This paper will give a semiotic survey of the film ‘Titanic’ directed by James Cameron. Media Semiotics will be the approach in studying features of communication. Although it has been one of the most profound movies of the century with big expenditure, it has also caught eyes of many on how it encodes contemporary ideas and virtues. There is a scarcity of information about research analysis on media semiotics and this drives my enthusiasm to do a research on this film ‘Titanic’ and bring out ideologies in the field of Semiotics.
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To conduct this research a brief background of the media semiotics field will be described below. By the end of this survey one must be able to understand farther that Semiotics is not a field that only shows the arbitrary features of communication but it also touches on provenance of different themes in pieces of work and lives of people. This paper has a relevant approach on the movie “Titanic” which uses sign systems and modes to bring outstanding cultural and psychological aspects like virtue but most importantly I believe these signs show the power of love in dire situations.
Key Words: signifier, signified, symbol, signs, icon, code, denotate, and connotate.
Media semiotics is the main approach in tackling the values in the movie ‘Titanic’. So, it is important to be kept abreast about the building blocks of Media semiotics in describing and analyzing different works. In communication theory as it is related to semiotics, one may use the defining word of semiotics ‘signifying orders’ to bring the aspect of code. Codes are used in different settings to connote different cultures as seen in the movie. In order to bring reason while using signs, there are several elements that relate. A signifier or an object shows the meaning and the signified the meaning read from the signifier. Thus, it gives forth to signification.
Messages from the signifier moves to the audience like the mechanism employed in SMRC communication module. This module works under the principle of sending signifying messages from a source, with intended content that passes through a definite channel and has effect on the receiver by a signal of either sound or light (Danesi, 21). Griffin puts it that it is a field that is ‘concerned with anything that can stand for something else’ (110). Thus the idea of icon and index pops up as described by Danesi in Media Semiotics. “An icon is a sign that resembles its reference in some way… portrays of people are visual icons … ‘bang’ … is designed to replicate sounds” (Danesi, 40).
Ferdinand de Saussure is noted by Danesi that his view on the use of signifier and the signified brings a deeper sense of difference and similarity between the two objects, where feedback is essential to complete sending of message to the audience (23). Thus, Peirce practically employs words such as iconic, indexical, and symbol to discuss about emotions produced from communication by signs and symbols. In Berger’s works he quotes how Peirce defines signs. That is, “signs are related to objects by resembling them, being causally connected to them, or being conventionally tied to them” (Berger, 12). “He used the term iconic for resemblance, indexical for causal connection, and symbol for conventional association” (Berger, 12).
Thus, a code is a vehicle that shows the collective nature of signs that bring home an intended meaning. We can see clearly a relationship between signifier and the signified in the essence of interrelated codes, icons, indexes and signs to bring the idea of metaphors. In media, messages are metaphorically addressed and this needs a process to decode their meanings to avoid confusion. In media semiotics, Danesi employs Aristotle’s approach of signification using signifier and signified to bring denotation or connotation. For example, sign is divided as a physical part, an object that refers to something and its ability to practically bring forth psychological and social emotions. Therefore Danesi notes that connotation is “powerful because it evokes feelings and perceptions about things” (34).
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Contemporary ideas and virtue in “Titanic”
The movie version is adapted from of a novel. In its two parts, we capture the indexes, icons and codes that are connotated and denotated in the movie. These fundamental fabrics of signs and signifying orders brings to the audience several virtues and ideas. Media semiotics uses the cultural perspective in the essence of anthropology which explains different elements like the signifier and signified. The channel or medium is the visual arts using technology of photography and graphic design. A medium or channel as defined by Danesi means “it’s a means of recording ideas on some surface” that can be in real form or “actualized” (2). Therefore, the properties of symbols are used fundamentally “to establish characteristics and conceptual boundaries or identities of human groups” (Drummond 42). Hence, these symbols create culture and virtue of people.
The movie “Titanic” heavily employs the aspect of ‘signs’ which is described by Danesi as a foremost tool that correlates pictures, characters and sound to give a conspicuous view of a certain premise (3). The movie director had to employ rare talent in engineering the scene of a real Titanic ship sinking. To bring out the real environment like vastness of the sea, deep blue sky, and close-up love scenes, careful lighting and deep color graphics was used by Cameron. The director’s cut shows pictures from different angles. The mechanical motion in the film correlates with slide movement of passengers and the demise of the ship. The tragedy of the ship is hence brought clearly by picture. Another significant ‘sign’ approach is the sound track system and cinematography approach. The soothing sound track of Celine Dion ‘My Heart Will Go On’ captures the audience and brings the desired mood of events. Hence, it creates stunning peaceful, romantic, and chaotic moments to the audience.
James Cameron captures various indexes that bring the idea of symbolic meaning. “An index is a sign that stands for, or points out, something to something else” (Danesi 40). The indexes give a relative location in dealing with abstract objects. Fro example, the gigantic facade of the ship at the harbor literally dwarfs an enthusiastic crowd. This index points out the great dreams and overwhelming voyage expedition the passengers are going to experience. The index virtually infers tragedy. The much anticipated dreams turn sour when the shipwreck claims a colossal number of lives.
Finally, codes and symbols are used to illustrate metaphorically the overall theme in the film. Jack and Rose meet in the most extraordinary sea vessel that shows classes of people. Jack is metaphorically symbolized as a common ambitious man with little money. While Rose, iconic to be a sweet smelling flower, comes from a tycoon family. The contrast from a semiotic point of view shows the contextual evidence of how people break from cultural ties. Rose is only allowed to mingle with first class members in the ship. These first class people are able to book affluently furnished rooms in the upper part of the ship, wear authentic clothes of class and speak first class language. They have a lot of pride that differs with the notion presented in the code of ethics of being first class. This is a signifier that sends a different meaning.
Jack symbolizes the lower class, and denotes the opposites of the first class people. Metaphorically he is able to converse in first class language, sneak away with Rose, forget their difference and meet the natural force of the sea which affects all class of people in the ship. We clearly see, the dance in the lower class how it connotes the signified. The main sign or message send to the audience is the ability to break free from cultural classes. Thus, feelings and emotions are evoked here as the main principal of connotation. There is pity and change of several mood levels as events unfold until when Jack dies because of love. Or did he not?
Baker gives a very impressive analysis of symbols of “masculine self nature” in Jack’s aspect of losing his life. The signified message is driven by love (98). The virtue of sacrifice and cultural idleness of women is maintained in the movie. A pragmatic concept is realized when Molly a historic icon of impotence, is showcased. The sign system and modes that illustrate cultural and psychological brings the power of love by the soundtrack. This power of love is a signifier that signifies the responsibility of romance from incompetent masculine selfhood. Therefore, the cultures are the signifiers, signified and signs. The sacrifices symbolized, for example, bold steps of Jack and Rose to go beyond their social boundaries are only symbols that show the virtue of esteem and magnetism of romance. However, various human weaknesses are evident in a deeper code.
The rubrics of media semiotics as shown above have explicitly shown contemporary virtues. These virtues include, defying social class, love and sacrifice, masculinity of selfhood and the original cultural place of women and children. In conclusion, the movie “Titanic” uses sign system and modes to bring outstanding cultural and psychological aspects like virtue but most importantly I believe these signs show the power of love in dire situations.
Baker, Martin, and Austin, Thomas. From Antz to Titanic: Reinventing Film Analysis. London: Pluto Press, 2000. Print.
Berger, Arthur Asa. Signs in Contemporary Culture: An Introduction in Semeiotics. New York, NY: Longman, 1984. Print.
Danesi, Marcel. Understanding Media Semiotics. New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 2002. Print.
Drummond, Lee. American Dreamtime: A Cultural Analysis of Popular Movies, and Their Implications for a Science of Humanity. Maryland, Lanham: Littlefield Adams Books, 1996. Print.
Griffin, Em. A First look at Communication Theory. New York, NY: McGraw Hill, 1997. Print.