Ferdinand de Sauserre and Charles Saunders Pierce are considered as the founders of a new idea called Semiology and Semiotics is a commonly known term to describe both Sauserrean as well as the Piercean approach to analyze anything in the media from newspapers to movies. Semiotic analysis was first described in the book “Course in General Linguistics”. ‘Semiotics is one media whereas content analysis is another media research…’ (Saussure, 1915, 1974). Saussure laid the foundation for the idea of Semiology (also know as semiotics, especially in the USA).
It was he who coined the term Semiology (which was derived from the Greek word of ‘sign’) to describe a new science which he saw as ‘a science which studies the life of signs at the heart of social life’, (Saussure (1971 (p. 33))). This new science, he said would teach ‘what signs consist of, what laws govern them’. In his book, “Media Analysis Techniques”, author Arthur Asa Berger states, “Semiology is the science of signs” (14). He describes that there are three types of signs – a) the icon b) an index and c) a symbol. The icon is arbitrary.
An example of icon could be a picture or painting or possibly a piece of material as people can see these things. An index could be the distinct feature about a person or a thing, for instance a man with a white streak of hair. This would be an index as it allows people to figure something distinct about the man. And a symbol could be a word and must learn to analyze symbols. This essay will explain a semiotic analysis of Alfred Hitchcock’s movie Psycho, which, would be a perfect example of how semiotic analysis can be used in film criticism.
This movie has many signs that may have different meanings starting from the music to the location of the hotel in the movie. The storyline of this movie describes a young woman who steals $40,000 from her employer’s client and goes on a personal odyssey towards terror when she meets a disturbed young hotel proprietor (Norman Bates), who is psychologically subjugated by his mother. Patrick McGilligan (2003) wrote that the character Bates was based on Wisconsin serial killer Ed Gein, who may have had an incestuous relationship with his mother. (McGilligan, 2003, Page 579)
The biggest signifier in this film is cash. Money is the initial drive that drives the main character, banker Marion Crane, towards her own destruction. What is also significant is the power that money and greed has over people, and how one pays price for succumbing to its powers. Marion’s death could have been avoided if at all she had just deposited the money. In this case the use of money serves as an icon. The money symbolizes greed and ultimately death. It is also ironic that though the story of this film revolves around money, the total budget of the movie itself was only $800,000.
The music in this movie is the most noteworthy of all symbols. According to Louis Giannetti in his book “Understanding Movies”, “Semiotic critics should look at the movies tone when performing their analysis of a film. A movie’s tone refers to its manner of presentation, the general atmosphere that a filmmaker creates through his or her attitude toward the dramatic materials. Music is used to establish tone”. The music, or score (soundtrack) plays a major role in a film. The music in a film can portray many things about the film.
The music in a film sets the stage for what might happen or what is already going on. According to “The Grammar of TV and Film”, “Music helps to establish a sense of pace of the accompanying scene. The rhythm of music usually dictates the rhythm of the cuts. The emotional colouring of the music also reinforces the mood of the scene. Background music is a synchronous music which accompanies a file”. For instance, let’s consider the famous scene of this movie – the shower or death scene. In this scene, Norman kills Marion while she is in the shower.
This scene is considered to be the most influential scenes in the history of film industry. But what is significant in this scene is the Music that is being played. The score director of the film, Bernard Herrmann, came up with a brilliant array of shrieking violins that played during the murder scene. The fast paced violins were perfect for the scene as it ran a chill through the audience. It was Herrmann who wanted to do the score by using all violin strings for the music, though Hitchcock actually wanted the shower scene to be with no music at all.
His change of mind later added a great value to the movie. Normally in many scary movies the main purpose of the music is to scare the audience so that they jump from their seat. But in Psycho, Hitchcock and Herrmann wanted to leave the audience with a feeling of anticipation. They wanted the audience to expect more. One other thing to notice in the movie is that the music is repetitive. This draws the audience into the scene and makes one anxious about what might come next. The music in Psycho is well used to bring about anticipation and to keep the audience on their seats glued and guessing.
In this film, especially in the shower scene, the music serves as an index. The music acts as a casual connection to death. The music is so symbolic that when audiences hear the shrieking violins, they come to know what follows. This movie also has other signs such as the birds. Though birds do not play a significant role in this movie, still the arbitrary use of birds is very prevalent. For instance, the opening shot of the movie begins with an aerial view with the camera panning from left to right as if a bird is flying and then the camera descends to a window and stops at a window pane just as a bird lands.
The characters are also arbitrarily related to birds. The main character’s name – Marion Crane is definitely directed towards the bird. It can also be noted that the Psycho character, Norman Bates is very much bird like in his features, his actions and the way he moves around. He has very strong facial features especially his nose which is long and pointed just as the beak of a bird. Marion is also been watched by Norman while she is in shower just as a bird would watch or stalk its prey.
Another interesting aspect of the movie is that, Norman stuffs birds as a hobby. He has them hanging up in his back office. All of these make Birds as an index in this movie, even though they never have actual birds in the movie. To conclude, Semiotics plays an important role not only in movies but also in everyday life. Though one may not realize that they are studying the signs and trying to figure them out, unconsciously, they do. When someone sees something, they try to make meaning of what they see.
And even though they might not give them a direct answer to what it is or what it may be, they use semiotics to try and figure it out. Psycho, as stated earlier, is a great example of how one can study signs and how effectively one can apply semiotic analysis to film criticism. The arbitrary meaning, that Hitchcock puts into the movie are nothing short of genius. So, one should remember that while watching a moving or an advertisement, one should try to look a little deeper than just the surface of the materials that are being shown. Everything has a meaning; one just has to figure it out.