JUMP CUT
A REVIEW OF CONTEMPORARY MEDIA

Dance step and dog hurdle: the sign

An example of this shift from denotation to new connotation is the way Marilyn's leg signifies <dog hurdle>. The denotative meaning of her extended appendage is certainly <leg>, but /leg/ also stands for hurdle, or, semiotically, /leg/ is a sign connoting <hurdle>.

Eco's definition of a sign which includes "everything that, on the grounds of a previously established social convention, can be taken as something standing for something else," incorporates this "standing-for" function and the notion of social agreement originally from Saussure.[11] [open notes in new window] If culture members agree, unrelated cultural units (woman's leg and dog hurdle) can be brought together in equation and held there by means of a signification system. The leg=hurdle equation poses no comprehension problems to viewers here because the circus dog act code "correlates" these units.[12] If leg=dance step in addition, this is because, as Eco shows, more than one code will often "rule" the same sign.[13]

The codes ruling the sign /leg/ within the sequence also fall into two large categories in Eco's theory. Those identifiable objects and figures commonly called images are iconic signs, which he distinguishes from kinesic signs, denoting movement and gesture. For instance, as it connotes <hurdle>, /leg/ is part of a system of circus props which might include couches and a coffee table standing for <risers>. Marilyn's extended leg is not only an iconic prop, but within kinesic systems ranging from the disciplined tap dance to casual /kicking back the rug/, the moving leg signifies <kick>. I will return to the special problems of both iconic and kinesic signs and the relationship between the two in a later section.

Closer analysis of the signs /kick/, /cartwheel/ and /splits/, suggests that they belong to yet another system which might be represented on an imaginary semiotic grid cutting diagonally across the first three codes: tap dance, pet play, circus act. Note that {work out}, here in the sense of rehearsal session, depends on the other codes, {tap dance} and {circus act}. Still other codes depend on the {work out} code, and by reference to them, the viewer would know this is informal practice and not formal rehearsal. For instance, {improvisation}, or {ad lib}, as system, organizes and makes one particular sense of /hand clap/ as well as /cartwheel/, /splits/, and Marilyn's /hula/. These dependent codes, which Eco designates as connotative codes or subcodes, are those descriptive clusters which are brought out in conventional criticism and reviews. For instance, critics' recognition of period, authorial, or visual style is at the connotative level.[14] One of the uses of semiotics is to show that meanings are not mysteriously drawn from the aesthetic text by an insightful reader as "out of thin air." They are concretely carried out by sign-vehicles carrying connotations which in turn are sign-vehicles for other connotations.

In this respect, the difference between the ordinary moviegoer and a critic or connoisseur is that the latter have access to rare or specialized codes which enable them to notice correspondences; to "appreciate" an art form on more levels.[15] An expert in the history of Afro-American dance, for instance, would know that the Marilyn-Buttons routine contains elements of the flash act, a variant of tap which combines jazz dance with ad libbed acrobatics. This specialist might quickly see Marilyn's act as echoing the Berry brothers who were featured in two specialty numbers in Lady Be Good.

Because of their acrobatic ingenuity and skill, typified by their famous splits, the Black trio became known as an act with more flash than tap.[16] Flash here is not only a rare code but also a subcode depending upon the {tap dance} code.

How do we know the spotted figure is <dog>?
The iconic sign

Although one might see the Marilyn-Buttons virtuouso flash act as connoting the circus side show and vaudeville theatre origins of the film institution, this sophisticated interpretation would not be possible if the viewer did not at least read the smaller figure on the screen as denoting <dog>. How does the viewer know that the figure is not hyena, or monkey, or seal? /Dog/ seems the most elementary of all the images in the sequence. For that reason I will use it to raise some of the more difficult issues, which the theorist confronts every time it is necessary to say what is meant by the iconic sign. Earlier work in semiotics used iconic sign in opposition to verbal sign to emphasize the conventionalization basic to verbal language, in which words stand for things so arbitrarily. In contrast, iconic signs, as seen in the visual arts, were said to "share some of the same properties" with the real world objects to which they refer. Subsequently, this special analogical relationship between sign and referent has been challenged by the evidence that recognizing photographic "likeness" requires learning. A new possibility has arisen — that the iconic sign, sharing none of the properties of its object — is also arbitrary, completely conventional. Although this view of the iconic sign would strengthen Eco's argument that what appears to be nature is actually culture, he has rejected this extreme position because it leaves no opening for any account of perceived similarity.[17]

Following Eco's argument, the motion picture image of a spotted dog and the dog Spot tied up in your "real world" backyard, share no physical properties. In the real dog, spots are the effect of dark patches of hair that absorb light against the white of the areas that reflect light. Photographically, spots are the result of concentrations of silver nitrate crystals. To continue this reasoning, one can further compare the properties of the celluloid strip and the familiar damp, lumpy furriness of any dog.[18] If the motion picture image of the dog and the real-world dog share no physical properties, what explains the perception of sameness? Eco says that the same conditions or mechanisms of perception function here, but that they rely on two different "perceptual supports."[19] Cultural learning, or the repeated experience of seeing a dog as compared to the image of a dog, develops expectations; these constitute another kind of code governing perception. While Eco does not deny that there may be a "natural link" of some sort between image and real world referent, that linkage is still subject to conventionalization.[20] As he emphasizes perceptual learning, he can retain a theory of the cultural coding of the iconic sign.

Eleanor Powell as star sign

Semiotics counters the idea that stars are real people, showing instead how star image and popular type, quickly comprehensible public selves, are constructed. Recent film theory considers star image as a text, with its fluctuating meaning distributed across a diverse range of media from the star performance itself to studio publicity, newspaper coverage, radio interviews, public appearances, and Hollywood gossip.[21] In 1941, Eleanor Powell was considered the most accomplished tap dancer on stage or in motion pictures, and producers consistently cast her in films to feature her specialty. An Eleanor Powell fan would know that the star was so proficient that MGM had trouble finding her a dancing partner. She was featured with a horse who raced to the opera Figaro in Broadway Melody of 1938, then matched with Fred Astaire in Broadway Melody of 1940, but producers decided that Powell and Astaire did not make a team.[22] Was she too singular in her style to meld with Astaire's? Critics in the 1940s attributed Powell's tap virtuosity to a technique more male than female, and Astaire recalled in his biography: "She put 'em down like a man, no ricky-ticky-sissy stuff with Ellie."[23] Her publicly constructed "go-it-alone" image intersects with the Marilyn Marsh career-girl-dancer role in Lady Be Good and contributes to the ambiguities which invite such imaginative decoding of the dance sequence.

The <masculine> connotations in Powell's dance style combine with her long-legged physique to signify the <swell gal> or <sister> type. How would the 1940s audience understand Powell as more <boyish> than <girlish>? One way they would understand any star is by reference to a code of types, which classifies popular heroes and heroines according to personality traits and physical attributes.[24] But body type and facial features carrying type connotations proclaim themselves to be natural, which puts them beyond the reach of culture, it would seem. How, then, can we say that a star is "constructed?" Culture has "borrowed" the natural. Culture constructs physiological ideals out of the racial characteristics exhibited by the beings who people a society. In North American culture, for instance, the preference for "long-stemmed" women is based on available stock. Translated into movie stardom, this preference corresponds with the enthusiasm for leggy stars such as Powell, Ann Miller, and Cyd Charisse.

Interest in female star iconography has brought needed critical attention to the decorative detail. Costume as well as interior design are often overlooked as connotative signifiers because the same signs signify <actual setting> or <appropriate dress> and establish that the fiction stands for specific person and place. Background detail is usually organized by a code of realism. As such, detail clusters help to signify <this is reality>.[25]

In the Lady Be Good apartment sequence, for example, such details include furnishings and clothing which connote <real life>. Raised to another level, these become signifiers of <forties contemporary style>. Eleanor Powell wears paisley print lounging pajamas which blouse in the leg like the harem pant. In 1941, lounging pajamas provided fashionable "at home wear." Combined with the sculpted sectional sofa, blonde wood coffee table, and floral print above the fireplace, the pajamas and set signify <contemporary apartment living>. Powell's pompadour hair style, worn in an earlier scene; Ann Sothern's veiled black hat, tilted over one eye; and set designer Cedric Gibbons' white pianos coordinated with white interiors — these also signify <forties modern>. Still another code of bourgeois tastefulness organizes stylistic connotations into connotations such as <lavish>, <plush>, or <overdone>. As I understand Eco, these codes of taste and sensibility are those vacillating rules which coordinate and differentiate styles from one decade to the next. Thus the same signs which signify <ultra-modern> in one era may mean <authentic period piece> or <camp> forty years later.

Cataloguing every item in a film's mise-en-scene may seem an exhaustive task, bearing no relation to the way audiences experience motion pictures as entertainment. Every detail does, however, come into play semiotically, as viewers "take in everything" to make sense of the narrative. However, some signs, for instance those denoting decor, audiences would read only at the level of connotation. Studies of cultural coding demonstrate that some signs carry a thicker cultural overlay than others, which indicates the frequency of their use. On another scale, such density of coding indicates a national preoccupation or ideological emphasis. For instance, relative to other areas, the communicative areas of fashionable adornment and sexuality in North American culture are more "built up" culturally.[26]

We can measure such an ideological concentration in the proliferation of subcodes, which shows up as inflection and ambiguity, whether in iconic caricature or verbal word play. The sexual image of woman, and here I mean screen star, centerfold, or cover girl, evidences a dense cultural build up. As an area of semiotic concentration, the sexual image of woman marks a social zone of combat over who makes meaning. Feminists who have surveyed this field argue that mass media images articulate women's social identities without women's consent. In the 1970s, feminist film critics rediscovered star images from the Golden 30s and 40s with the idea that they could reinvest these images with meaning and reclaim for those images connotations of women's <power>, <command>, and <strength>.