THE JOURNAL OF FILM MUSIC

Volume 1, Number 2/3, Pages 283-287 ISSN 1087-7142 Copyright © 2003 The International Film Music Society, Inc.

Dominique Nasta. Meaning in Film: Relevant Structures in Soundtrack and Narrative.
Regards sur l’image, Série IV, Esthétique et théories de l’image. Berne; Berlin: Peter Lang, 1991. [179 p. ISBN 3261044829. $31.80]
MELISSA URSULA DAWN GOLDSMITH

I

n this thought-provoking, demanding, and rewarding monograph, Dominique Nasta pursues the meaning and relevance of film sound tracks (including music, noise, and speech) and narrative (film stories and inserted micro-stories) through applications of linguistic, literary, and philosophical theories. Readers knowledgeable in comparative literature will appreciate Nasta’s detailed approaches, sifting through many complex works and finding precisely the theoretical tools she wishes to explain and use. Readers knowledgeable in film studies and film music may find the monograph dense but will enjoy Nasta’s perceptive observations on audiovisual discourses in film, the film examples analyzed, and the monograph’s pedagogic potential. Meaning in Film: Relevant Structures in Soundtrack and Narrative, a translated revision of chapters from Nasta’s doctoral dissertation in cinema studies at the Université Libre de Bruxelles (the name of the translator is unascertainable), is divided into an intro- duction and three chapters. The introductory paragraph of her second

chapter offers an unassailable and accessible basis for this monograph and reveals Nasta’s astute understanding of sound versus silent film aesthetics:
If there is currently a debate on the uses of sound in film, this is because the general tendency has been to consider sound film a sequel to silent film. The causes of sound introduction have been canvassed interminably, while neglecting the evolution of image before and after the emergence of sound. However, a few film theor[et]icians sensed the existence of two highly different aesthetics in the evolution of film: silent film aesthetics and sound film aesthetics (43).

In the Introduction, Nasta takes as a starting point Noël Carroll’s assertion that we are in need of theories about film instead of film theory. She cites Carroll, from his monograph Mystifying Movies: Fads and Fallacies in Contemporary Film Theory (New York: Columbia University Press, 1988), “‘if more comprehensive and complex large-scale theories can be derived, they should be derived

from the comparison and scrutiny of what we regard to be successful piecemeal theories’” (9). The theories about film Nasta advances enable the study of relevance in film ranging from brief occurrences to the film as a whole. For Nasta, the three pillars of meaning are: relevance (code, intention, interpretation, and semantics), polyphony (the verbal “double voice-visual discourse”), and the concept of mental spaces (discourses and idea, belief, image, and reality spaces). Nasta explores these pillars in Chapter 1, “Perspectives on Meaning in Film.” In the process, she focuses on two approaches to filmic meaning: structuralist-semiotics and pragmatic-enunciation. Structuralism and semiotics have many common goals, but one major difference Nasta points out is that structuralists view the director or author as a mediator of many voices and cultural conventions rather than as a creator or originator. Semioticians view the director or author as a creator, in contrast to structuralists, and they also accept the notion that the director or author may be simultaneously creator and mediator. According

This triad operates under two modes that coexist in relation to one another: the signifier and the signified. sometimes the structuralist-semiotics approach is more suitable than the pragmaticsenunciation approach or vice versa. or nearby cars or pedestrians are in danger). a theory that is employed and combined with other theories throughout and especially in her second chapter on music and sound: The causal theory of meaning ignores the fact that the meaning of any action needs to be explained in the sense of what the user means by this action on a particular occasion. A general understanding is that pragmatics can study a full gamut of idiosyncratic responses that the reader. or sequence) and context (the whole film). genre. Masculine-Feminine. the non-natural meaning (meaning NN) bound to an utterance presupposes an intention to produce belief and a recognition of this intention from the part of the audience. is placed in a different context. unlike Metz and others who classified codes. Moreover. The Gold Rush. the code modifications offer a transgressive result. Potemkin. Nasta does not define codes explicitly and she does not break down codes further. “clouds” mean “rain”).” (12). 1971) and The Imaginary Signifier (Bloomington: Indiana University Press. The pragmaticsenunciation approach is especially useful in the analysis of films that require more attention to the emer- gence of meaning and reconstructing the interpretation of discourse in a film (for instance. or listener experiences when a message is received. indexes. but the horn is still calling for an action) and a symbol (the lovers are having sex and ignoring their surroundings and present situation in traffic). His classes of film are by author. Borrowing from cognitive psychological research on perception. Apocalypse Now. Nasta explains Parret’s synthetic view of looking at pragmatic objects through the contextualization of the object (image. the approach can make an incidental film event seem more important than it really is. operating as an index (calling for an action) and a symbol (the car. Metz distinguishes between several kinds of codes in Language et Cinéma (Paris: Albatros..” Other kinds of codes include non-cinematographic codes and extra-cinematographic codes. Hiroshima mon Amour. In her discussion of the second approach to meaning. The Crying Game. In film analysis. or I might . Pragmatics can also study the interpretation of various semiotic inferential paths and the full gamut of presuppositions required by that message. Nasta explains that both approaches also have problems. pragmatics and enunciation. is especially useful for pragmatics who want to study filmic narrative and point of view (15-18). An example of a transgressive result is when a car horn sounds (an icon). or The Purple Rose of Cairo). intending to show you that he is dead. 1982). His cinematographic codes are divided into general cinematographic codes (cinematic aspects common to all films. it appears that Nasta either assumes that her readers already have some knowledge of pragmatics and enunciation or that she avoids offering definitions for two terms that are extremely difficult to define. operating as an index (the lovers in the car lean against the horn.284 THE JOURNAL OF FILM MUSIC to Nasta. shot. driver. Nasta then presents Grice’s linguistic theory of natural meaning and non-natural meaning. in semiotics. such as the screen) and particular cinematographic codes (aspects belonging to certain classes of film). I might present you with the head of John the Baptist. forming a triad that has one dominant over the others in film. or The Spy Who Loved Me). Peirce divides signs into icons. Wallace and Gromit films. Metz calls these classes “sub-codes. According to her. Amadeus. “in the first category he introduces political. For instance. Enunciation theories. Rashomon. Nasta explains. religious or moral ideas. Nasta gives an example of a traffic sign (an icon) operating as an index (calling for an action) and a symbol (a sign that is red and means both danger and stop). and symbols. While natural meaning (meaning N) does not need a pre-established convention (e. and school. The structuralist-semiotics approach is especially useful in the analysis of films that seem to purposely offer multiple inferential paths that weave in and out of the boundaries of expectation (for instance. while the second would contain an occurrence such as accompaniment music. which study the signifier and what is signified. The pragmaticenunciation approach cannot specifically relate meaning to relevance and thus focuses on the viewer’s ability to interpret film.g. pragmatics explores filmic inferences. If there is a change in context. the structuralist-semiotics approach— though useful for discussing relevance in film—is not usually the best approach for a comprehensive study of filmic meaning and it cannot explain the passage from direct to indirect or derived meaning of an image by means of inferences and recognition of intentions (18-19). country. viewer.

Nasta aims at a global model of interpretation for analyzing the whole film. Using Jean-Rémy Julien’s concepts and classifications of synchronous film music. to emphasize human emotion—by using music such as schmaltz—or as credit music). “The Filmic Narrative: Interpreting the Whole. and vice versa. It is capable of non-natural meaning if it can infer something from the image without merely accompanying it (47). the reception of that song will be affected. In connection to the Gricean meaningN and meaning NN. These structures include the relationship between sounds and images.” offers the most complex syntheses of theories explained in the previous chapters. employing musical styles and performance forces to evoke a historical period). . Nasta explains how sound tracks lie or act similarly to parables and interprets the music as occupying idea or belief spaces that may or may not share the same reality spaces as their visual counterparts. and how film could recycle successful songs and add to its own commercial and critical success. Her examination of songs in films reveals why analyzing them is a “border problem. In it. aural and linguistic limitations. Chapter 2. they can make it difficult to tell if the film is based on songs or if the songs are occurrences in the film.” will be the most interesting chapter to those studying film music. She points out that Wittgenstein questions the correspondence relationship between reality and one’s view of it (a view with both visual and linguistic limitations) and the coherence theory of truth. Nasta also deals with filmic counterpoint or the relationships between music or nonmusical sounds and images. micro-stories or little stories within the main story. the author explores the film story versus the story in literature. and film music and song classification. The illustrative function is broken down further into three subfunctions: decorative (code music used for filling “the visual sphere with epoch elements that fit the screenplay” (56). Film music with a decorative subfunction can be found in Ben Hur or Zeffirelli’s Romeo and Juliet. and narrative changes. Nasta explores musical and non-musical sound structures. the coherence theory of truth is achieved only when a world divulges the possibility of truth variants that are acceptable as long as they are coherent. and film music with an emblematic subfunction can be found in The Trial (I will return to non-code music later). Foregrounded music in film is music that is intended to be heard by the audience for it exists on the expressive surface of the film and has an immediate connection to the mise-en-scéne. ensuring accessibility to wider audiences through familiarity. film music with a connective subfunction can be found in The Loneliness of a Long Distance Runner. Noise and speaking are discussed at the end of this chapter. Chapter 3.” These songs can be employed to tell or continue to tell a story. Music is capable of natural meaning and non-natural meaning. In this chapter. Greenaway’s The Draughtsman’s Contract. I imagine songs in The Bodyguard or Moulin Rouge. Film discloses the world’s truth variants. Whitney Houston’s recording of Dolly Parton’s “I Will Always Love You” in The Bodyguard and various performances of fragments of Elton John’s “Your Song” as well as Nicole Kidman’s performance of “Diamonds are a Girl’s Best Friend”/“Material Girl” (the latter mentioned a nod to Marilyn Monroe and Madonna) in Moulin Rouge are good examples of how songs and recordings could help market a film. there is Nasta’s central idea that films contain truth and truth variants.REVIEWS 285 throw a bucket of water over you. If the song in the film also exists separately as a sound recording. subception. filmic actual worlds versus possible or relative worlds. discourse spaces. She analyzes narrative in several films including Antonioni’s The Eclipse. synchronization. intending to suggest that you leave (19). Nasta returns to Wittgenstein’s “Iworld” while analyzing point of view in Kurosawa’s film Rashomon and many other times later on. time theories. Analyzing several film examples. “Music and Sound: The Code and Its Transgression. connective (code music that creates narrative continuity). Nasta suggests that film music obliges the viewer to follow double paths that are both visual and aural. affecting the reception of both music and text (the listener and viewer must question how the songs relate to the film and how the film relates to the songs). Nasta identifies the main functions of music as illustrative (not imitative) and implicative (code music that is used as an interlude to dramatic tension. code and non-code music. and emblematic (non-code music that symbolizes a different idea from the one presented visually). They are also good examples of how a film can create an additional context for the song. but the viewer can grasp true meaning only if s/he identifies the manifest intention behind the onscreen images (21). For Wittgenstein. and Allen’s Purple Rose of Cairo.

What changes is only the final effect which is no longer one of similitude. among others). Cone. Barthes. but rather a dialectic one. NC and London: McFarland & Company. Techniques. reveals that Nasta’s film theorists are mostly French and Russian and that her “older” film theorists are Eisenstein. and Kracauer (Arnheim is cited in the footnotes and one of his writings is listed in the bibliography). Agawu. montage was about ideas and tempo. This is especially true when she refers to “older. for instance. Trends. not necessarily a synchronous one. oscillating between affirmation and negation. It is not entirely clear what these “superimposures” might be: is she. “the most challenging and rewarding audiovisual counterpoint[s] are those recalling Baroque inventions (where instruments and voices progress simultaneously and contradict each other) and those functioning through superimposures. Metz. She adds. Balázs. Nasta also makes a number of curious and dubious observations on music. since in most of the cases asynchronous scores prove more rewarding and original. 1991). Arnheim. Nasta remarks. Either Nasta or the translator does not differentiate appropriately the words “score” and “music. Rotha. Although this monograph is promising for the new approaches to sound tracks it will inspire.” (61). It appears that Nasta has mistaken the “Kane” motive or the opening music from the film Citizen Kane for the “Rosebud” motive (she calls the latter “gloomy” whereas the former is more correctly “gloomy”). thus triggering a secondary interpretation.286 THE JOURNAL OF FILM MUSIC Throughout the chapter Nasta focuses on both verbal and sound elements of filmic narrative. Gorbman. 1915-1990. for Eisenstein. non-code scores are combined in different ways so as to enhance an expressive act. Nasta defines code and non-code film music (“scores”): code scores are selected for purely descriptive or imitative aims (sad scenes=sad score) and are bound to obey the rules of synchronism. McFarland Classics (Jefferson. Kivy. which do not obstruct comprehension. London. 1990). Deleuze. 1926) and Der Geist des Films (The Spirit of Film. The word “engender” appears too frequently in places in which the words “generate” or “produce” would work better. Sometimes it is not clear who Nasta’s “film theorists” are. Kalinak. The translation from the French needs to employ a tighter economy of words (for instance. referring to the employment of the same cantus firmus in later settings? Nasta explains in great detail that music in the film sound track can be foregrounded or can be capable of possessing primary relevance to the audience and filmmaker. A survey of the entire monograph. essence and appearance. was published the same year as Nasta’s monograph. Caroline Abbate’s Unsung Voices (Princeton: Princeton University Press. montage was about images and cinematography (picturedriven) as well as psychological association and tempo. in which she gives Eisenstein’s perspective: for Balázs. many definite articles should be omitted). 1930). She gives little attention to German. (Balázs. there is no non-code music and therefore all music contains codes on various levels of textual interpretation. During her discussion on the filmic counterpoint between music and image or visual narrative. She discusses Wagner and leitmotivs without explaining the impact of Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk on filmmaking and composing film music. but she never addresses the role of the composer or the composer’s own involvement. who was originally from Hungary and named Herbert Bauer. Nasta’s treatment of non-code music is a bit puzzling: as many writers on music or film imply (Adorno. Both monographs were written while Balázs was in Vienna). there are several weaknesses. “non-code scores can be analyzed independently and can express and signify by themselves. are so numerous that they warrant mention here. who complained about Balázs’s view that montage is picture-driven. Eco. The above-mentioned remarks do not imply that the relationship image/music is abolished when talking about non-code scores.” film theorists.” It is also unclear if there is supposed to be a play on the English words “score” and “partition” (meaning division or separation) and the French word “partition” (meaning score and division or separation) in relation to film and sound track editing. Metz. including the bibliography. and American film theorists. Adorno and Eisler. Der sichtbare Mensch (The Visible Man. English. Béla Balázs’s writings on montage (he calls montage “optical music”) and counterpoint would have been an especially interesting addition to Nasta’s discussion of montage and counterpoint. as in the Gregorian chants” (69). Eisler. Nattiez. Conversely. She does not . For instance. Typographical errors. question and answer (61-62). included film music in his earliest monographs. William Darby and Jack Du Bois deal with film music and Wagner’s Gesamtkunstwerk in American Film Music: Major Composers.

The discussion of how songs function in film is the most sensible and useful one offered thus far. It offers new ways to listen to film sound tracks and focus on filmic narrative and it will be a welcome complement to other studies of film music and film theory. Natural meaning applied to the musical sphere equals the decoding of what is heard in accordance with what is shown. would have been helpful here for Nasta’s explanation of the oscillating dialectic effect does not seem entirely satisfactory. problem of identifying non-code music: It is precisely this dialectical feature that brings us back to Gricean distinction between natural versus non-natural meaning. outweigh its shortcomings. Perhaps Claudia Gorbman’s “pure musical codes. 1979) would have been useful for tackling this can of worms. she includes many European films that also deserve attention.” and “cinematic musical codes. while non-natural meaning equals the interpretation of a musical piece through inference. My final criticism is that there are so many theories presented here that an index would be extremely helpful for sorting out the theories and those responsible for or associated with them. The inferential potential of music renders interpretation possible even in the absence of code (62) Nasta’s use of Grice’s meaningN and meaningNN does not solve the Umberto Eco’s discussion of undercoding—he uses music for introducing the section—in his monograph A Theory of Semiotics (Bloomington: Indiana University Press. She provides a brilliantly straightforward explanation of the problems of structuralist-semiotics and pragmatic-enunciation approaches. Instead. surpassing the Louis-Jean Calvet and Jean-Claude Klein’s song classifications and discussions of songs in films. 1987).imply that non-code music means non-leitmotivic music.” “cultural musical codes. Not only does she make use of canonical films analyzed in film studies courses. she focuses on the dialectic relationship between the non-code music and the visible act or non-visible expression onscreen. Nasta’s use of film examples is outstanding. Being dialectically related to image. Eco offers a possible definition of undercoding: the operation by means of which in the absence of reliable pre-established rules. . one hopes that Meaning in Film: Relevant Structures in Soundtrack and Narrative will soon return in a revised edition. and to the problem of relevance. music is foregrounded and it implicitly brings forth relevant information. The best aspects of this monograph. even though the combinational rules governing the more basic compositional items of the expressions along with the corresponding content-units remain unknown (Eco. With the best aspects of this monograph in mind.” in Unheard Melodies: Narrative Film Music (Bloomington: Indiana University Press. 135-36). however. certain macroscopic portions of certain texts are provisionally assumed to be pertinent unit of a code in formation.