Currie 1993

Currie, G., 1993. The long goodbye: The imaginary language of film. British Journal of Aesthetics 33: 207 -220.

As Currie rightly observes, twentieth-century academic writing in the humanities was obsessed with the idea that every subject was a language. Thus, in lectures delivered through the BBC in 1963, the noted architectural historian, John Summerson (1964), could invoke the “classical language of architecture.”  A decade later Chales Jencks (1972) responded with his “language of post-modern architecture.” One wonders what happened to building. Currie notes talk of a “grammar of stories” and the “vocabulary of modernism: the world seems to be a bunch of languages talking to each other.

Currie’s purpose is to challenge the idea that film constitutes a language. Now, he could be correct (and I believe that he is) in his position that film is not a language and, yet, his arguments for that position could be flawed. I will explain why, restricting myself (as Currie does) to nondocumentary (that is, fictional) film. For Currie, what is central about such films is their story-meaning (p. 212), very roughly the plot of the story as it develops. If film is a language, according to Currie, and quite plausibly, the images that are part of that language should be advancing the story-meaning.

Currie assumes that “language” refers to natural language.  These, according to him are semantic because they:

“display the features of productivity and conventionality. Productivity means that there is an unlimited number of sentences of English that can be uttered, and in fact many of the sentences we utter and comprehend have never been uttered before. It is evident, then, that whatever learning English involves, it does not involve learning meanings sentence by sentence; otherwise we would need instruction every time we heard a new sentence.

English is conventional in that what words and sentences of English mean is determined, not by relations of naturalness or affinity between words and meanings, nor because the human mind is specially apt to associate certain words with certain meanings, but by adventitious uniformities of practice that are adhered to because they facilitate communication. The differences between the various natural languages are very largely accounted for as differences between these uniformities of practice” (p. 209).

Currie’s argumentative strategy now becomes to identify two plausible candidates for meaning in films. (He challenges potential critics to come up with other plausible candidates.) Any such meaning is supposed to satisfy two conditions: (i) that it is the story-meaning; and (ii) “that this meaning has the explanatory features of semantic meaning” (p. 213). Currie’s candidates are photographic meaning and appearance meaning. The former is supposed to fall afoul of condition (i); the latter of condition (ii).

Photographic meaning is what the photography (truthfully) is of, as it were. Suppose the story-meaning demands a murder. Now, presumably, the actors enacting the scene do not carry out a murder-on-demand. So, the camera must record something that only gives the appearance of a murder to a viewer of the film. This is the photographic meaning which is not the story-meaning, thus violating condition (i). The appearance meaning is the meaning that the images seem to convey; thus it is a story-meaning. But it does not have the semantic features of conventionality and productivity, as Currie argues in length (pp. 214 -215), though not entirely convincingly. Thus, it violates condition (ii).

Note how strongly Currie’s argument depends on the assumption that the language of film must be a natural language. But, as Currie also notes, the intended referent of “language” in the context of film could be something much weaker, namely, a semiotic system. (There is ample reason to believe that those who speak of film as a language, like those who speak of languages of architecture, have semiotic systems in mind rather than natural language.) Currie ignores this possibility on two grounds: it is too vague, and what on occasion been meant by “semiotics” is so broad than any subject whatsoever is subsumed under it (p. 205).

But, is the situation quite so unpromising as Currie makes it out to be? Movies do use symbols. Panofsky and many others have emphasized inconography in film, for instance, how a checkerboard tablecloth serves as an icon for, that is, symbol of domestic bliss and probity. (I am using “icon” and “symbol” interchangeably.) In innumerable films, a crucifix on the wall is an icon of everyday piety. Going beyond that, to use a concrete example, at the beginning of Keaton’s Our Hospitality (1923), Joe Canfield reads a sign on the wall that urges “Love thy neighbor as thyself” and attempts to prevent his brother Jim from killing John McKay and perpetuating a family blood feud. He fails and gets sucked into the feud himself after Jim Canfield and John McKay kill each other. Some twenty years later, Joe Canfield again notices the same sign and decides, finally, not to kill John’s son, Willie Canfield, and ends the feud. If it were not part of a physical comedy the icon may well have seemed banal; nevertheless it remains a functional icon.

Bad guys in Westerns wear black hats; good guys white ones. In David Lynch’s Blue Velvet (1986), an image of insects crawling into a severed human ear is a symbol of descent into inchoate evil that pervades the movie; that image also turns out to be part of the plot (with story-meaning). We could go on. The point is that we are faced with an empirical question of the extent and importance of iconography in film. How pervasive symbols are will decide whether it makes sense to talk of a film language.


Summerson, J. 1964. Classical Language of Architecture. London: Methuen.

13 February 2020