomyth is known as the “hero’s journey”.
Comprising three stages – separation, initiation and return – the hero’s journey offers a narrative framework for understanding the progression of a character, namely the protagonist. The journey, Campbell argues, usually includes a symbolic death and re-birth of the character. The religious idea of “cleansing” is also important, giving a sense of the character transforming from old to new – the character arc.
“The auteur theory is a way of reading and appraising films through the imprint of an auteur (author), usually meant to be the director.”
Andre Bazin was the founder, in 1951, of Cahiers du cinema and is often seen as the father of auteurism because of his appreciation of the world-view and style of such artists as Charlie Chaplin and Jean Renoir. It was younger critics at the magazine who developed the idea further, drawing attention to significant directors from the Hollywood studio era as well as European directors.
The idea of the auteur gained currency in America in the 1960s through Andrew Sarris. He devised the notion of auteur theory (the French critics had never claimed the concept to be a ‘theory’). He used it to tell the history of American filmmaking through the careers and work of individuals, classifying them according to their respective talents.
“Over a group of films a director must exhibit certain recurrent characteristics of style, which serve as his signature.” (Andrew Sarris)
Today, the notion of the individual as auteur is less theoretically constrained, so that we might consider actors as auteurs as well as directors and producers. The key thing is that a recognisable imprint is left on a body of films, and this may involve varying levels of creative input. For example, in the Laurel and Hardy partnership, Stan Laurel made the significant decisions about their act whilst Oliver Hardy did little more than turn up and get on with his job. But on screen we are only aware of the combined and instantly recognisable effect of the two performing together. When considering an actor, the important question to address is the kind of identity he/she projects and how this identity is created through their performances. Is their persona stable, or does it vary? Sometimes, actors are cast against type or give a markedly different performance to that with which they are associated – what is the effect of this?
The following filmmakers/actors are considered auteurs: