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    semiotic analysis of Belarusian TV film “Litva”: narratives of decline

    | 2006-06-05 | 20:38
    temos: VMS

    We are starting to publish texts which were produced on the first session of Vilnius Media Seminar (VMS). It was held on 2nd of June (2006) in Vilnius. The topic was “Lithuania through the eyes of Belarusian media: a case study of TV film “Litva”. We had the screening of the film and 5 main presentations from different theoretical frameworks. Here we are publishing the analysis of the film from semiotics perspective.

    While analyzing social and cultural texts semiotics as its main goal sets the description of conditions where meaning is constructed and understood. Semiotics analyses the process of semiosis – the process of birth of the meaning, so the basic semiotic question is: how the meaning comes to be? Understanding a text as immanent and integral entirety of meaning, semiotics rejects to compare it with “external reality” or to reveal its veridictional relations with reality facts. It doesn’t mean that semiotic analysis tries to ignore cultural and social pre-knowledge (so called cultural net), but rather that semiotics explores how a text constructs its own reality, and not what external facts can say about the text.

    Principle of so called immanency is closely related with the term of structure: in semiotics every text is understood as a meaning structure, which in turn is constructed from smaller structures of meaning. The elementary meaning structure in semiotics is the existence of two terms and relation between them, which could be described as relatiorusian-tv-film-%e2%80%9clitva%e2%80%9d-narratives-n of similarity or relation of dissimilarity-difference. So the main procedure semiotics tends to use in analyzing texts is a statement of differences between elements of meaning and evaluation of their value.

    Hence, in following semiotic analysis of TV film “Litva” I will try shortly to define the core meaning structures, which come up in this film and conditions in which they appear (i.e. film rhetoric, problem of selection, etc.). In searching for meaning structures we have first gradually to divide text into smallest units and later to find what links these units to each other, that is, to construct the text to entire whole again.

    The whole film is explicitly divided into two hierarchically arranged parts: the first one, represented as prologue, is a short introductory cinema style story about “zeppelins”, and the second, represented as film, is a documentary presentation of Lithuania and its social, economical, and political situation. The first part here can be seen as peripheral, since it is introduced as prolog, that is as an introductory comment, as something that comes yet before the text; the second part in turn here functions as the main one or actually as the very film itself, since the name of the film “Litva” comes only after the introductory story and right before the second part. The hierarchy and structural relation established between these two parts links here to the analogical hierarchy between meaning structures of the parts and proposes us a strategy of a text reading.

    The first part – a prologue – can be divided also into two parts, which are related here in some type of hierarchy: in the first part we see some train-passengers playing word game in a train compartment, the second part shows up as a black and white memory scene, told by one of the train passengers. In visual level we see the first part as wrapping and the second part as wrapped, as putted inside the first one, i.e. as a narrative inside the narrative. In auditive level we can find three parts, two of which correlate with appropriate visual parts and the third one – the voice of beyond-screen narrator – partly overlaps with chit-chat of movie characters and also blurs the boundaries between the train story and the pilot memories.

    In analyzing the prologue we can distinguish several figures which will be meaningful for the analysis of the whole film. In semiotics a term figure is used to define a relatively determined and during reading process recognized element, which can be expressed in different ways and by different codes (visual, auditive, verbal etc.), but which has some more or less stable meaning – thematic value. Figures in their turn are supplemented by other paradigmatic figures and thus form a figurative path or isotopy. Here, in prologue, we find a figure of journey or trip, which is expressed both in visual and auditive level. Travel by train is accompanied by nostalgic travel to the past, i.e. by the memories of the pilot. On the other hand, voice of the film narrator introduces the whole film and even the whole series “Piatnacat” – “Fifteen” as a journey in time around the former soviet republics, the next stop of which is supposed to be Lithuania.

    The second important figure, which is closely related with journey figure, is some kind of nostalgia, coming from pilot’s memories scene with its black-and-whiteness, cinematic style and romantic Strauss waltz. This nostalgia here is established by opposition between two elements of meaning, between now vs. then, today vs. before, or past vs. present. Although this elementary structure of meaning past vs. present in the prologue is expressed mostly by visual elements, i.e. by strict difference between present-shots and past-shots, in the upcoming part of the film it outspreads into entire isotopies and become an important part of the whole structure of the film.     

    What else is important here, that the prologue establishes an interrelation between ‘we’ and ‘they’, that is between beyond-screen film narrator, who stands for collective ‘we’, i.e. for Belarusian nation, and between ‘they’, performers of the text, Lithuanians or Lithuania. The interrelation, which is based on similar potato dishes, common love for some famous Lithuanian actors, and close geographical location, in its turn forms a new collective ‘we’, which includes both nations/countries (consider the phrase: “In this point we are still closest relatives”). The figure of relationship is explicit here also in the prologue narrative: the train passenger-pilot travels in time to remember how once he ate zeppelins at his Lithuanian relative (mother-in-law). This establishment of relationship is important here not because of its further development, but rather because of its undevelopment in the second part of film, of implicitly stress on difference, not on relation.     

    So prologue introduces not only the film itself, thus working here as TV program trailer or announcement, it also provides us with several basic meaning structures and isotopies, which reveal later in the main part of the film.

    The second part of the film also begins with a journey (as it was promised in the prologue): the physical journey from Belarusian SSR to Lithuanian SSR (expressed in visual level) is followed by journey in time: film narrator travels round Lithuania in past Soviet times and after that comes to present times. The second part of the film in opposite to the prologue is constructed as a TV documentary or we can say even as a drawn-out news reportage: it is composed of story telling beyond-screen narrator’s voice, which is accompanied by music in auditive level and by some illustrative views in visual level. The voice of the main narrator is in turn interrupted by other narrators, i.e. talking heads, which supplement words of the main narrator. There exists also a third type of narrator in here, let’s say a kind of reporter from a “hot point”, standing in front of narrative view. This reporter that appears several times during the film reestablishes the relation between narrator and listener or semiotically speaking once more puts a stress on the situation of telling or enounciation. Similar function of reestablishing also all colophons or let say film logos, which interrupt film from time to time, have: colophon here reestablish interrelation between film and its viewer and also between TV channel and its viewer, thus providing a definitive meaning for that, what the viewer is looking. This structure of course is typical of the whole TV genre and in this film as in most of TV cases works as a strategy of persuasion.

    Coming back to past vs. present figures we have encountered already in the prologue, in the main part of the film we see them widening and developing into entire isotopies, supplemented by other figures. Past links here to a quit indefinite time period, which could be called soviet times, whereas present clearly starts at the point of restitution of independence. The starting point of present is marked also in let’s say grammatical level of language: the use of presence tense in beyond-screen narrator’s speech creates an intensive, although factitious here-and-now atmosphere. At this point of narrative we for the first and for the last time in the film see Lithuania introduced as tourist place (among other Baltic states) – by some postcard type city views, related with words about “identity parade”. We can say, that due to narrative the after-prologian film part in its turn also splits into two parts, the first one of which is marked by past isotopy, and the second one, much longer by its duration and more complex, is dominated by isotopy of present.

    As Lithuanian past is defined by figure we could call like in cinema (which, by the way, correlates with cinema type prologue scenes) that has a seme of ideality, of dream, the second member of opposition – present – during the whole film is constructed as an opposite of cinema figure, i.e. reality (and it correlates with documentary style of the main part of the whole film), which has seme of hardness. The construct of the hard present is created not so much by verbal or visual rhetoric as such, but rather by entire assortment of smaller narratives, which all present some kind of misfortune or decline: Lithuanian economics suffers a lack of labour force, Lithuanians complain because of too high living expenses and insufficient salaries, students protest about low quality education, Lithuanian agriculture and technological industry experience a recession, EU tortures Lithuania with different requirements, Lithuanians are socially and politically inactive, country is regularly shaken by political scandals, and finally with threatening coming of euro, question of destiny of Lithuanian identity (nation, culture and language) comes up. All these smaller misfortune or let’s say failure figures form a whole decline isotopy. Since decline can not appear if it wasn’t preceded by rise or at least stableness, decline meaning tendentiously reveals here as an opposition to the rising or development, which was presented in the beginning of the main part of film as a thematic value of the past figure. While past Lithuania is seen as standing in first ranks (“Lithuanian social economical development started to have sharp lead according to many indexes”), present Lithuania appears as standing 25 or even 50 years behind other EU countries.

    After reconstructing meaning structure past as welfare, as rising and development vs. present as failure and decline we can also state that in this let’s say time and development curve some medium point must exist: i.e. some summit/top point that would be neither rise, neither decline or rise and decline together. As it was already mentioned before, such complex or medium thematic value can be prescribed to the time figure restitution of independence or better leaving USSR (as it is stated in the film): this time figure stands between past and present and also outspreads as a point of ultimate rising (“Lithuania overtakes other republics also in political stage. It becomes the first who declares seceding USSR”) and the first point of decline (“Deficit, recession in production, inflation and unemployment”).

    Farther semiotic analysis seeks to reveal narrative programmes, i.e. relations between subjects of text action and objects of value they are seeking for, and between subjects and its destinateurs or addressers. But it could be stopped also here, satisfied with basic figures with their thematic value and figurative paths they form, which we have revealed till now: we can partly conclude, that the film is based on strategy of dystopia, by which it presents the most important in the film space figure (which from time to time appears also as a collective performer) Lithuania as having thematic value of misfortune and unstableness.

    temos: VMS |

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