Notes: Yury Lotman – Semiotics of Cinema and Problems of Film Aesthetics

Yuri Lotman was a literary scholar and cultural scientist who studied culture in all its manifestations. In the first place he put language as the primary modeling system. Cinema in his work is seen as a secondary modeling system, based on the specific language of cinema.

Cinema is similar to the real world. But this similarity creates the illusion that we understand the language of cinema without special knowledge. This is not the case.

The viewer emotionally believes in the truth of what is happening on the screen, even if logically he understands that it is fiction. Spectacle – because if an action film is shown, the viewer is drawn in and feels as if they are looking at real pictures of the characters fighting and battling.
Art saturates the world with meanings and conveys information. Where there is a mechanical copying of reality, there is documentalism, but there is no art, because no choice is made of several options, but only the only possible option is given.
We don’t ask about the birch in the park, “What does that tree mean?” But in art the birch tree begins to mean something, it has a function. There is something created “automatically” – this is far from art, the author’s choice – reflects his vision and intention.
The viewer has a dual perception of cinema:
  • experiences real emotions as if everything that happens is real;
  • understands that it is a film and the people are actors.
Video, cinema is always a piece of reality, limited by the frame. What is shown on the screen is part of the total world, which includes in the viewer’s imagination the off-screen part as well. And cinema creates a fiction of being able to break through the boundaries of the frame.
The essence of cinema: to tell stories through moving images; the synthesis of words and images.
The essence of story: answers the question “how did it happen?” (an incident, an event, an occurrence, a news story) If the text is storyless, it answers the question “how did it work?”
The plot struggles between order and its violation – randomness (chaos). There is a conventional boundary: between light and darkness, home and forest, the world of the living and the dead… and most of the characters cannot cross this boundary, but there is one character who manages to do so. At the same time, there is an intertwining of lines in the fiction story, not just a movement from point A to point B along the same route (there is a flicker).
The narrative is action-based. The narrative language itself carries information, not just a message. So if we speak Russian and tell a story, we use Russian automatically and do not add to the artistry. If you make movies, cinematic language is part of the story (pictorial, verbal, musical).
Theater – we perceive reality as signs (a real person our contemporary plays Hamlet). Cinema – we perceive signs as reality.
In movies, editing creates the actor’s performance (what sequence of shots, and how the person and his behavior in the frame are perceived as a whole).
In film – there are close-ups (highlighting), in literature the counterpart would be a more detailed description. Body parts can act as a metaphor.
If it is necessary to show Cleopatra in the cinema, they are more likely to choose an image that seems beautiful to today’s people than to try to show the reality of the past, which is no longer close and not understandable to our contemporaries.
“Just a man” with no acting training behaves theatrically and stiffly in front of the camera, rather than vitally, as one would like to show in a movie.
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