Language, Sight and Sound

  • Stephen Heath
Part of the Communications and Culture book series (COMMCU)


‘Cinema and language’ has been in many ways the great theoretical impetus for work on film over the last few years: the attempt to pose with regard to cinema the fact and the analogy of language, to determine similarities, connections, terms of interaction. In many ways again, we seem now to be emerging from the hold of that impetus, from the kinds of questions it produced; emerging from them, it should be stressed, on the basis of the demonstration of their limits, and then, perhaps, against them, with different questions, or with some of the old questions differently. What follows is a brief account of something of the present context of ‘cinema and language’, a consideration of one or two points that are important in its current discussion.


Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.

Unable to display preview. Download preview PDF.


  1. 1.
    Christian Metz, ‘Le cinéma: langue ou langage?’, in Essais sur la signification au cinéma (Paris: Klincksieck, 1971) pp. 39–93; translation, ‘The Cinema: Language or Language-System?’, in Film Language (New York and London: Oxford U.P., 1974) pp. 31–91. For an overall account of Metz’s initial semiological analysis, see my ‘The Work of Christian Metz’, Screen vol. 14 no. 3 (Autumn 1973) pp. 5–28.Google Scholar
  2. 2.
    The same kind of conclusion can be found in the — relatively few — attempts to specify cinema in the terms of a Chomskian perspective according to a competence/peformance model; cinema is a language without competence: ‘If, in cinema, there are no “bits of films” that can be excluded, it is because there are no audio-visual combinations that are unacceptable by virtue of some formal system.’ Dominique Château, ‘Texte et discours dans le film’, in Voir, entendre (Revue d’esthétique 1976 no. 4) (Paris: Union Générale d’Éditions, 1976) p. 128. Certainly, the Chomskian model gives in one sense a more active version of language description (‘creativity’, ‘transformation’, the ‘generative’ production of sentences), but it remains based on an immobilization of language, precisely the inert of the formal system — ‘grammaticality’, the ‘grammar’. Saussure’s model is quite radically displaced at the same time that its ambition, the description of the linguistic system, is maintained; hence Chomsky’s reference to Saussure’s ‘lucidity’ and his stress that the competence/performance distinction ‘is related to the langue-parole distinction of Saussure’: Noam Chomsky, ‘Current Issues in Linguistic Theory’, in J. A. Fodor and J. J. Katz (ed), The Structure of Language (Englewood Cliffs, N.J.: Prentice-Hall, 1964) p. 52; Aspects of the Theory of Syntax (Cambridge, Mass.: M.I.T. Press, 1965) p. 4.Google Scholar
  3. 3.
    C. Metz, Langage et cinéma (Paris: Larousse, 1971) pp. 202, 111, 44, 51; translation, Language and Cinema (The Hague and Paris: Mouton, 1974) pp. 268, 149, 60, 69.Google Scholar
  4. 4.
    Françoise Collin, ‘Polyglo(u)ssons’, Les Cahiers du GRIF no. 12 (June 1976) p. 8.Google Scholar
  5. 5.
    Jean-Luc Godard, Deux ou trois choses que je sais d’elle (Paris: Seuil, 1971) p. 14.Google Scholar
  6. 6.
    Laura Mulvey and Peter Wollen, ‘Interview’, Screen vol. 15 no. 3 (Autumn 1974) p. 128 the formulation quoted refers in context to the final section of Mulvey and Wollen’s first film, Penthesilea but is then, as it were, something of an imagination of the problematic of the subsequent Riddles of the Sphinx).CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  7. 7.
    S. M. Eisenstein, Film Form (New York: Harcourt Brace & Co., 1949) p. 105.Google Scholar
  8. 9.
    C. Metz, Le Signifiant imaginaire (Paris: Union Générale d’Éditions, 1977) p. 187.Google Scholar
  9. 10.
    Jacques Lacan, Écrits (Paris: Seuil, 1966) p. 799; translation, Écrits: A Selection (London: Tavistock, 1977) p. 298.Google Scholar
  10. 11.
    S. Freud, ‘The Antithetical Meaning of Primal Words’ (1910), The Standard Edition of the Complete Psychological Works vol. XI (London: Hogarth Press, 1957) pp. 155–61.Google Scholar
  11. 12.
    J. Lacan, ‘L’Étourdit’, Scilicet no. 4 (1973) p. 45.Google Scholar
  12. 14.
    S. Freud, ‘Notes upon a Case of Obsessional Neurosis’ (1909), Standard Edition vol. X (London: Hogarth Press, 1955) pp. 151–249; Psycho-Analytic Notes on an Autobiographical Account of a Case of Paranoia (Dementia Paranoides)’ (1911), Standard Edition vol. XII (London: Hogarth Press, 1958) pp. 1–82, Cf. Freud’s letter to Jung of 1 October 1910 (‘I plan to introduce “basic language” as a serious technical term… ’), The Freud/Jung Letters (London: Hogarth Press and Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1977) p. 358.Google Scholar
  13. 15.
    J.-C. Milner, L’Amour de la langue (Paris: Seuil, 1978) pp. 22–3.Google Scholar
  14. 16.
    F. R. Leavis, For Continuity (Cambridge: Minority Press, 1933) p. 28.Google Scholar
  15. 17.
    Hanns Eisler, Composing for the Films (London: Dennis Dobson, 1947) p. 20.Google Scholar
  16. 18.
    H. Cixous, ‘Entretien avec Françoise van Rossum-Guyon’, Revue des sciences humaines no. 168 (1977) p. 488.Google Scholar
  17. 20.
    J. Lacan, Le Séminaire livre XI (Paris: Seuil, 1973) pp. 96, 108, 182; translation, The Four Fundamental Concepts of Psycho-Analysis (London: Hogarth Press, 1977) pp. 104, 118, 200. Cf. present volume PP. 177–8.Google Scholar
  18. 21.
    Cf. S. Freud, The Interpretation of Dreams (1900), Standard Edition vol. V (London: Hogarth Press, 1953) pp. 418–25.Google Scholar
  19. 22.
    S. Freud, On Aphasia (1891) (London: Imago, 1953) p. 73.Google Scholar
  20. 23.
    S. Freud, Moses and Monotheism (1939), Standard Edition vol. XXIII (London: Hogarth Press, 1964) p. 99.Google Scholar
  21. 24.
    L. Wittgenstein, Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus (London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1961) p. 50 (4. 1212).Google Scholar
  22. 27.
    V. N. Vologinov, Freudianism: A Marxist Critique (New York: Academic Press, 1976) p. 24.Google Scholar
  23. 28.
    K. Marx and F. Engels, The German Ideology (London: Lawrence & Wishart, 1965) p. 42.Google Scholar
  24. 38.
    V. Egger, La Parole intérieure (Paris: Librairie Germer Baillière et Cie, 1881);Google Scholar
  25. G. Ballet, Le Langage intérieur (Paris: Librairie Germer Baillière et Cie, 1886).Google Scholar
  26. 39.
    L. S. Vygotsky, Language and Thought (Cambridge, Mass.: M.I.T. Press, 1977) p. 125.Google Scholar
  27. 41.
    P. P. Blonski, Memory and Thought (1935)Google Scholar
  28. cit. A. N. Sokolov, Inner Speech and Thought (New York and London: Plenum Press, 1972) p. 48.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  29. 45.
    As reported by Annette Michelson from conversations in Moscow with V. V. Ivanov; cf. Harvey Denkin, ‘Linguistic Models in Early Soviet Cinema’, Cinema Journal vol. XVII no. 1 (Fall 1977) pp. 4, 13.Google Scholar
  30. 48.
    David Bordwell, ‘Eisenstein’s Epistemological Shift’, Screen vol. 15 no. 4 (Winter 1974/5) p. 41.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  31. 49.
    Interview with Bruno Frei (1928), in S. M. Eisenstein, Schriften vol. 3 (Munich: Hanser, 1975) p. 260.Google Scholar
  32. 50.
    John Forrester, ‘Language, Symbol and History in Freud’s Psycho-Analysis’ (Cambridge: unpublished paper, 1974) pp. 53–4. The present essay is indebted to Forrester’s research at a number of points.Google Scholar
  33. 51.
    Roland Barthes, L’Empire des signes (Geneva: Skira, 1970) p. 99.Google Scholar
  34. 52.
    B. Eikhenbaum, ‘Problems of Film Stylistics’ (1927), Screen vol. 15 no. 3 (Autumn 1974) p. 14.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  35. 53.
    See notably Paul Willemen, ‘Reflections on Eikhenbaum’s Concept of Internal Speech in the Cinema’, Screen vol. 15 no. 4 (Winter 1974/5) pp. 59–70.CrossRefGoogle Scholar
  36. 55.
    ‘The limitations of conventional narrative films: they cover a particular duration of time in which the protagonists transcend or are destroyed in the course of a single climax. Yes, it really is about bracketing time that I object to.’ Yvonne Rainer, Letter, Camera Obscura no. 1 (1976) p. 96.Google Scholar

Copyright information

© Stephen Heath 1981

Authors and Affiliations

  • Stephen Heath

There are no affiliations available

Personalised recommendations