Download as PDF Download PDF

Structuralist Theory



For the purposes of the course, we will separate structuralism from semiotics even though they are closely linked. Indeed, as James Monaco says in How to Read a Film, semiotics is structuralism’s offspring; and it is true they both stem from the idea that the most important aspect is the significance of underlying structures. Where existentialism and phenomenology work much more from the individual consciousness, structuralism and semiotics are more interested in what shapes that consciousness. Thus the unconscious isn’t so much an individual’s as a culture’s. What is the best way to make sense of our behaviour we may ask; is it through the individual or through looking at the structures producing that behaviour?  Structuralism proposes the latter.

As film theorist Stephen Heath reckoned, “’structure’” should be understood as a process, or network of processes, whereby individuals are put in place in society”. Heath believed it was essentially a linguistic issue, in that “language played an important part, ‘calling up’ individuals, thereby transforming them into subjects.” This was in some ways a combination of the work of structural anthropologist Claude Levi-Strauss, and the Marxist Louis Althusser, a philosopher who talked of ‘interpellation’ – how the subject is shaped by structures much greater than his or her own will and motivation. This is a point we will later address in relation to ideology.

For the moment what we want to look at are films that loosely utilise structuralist principles as a way of escaping from what were called Dominant modes of cinema: generally mainstream productions that privileged the individual over the structure. As the well-known and well-respected playwright but often conservative Hollywood scriptwriter David Mamet stated: a good story needs a hero with a clear goal. Would structuralist oriented films not beg to differ, and propose that Mamet is offering false consciousness as a truism? A structuralist inclined critic might rephrase Mamet’s statement conditionally: if at the present moment in time you want to make a film that will likely make money and appeal to the mass market, have a hero with a strong goal.

What we will explore here are films that eschew this assumption in a number of ways: some working loosely within dominant narrative modes; others more radically rejecting both character and story. Filmmakers who were interested in the structure of society without questioning the nature of the image itself would include Costa-Gavras, Gillo Pontecorvo and Francesco Rosi. These were all filmmakers of the sixties and seventies who generally looked not at individual struggle, but networks of power and resistance. In Rosi’s Salvatore Giuliano, the eponymous character is an absent presence as Rosi investigates landscape and locale to see why Sicilians would turn Giuliano into a hero. It is not Giuliano’s heroics that interest Rosi; more the social inequalities that turned him into a hero of the people. Later Rosi films like The Mattei Affair and Illustrious Corpses are more character focused, but again it is the social structure that fascinates.

In Costa-Gavras films, like Z and State of Siege, the Greek director offers a cinema of logistics that is consistent with a structuralist approach. Certainly some critics have seen his work as too close to any number of late seventies/early eighties films where journalistic and crusading figures pursue the truth – films like The China Syndrome, Under Fire, Silkwood and The Year of Living Dangerously all come to mind, as well as Costa Gavras’s own Missing, starring Jack Lemmon. But the late sixties Z is more analytically precise. This is less about the figure pursuing the truth, no matter Jean-Louis Trintignant’s judge’s crusade, as the lie – the social discourse that needs protecting – pursuing the figure. It lies in the way in which society takes out people whose perspective is at odds with the ruling elite. In this it bears similarities with Rosi’s Illustrious Corpses, and perhaps also Alan J. Pakula’s The Parallax View. Again, we don’t have a hero with a goal; more an inquiry without end, no matter if both Pakula and Rosi’s films do possess central characters.

Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers we could say has a goal but no hero: it is an exemplary piece of accessible political cinema as it details the birth of a nation. As it cuts from the Algerians fighting for national definition, and the French army determined to ferret out the freedom fighters, so the film examines the different perspectives to try to understand the dynamics behind each faction. In Pontecorvo’s following film, Burn, he possesses a central character, but Marlon Brando’s William Walker is hardly heroic. He is a colonial plunderer, playing games with various factions to maximise his own interests. Pontecorvo isn’t concerned though with Brando’s character, in Walker’s biography, so much as the way certain figures existed to exploit certain situations. Pontecorvo examines the colonial structures in which a character like Walker can become successful.

Generally the films mentioned have regarded the political as more important than the personal. In this sense they are consistent with a structuralist discourse insisting that the self is less significant than the structure with which he is contained. There is a fine scene in Illustrious Corpses where the central character is told that independently minded thinkers like Sartre are all very well but they misconstrue the nature of society: that it is not society that exists for the individual; but the individual who exists for society. This is couched as a conservative argument, while of course for thinkers like the Marxist Althusser might agree that society is also structured for the society over the individual, but want radically to change that society. Now when Robert Phillip Kolker mentions Burn in his book, The Altering Eye, and says that Burn, for example, is “a radical analysis of history contemporary as well as past,” but adds that it was “so apparently harmless a film that, in the late seventies, and with relatively few alterations, it was shown on American network television on a Saturday evening”, some might insist this proves how finally lacking in the radical such films happen to be.

What none of the above films manage to do is, in philosopher and film theorist Gilles Deleuze’s words, “lay into the signifier”, or, in Godard’s, illustrate the way “the sign forces us to see an object through its significance”. We will talk more about this in relation to semiotics, especially, but for our purposes here, Rosi, Pontecorvo and Costa-Gavras could be perceived as formally conservative filmmakers. They may question the centrality of the subject, but they don’t quite find an aesthetic form that offers new solutions in thought. For this purpose there were other filmmakers: Godard, the Straubs, Jancso and Glauber Rocha amongst them.

How did they lay into the signifier, to force the viewer to confront the sign rather than the object? In Godard’s case he did so by calling into question the images we see, so in La Chinoise, for example, Jean-Pierre Leaud’s character talks about the difficulty of combining Marxist-Leninist thought with revolutionary activity, and says there is a saying that it is like shooting at a target. At the same time we see him shooting an arrow at a target: as figurative language becomes literal and perhaps absurd. In Weekend, Godard offers a sociologically realistic scene of a housing estate, but also shows the characters losing their tempers and reversing their cars into each other. This would be an example of what structuralist commentators like Jakobson and Shklovsky would call ‘defamiliarization’. When the young boy shouts to his parents that the neighbours have damaged ‘the Dauphin’ – a particular make of car – what counts is not the violence, so much as the viewer’s awareness that this is a fictional image, no matter its representational realism. Would a young boy not usually say someone has hit the car rather than damaged the Dauphin? Is this Godard’s joke on a consumerism so virulent that it becomes part of a child’s basic vocabulary? As Godard once said, “it isn’t blood, it is red”. This is a filmmaker refusing to take what is shown for granted: that we need to interrogate cinema as a series of signs, not a barely transparent reality

Miklos Jansco was never formally confrontational in the way Godard happened to be, but he achieved an equal degree of distance through camera placement. Jancso’s films are famous for the length of their takes. Described as “analyses of oppression”, by critic Mari Kuttna in an article called ‘Hungarian Rhapsodies’, Jancso usually works in extremely long takes which bring out the idea that every aspect of our lives has a political dimension. Kuttna insists there are “no private acts”, in his work, “even in love, sex and family relationships, people respond to, or rebel against, the current social order.” In one scene in The Round-Up, a character tries to run away and Jancso films it with no sense of personal immediacy. The man runs but the camera stays where it is, and moments later the man is caught and walks back to the place where he ran from. Where most filmmakers would use close-ups to identify clearly the characters, and cut between the escapee and the soldiers, Jancso wants the oppressive aspect to be more present than the human one.

This is to some degree true of Glauber Rocha’s work as well, where in Antonio das Mortes he may use far more identificatory devices than Jansco, but he also works with an emotional distance as characterization is less important than myth and history. In the Straubs’ History Lessons, for much of the film the camera remains fixed as we witness a young man driving through the streets of Rome. The camera movements are dictated by the car’s, as we see through the windscreen events in contemporary Roman life. Whether mundane or fascinating, the camera’s position is unchanging, just as the sound must be direct, with no post-synching. What we see and hear is relatively un-manipulated, as the Straubs offer long takes of unedited footage. These scenes are interspersed with the driver in the present interviewing figures from Rome’s ancient past. The purpose is not to create character identification, but a comprehension of the political past and the political present.

In the late sixties a loosely structuralist theorist, Michel Foucault, announced the death of man, and central to this was how man is no longer the agent of his own existence, but  very much a figure interpellated into a world whose structures precede him and will probably outlast him. For some filmmakers to try and suggest options within this pessimistic perspective character must be eschewed, and aesthetic form and content examined.


©Tony McKibbin