Cinematic Discourse Notes 1:
Discourse, Style and Narrative in Cinema

A) Discourse & discourse analysis

Before all, you should know what discourse and discourse analysis are. We are not aiming for precise, exact or unitary definitions here, but for a range of acceptable meanings: see, for example, the Wikipedia entries for discourse and discourse analysis. If we are forced to proffer a very short definition, and to limit ourselves to language, we can say that discourse refers to a unit that goes beyond the sentence (which is perhaps best encapsulated by the title of Scott Thornbury's book on the use of language in English discourse, Beyond the Sentence). Thus the analysis of language within the sentence may not tell us about how language is used discoursally or discursively (two alternative adjectives used in relation to the root word discourse). In this regard, if we are again forced to proffer a very short definition and to limit ourselves to language, discourse analysis refers to the analysis of units beyond the sentence or to the text itself, either partially or wholly. However, the tricky thing about cinema is that it does not only consist of language, and as this is the case, should we then extend the conceptions of discourse and discourse analysis beyond language itself? This question triggers the set of questions in the next section.

B) Discourse, language & text

In the study of cinema, there are some of questions that we need to think about in relation to the notions of discourse, language and text:

  1. Is there such a thing as a non-linguistic language?
  2. Should linguistics be dominant in a multimodal analysis?
  3. What is meant by cinematic discourse?
  4. Can there be discourse without language?
  5. What is a text?

C) Multimodal discourse analysis, aesthetics & stylistics

We will take a multi-disciplinary approach.  Thus our approach will not be merely confined to a linguistic analysis of the text. Here are further questions we will ask in relation to multimodal discourse analysis of cinema, and how aesthetics and stylistics play a part in it:

  1. What is meant by multimodal analysis?
  2. What is meant by cinema?
  3. Do aesthetic and evaluative considerations play a part in discourse analysis?
  4. Is linguistics important in cinematic stylistics?

D) Bazin & classical theorists: cinema as an art form

To André Bazin and Siegfried Kracauer, cinema is, or should be, the reproduction of reality. For this reason, they have been described as realists among classical cinema theorists. Bazin emphasises the use of the camera in giving cinema its artistry and which also should contribute to its sense of realism. Among movie camera techniques he singled out are the long take and deep focus photography. Other classical cinema theorists, such as Rudolf Arnheim and Sergei Eisenstein, put more emphasis on editing rather than the camera, and for this reason, have also been described as montagists (i.e., theorists who put an emphasis on film editing). Two sets of questions we need to ask here are:

  1. Does the camera contribute to cinematic discourse? If it does, what is the extent of its contribution?
  2. How does editing contribute to cinematic discourse?

E) Discourse and narrative

Narrative is important in cinema. Of course, the next question that crops up is the definition of narrative. Although the study of cinematic discourse is not a full-fledged study of narrative (see my Narrative Theory), there are some aspects of narrative that we need to discuss. Among them is the division of narrative into story and discourse, which are important concepts in narrative analysis: story is the content of the film's narrative, whereas discourse refers to how the narrative is presented to us.

However, ‘cinematic discourse’ is not confined to narrative. There is a difference between cinematic discourse in general and narrative discourse in films in particular, and this is a question that we need to think about in the study of cinematic discourse. Another point that needs further thought is whether there should be a three-fold distinction: discourse, text and narrative. Finally, we should think about the relationship of cinematic discourse to the other rhetorical modes, apart from narrative, which most of you should be familiar with in your essay writing exercises in school, i.e.: argumentation, exposition and description. Do these rhetorical modes apply to cinematic discourse as well? If they are applicable, what role does language play in them? Can these rhetorical modes exist without language?

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© 2010. Last revised: 06 July 2011.