Surely there are things and events that are not significant (at least for those of us who are not paranoid). As readers and interpreters of our surround, although like Hamlet we may be so ravenously hungry as to “eat the air, promise-crammed,” we sometimes exhibit the capacity to experience without finding or creating meaning. Tasting the flavour of an apple, for example, can be pleasurable without calling for interpretation; looking at some of Cézanne’s apples can affect us the same way. While it is always mechanically possible to discover and point out a pattern, we sometimes forebear to do so in the name of discovering and pointing out a still greater or more pressing pattern instead, or in the name of establishing a balance with the universe that gives momentary release from the pressure of understanding, momentary delight. When we do set ourselves to discovering and reading signs every sign, as we call it, is taken to be the product of a signification and also the object of a “signing,” that is, a more or less intentional interpretive act that bounds and selects certain demonstrative possibilities in the context of prevailing norms and intentions. Since it is in our perceptually immediate surround, our Umwelt, that we “sign,” it is worth mentioning what Erving Goffman points out in Relations in Public: Microstudies of the Public Order, (1) that this territory is the home of not only meaning but also danger. Every dedication of interest to an occupation of reading and decoding, then, every scanning of our environment, opens us in ways we cannot at the same time carefully estimate–as the tiger sequence in Francis Ford Coppola’s Apocalypse Now (1979) pointedly shows. And one of the dangers, perhaps the most implicit and the most terrifying, is a peculiar uncertainty, of which Hugo Von Hoffmansthal gives an almost too precise description:

Now and again in the mornings it happened, in these German hotel rooms, that the jug and wash-basin—or a corner of the room with the table and clothes-rack—appeared to me so non-real, despite their indescribably banality so utterly not real, ghostly as it were, and at the same time ephemeral, waiting, so to speak temporarily, to take the place of the real jug, the real wash-basin filled with water. . . In the other countries abroad, even during my most miserable times, the morning jug or pail with the more or less fresh water was something self-understood and at the same time living: a friend. Here it was, one might say: a ghost. (2)

Of the Sign

A character’s discovery of signs bears immense narratological gravity. Think of the notebooks of Dr. Mabuse (Rudolf Klein-Rogge) in Fritz Lang’s celebrated film, and, regarding his “pathological condition that is not as rare as one might suspect,” the psychiatrist’s (Oscar Beregi) devoted process of unraveling as secret codes what might to the unprepared or unintentional eye be a mere chain of doodles.

We may take a cinematic moment from Das Testament des Dr. Mabuse (The Testament of Dr. Mabuse, 1933) as emblematic of a far more diffuse and general occupation of modernity, the reading of persons, objects, places, and actions as informative. Modernity, it can be argued, is an intensification of informing as a social process, a radical shift in the value of information and in the periodicity through which informative possibilities are seen to present themselves. The modern man, obsessed with the world as potentially informative, endlessly—and in perpetual movement—seeks clues.

What is essential, and also beautiful, about the Lang construction as far as my present analysis is concerned is that in it, signs and signing are literally materialized out of the air, invoked, as it were, through inspiration or desire even more than out of pre-existing materiality. Tom Gunning’s careful description of the scene shows how the psychiatrist invents the secret codes he boastfully unravels, all this nicely bringing emphasis to the essential meaning of the word “invent,” which is “to find”:

Dr. Baum lectures to his students about his prize patient, Dr. Mabuse . […] The students listen, showing a range of reactions, from boredom to intense, almost hysterical, involvement (a woman with a monocle . . . calmly puts on lipstick, while a young man grips the edge of his desk as he listens). But when the lights in the lecture theatre are lowered and Baum projects an image of Mabuse himself hunched over in his hospital bed, the students all react identically and simultaneously, straightening their backs and staring forward at this image in fascination . . .. Baum explains that eventually Mabuse’s uncommunicative catatonia gave way to a motion of his hand (Baum mimes it for his students) which the doctor interpreted as a desire to write [my emphasis]. Mabuse was given pencil and paper which, Baum says, he covered with meaningless scribbles. This is the next image Baum projects, a slide showing two pages of Mabuse’s ‘meaningless scribbles.’

. . . Baum’s patient observation of Mabuse’s writing eventually uncovers a meaning . . .. He explains that after two years of Mabuse’s apparently aimless scribbling single words emerged, then whole sentences. The second slide Baum projects shows a series of rhythmically curved lines of writing covering a page, resembling calligraphy exercises in their graceful but mostly illegible forms, contrasting sharply with the violent jumble and harsh broken lines in the first two examples. Baum explains that as the writing became readable and comprehensible it recorded Mabuse’s obsession with crime. These writings outlined plans of crimes, worked out to the smallest detail, in essence, we could say, scenarios ofaction. [my emphasis]

Baum traces Mabuse’s writing, beginning with an apparent involuntary motion of the hand which he interpreted as a desire to write and supplied with tools. (3)

Gunning proceeds to describe this initial movement of Mabuse’s hand as, explicitly, “writing on air.” The afflicted Mabuse’s muscular exertion is thus read by his doctor as a gesture, and the gesture is invested with, first, potential for meaning and, then, meaning itself. Actions are undertaken in line with the initial interpretation of the “meaningful gesture”—a marker and writing surface are supplied–and now the “writing on air” is magically transformed into an exercise in calligraphy. Finally in the scrawl shapes emerge: words, phrases, plans, plans in exquisite detail, a “scenario of action.” In this process of sign construction one may recall Franz Kafka’s parable of the leopards. “Leopards break into the temple and drink to the dregs what is in the sacrificial pitchers. Finally their coming can be calculated in advance and it becomes a part of the ceremony.”

In having the instinct for sensing Mabuse as a sign producer and for suspecting that his hospital may well be filled with a profuse but secret and inaccessible array of Mabuse’s signs; in hungering to see, collect, and digest these signs; and in more generally putting his hunting and diagnostic skills at the service of social portraiture, aimed at finally rendering a picture of social circumstance in all its real (and sordid) details, Dr. Baum is clearly the paradigmatic detective. He shuffles through the world with an eye attuned to the perusal, distinction, and classification of symptoms, and in his process of detection, albeit that it is medical—and by this time thoroughly systematized in the modern teaching hospital, such as was the Salpêtrière under the influence of Jean-Martin Charcot—he opens to scrutiny a line of action that is purely dramatic.

That is, he finds a way to predict what is to come, to see the future. As Gunning puts it in terms of the film’s plot, the formerly catatonic (i.e., inactive) Dr. Mabuse is finally detected by Baum as working out a scenario. By inversion, it is only in relation to developing action that signs ever do have meaning, that we ever do find signs; only as part of a chain of chance, as Stanislaw Lem named it, does the sign offer itself to the eager mind that works to decode secrets in order to build a world.

The detective as a character in narrative was codified first by Edgar Allan Poe in his “Murders in the Rue Morgue” of 1841, although the idea of symptom-based enquiry as linked to law and order was introduced as early as 1794 in William Godwin’s Things As They Are. In the nineteenth century, the French writer Émile Gaboriau (1833-1873) introduced the roman policier, which may well have influenced Wilkie Collins’s The Moonstone (1868), with its elaborate plot and a rich cast of characters none of whom is fully in a position to “read” the crime, not even the hard-working and somewhat doltish Sergeant Cuff; and inspired Arthur Conan Doyle’s creation of the detective/genius Sherlock Holmes, the now celebrated figure who first appears in A Study in Scarlet in 1887. Holmes has been constituted and reconstituted in cinema dozens of times, through stories set in both period and modern décor and in embodiments by actors of many nationalities, all of whom have carefully manifested to the camera one particular feature of the character that renders him idiosyncratic at the same time that it elevates his intelligence to a superior (thus, admirable) height, namely, his “natural,” and apparently insatiable, bent for harvesting, examining, and interpreting clues in what by consequence becomes readable as a field of signs being emitted by all of the persons, high and low, whom he meets. Sherlock Holmes’s sensual acuity turns the territory in which he works into a bounteous storehold of secrets that, it would seem, only his senses can uncover. Doyle had been taught and mentored at the Royal Infirmary of Edinburgh by Dr. Joseph Bell, and explained, “I thought I would try my hand at writing a story where the hero would treat crime as Dr. Bell treated disease.” Bell, Gunning assures us, “astonished students and patients with his ability not only to diagnose diseases from symptoms but also to read a person’s occupation and background from details of body, gait, and clothing.” (4)

Gunning has pointed to the emphatic presence of detection and detective practice in modern life. “While the complex maze of urban circulation provides a thicket in which individual identity can be concealed,” he writes, “it also marshals a range of factors which imprint the bodies of individuals with their own history.” As Doyle’s mentor Bell wrote, quotes Gunning, “Racial peculiarities, hereditary tricks of manner, accent, occupation or the want of it, education, environment of every kind, by their little trivial impressions gradually mold or carve the individual, and leave finger marks or chisel scores which the expert can detect.” (5) Bell could rather easily have been inspired by Flaubert, whose Madame Bovary appeared when he was nineteen with this sort of description studding its pages:

The “new fellow,” standing in the corner behind the door so that he could hardly be seen, was a country lad of about fifteen, and taller than any of us. His hair was cut square on his forehead like a village chorister’s; he looked reliable, but very ill at ease. Although he was not broad-shouldered, his short school jacket of green cloth with black buttons must have been tight about the arm-holes, and showed at the opening of the cuffs red wrists accustomed to being bare. His legs, in blue stockings, looked out from beneath yellow trousers, drawn tight by braces. He wore stout, ill-cleaned, hob-nailed boots.

That the detective story as a narrative form “depends explicitly upon the modern experience of circulation” is a foundational pillar in Gunning’s analysis, and upon it he mounts his observation of the detective’s key to power: his persona has “intelligence, knowledge, and perspicacity [that] allow him to discover the dark corners of the circulatory system, uncover crime, and restore order.” (6)

But as the word “detective” is often associated with “detective stories,” Gunning’s observations may be misinterpreted as focusing exclusively or primarily on literature. The importance of detection can be carried further. The rapidity of movement in a modernity inflected by large-scale and pervasive technological change, and the concomitant interpenetration of social space by persons unknown to one another, that is, by strangers–those performers upon whom the sociologist Georg Simmel turned such an acute eye—make for a pervasive climate of indiscriminateness, diffuseness, mystery, and impenetrability that begs for a certain therapeutic application of detective power. The charged business of modernity produces an urban fog in which the world reveals itself only to those who know how to look. “I know how to look, if that is something you know, and also that every looking oozes with mendacity,” says Michel, the photographer/detective hero of Julio Cortázar’s little story “Las Babas del Diablo” that became the basis of Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up (1966).

If detection charges and loads modern life, in the world of the everyday, where crime is not typically or invariably the issue, it becomes especially important as motif and habit. Merely in order to identify one’s interactants in the most elementary way, to ascertain their class, equipment, knowledge, and situational intent, thus in order to know what it is that is going on, one must fall back on the ability to read significations, to treat the world as a field of signs, and to search out and value significance. Signs and the engagement in “signing” are everywhere in modernity, positioned not only in the domain of the human body or in the stream of traces it might put out but spread across the social space. As but one example, consider this account of President Woodrow Wilson’s April 24, 1913 dedication of the Woolworth Building, the “biggest building ever built for practical use”:

[Publicist Hugh] McAtamney devised the opening as a clever piece of theatrical promotion, which he disguised as a ‘public event of importance to the whole nation.’ . . . In accordance with McAtamney’s script for the opening, President Wilson pushed a telegraphic button on his desk in Washington, D.C. at 7:30 in the evening. By doing so, he instantaneously closed an electrical circuit, caused a bell to ring in the skyscraper’s engine room, and activated electricity-generating dynamos. Expectant spectators had filled City Hall Park and lower Broadway and lined the New Jersey shore. The skyscraper’s eighty thousand incandescent bulbs flashed on at once, causing all fifty-five stories to leap into view as a brightly shimmering vertical object against the evening darkness. Altogether, thousands witnessed the event, which reportedly reached observers one hundred miles out to sea. [my emphasis] (7)

Note how the stunning effect of the building’s light bulbs illuminating all at once on this evening in 1913 would seem to be reprised in 1933 by Lang, as Dr. Baum lowers the lights in his lekturverein and their desk lamps are suddenly made emphatic when all the students sit up as one. The Woolworth Building, in its moment of declaration and affirmation, sent out a sign, even became a sign, one that could be read and understood, indeed, at a far remove from the local neighborhood in which it stood. The message was that the interior would be available as a vertical city, available for rental on the basis of pure utility and circumstance. And also that edifices like this one could proliferate across the entire zone of its visibility. In the same way that as a single cell the Woolworth Building was, and sent, significance, so did the corpus of New York the metropolitan harbinger of tomorrow, whose skyline came to epitomize the modern urban centre.

This anthropomorphizing of a single structure–implicit in our regarding it as a demonstrator of significance–can open us to seeing a more widespread organizational feature of modernity, something Goffman refers to in another context as the Doctrine of Natural Expression. (8) Like the people Goffman implicates, objects can be taken as the producers of signs or traces that we take to spring “naturally” from within them. The most obvious case of the Doctrine is indeed to be found in our reading of human motive, iconized in narrative characters and the performers who engender them: Roy Scheider’s authentic “fear” in Jaws (1975), for example, as standing at the end of Robert Shaw’s boat and reorienting his gaze toward the water he sees not inches from his outstretched hand the open maw of the Great White Shark they have been hunting.

We take the fear to be coming from within him, not without—although of course Steven Spielberg is evoking it and he is not a spirit dwelling within Scheider. The smiling face—sign of happiness–indicates a happy personality, according to the typical reading; the angry face a displeased one. Keen readers of expressive signs can narrate their own pleasing tales. The scholarship of Adrienne McLean has revealingly examined Hollywood stardom and the production of identity and alignment in glossy magazines subtended by studio publicity. Marriages, affections, family alignments, divorces, political concerns, and all manner of apparently feelingful orientations to the world can be mechanically produced by publicity writers and illustrated through carefully edited photography—photography, I might add, that in the case of magazines like Photoplay, was often dramatically choreographed.  Here is an echo of Roberta Pearson’s dictum that the “histrionic code more nearly resembles spoken language than does the verisimilar code,” so that “an unaided histrionically coded performance can convey a great deal of narrative information,” this postulation being for Pearson a way to account for the transition from nonverbal sign systems to speech asserted by Roland Barthes. (9)

Of Cinema

Cinema has long been a central locus of signification in our culture, if only because of the function of touting and seduction involved since the days of the nickelodeon and through the movie palace era. The movie marquee is a master sign containing, modifying, and hierarchizing other smaller signs within and around. Cinema is not only a repository of signs but an ideal formative space: the screen is designed to contain the film frame, and the film frame is designed to contain a bounded, selected, and artfully composited presentation. It is possible to read everything in cinema—that is, everything we find in the frame—as a sign or series of signs, and cinematic scholarship and criticism has devoted itself in part to developing broader and more inclusive techniques for doing this in a way that returns bounteous rewards. Like any work of art, the motion picture is taken to be intentionally inclusive. All of what is given is given to be seen, but in modern life—cinema, we must remember, is the art form distinctive to modernity—in modern life, seeing is detecting.

When in 1869, Frederic Edwin Church painted his monolithic “Heart of the Andes,” it was not with a view to making accessible specific pointed clues as to life conditions or actions at some particular nexus in the space depicted—even though numerous areas of the painting do detail objects, rituals, arrangements, and perspectives; the idea of the painting itself (it measures almost ten by five feet) was to show the world as it spread openly to the eye from one single point of vantage. More contemporaneously, and working with the same kind of situated energy and focus as Church had, Rackstraw Downes offers onsite topographies in a hyperrealist style, showing factory and construction sites, again without the intention of being informative about particular nodes in his action space but working instead to depict a world spreading away from a point of view.  In looking by contrast at, say, George Cukor’s Born Yesterday (1950), we find ourselves not overseeing the multifold patterns of movement or navigational decisions of populations interacting at a distance before the camera but instead becoming recipients of much more detailed information, about the shape of bodies, the lines of postures, the identities of accoutrements, the flow of gestures, the import of comments, tones of voice, clothing styles, furniture and decor, and so on, all of which, taken together through our intentional assembly, opens a group of case studies much as we might do in the everyday world, with the notable difference that with its moving camera and range of lenses cinema makes possible an exceptionally articulated view of special features and circumstances. Characters onscreen are all strangers we must labour to identify. And in watching cinema, we become detectives ourselves, returning (or returning again) to the scene of the crime.

The characterological interplay of narrative cinema makes possible two lines of signification at once. First, a character like Sherlock Holmes (Basil Rathbone; Robert Downey Jr.), or any other, might observe and decode the actions of another character (Nigel Bruce; Jude Law), just as we do in watching them.

Cinema, then, might be giving a show of dramatically organized signs and significations and of the act of interpreting them. In watching, we are subject to the display of a whole catalogue of signs, some of which seem to us more relevant or central than others, just as they have variable significance for the characters themselves. In this kind of arrangement, what is dramatized is the reading of dramatization. Say, in James Cameron’s Avatar (2009), when Jake (Sam Worthington) first gets the feel of his Na’avi body and realizes that he has functioning legs, that he can walk, indeed that he can run and jump, and hurls himself out of the laboratory to go running in the nearby fields, smiling with joy: his smile is readable to us—and to his friends—as a sign of his joy, this based on the assumption, derived from the Doctrine of Natural Expression, that the smile flows from the joy; that the joy causes and is culturally isomorphic with the smile. In making readings of spontaneous and generous scenic moments like this one, we do not typically—outside of the mystery genre—entertain the suspicion that we may be conned by a false diegesis. Often in comedy, gestural signs are broadened toward the point of exaggeration.

A second line of signification is this: that as we are perpetually watching what is onscreen—and the material of the screen presentation is manifested only that we may see it—the signs that occur within the dramatic field, apparently being read by the characters, are in truth being appropriated and digested by us, who have no direct commitments to the tale. The characters, who do have direct commitments to the tale, are not really reading signs but only appear to be. The screen actors are only pretending to read the signs their characters are reading “for real,” but we, observing all this, are not pretending. Insofar as we are alive to the significations of the screen, in our committed gesture of watching we share a vital intellectual and emotional resource with—not the actors but—the characters themselves, who are also, it would appear, looking. We enter the state of the characters themselves. The primary resource we share with them is childhood as origin of the dream—our childhood when we dreamed fantasies like this, and thus our present memory of childhood as the topos in which the creatures of screen fiction have their ultimate residence. Reading from Blaise Cendrars’s description of his experience watching film, Siegfried Kracauer points to the description of a cap under a lad’s arm that “‘began, without moving, to assume intense life; you felt it was all set to jump, like a leopard!’ Perhaps,” theorizes Kracauer, “the cap transformed itself into a leopard because the sight of it stirred involuntary memories in the narrator (as did the Madeleine in Proust)—memories of the senses resuscitating inarticulate childhood days when the little cap under his arms was the carrier of tremendous emotions, which in a mysterious way involved the spotted beast of prey in his picture book.” (10) The spectator’s signs are correspondences with his earliest memories and dreams. “This whole subterranean vegetation,” Kracauer quotes Von Hofmannsthal, “trembles down to its darkest roots.” (11)

I do acknowledge that in harvesting this subterranean vegetation, we might face the peril of being opened to what Peter Wollen calls a “massive imprecision and nebulosity in film criticism, an unfounded reliance on intuition and momentary impressions.” (12) yet at the same time, how profoundly meaningless and inhuman it would be to strive for, even to find, a rhetoric of meaning that abandons intuition and momentary impression. Like all languages and forms that we experience, cinema does strike intuition and offer momentary impression, and the fullest reading of “what a text means,” as Wollen has it, must include the fleeting quality of the act in which we apprehend signification. To fear nebulosity and impression is perhaps to be enslaved by the dictate of narrative continuity, to render every flickering nuance of experience only as an agent in the development of theme and thesis, a relatively meaningless prelude to the greater Meaning that is to come. Diane Ackerman writes, for example, that while she was journeying up the Amazon she encountered a tribe who had prepared some giant turtles for the boiling pot, by binding their tails and heads inside their shells for a period of several weeks. (13) She and her comrades purchased the animals in order secretly to set them free up river. As a node in her narrative, this act of freeing the turtles erases and eclipses its own deep horror, one that we may imagine the animals experienced as they lost their world and were locked into the self as preparation for being cooked. Her beautiful account suffers—as it must—by localizing the binding of the creatures as only a preamble to the heroic account of their liberation. As I read—and grasp—this tale, I am pinned and shaken by the momentary impression of the head bound away from the world, in darkness, in the fetid prison of the exclusive self; and this impression dominates for me, over the happy resolution Ackerman’s noble actions provided.

Cinema, Sign, Contingency

There is a moment of intricate and fascinating choreography early in Alfred Hitchcock’s North by Northwest (1959), a play upon the complexity of signification that is possible in cinema, and a play, too, upon the ultimate exteriority of signing, its final reduction to the array of contingencies in a circumstance. At issue is the palpable significance or triviality of the human experience. “People have been forced,” Kracauer notes in his essay on biography, “to experience their own insignificance—as well as that of others, all too persistently for them to still believe in the sovereign power of any one individual.” (14) Having purloined a taxicab with his secretary Maggie (Doreen Lang) and glided through a few small blocks of Manhattan’s east side to the 59th St. entrance of the Plaza Hotel (an extraordinarily short ride that reveals his status as a non-walker), where he asks her to call his mother and leave a message, Roger O. Thornhill (Cary Grant) suddenly, but a moment too late, remembers that Mother is out playing cards.  He swings into the Oak Bar to meet a trio of business associates for a drink. As he chats amiably, there is a bellboy (Ralph Reed) passing through the room, politely calling out the name of a Mr. Kaplan. “Mr. Kaplan? Mr. George Kaplan?” Roger suddenly thinks of sending his mother a telegram. “Boy!” he calls, raising his hand and turning away from his companions to get the young man’s attention, and at this very instant Hitchcock’s camera pans to the right, into the marbled lobby outside the bar, and zooms into the faces of two men who have clearly been watching all this. “There. Kaplan!” one whispers to the other. As we have been watching for signs, so have they—perhaps for different signs. We want to see Roger’s conviviality, his urbanity, his very slightly batty Cary Grantness. They want to find George Kaplan (and have sent the boy out to call for him). The boy is Roger’s, thinks Roger; yet he belongs at this moment to the men who put him to work.  The ambiguity, that Roger is signaling his desire for the boy’s attention so that he can send a wire and that Roger is responding to the boy’s call for Mr. Kaplan, at one and the same time and with the selfsame gestural apparatus, is resolved one way by the gentlemen at Roger’s table, a second way by the two henchmen in the lobby, and a third way by us, since we see both of these possibilities and the delightfully dangerous interconnection between them. The pan is a metaphor, then. It suggests one meaning as another.

Signs and Focus

Signs are sometimes indeterminate and vague, as it were out of focus, and by virtue of this unknowable in the most practical way. Indeed, every reading of a sign that is deemed to be successful depends centrally on the establishment of what can be called an adequate focus. Antonioni’s Blow-Up revolves on a photographer’s having caught evidence of some romantic action one lazy morning in a London park. His photographs are actually signs about signs, since the two partners he is shooting are clinching readably. His pictures will index, and then explode, their situational signs of interaction. Since the filmmaker puts us in the park at the moment of his protagonist’s photography, we see the basic interactional signing (between Vanessa Redgrave and Ronan O’Casey) and also the photographer moving around to make his records of it and in doing this giving off information with the shape and contortion of his own body; but we do not see the records themselves until somewhat later, when his film has been processed and the negatives developed into work prints. What proceeds to stuff the film with dramatic tension is a certain misreading the photographer makes of one of these shots, a misreading that we make along with him, prone to seeing things as he does since he is guiding us through a kind of “gallery” of his photographs and we are watching the process of his coming into “knowledge” of what happened in the park by examining them. But Antonioni is not only showing all this—giving the sign reader’s passion for making and then reading signs, based on naïve people’s emission of signs—but also playing with the process of signification and our vulnerabilities in working through it: the problematic photograph is misread not because the protagonists in the park were camouflaging themselves, or because the photographer suddenly flinched or lost his technical fluency, but because he has suddenly had the suspicion that something is hidden inside it—something he did not see in the park at all, and thus did not focus on to select, but that he sees a hint of only now, in his studio, and wishes to see better. Perhaps he is having William Blake’s second sight, detecting what we might call a higher-level sign, and realizes only too late that his direct experience with camera in the park was not enough to frame and render such a thing. Consequently he goes into his darkroom and makes a blow-up, and what he is left with then, still for him an evidentiary sign, is a picture so full of grain that it is virtually impossible to know while looking what it is that one is looking at.

The only solution is that he return to the park, and he does this, in dead of night, but without his camera. It is only his eyes, now, that register what is to be found there. Just as it is only our eyes that register him registering.

There are clearly many lines of inquiry that can flow from thoughts about cinema as a significant experience. We can work with Christian Metz and the semioticians to discover the practice and theory of the cinematic signifier, this essentially an exploration in ontology, as indicated by André Bazin. We can work with psychoanalytic theory to uncover the deep cultural meaning of signs as we find them. What is lacking in these approaches—that dramaturgical analysis and phenomenology help us much more clearly to see—is our chaste pursuit of signs, our hunt to find and read what can be related to social experience. The punctuation of the sign—its piercing the field and standing out for us as a telltale indication—and our entire enchantment with, and ultimately institutionalization of, readings, can only be understood well through a kind of archaeology of cinema.


Looking at cinema archaeologically, we can notice something it often points to that other art forms lack the means to imitate. Onscreen, we sometimes see not merely an instance of signification, not merely a signing that we, or characters, take as meaningful, but in fact, what in everyday parlance people call a SIGN. In such a case, the sign-object inside a film is a sign itself and also a sign of itself. Writing of “The Modern Cinema and Narrativity,” Metz takes issue with Pier-Paolo Pasolini’s formulation of “im-segni” (image signs), emphasizing that the film works to communicate “with no code other than that of perception with its psychosociological and cultural conditionings, in short with no language-like code.” [my emphasis] (15) While this is sometimes true, the sign-object does tend to utilize a “language-like” code, referring us back to our understanding of memes, words, contractions, metaphors, and ambiguities at the verbal—or, since we orate signs to ourselves silently, the acoustic—level.  We know not simply by seeing but also by reading, but reading in the most literal and unmetaphorical way: Benjamin Braddock (Dustin Hoffman) in The Graduate (Mike Nichols, 1967), for example, booking room 568 at the Taft Hotel for his liaison with Mrs. Robinson (Anne Bancroft)—a location announcing itself to us explicitly by name in the way the shot frames a hotel door with these numerals nailed upon it—and later, once she has alienated him and he has moved to a rooming house in Berkeley, occupying the more modest room 9. Roger Thornhill penetrating room 796 of the Plaza Hotel as he searches for George Kaplan, or room 463 of the Ambassador East in Chicago, a room occupied by Eve Kendal (Eva Marie Saint).  The camera on the 4th of July beach at Amity, Long Island slowly panning across a billboard mocking the shark, in Jaws. Or Don Lockwood (Gene Kelly) and Kathy Selden (Debbie Reynolds) embracing in the sunshine at the conclusion of Singin’ in the Rain (Stanley Donen/Gene Kelly, 1952), while looming behind them is a huge billboard advertising their new picture, “Singin’ in the Rain.” That billboard is not only included in, thus referenced in, the shot: it is the very centre of the shot. It is the major idea being conveyed. The sign of the moment, then, is a sign. This is a different kind of cinematic sign than the “M” on the back of the murderer in Fritz Lang’s celebrated film. That “M,” a covert sign, indeed, since its bearer is innocent of its presence upon his body, is meant to point out, identify, and localize a fleeting form inside the bustle of social circulation—to assist in detection. The billboard sign in Singin’ in the Rain indicates detection without assisting it. It affirms and announces the modern process, suggesting, with some glamour, that the act of putting the body on display and the corresponding act of watching are to be celebrated centrally in our culture.

Charmed from his earliest youth with systems of transportation, schedules, and the problems of navigation, Alfred Hitchcock larded his films with signs. To pick just some: the electrified advert for “golden curls” in The Lodger (1926), flashing on and off not only to suggest the realism of electrical urban commerce in the 1920s but also to snatch our attention; the plackard for “Ye Olde Bunne Shoppe” in Downhill (1927); the billboard from the Isle of Man Examiner in The Manxman (1928); the burnished plate reading “New Scotland Yard” in Blackmail (1929); the want-ad about Edward Markham and Doucebelle Dear in Murder! (1930); the “FOR SALE OR WOULD LET” billboard in Number Seventeen (1932); the blinking MUSIC HALL marquee in The 39 Steps (1935); the London Underground logo-sign in Sabotage (1936); the Harriman’s herbal tea package stuck to the train window in The Lady Vanishes (1938), at once a clue and a false clue; the April issue of BEAUTY the Magazine for Smart Women in Rebecca (1940), with its ghostly invocation of a devoted reader who is with us no more; Lina McLaidlaw’s (Joan Fontaine) first-class and Johnnie Aysgarth’s (Gary Grant) third-class rail tickets to Hazledene in Suspicion (1941), a full offering of information about each of them; the wine bottles in Notorious (1946), with the François Penot Pommard labels, vintage 1934; in Rope (1948), the turquoise and white blinking neon sign outside Brandon (John Dall) and Phillip’s (Farley Granger) window at the conclusion, as their tutor goes into a philosophical rage; the SAFETY GLASS seal etched onto the car window in Stage Fright (1950); the ‘DIRECTION’ signs by which Hitchcock’s camera discovers old Québec in I Confess (1952); the Associated Life of New York since 1897 door sign in The Wrong Man (1957), signaling Manny Balestrero’s (Henry Fonda) oncoming fate; the June 6, 1955 concert billboard outside the Royal Albert Hall in The Man Who Knew Too Much (1955); the EMPIRE HOTEL sign in Vertigo (1958); the BATES MOTEL sign in Psycho (1960), and so on. There are dozens and dozens more such occurrences of material that not only signifies but is actually materialized in signs, including, in Vertigo alone, labeled reproductions, labeled sketches, licence plates, tombstones, maquettes, personal photographs, and inherently nonverbal yet verbally connotative works of art, for example Nicolas de Largillière’s “Portrait d’un gentilhomme” (1710) and Charles-André (Carle) Vanloo’s “Architecture” (1745). All of these Hitchcockian meta-signs, as we might call them, have straightforward diegetic purpose—for drawing our attention to the details of an arrangement or for positioning us inside the narrative topography. But at the same time they openly denotate the fact that the filmmaker is signing, and so they say their verbal meaning but also the fact of verbal meaning itself. They draw attention to words, a precaution that Hitchcock is forever careful with.

Writing of Erich von Stroheim, Bazin suggests a cinema in which “reality lays itself bare like a suspect confessing.” (16) Might we not see through Hitchcock’s signed signs—indeed, since he autographs them through his style, Hitchcock’s signed signed signs—the confessions of a reality that is injected with social order, form, class relation, and the modern problems of social navigation, in short a brutal social mechanism offering clues about itself? Bazin goes on to say of the Charlie Chaplin of Monsieur Verdoux (1947), “From the instant Charlie was born . . . society has directed its police force to drive him out of its bosom.” (17) Hitchcock is showing the social mechanism as that policing force, and also the omnipresence of Charlie—Uncle Charlie or some other Charlies—as a provocation to it. Pascal Bonitzer wrote of Hitchcock’s film, “Everything works normally, the average void of mediocrity and indifference, until someone (most often the central protagonist) becomes aware that one element out of the whole, by its behaviour, makes a spot.” (18) By “spot” he means a stain or macula. Slavoj Zizek calls it “the Hitchcockian blot,” in this way, I think, magnifying what can under some circumstances in Hitchcock be a quite tiny malformation or misfunction of the mechanical norm. The signed sign both is this stain and points to it, diagnoses for our intelligence and alarms our sensibility.

And then: a step beyond signification through the legible is signing by means of the idea of the legible sign. This is more cubist, in the sense invoked by Ortega that the image is perceived inside the operation of the mind. A sign is shown that directly implies the idea of the sign, the idea of text, the idea of legibility, and thus the idea of the code; while at the same time being pure form that is entirely illegible and thus coded beyond the possibility of decoding by anyone. Think of the mathematical text on Prof. Lindt’s blackboard in room 29 of Leipzig University in Torn Curtain (1966), a text that, I have elsewhere implied, constitutes and also alludes to the true curtain of the film’s title. (19)

Further, such a sign, sufficiently purified through its own exceptional clarity and aesthetic force, may escape the gravitational tide of iconicity. Here we might feel the thrill of what Wollen notes as a “current in the history of art” stirred by Courbet, “the abandonment of the lexicon of emblems and the turn to nature itself.” (20)  In Antonioni’s Blow-Up there is a celebrated device of this sort, created for him by the art director Assheton Gorton who is a man committed to the fascination and beauty of icons. What this sign says is: “saying.” What it means is: “meaning.” Its diegetic reality and its metadiegetic reality harmonize and unify.

With sincere gratitude to Melissa Buron (San Francisco) and Zorianna Zurba (Toronto).


  1. Goffman, Erving. Relations in Public: Microstudies of the Public Order. New York: Basic Books, 1971.
  2. Von Hoffmansthal, Hugo. “Colors,” in Selected Prose of Hugo Von Hoffmansthal, trans. Mary Hottinger and Tania & James Stern, New York: Pantheon, 1952, 143.
  3. Gunning, Tom. The Films of Fritz Lang. London: BFI, 2000, 141
  4. Gunning, Tom. “Tracing the Individual Body: Photography, Detectives, and Early Cinema,” in Leo Charney and Vanessa R. Schwartz, eds., Cinema and the Invention of Modern Life, Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995, 23.
  5. Ibid.
  6. Ibid., 20
  7. Fenske, Gail. The Skyscraper and the City: The Woolworth Building and the Making of Modern New York. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 2008, 18.
  8. Goffman, Erving. Gender Advertisements. Cambridge Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1979.
  9. Pearson, Roberta E. Eloquent Gestures: The Transformation of Performance Style in the Griffith Biograph Films. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992, 55.
  10. Kracauer, Siegfried. Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1997, 166.
  11. Ibid., 171
  12. Wollen, Peter. Signs and Meaning in the Cinema. Expanded edition. London: BFI, 1998, 9.
  13. Ackerman, Diane. The Rarest of the Rare: Vanishing Animals, Timeless Worlds. New York: Vintage, 1997.
  14. Kracauer, Siegfried. “The Biography as an Art Form of the New Bourgeoisie,” in The Mass Ornament: Weimar Essays, Cambridge Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1995, 102.
  15. Metz, Christian. Film Language: A Semiotics of Cinema. New York: Oxford University Press, 1974, 213.
  16. Bazin, André. What Is Cinema? Vol. I. Trans. Hugh Gray. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967, 27.
  17. Bazin, André. What Is Cinema? Vol. II. Trans. Hugh Gray. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1971, 107.
  18. Bonitzer, Pascal. “It’s only a film ou la face de néant,” in Cahiers du cinema, “Alfred Hitchcock”, special issue, 1980, 13.
  19. Pomerance, Murray. An Eye for Hitchcock. New Brunswick N.J.: Rutgers University Press, 2004, 114 ff.
  20. Wollen, 104

About The Author

Murray Pomerance is Professor in the Department of Sociology at Ryerson University and the author of The Eyes Have It: Cinema and the Reality Effect, Alfred Hitchcock's America,Michelangelo Red Antonioni Blue: Eight Reflections on Cinema and The Horse Who Drank the Sky: Film Experience Beyond Narrative and Theory, and editor or co-editor of numerous volumes including A Little Solitaire: John Frankenheimer and American Film.