Semiotics and Rhythm of film: Hollywoodian cinema compared to Cinema Novo.

Levi Merenciano

The purpose of this research is to investigate the semiotic structure of contemporary Hollywoodian cinema following a Greimassian approach. The distinction between content plane and expression plane (Greimas, 1979) is used to study the rhythm linked to kinematics expression-form and content-form (Hjelmslev, 1975). This study is inspired by the discussion of rhythm which is found in semiotics theory (Louis Hébert, 2011). The overall purpose of the thesis is trying to define types of film based on their plastic rhythm (expression plane) and their rhythm of content plane (according to the narrative semiotics of Greimas). Therefore it allows the comparing of types of cinema, for instance, Hollywoodian or mainstream movies, experimentalist films, documentaries, etc.

Discussing the production of meaning in mainstream movies (specifically, the Hollywoodian ones) is a task rarely found in the field of semiotic studies in Brazil. According to the point of view of Greimassian semiotics, meaning can be paraphrased either as production of meaning itself (immanently, in content plane), or as meaning produced within different cultural objects (books, movies, music, paintings, comics, etc.). In turn, kinematics related to the movies is studied as a global articulation of signifier units so that they can mean through the support of an expression plane.

As the signifier of the film has discontinuous features (those signifiers units are analyzed as frame, picture or photogram) and continuous ones at the same time – due to the illusion of reality the chaining of frames provides (Metz, 1972) – one can understand expression plane through the rhythm of its plastic kinematics expression. Related to the forms mentioned, it will be helpful to rely on concepts from the Saussurean sign theory (Saussure, 2006) regarding syntagmatic relations and associative relations (both axes of language are known as syntagma and paradigm, via Roman Jakobson). As the syntagmatic axis is organized by means of relations “in praesentia”, it consists of discontinuities and it is formed by actualized units; in turn, paradigmatic axis is the axis of the possibilities, concerning relations “in absentia”, therefore its meaning effects are made of virtual units.

In “Linguistics and poetics”, Jakobson (1995) discussed these linguistic axes. He proved that a paradigmatic axis can be projected onto the syntagmatic axis, in order to produce the specific effect of poetic function. In the case of cinema, it will be possible to use those concepts to identify this kind of effect on the progression of kinematics signifier units. In the case of those axes, it will make clear the possibility of having continuities and discontinuities in the film units, with absolute or relative value, depending on how the shots are linked (as signifier units) alongside the scenes (continuity cuts, long take, medium shot, close-up and so on).

With an approach inspired by Linguistics, Metz’s movie Semiotics proposes a kind of structural description of films, named “General table of the large syntagmatic category of the image-track”. He prepared a table illustrating types of autonomous segments (Metz, 1972, p. 142-157) that are incorporated into the global film as syntagmatic segments formed from the assembling of shots (chronological, achronological, narrative and descriptive syntagmas) or from continuity of long takes (autonomous shot). The distinction among them is important so that one can figure out how they form sequences in a movie (expression plane) and their function (content plane), in other words, whether the structure of a movie implies relations of narrativity or not, temporality or not, or just a description of a general space and characters.

According to the rhythm and linguistic axes concepts, it is necessary to observe the way they can project possibilities of paradigm (its meaning effects) over syntagmatic signifier units. For instance, long takes tend to build continuity and homogeneity (they are made of one shot), with an absolute value and a minimum rhythm (there is just one signifier unit). In turn, medium shots, close-up, etc. (in summa, framing, angle and movement) are types of shots with discontinuity within their syntagmatic chaining because the shots are limited by the cut and it generates discontinuity and heterogeneity among them, with an absolute value too. But even the discontinuity or continuity might be relativized, once there may be a relative value. For instance, continuity cut, jump cuts, cut in, etc, or overlapping shots tend to make flow appear as discontinuous. Therefore, linking one cut to another gives the discontinuity a relative value.

Since the syntagmatic axis is related to actual signifier units, the paradigmatic axis implies an association of virtual signifiers (in fact, the possibilities of units to be actualized) on the same axis point. In this case, the syntagmatic meaning process of a long take differs from shots, where there is a predominance of discontinuity, considering the types of framing, angle and movement assembled to form a scene. In case of a long take, there is a predominance of continuity, because this kind of take is long enough to assume the value of a scene.

It is important to note: alongside the projection of images, one by one, the film explores the possibilities of containing at one point of the syntagma other units which increase, paradigmatically, the possibilities of expressing meanings, and with this, the effects created by the connotative code (Barthes, 1986) associated to each picture as well. According to those effects, it will be possible to see them in the Brazilian movie São Paulo Sociedade Anônima (1965). It shows, at the beginning, the buildings in São Paulo downtown in the 1960s, in order to overlay three kinds of shots: extreme long shot, master shot in 360 degrees (arc angle) plus a low angle.

Figure 1: frame captured from São Paulo Sociedade Anônima
Figure 1: frame captured from São Paulo Sociedade Anônima

This juxtaposition (overlapping) generates a connotative (subjective) code, like someone metaphorically looking from down to top, lost among the buildings.

In order to describe the relation between the concepts described, as well as becoming more schematic so one can understand them, below there is a schema illustrating oppositions and effects from articulating syntagma vs. paradigma and continuity vs. discontinuity:

Schema 1: Schematic representation of articulated rhythmic terms.
Schema 1: Schematic representation of articulated rhythmic terms.

Succession or simultaneity states of significant units (shots) are related to types of rhythm generated around the syntagma and paradigm. The logical schema presented above therefore gives a synthetic and dynamic notion of how shots are combined: homo-shots or hetero-shots; homogeneous or heterogeneous. Its effects are articulated to continuity and discontinuity, with relative or absolute value. It is interesting to observe the dynamics of these relations, e.g., how they can be understood through effects of different rhythms.

A proposal for a semiotics of rhythm was presented by Louis Hébert (2011), in a paper entitled “Petite sémiotique du rythme”. He offers a description organizing rhythm by means of letters or numbers so they can indicate different units, juxtaposition of units or continuity of units (A + B + C; D / E; A1, A1, An). The letters are used to represent each significant unit (in this paper, the shots) and its variations (PG, PA, CL, PG, etc. = A + B + C + A …) [Plano geral (PG) = extreme wide shot; plano americano (PA) = american shot; close (CL) = close up]

The upper part (Succesive Rhythm – Syntagma) is focused on continuous and discontinuous absolute (absolute effect is required since the syntagma terms must be actualized, in other words, the need for significant units chaining is absolute in the expression plane).

The bottom part (Associative Rhythm – Paradigm) focuses on continuous and discontinuous, because the latent virtualization of paradigm projects meaning effects over the syntagmatic chaining. This specific projection of paradigm over syntagma approaches the mechanism through which Roman Jakobson describes poetic function on language.

Those articulations can be explained as follows by means of the four regions of the schema:

– Upper left corner: Syntagma + discontinuity = discontinuous absolute (predominant plastic accelerated rhythm): in action movies the accelerated rhythm is common as there are many syntagmas constructed by means of short shots, alternating the types of framing, movement and angles. As the shots tend to diversify, their rhythm is given by the standard (A + B + C …) .

– Upper right corner: Syntagma + continuity = continuous absolute (predominant plastic minimum rhythm): in films with many long takes there are less cuts and, therefore, a minimum plastic rhythm. Hitchcock did this experience of absolute continuity in Rope (1948). As this pattern involves predominantly long takes, the rhythm is given as follows (A1, A2, An; B1, B2, Bn) – the comma indicates continuity and “n” represents repetition of a long take standard.

– Bottom left corner: Paradigm + discontinuity = discontinuous relative (predominant plastic medium rhythm): both continuity cuts and overlapping shots are part of a composition of signifier units (combination of framing, angle and movement or countershot, cut in, etc.), for instance, São Paulo Sociedade Anônima (figure 1). Although it is an hetero-shot, its discontinuity is relative, because its standard allows the juxtaposition of more than one shot at some point or the continuity between them (A + B / C + D ) – the slash bar indicates two shots cohabiting the same syntagmatic point.

– Bottom right corner: Paradigm + continuity = continuous relative (predominant plastic soft rhythm): in this case, long take suffers an effect though which paradigmatic possibilities juxtaposes some effect or image, without confusing the continuity of the long take. In a sequence of São Paulo Sociedade Anônima, there is an inclusion of an image of another character, without compromising the sequence. Its rhythm pattern is (A1, A2 / B, An).

This type of analysis will now be applied to two movies in order to compare the different rhythms, since they are from different contexts. São Paulo Sociedade Anônima (1965 ) is representative of the Brazilian Cinema Novo and Pirates of the Caribbean (2006 ) is a typical Hollywoodian movie. First, it is necessary to present the corpus.

The corpus is building from the all time cinema-tickets rankings that have been published online on Box Office Mojo . Two movies were chosen for semiotic analysis. One of them is part of the most viewed movies of all time, Pirates of the Caribbean – Dead´s man chest (Verbinski, 2006). The other one is São Paulo Sociedade Anônima, a Brazilian movie pertaining to the Brazilian “Cinema Novo” phase, directed by Luiz Sérgio Person (1965). On the one hand, the link above reflects the most viewed nowadays. On the other hand, the list that is being showed below was captured from the internet (same previous link) on December 26th 2012. It refers to the closure date of our corpus (the last research made), which covers the period from 2001 to 2010 international box office and indicates Pirates of the Caribbean as one of the most viewed according to box office (cinema-tickets). Amongst the top ten below, four movies belong to the first decade of the new century mainstream movies (boxes in red), from 2001 to 2010:

Table 1: Top ten most viewed movies according to cinema-tickets.
Table 1: Top ten most viewed movies according to cinema-tickets.

Fonte: Access on December 26th, 2012


Movie: São Paulo Sociedade Anônima (1965) – 3 segments.

Segment 1: Couple arguing.

NU [A Narrative Program (NP) is formed by a Narrative Utterance (NU) that rules utterance of state and utterance of doing, resulting in narrative progression] : (Narrative utterance: S1 wants to break up with S2 (there seems to be a mutual agreement for this first part of the narrative, because apparently both want to split).
Autonomous shot (AS)

zdj_cie 1

Long take representing connotatively someone looking through the glass, especially the muffled sound effect at distance (the glass reflects the atmosphere of the city into the environment, overriding the internal environment.). Inside, on the left of the frame, there is an object with the outline of a cross. This metaphorical meaning of this object as well as the couple on the left, indicates negative values (according Christian symbolism).

Segment 2: Description of the city and passersby. The Achronological syntagma describes the theme of everyday life.

zdj_cie 2

GPG = wide extreme shot; PG = wide shot; CCP = low angle; PM = master shot; PAN = pan; PC = two shot

It presents the urban environment, external. The beginning – as mentioned several times throughout the article – is given by means of overlapping shots, producing an effect of dizziness and smallness from a possible spectator point of view, among the buildings of the city.

Segment 3: couple moving apart.

NU: S1 and S2 must separate. Note the use of many camera technique resources, alternating from high to low angles and medium shot. In general, the narrative program sets the need for breaking up. For instance, NP in which the characters are not in conjunction. This last segment shows, finally, the renunciation of love, since it closes the first NP attesting that process.

Chronological Narrative Syntagma

zdj_cie 3


CP = high angle; PZ = high angle 90 degrees; CS = point of view; PP = medium close up; PM = medium shot; CM = handheld shot; RE = counter-shot; OS = over-the-shoulder.

There is a succession of shots constructing a connotative meaning. When the guy speaks while walking down the street, the girl responds from the apartment. Those monologues assembled create an effect of dialogues by alternating frames in conjunction with the use of movement and different camera angles. This third segment is a chronological narrative syntagma. The NP indicates an action of the subjects (S1 and S2) giving a quick narrative rhythm (content plane), because the beginning shows the state of a relationship and after the disjunction of this state by the action of breaking up.

Movie: Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest (2006) – 2 segments

Segment 1: obstacle of marriage.
NU (S1 wants to marry, but can not do that).

Chronological narrative Syntagma

zdj_cie 4

PD = extreme close up; G = tilt; STD = steady-cam; STA = stablishing shot

Syntagma with alternating shots, in which two phases can be seen: a marriage to be performed and, on the other hand, the impossibility of it, because of the troop about to arrive in order to prevent the marriage.

Segment 2: EN (NU: S1 must not to marry S2).
The couple Swann and Turner is compelled by intimidation not to marry.

Chronological narrative syntagma.

zdj_cie 5

The enemy East India Company imposes a penalty in which Turner and Swann are condemned for having helped the pirate Jack Sparrow. Unlike São Paulo, in Pirates the narrative rhythm increases as the plastic rhythm is constant. In São Paulo both the narrative and plastic (expression) rhythm increases in the same direction. This is important, when one intends to observe the way a movie builds its first sequence as this will be predominant along it.


We first presented the need to study mainstream cinema from a linguistic point of view (signifier, meaning, syntagma, paradigm, connotation, continuity, discontinuity) and through semiotic concepts (content plane, expression plane and rhythm). Given the need to understand different films, it was thought that the best approach consisted of conceiving the film through meaningful units and offering a cut through sequences, segments, syntagmas and shots. By elucidating the organization of the signifier units, one can observe specific rhythms within narrative content and expression.

São Paulo contains shots with continuous and discontinuous effects. Initially, it presents an autonomous shot, then an achronological syntagma and ends with a chronological syntagma, seeking to increase the narrative rhythm. In the same way, its expression rhythm tends to follow the increasing of narrativity, once initiated with a long take (minimum expression rhythm) and the next two segments made of discontinuous absolute and relative (continuity cuts, overlapping shots and framing and angle shots). Thus, São Paulo produces effects around hetero-shots homogeneous (mostly) and heterogeneous (occasionally). Pirates varies less the discontinuity linked to certain shots. In turn, its two segments are made of chronological syntagmas. The expression rhythm is as constant as the narrative (content) rhythm.


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