via GIPHY (idk why I’m having so much trouble embedding this GIF, sorry y’all, you’ll have to click the link)
The GIF above comes from a famous scene in Jaws when the protagonist, chief of police Martin Brody, witnesses the event he’s anxiously and begrudgingly anticipating: a shark attack (check out this song if you’re into weird, experimental, abrasive hardcore with tenor sax, or if you just wanna hear someone scream “shark attack”). The scene is famous for its thematically befitting use of the dolly zoom, a technique in which the camera simultaneously pulls away from and zooms in on the subject. The technique creates the effect of the background moving farther away and more of the peripheral scenery coming into view, while the subject’s distance stays the same, or as in this case, pulls closer. A technique first popularized in Hitchcock’s Vertigo, this distortion in perspective has a disorienting effect. In this scene, it intensifies the panic spreading through the tourists and Amity Island townies witnessing the event. I’m going to attempt a reading of this scene through the lens of semiotics and parallel architecture.
Applying Peirce’s triadic model of semiosis to film, we can think of the sensory data, the audio and video, as representamen. This includes the score, the image of the beach, and people in the foreground, etc. Brody’s physical features, and all the representamen are representative of the object, or the ideas the video and audio are supposed to represent. The scene’s role as a narrative device and what it adds to the tone and catharsis of tension can be considered interpretants. All of these components together give the shot interpretable meaning that functions like a sign. Furthermore, we can distinguish the different types of signs. In the symbolic realm, the distortion of space through time is symbolic of the scene’s tone. Ellen’s hands and how they’re placed on Brody’s shoulders is indexical of affection. Finally, the image of the beach is iconic of a beach. And let’s not forget, our interpretations of these signs are signs in themselves. Turtles, turtles, turtles, it’s just turtles all the way down.
I’ll try to discuss the shot in terms of parallel architecture. The phonological components of film would be the raw sensory data – the audio and video. The screaming of the beach patrons, the colors and shapes, and the film score all function as minute, sensory components of meaning. The semantic components would be the themes, logical structure, emotional response, etc. The syntactical components would be the sequences of images/audio/scenes. In the shot above, the syntax of frames maps us from the first image where the background is close up to an image in which it is much farther. However, the syntax of frames, as in parallel architecture, is not solely responsible for generating the meaning of the shot; the syntax is its own generative process that interfaces with the phonological and semantic structures of the film.
Chandler, Daniel. Semiotics: The Basics. Routledge, 2002.
Jackendoff, Ray. Foundations of Language: Brain, Meaning, Grammar, Evolution. Oxford University Press, 2002.