Christian Metz: Language Over Language System

Christian Metz, in his attempt to define film as a language, explores the ideas of theorists from earlier periods of film as they pertain to the function of cinema as a language system. By analyzing montage the subsequent theories of film as a language system, Metz illustrates how meaning can be derived from film and how, over time, filmic conventions are developed that resemble but do not realise a language system, they ultimately fail due to a lack of basic linguistic properties; however, Metz simultaneously provides evidence for film as a language without contradicting his argument that film does not have a conventional language system.

Metz beings by outlining the advent of the montage as it was developed by Sergei Eisenstein, the “montage or bust” approach, which lead to many other montage enthusiasts like Vertov, Balazs, Kuleshov, Arnheim, Epstein, all of whom expanded and strengthened montage theory. The explosion of montage resulted in the idea of film and montage almost becoming synonymous. As Metz references, Vsevolod Pudovkin put it most directly by calling montage “the sum of filmic creation,” by which he meant that a single shot is only a fragment, and the montage is the sum of the fragments which compose a film.


Metz focuses heavily on montage because of its resemblance to a language system. Dziga Vertov, a significant figure in the realm of montage theory, developed the concept of “ciné phrase,” comparing montage to the structure of verse and poetry. Vertov believed that meaning is derived from a syntactic organization plus a rhythmic ordering. Further, he argued that film has to be built upon pieces (shots) that must be arranged in a particular order in order to express the essential theme (Lawton 1978). Evidently, Vertov was describing film as a language system.


Despite the wide embrace in which montage was received, Eisenstein, the pioneer of montage, may have spread the theory of montage too thin in his attempt of taking it to new heights. Influenced by his engineering past which involved combining pieces to create a functional whole, Eisenstein began applying montage theory to realms beyond film, such as literature and painting, as if the juxtaposition of any two things (ideas, images, or colours) qualify as montage. “All is montage.” In Eisenstein’s mind, everything is made of fragmented pieces, with no room for continuous creation.


This is where Metz draws the line, because continuous creation does have a place in film and art as a whole, as realism would provide evidence for. Both Eisentein and Roberto Rossellini, while formalist and realist respectively, have created images with meaning. Eisenstein, believed that juxtaposition is the vehicle in which meaning is derived from film, for which Lev Kuleshov’s experiments provide quantitative evidence. However, as Metz points out, realist films like Rossellini’s also have meaning despite keeping juxtaposition at a minimum. 


Metz describes the meaning derived from montage as “determined meaning,” images which are intentionally juxtaposed by the author to represent something that would have otherwise not been understood by the audience. The example given is a sequence from Eisenstein’s film Battleship Potemkin (1925), in which a sequence of three shots each containing a lion statue symbolizes the rise of the proletariat classes – something that would not be understood without the author assigning meaning to the shots via context.


The meaning derived from realism, as Metz puts it, is “natural meaning,” meaning that can be understood from an image without context, an inherent representation. The example given in this case is the look of joy on a child’s face, a universally understood image that does not require context. 


The capability of audiences to derive meaning from shots has previously lead to film being viewed as a language system, since it was believed that in order for audiences to understand the meanings behind images and symbols in film, there must be some sort of system. “Film is too obviously a message for one not to assume that it’s coded,” and “Any message, provided it is repeated often enough and with a sufficient number of variations … after frequent use as speech, come to appear in later films as a language system: They have become conventional to a degree,” therefore, according to prior theorists, film is a language system.


However, Metz argues that it is not because of cinematic syntax that audiences can understand film, but instead that it is because audiences understand film that a cinematic syntax was developed. One such example of audience understanding is in the film Punch Drunk Love (2002, Anderson) in which the colours blue and red are used to represent emotion, blue for isolation and sadness, and red for happiness and optimism (Cubie 2005). The colours are a part of the syntax of the film, and audiences have traditionally assigned certain emotions to colours which have been reinforced over time as the colours are reused by filmmakers to represent the same emotions time and time again. 


Referring back to montage theory, Mets discusses Béla Balazs’ comments on montage and the Kuleshov effect. Balazs contends that montage demonstrates the existence of a “logic of implication,” which relies upon viewers understanding what the montage is trying to say, rather than the montage manipulating how the spectator is thinking. Montage theorists like Eisenstein believed heavily in the latter, that montage can manipulate the spectator’s thoughts. Instead, under Balazs’ idea, the viewers understand the intentions of the montage that they are viewing. However, regardless of being aware of its intention, the manipulation still occurs because it is impossible for the mind to not make the connections between the images. When two images are juxtaposed together, it is virtually impossible not to make a connection between them, and the connection of meaning is referred to both in film and in literature as the “current of signification” that transcends all singular units of a larger work (Redhead 2008).


Film operating as a language would logically lead to its use to tell stories, especially since the demand existed for narrative film. Christian Metz references a psychological study on how audiences recall film, which concluded that spectators perceive film as not multiple fragments, but one continuous narrative. This suggests that the narrative, which is expressed by the continuous flow of meaning, the “current of signification,” supersedes the individual pieces. Aside from the narrative, most film-goers can only recall a few shots out of the hundreds that they witness when viewing a film. 


Using this information, Metz states that “cinema is language, above and beyond any particular effect of montage.” He elaborates slightly by claiming “it is not because the cinema is language that it can tell such fine stories, but rather it has become language because it has told such fine stories.” Metz counters Vertov’s aforementioned concept of “ciné phrase” in this way by arguing that knowledge of a language system is not required in order to understand a film, but instead that the collective understanding of the audience is what establishes a type of language system in film.


Metz uses Godard, Truffaut, Renais, Welles, and similarly innovative directors to outline “the change from the will to system to the desire for language.” He contends that because these directors were pioneering and strayed from convention, the code of cinematic language changed. However, the messages of their films are still understood. Therefore, code is separate from the message of a film, and “at any given moment, the code could change or disappear entirely, whereas the message will simply find the means to express itself differently.” While film is a language, according to Metz is does not have a strict or conventional system.

Furthering his argument against film as a language system, Metz raises his thoughts regarding silent cinema and the reluctance to include spoken words. Metz states that film theorists of the silent era “were almost afraid of verbal language,” because the films had a language of their own, such as the pseudo-gesticulation which can be seen in abundance in Charlie Chaplin films. Film was enough of a language that filmmakers saw verbal language as a rival. However, the film theorists of the time, like Dziga Vertov, established the film as an inferior language by comparing shots to words and sequences to sentences which turned film into a perceived less-complex duplication of verbal language. This is what Metz refers to as the root of “The Paradox of the Talking Movies.”


Strangely, even when movies began to use verbal language, the theories about film as a language and its language system did not change. Theoreticians continued to discuss film as though the films were still silent. Many theoreticians at the time of the transition to “talkies” considered the use of verbal language as simply another new invention in film, similar to the use of close-ups; a new tool that ultimately had little impact on the presentation and reception of the film. They argued that the things that made a good talkie were the same things that made a good silent film.


The major issue with this idea was, quite obviously, that adding the talking element to film was an innovation that fundamentally changed the language system. The spoken word took film closer to the world of the theatre, where the words are immediate and are telling the audience what it needs to know, as opposed to having the audience interpret action. The immediacy of words is in contrast to the delayed image of a film which must first be produced before it can tell us anything. Therefore the inclusion of speech in film drastically changed how the message of a film is delivered relative to silent film, rendering invalid the silent film theorists’ idea that silent and talkie films were essentially the same.


In order for film to admit verbal speech within its walls, film had to first define itself as a flexible language without a strict system, a language with ever changing rules and conventions. By somewhat doing away with the conventional language system, film made room for the use of verbal language so that the two did not have to rival each other. 


“Ciné langue,” the concept of the language system of film, is taken apart by Metz, “The specific nature of film is defined by the presence of a langue tending toward art, within an art that tends toward language.” The discourse of images within a film is not a language system, Metz argues, because does not follow a strict system of codification, it can’t be broken down into basic units such as phonic sound, and the image is far too easily understood universally (it is unnecessary for one to understand the “grammar” or “syntax” of film in order to understand it). Lastly the image is tied so closely to what it represents that there is not much room for interpretation, while the word “dog” on a page allows the reader to imagine a type of dog and what it may be doing, exhibiting a dog on film eliminates those interpretations because the spectator is given the breed of the dog and the dog’s actions. Film is not a language system because language systems rely upon units that have no meaning, if a single shot is the smallest unit of a film then it has no units that lack meaning.


The largest criticism of film as a language system, as Metz puts it, is that “it is hardly possible to use two language systems simultaneously.” If film were a language system, it would be very difficult to simultaneously understand the film and the verbal speech in the film at the same time. The examples given by Metz to support this assertion is that you would not be able to tell a story using two language systems at the same time; using Arabic and French systems, for example, would result in mostly nonsense. Two languages are capable of being used in harmony as long as one of the languages has a flexible non-fixed system, such as body language and English, or as film and the spoken word.


While when “seen from a certain angle, the cinema has all the appearances of what is not,” Christian Metz establishes that cinema is “apparently a kind of language” even though it was initially “seen as something less, a specific language system.” Metz establishes that film is not a language system, but instead a language, by outlining the lack of basic linguistic properties that characterize language systems, while simultaneously illustrating how the language of film supersedes the sense of system that remains.