A Case for the Existence of Film Language

Film communicates. Beyond grand stories and identifiable characters, lies a sentimental connection between a spectator and their favourite film; whether it is the writer’s sensibility, the director’s sensitivity, or the hundreds of other artisans that lend their energy towards producing a film, it is the finished work itself that speaks to a viewer. The spectator personifies films, feeling affection for the one that involved them, or contempt for the one that offended sensibilities. Approaching films in such a way (especially for those who profess to love cinema and its history) denotes an undeniable relationship between audience and demonstration, even allowing the demonstrations to become intelligent forces in their own right. While not alive or sentient, a film can be a collection of sentiments, ideas, and languages that transcend our awareness of their inanimate state and successfully communicate with us. Cognitive theory examines how one receives sensory and communicative data through film, and challenges the sociological tropes that dictate how we experience, internalize, and express language in general. By first exploring the nature of biological perception with the research of professor Stephen Prince, and then observing theorist David Bordwell’s critique of cognitive and “Grand” theory throughout the history of film studies, I will provide a case for the existence of film language. To present further detail, the philosophy of David Hume and Stephen Hall’s cultural studies will also be addressed. David Lynch’s Inland Empire (2006), a contemporary surrealist film, will be used as a filmic example to provide praxis for the various competing theories. Film is a communicative entity that, through refinement, has grown to implement a specific grammar expressed through its formal conventions (i.e. framing, editing, and sound) and is thus cognized by its viewers; film has its own language.

Any object that is observed is in turn cognized; when one perceives a physical substance or phenomena, the incoming sense data is then ordered. To perceive a baseball hurtling through the air provokes one to assume that it started its journey from the hand of the thrower, encourages one to find similarities with tennis, reminds one of their childhood little league… 1700’s Philosopher David Hume was most concerned with these formulations (what he called ideas), and impressions derived through the senses; “The most lively thought is still inferior to the dullest sensation” (26). Hume investigated the “origin” of our ideas and was militantly empirical, asserting that all thought and experience was based on first-hand experience. Association is a crucial facet of perception and cognition; that is, linking a perceived phenomenon with other similar experiences is a passive function of consciousness. The objects themselves that we experience are full of codes enriched and complicated by an ever growing repertoire of empirical experience. My coffee mug is in fact composed of my acquired concepts of porcelain, smoothness, roundness, and with further association: heat, liquid, and the incident my handle broke and scalded my arm years ago. Hume elaborates, “to me, there appear to be only three principles of connection among ideas, namely, Resemblance, Contiguity in time or place, and Cause or Effect.” (32). Impartial physical noumena automatically become ordered, contextualized, and coded in the conscious mind – in other words, one lacks the control to experience objects without understanding them as a collection of other acquired concepts.

Stephen Prince establishes objects free of other discursive associations (objects in and of themselves) as icons. While we perceive icons, they remain iconic insofar as they represent only their own nature. An icon can be viewed as the raw and unvarnished representation of the object itself, its existence writ large. Symbols, for Prince, are perceived objects that have acquired a cultural association with other phenomena; a bird can be an icon for flight, but a symbol of freedom (88). It is cinema’s proliferation of the symbolic elements of the image, or “linguistic modes of communication”, that Prince disapproves of (88). Prince still notes that the iconic and mimetic nature of the film image is still a form of communication, except that such a mode of communication can be achieved without a filmic grammar or textual explication; “(Prince) does not argue against the role of cultural analysis in film interpretation, but… does attempt to suggest some reasons for caution when employing linguistic categories and models of cultural relativism in film analysis.” (88). Critical appreciation of symbols in film cast aside the original iconic objects of the image – the latter of which termed as arbitrary signs. This preference was born from a desire to build cohesive theories, operating within a consistent film grammar across the scope of all cinema; in a sense, building a film language (Prince 89). “Thus film, like language, could be comprehensible as discourse, as the creation of apparent meaning where only true relations of difference prevail.” (Prince 89). Prince argues that approaching film as a purely textual experience is merely reinforcing pre-established cultural ideologies, but presenting them in a deceptively “real” fashion (the physical world of the film adheres to ideology from the ground up) (90). Prince summarizes the theorist’s film experience as “a matter of historical or cultural coding and convention, that is, that filmic representation is a matter of symbolic rather than iconic coding and that a viewer, rather than perceiving a film, ‘reads’ it.” (91).

Beyond film language exists the Whorf-Sapir hypothesis, an influential premise that states all perceptual experience is defined by one’s understanding of language; “it is a relativistic view because it argues against the possibility of semantic or perceptual universals.” (Prince 92). What Princes means by this is that such a premise posits that the reality we perceive holds no true or reliable form for us, and that in turn we could have a measure of control over the phenomenon we perceive. In response, Prince provides scientific data that supports a universal similarity in perceived objects for all viewers across a spectrum of different languages and cultural upbringings. The goal of the research is to assert that sense data is not fundamentally altered by one’s cultural upbringing (Prince 96 – 100). Further, when viewing images and events in film, Prince argues that it is the narrative context that makes sense of the visual data (rather than an underlying film grammar that clarifies events with camera movement, pacing, and the like) (95). I agree that a film grammar can conceivably be constricting; a certain cinematic device frequently used is the high angle shot. According to the assertion that there exists a consistent film grammar, the high angle shot will always imply dominance – a cliché that restricts the audience and filmmakers from attaching other intentions or meanings to high angle shots. Do all high angle shots equate to an implication of dominance? It would be aesthetically limiting to assume so. Yet to abandon such grammatical tropes in film would yield a lack of intention on behalf of the filmmaker, and therefore a lack of purpose and design in the overall shot. Inland Empire distorts and abandons its loose narrative context in the middle acts of the film, but we are still presented with a consistent filmic world that continues throughout. While the film’s narrative rhetoric is constantly being discombobulated, there remains a film language that speaks to us, maintaining a feeling of approaching menace with dismal lighting, invasive cameras, and threatening music. The adjectives used to describe such filmic functions are evidence of film language – While certain conventions are the results of cultural coding, there can also exist universal symbols along with icons. We are biologically inclined to interpret the artist’s abstract formation of a shot as much as we are able to recognize the icons in it.

Interpreting these abstracts, however, begs the question: how does one know that they are responding to them in the correct way? David Bordwell divides film cognition into two activities; comprehension and interpretation (3). “Comprehension and interpretation thus involve the construction of meaning out of textual cues. In this respect, making-meaning is a psychological and social activity fundamentally akin to other cognitive processes.” (Bordwell 3). To comprehend film language, one can employ tried and true theories (much to the chagrin of Prince and later Bordwell as we shall see) that allow them to notice recurring and culturally poignant details that are flagged across the film’s design (Bordwell 4). Yet still, how does one designate between comprehension (the obvious and intentional cues of the filmmaker) and interpretation (the abstract themes one can infer from ambiguous diegetic information)? Bordwell again divides these two levels of cognition into a further four meanings; aligned with comprehension are referential meaning and explicit meaning, and aligned with interpretation are implicit meaning and symptomatic (repressed) meaning (8 – 9). Referential meaning refers to assumptions about time and space in the film’s diegetic world. A viewer assumes that elliptical editing implies that time and events have progressed independently between shots, rather than the protagonist teleporting instantly (Bordwell 8). Explicit meaning refers to the film’s themes directly pointed out by characters and undisguised visual metaphors. Bordwell uses the example of a film showing the graphic of the scales of justice to express an explicit meaning (8). Moving into the realm of interpretation, implicit meanings can be derived from subtle hints, recurring background motifs, or hypotheses expressed by moral conflicts in the film (Bordwell 9). Finally, symptomatic meanings address our perception of reality and society outside the world of the film (Bordwell 9). Blatant racism in Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915) is less a theme of the film and more a symptomatic assessment of the society that produced the film. Bordwell is quick to challenge the absolutist nature of the explicit meaning, noting that implicit meanings could initially be intended to be explicit to the audience, and that an explicit assumption is in fact a miscommunication; while effectively ordering how we cognize a film, this still does not procure a definitive film language (as a degree of ambiguity regarding explicit meaning and interpretive implicit and symptomatic meanings complicates the distinction) (11 – 12). Ultimately, Bordwell states that a likely starting point for interpretation is the presence of nagging questions: “referential anomalies furnish good cues for implicit meaning… ‘What does the (anomaly) contribute to the text?… how did this anomaly get in the text?’” (12 – 13). These anomalies act as sirens,  and cues for reading into potential theses on behalf of the filmmaker.

The compelling nature of these anomalies is that they betray a pre-established film grammar. They are anomalies because they are conflicts within the fabric of film syntax. Does this support the existence of film language? In a way, yes, it implies there is an existing set of communication rules that are able to be bent and broken. However, it is a problem that inquiry into said language can really only be found in its discontinuity and the challenging of its rules. Inland Empire, an already aesthetically repugnant film, frequently features foreground actors out of focus with a sharp background devoid of activity. There seems to be no sense in such a choice that betrays a common visual rule, but it is an obvious anomaly that offers an opportunity to jump into an interpretive reading. Film grammar was honed over time through necessity. Edwin S. Porter’s The Kleptomaniac (1905), a prototypical film, exhibits a woman stealing items in a grocery store. The event is displayed in an extreme long shot – it is safe to assume that the director chose such an angle to establish the setting, but the events are painfully unclear. Who are we looking at? The character of focus is never established… These attempts at displaying diegetic information to be cognized required refinement, and through necessity, a filmic grammar composed of close ups, and editing could have been created over the course of the medium’s infancy to address this. Film grammar was and is a necessity for exhibiting crucial information to the audience, but film language is the voice that arises from the grammar. Film grammar is not strictly for the initiated, but in fact the opposite; it is refined so that a passive viewing experience can be achieved, an experience that differs from Prince’s views that raw visual data should speak for itself. According to Prince’s point, if a story is unfolding on the ground but the camera is shooting it from the upper atmosphere, then we would still get the gist of the scene. I am writing facetiously, but even mundane shots devoid of eccentric film grammar are still charged with the filmmaker’s intention of displaying the events.

Cinematic grand theory, according to Bordwell, is composed of subject-position theory and culturalism (8 – 9). Bordwell’s pet project middle-level research can be seen as an alternative to the potentially restrictive nature of grand theory, which is akin to Prince’s opinion; “Concrete interpretations of films and filmic contexts are thought to flow from these (Grand) Theories, instantiating the processes already provided for in the abstract doctrines… Closer to traditional academic scholarship… “middle-level” research asks questions that have both empirical and theoretical import.” (26 – 27). Middle-level research is indicative of film language in that it selects from relevant theories but also allows the researcher to come to conclusions directly communicated by the film. Grand theories operate more on the basis of film grammar, enforcing a theory upon all films that can restrict their potential to express a variety of meanings with their formal content (as in the example of using high angle shots). Subject-position theory focuses on a filmic person or object (the subject) that is intrinsically a part of the ideological fabric within the film’s world. The subject is produced by the cultural discourse (Bordwell 8 -9). Culturalism is a far more innocuous extension of subject-position, taking a similar stance (in regards to the discursive influence of cultural ideology) but that the subject is the maker and shaper of cultural discourse rather than a product of it (Bordwell 12). Bordwell takes issue with these grand theories, alerting us to conflicts such as “top down inquiry”, a practice that pigeonholes filmic text into one of the various historical theories and easily ignores evidence to the contrary (much like Prince’s dreaded perceptual relativism inspired by the Whorf-Sapir hypothesis) (19 – 21). Grand theory is a worthy analogy for our definition of film grammar, and that interpreting film language requires a reader to employ a greater agency (middle-level research). The grammatical oddities in Inland Empire do not render the film unreadable, as it still exhibits a discernible association with our cultural identity. When a phone rings in the house of rabbits sequence (a scene that has some semblance of narrative context), we as subjects are positioned to expect one of them to pick it up. Answering telephones is not an ideology, but a knee-jerk expectation created by our culture. Adverse to culturalism, one cannot dictate that a ringing phone is a situation separate from the possibility of answering it (or in other words, an association). Sure enough, despite the film’s superficial strangeness, the ringing phone is answered (albeit surrealistically and without dialogue), satisfying our need for a conventional space in the film. Where the logical gaps in film grammar exist, the image’s reflection of our corporeal reality “fill in” the inadequacies and open a forum for continued communication.

“The dog in the film can bark but it cannot bite! Reality exists outside language, but it is constantly mediated by and through language: and what we can know and say has to be produced through discourse.” (Hall 169). Researcher Stuart Hall argues for a universality of codes in language (170). Language is seemingly engrained in the very objects we perceive, as they exist as “representations” and collections of associated concepts (a la Hume). Going further, the object we perceive, even directly, is not physically present in our mind; it is an inescapable representation, and thus the object is mentally translated into a code (170). Cinema translates filmed objects into a new artifice, a system of codes that is mimetic of reality, but is also in fact a communicative referrer of reality. The basis is film language is its initial ability to, in aural and visual detail, describe a scenario – that is to say, although the filmed objects exist(ed) in reality, their current filmic form is a syntax that amounts to nothing more than an extremely detailed recounting of the objects. The film image is a master storyteller, describing to us certain events in a context that reflects our immediate reality and cultural ideologies in a more dramatic way than the voice or written word can express. “Though we know the television programme is not a behavioural input, like a tap on the knee cap, it seems to have been almost impossible for traditional researchers to conceptualize the communicative process without lapsing into one or other variant of low-flying behaviourism.” (Hall 169). It is human behaviour approach experience as an endless flow of descriptions. What begins as merely comfort and discomfort divides into a taxonomy of feelings as we categorize more and more experiences. What was once simply comfort in a crib has become the language of “happiness”, “joy”, “elation”, spiralling into “meh”, “disappointment”, and “agony”. When we further define and grade our experiences through language, it allows the experiences to gain further definition and dimension. Inland Empire communicates instances and provokes legitimate emotions because it asks us to view the film from segment to segment. It is not a whole piece to read in total, but a collection of statements that are self supporting. Ultimately, the characters and world perceived are not meant to be understood as prescribing to a reality that mimics ours; they are not real to begin with! The audience can feel that they are hearing filmic gibberish, but they cannot deny that they are addressing a series of attempted communications.

We cannot communicate with films themselves, but do engage with them actively during and after viewing. Clash Of The Titans (2010) was the equivalent of a schoolyard bully, using its language to berate my intelligence – still, it was speaking to me, even if its words were hostile and of little value. The post mortem conversation after the screening allowed us viewers to question the film’s diction and word choice. Lilja 4-EVER (2002) screams at me, even during its moments of solace, and drives me into an emotionally charged state. There are voices in every film, regardless of how idealist and corny the sentiment reads; under the voices of the actors, characters and CGI dreamscapes, a consistent film identity is rambling off about its thousand moving parts. The audience “hears” this voice, and decides if it is one they agree with, find annoying, or respect. The communicative methods of film are not the product of grammatical rules (although they work out of that as a base) but plug directly into our own perceptual experience of reality. We cannot communicate with film, and therefore must let it communicate our reality for us.


  1. The Birth Of A Nation. Dir. D.W. Griffith. Lillian Gish, George Seigmann. David W. Griffith Corp, 1915.
  2. Bordwell, David. “Contemporary Film Studies and the Vicissitudes of Grand Theory” Post Theory: Reconstructing Film Studies. Ed. David Bordwell and Noel Carrol. Illustrated ed. Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1996. 3 – 31.
  3. Bordwell, David. “Making Films Mean” Making Meaning: Inference and Rhetoric in the Interpretation of Cinema. Harvard: Harvard University Press, 1991. 1 – 18.
  4. Hall, Stuart. “Encoding/Decoding” Media and Cultural Studies: Key Works. Ed. Meenakshi Gig Durham, Douglas Kellner. Illustrated ed. Malden: Wiley-Blackwell, 2001. 166 – 176.
  5. Hume, David. (1748). “Of the Origin of Ideas” An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding. Ed. Charles W. Hendel. London: Prentice Hall, 1995. 26 – 30.
  6. Hume, David. (1748). “Of the Association of Ideas” An Inquiry Concerning Human Understanding. Ed. Charles W. Hendel. London: Prentice Hall, 1995. 31 – 40.
  7. 7. Inland Empire. Dir. David Lynch. Laura Dern, Jeremy Irons. Studio Canal, 2006.
  8. The Kleptomaniac. Dir. Edwin S. Porter. Aline Boyd. Edison Manufacturing Company. 1905.
  9. Prince, Stephen. “The Discourse of Pictures: Iconicity and Film Studies” Film Theory and Criticism. Ed. Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen. 7th ed. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2009. 87 -105.


  1. hearwax wrote:

    read alec’s #film essay. seriously, do it: http://bit.ly/9VpTj7 #movies
    This comment was originally posted on Twitter

  2. Logan Broger wrote:

    Good read, Alec. While I probably can’t contribute a lot to the topic, I will say that I really need to see Lilja 4-EVER.

  3. hearwax wrote:

    A Case for the Existence of Film Language http://bit.ly/aFhsgz
    This comment was originally posted on Twitter

  4. […] This post was mentioned on Twitter by lbroger, lbroger. lbroger said: read alec's #film essay. seriously, do it: http://bit.ly/9VpTj7 #movies […]

  5. Logan Broger wrote:

    Good read, Alec. While I probably can’t contribute a lot to the topic, I will say that I really need to see Lilja 4-EVER.

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