Metz’ new directions

by John M. Finn

from Jump Cut, no. 6, 1975, pp. 14-15
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1975, 2004

French Film theoretician Christian Metz has undertaken a second major phase of research. In his earlier works, Essais sur le signification au Cinéma (Tomes I and II) and Langage et cinéma, Metz attempted to apply semiology to the structural analysis of film. Semiology is appropriate for film because it is the science of signs and as Roland Barthes says,

“aims to take in any system of signs, whatever their substance and limits; images, gestures, musical sounds, objects, and the complex associations of all theme, which form the content of ritual, convention or public entertainment. “(1)

In his most recent work as well as his past work, Metz has chosen to study the classical narrative film. He does not deal with the continuity of particular films, condoning or condemning their themes, plot developments, character portrayals, and sociopolitical ramifications. Instead he goes much deeper, exposing and questioning the very mechanisms by which all fiction films operate. Metz attempts to point out the codes upon which this mechanism is totally dependent.

Codes are elements which form a system of signification (e.g., dress codes, behavior codes, speech codes, etc.). In Metz’s latest work these codes are both physiological and psycho-sociological, forming a vary complex network or system which Metz has delineated in all three of his major works. In his first major work, Essais sur le signification au cinéma. Metz outlined a syntactic structure, ariticulated on the level of the sequence, to which narrative films of the sound era, from 1930 to approximately 1955, generally adhered. In Langage at cinéma, Metz examined the interrelations between specifically cinematic codes (lighting, angle, editing, close ups, etc.) and those codes from daily life that narrative cinema incorporates. Such codes as those of the automobile, middle-class household, cocktail party, smoking, fashion, travel, and establishment politics are manipulated and placed within the narrative films.

     Essais and Langage et cinéma seem relatively neutral or apolitical, although Metz in person would assert that he was interested in that period of narrative cinema as a naive or unselfconscious reflection of bourgeois ideology. In his current research, he is again studying this type of cinema, but with a specifically political intent incorporated into his research. He combines two approaches. He uses vision theory to explore the physiological relation between spectator and film, and he uses dream theory to explore that relation in psychological terms. In U.S. terms, Metz is carrying out a sort of psychoanalytical market research to determine why people like films with “plots,” and how this attraction is the major selling point and foundation of commercial cinema.

Metz feels that fiction film has taken over the role in Western culture performed previously by the novel. His major concern now is to provide an explanation of the mechanisms by which narrative or fiction films affect audiences and how these mechanisms establish fiction film as an historical institution operating within Western capitalist culture. The political critique of Metz’s earlier research was that it was idealistic, placing the specifically cinematic codes outside the realm of history end ideology. Currently his work demonstrates how the physiological and psychological mechanisms that films draw on serve to maintain film as a commodity which people want to consume.

Because the film spectator pays his/her money voluntarily, the commercial narrative or fiction film must appeal to certain desires which seem to merit the payment. Metz feels Hollywood fiction film manipulates the spectator’s very psyche and even further, sells the establishment to our subconscious. Hollywood films which deal with contemporary time are a major source of cultural conditioning. Fast cars, cigarette smoking, martinis-after-a-hard -day-at-the-office, green lawned suburban homes, chic loft apartments, and most important the entire system of bourgeois Judaeo-Christian ethics, morality and mythology are all beamed to our psyche, and the results speak for themselves, Likewise, the recent barrage of Hollywood nostalgia films has created blossoming fads in hairstyles, clothing, and home furnishings. We are indeed lucky GATSBY was a bomb, even though there were minor effects on the fashion industry. Metz wishes to analyze how this relationship is perpetrated, and his argument is based principally on the relationship between spectator and projected film at the time of viewing. In the rest of this essay I will outline the way in which Metz discusses the relation between certain physiological codes, based mostly on vision theory, and the psychosociological codes at work when one watches a fiction film. These latter Metz draws from Freud’s dream theory and some of his own earlier semiological work on signs and representation in Essais and Langage et Cinéma.

Critique du cinéma diégése was the title Metz chose for a series of lectures he gave in the spring of 1974.(2) Diégése comes from the Greek word “diegesis” which refers to the western tradition of imitating reality, especially in narrative form. “Fiction” is the synonym for diegesis Metz most often employed in his discussions. “Cinéma diégése” refers to the whole process of production, distribution, and consumption of fiction films. He uses the term “institution of fiction film” interchangeably with “cinéma diégése.” Metz wants to discuss more than the films themselves. All fiction films are included in Metz’s analysis, from the most sophisticated multimillion dollar Hollywood production to a low budget “B” flick, regardless of subject matter, ideology, quality of cinematography or artistic value. However, Metz’s critique does not deal with particular films and qualitative plot analysis whatsoever.

Metz uses vision theory to discuss the physiological relationship between spectator and film. In normal human or retinal vision, two separate retinal images are transformed into one in the brain. We cannot see or feel this process, we can only experience its end product. Our eyes register two separate images, but we only “see” one. This can easily be demonstrated by holding an object in front of one’s face and looking at this object first with both eyes and then with each eye separately. The object appears to move as vision is transferred from one eye to the other. When we look at the object with both eyes we are seeing the end product of the two separate images.

This vision process is also psychological, for identifying objects in a given image is a culturally learned process. We learn in our infancy how to identify and name the objects we see by means of language which provides an ordered system of classification. We do not attend to objects we cannot identify. In the vision process, therefore, we receive two slightly different images, registered as one, and “translated” in the brain.

Normal retinal vision transforms three-dimensional objects into two-dimensional images. We learn “relief” or three-dimensionality   as infants by touching objects to determine that they have both form and shape. We determine the relative distance of objects by their known or learned size and form, which we compare to their relative size in our field of vision. For example, if a person is looking across valley to a house on top of a hill which has a tree next to it, he can estimate the distance of the house for he knows the house’s dimensions because it is an easily identified object. Therefore, we can also determine the relative size of the tree standing next to the house by comparing its size in the field of vision. Three-dimensionality exists during the normal vision process but two-dimemsionality is substituted unnoticed during the vision process of film.

Film is merely a flat image projected on a screen. In a film, however, a miniature house and tree, perhaps to be blown up, could be substituted on the set and the flattening effect would prohibit the viewer from perceiving their true sizes. Again, this process is both physiological and psychological. The film image is processed in the brain without having to be transformed into a two-dimensional image since it already is one. We are not capable of perceiving this process, only the end product.

Film, the reproduction and them projection of images at 24 frames per second, functions as an effigy of the real world. Our eyes perform the same vision process, and we identify objects on the screen as we do in the real world. However, when we see things is the real world, our two retinas register separate images. Film subverts normal or binocular vision. When the spectator sees the images in a film, both retinas register a two-dimensional image, but the spectator is unaware that monocular vision is being substituted for binocular vision.

The illusion of three dimensionality is good enough for our psyche to accept as being real. Not only do the objects in the image function as an effigy of the real world but simulate the actual mechanism of perspective. The use of rear projection is totally dependent on this subversion and serves as a good example of the phenomena. In countless films, objective shots of the characters riding in am automobile are used. The unwary spectator thinks that the background moving behind the car is really pert of the shot. He or she believes the car was in fact being driven down the road and filmed that way. However due to the subversion of three-dimensional vision, the filmmaker has merely shot the sequence in a studio with the car immobile while projecting an already filmed, outdoor background behind the car. A flat image (the projected background) is refilmed along with the three-dimensional car and characters, and the illusion goes unnoticed. Some directors are more proficient at this than others and add flickers of light on the subjects and often mount the studio car on a machine which simulates normal road bumps and sways. A truly professional job may go unnoticed even to a trained spectator. (3)

Earlier films which pioneered this technique such as KING KONG lacked the know-how to carry off this process perfectly. This film used rear projection extensively and paved the way for the horror and fantasy boom to come. Usually when the camera angle of the subject and the angle of the refilmed background do not correspond exactly, an observant spectator can see that the process has been used. In Minelli’s GIGI during the carriage sequences, it is not very difficult to see that rear projection has been used. The shooting angle of the carriage and the angle of the refilmed background of buildings do not match.

Metz moves from a discussion of the vision process to show how we perceive movement in film. Since film is a flat image, all movement of objects within this image must be frontal and not axial. Objects do not move closer or farther away, they only become larger or smaller. When someone in a film appears to be walking towards the camera, on the screen they are merely enlarging. Movement in film gives the illusion of being identical to movement in the real world, again because film is able to subvert the vision process by providing an image similar enough to that received by three-dimensional perception, and as a result is accepted as real. We do not have real depth perception in cinema , but we accept the two-dimensional enlarging or shrinking as an image of movement in depth. We do not read film movement as just a lateral movement across a two-dimensional field.

While the spectator sits motionless, the camera movement seems to change the size and distance of objects. The combination of spectator motionlessness, camera movement, and editing destroys the spectator’s normal points of reference, as for example when the image track switches from a long shot of an outdoor landscape to an extreme close up of someone’s face. The image on the screen replaces the normal field of vision, and the spectator loses the normal points of reference that would be necessary in a three-dimensional vision situation to determine the actual size and distance of objects. We are all familiar with the use of toy battleships and toy cities in fictional cities in fictional films. Cinema frequently utilizes this subversion of the normal vision process as the basis for many optical illusions and visual tricks. The film industry depends on its visual tricks generally going unnoticed by the viewing public.

Hitchcock uses this subversion of the vision process in many of his films. In STRANGERS ON A TRAIN a women is strangled, and the spectator does not actually see the act committed. Instead we see a reflection of the man choking her in what are supposed to be her glasses fallen in the grass. Hitchcock had a pair of giant glasses made especially to film this “reflection.” Because film destroys reference points found in a normal field of vision, the spectator has no way of knowing the true size of the glasses and therefore assumes they are of normal proportions. Although any filmmaker could exploit these codes of subversion, experimental filmmakers more frequently try to foreground cinematic process and make spectators aware of the cinematic and perceptual elements involved. However, fiction films expand upon and even abuse the basic codes of subversion, the traditional aim of “diegesis” being to “imitate reality.” Metz shows that film’s way of manipulating visual perception gives a physiological-perceptual basis to the “realism” of fiction film—even to its spectacular and fantasy-creating elements. It makes these elements realistic and acceptable to the viewing public as a reasonable part of a fictional world.

Approaching fiction film from a psychoanalytical point of view, Metz uses Freud’s Interpretation of Dreams to describe important similarities between the state of one’s psyche during a fiction film and a person’s psyche during a dream, Because of factors common to both processes, fiction films have a powerful psychological potential as a means of propaganda. Metz feels that Hollywood is a “regime” of fiction and wields its power as an important source of cultural brainwashing in this country.  

Film spectators physically experience something similar to a dream state. They are seated motionless in a dark room, whereas while dreaming people lie in bed in a dark room. During a film people don't close their eyes, but their normal 3-D field of vision has been replaced by a 2-0 screen. During a dream, the normal field of vision is replaced by images created inside the brain. The film provides an illusion of the reel world in the fore of visual and audio stimuli, which the spectator identifies in the same way that the stimuli are identified in a real world situation. A dreamer similarly perceives stimuli created by the brain. The dream situation is not exactly like the film viewing situation but they have certain important aspects in common.

During a dream an individual does not usually perceive the dream as a dream. It is basically a subconscious function. However, during certain moments the individual becomes conscious of the dream and often is able to recall the experience. Film spectators are basically conscious that they are watching a film. But as one’s attention is drawn more and more into the fiction, during certain moments depending on the individual, spectators lose their self-awareness about the act of watching a film: the willing suspension of disbelief. People get drawn into the story as if the characters in the film were actually “living” those moments of action. Such suspension of disbelief is necessary for people to be scared by a horror film or to be caught up in the narrative of a suspense film. These moments when the spectator slips from being consciously aware that it is only a film correspond to a person’s subconscious state during a dream. Metz calls this a “transfer of perspective,” for the spectator has transferred all of his thought processes to the fiction of the film. During these periods when the spectator is in an almost subconscious state, films gain access to our psyches. Such moments are also fundamental to the processes of brainwashing and propaganda.

Metz gives a psychoanalytical interpretation of the relation between a fiction film and our psyches during these subconscious periods. Every individual has within his or her psyche a system of desires and fears—desires belonging to the ego and fears or guilt belonging to the superego which function as a sort of self-censorship mechanism. This is especially so in terms of socially embedded values or morality: the do’s and don'ts children are conditioned to accept. This conditioning, of course, differs with each person, but it plays an important role in letting us know which of our desires are normal and which are perverse. (Freud meant normal and perverse as distinctions between “majority” and “minority,” but Western capitalist culture has misinterpreted these for its own purposes to mean “good” and “bad.”)

Our psyche evaluates all of the objects and situations we encounter in the real world and, therefore, in film. We process our perceptions through our system of desires and fears (censorship) and give them connotation and opinion. This is how the fiction film “communicates” with our psyche. It presents illusions of real world situations which plug themselves into our psyche and play upon our desires and fears. Desires, both normal and perverse, are appealed to and restraints or controls of these desires are applied within the narrative of the films. Particularly apropos are Hollywood genre films. As Judith Hess points out in her article in JUMP CUT no. 1, “Genre Films and the Status Quo”:

“Genre films produce satisfaction rather than action, pity and fear rather than revolt; they serve the interests of the ruling class by assisting in the maintenance of the status quo and they throw a sop to oppressed groups who, because they are unorganized and afraid to act, eagerly accept the genre film’s absurd solutions to economic and social conflicts. When we return to the complexities of the society in which we live, the sane conflicts assert themselves so we return to the genre films for easy comfort and solace—hence their popularity.”

More important, while appealing to our desires, these fiction films condition our superegos or self-censorship mechanisms to pattern after those shown in the films. The spectator learns to restrain his or her desires as they are restrained within the narrative of the film. One can easily see how THE EXORCIST exemplifies this phenomenon. A film seen by millions across the country tells us that, yes, the devil does exist, he can possess your children, sexual deviation is widely practiced in hell, and only the church can undo the curse. The suspense and violence employed in this film serve to pull the spectator more into the fiction and hammer home the propaganda.

Metz described how film is an exterior force which nourishes our fantasies. Fiction films act like a drug, not only by providing the stimulus for the fantasy but also the fantasy. 2001 with its outer space, futuristic and mechanical melodrama, and mysticism certainly encourages the spectator to fantasize. We even learn that representatives of the two superpowers will often meet casually in a space station lounge. But this was before the oil crisis, and don't forget that mysterious steel beam floating around in the darkened studio with all those toy planets and spaceships.

Even in terms of structure, we can easily see how films affect our dreams. Cinematographic processes such as long shots, pans and close ups create a sort of montage during dreams. Doubters need only contemplate their own dream recollections to see how this works.

The possibilities for an economic interpretation of the relationship between fiction film and our psyches are great. In a super-consumption economy such as ours, demand is created by the same sector which controls production and supply. The producers entice the consumer via advertising. Fiction film, when viewed on a large scale including, of course, fiction on television, plays an extremely important role in creating demand, for it is one of the dominant forms of entertainment. The fiction films present a grand illusion of the realm of possibilities of life styles to the viewing public. Spectators see houses, new cars, new clothes, liquor, cigarettes, jet travel, and all kinds of elaborate gadgetry as part of the environment within these narrative films. Hollywood sells the American Dream by a direct assault on our subconscious. Metz has shown us film’s potential for brainwashing and film’s effect on our psyche in an unrhetorical and analytic way. When we see how spectators relate to fiction films, we can easily understand why demand is created for the consumer goods seen. The research Metz has carried out on what he calls the “institution of fiction film” only clarifies and substantiates what many anti-establishment critics have touched upon in their criticisms of Hollywood cinema.

As Critique du cinema diégése appears, the question will undoubtedly be raised, “If people like films with plots, like Hollywood produces, why shouldn't they go to see then, for these films are just a form of entertainment?” Metz says that we are in a sense working in an oppressive system and then paying to be conditioned to like it.

Public entertainment is our reward, which we pay for with the money we earned working for the system. But fiction film functions as a seams of social control as it manipulates our psyches and conditions us into certain patterns of thinking and behaving. The solution, Metz believes, is one of education, of convincing people that they are being manipulated in a very dangerous way. In the past, Metz’s work has been used by lovers of fictional film to analyze those films, for Metz seemed to be providing a scientific and apolitical analysis of the mechanisms of narrative film. Now he wants to provide scientific and highly motivatived analysis to help people see through Hollywood cinema, to challenge the ways in which that cinema prevents us from being critical of the system in which we live. He uses psychoanalytical tools with same of the same intent as the psychoanalyst—to reveal psychosocial mechanisms impinging on the individual’s life in a way which challenges these mechanisms, brings them under control, and thus opens up pathways for more independent and creative human thought. Metz is fully aware that it would mean attacking financially profitable institutional structures and preferred forms of entertainment to effect such changes.

More than likely, the fiction film is here to stay. People are too conditioned to plots to give them up. Still, Metz’s work will prove extremely valuable in helping people to understand the power of fiction in film and to act accordingly. For Third World cultures, it could help avoid the obvious pitfalls of fiction addiction we in the United States are experiencing.


1. Elements of Semiology, tr. Annette Levers and Cohn Smith (Boston: Beacon, 1970).

2. Christiam Metz presented his latest research in a seminar held for students in the University of California’s Paris Film Program, a program of one year’s graduate and undergraduate study of international cinema, film history and theory and semiology, co-sponsored by the Council on International Educational Exchange. For this article I had no printed matter or recordings, only my handtaken notes from the seminar. Therefore, the reader must be cautioned of the possibility of minor errors in interpretation on my part. However, every effort has been made to state Metz’s ideas accurately. Metz has not yet published this material but will in the next year or so.

3. Not all filmmakers use this trick method. In some cases the car is pulled by a truck with a camera mounted and some directors let the characters actually drive the car, filming from another unattached vehicle. In these two cases the background is really part of the shot.