You Make Meaning: The Essentials to Film Viewership

You Make Meaning: The Essentials to Film Viewership

If a tree falls in a forest, does it make a sound if no one is there to hear it? If a film is projected but there is no audience to watch it, does it harbour meaning? Whose meaning is more relevant: the author’s or the audience’s? Is a film complete without reception? Such questions are being asked every day in film theory and the contrasting answers we grant them are all valid and thought provoking. 

Meaning making is essential to cinema much like it is to every other form of art. The whole appeal of experiencing an art piece lies in the meaning we, the audience, can attribute to it. In a similar vein, the appeal of making art rests in the meaning we can implode in it and share through it. By meaning, I mean, in very simple terms, reading between the lines and putting yourself in the artpiece. In poetry and literature, reading between the lines refers to quite literally understanding the implicit in the explicit; that is, seeing the words as more than just words, seeing what is being said without it being said. Making meaning involves reading text and taking hold of the textual clues being hidden in the lines.[1] In film, reading between the lines goes beyond lines of dialogue; it can entail analysing costume design, mise-en-scène, sound, framing or composition of shots and what kind of big or small message these elements of filmic language might be attempting to tell us or how the juxtaposition of two shots creates new meaning. A niche and famous example of an incredible use of cinematography and mise-en-scéne is Parasite (2019) by Bong Joon-ho. In order to convey the moment a character stepped out of line or transgressed societal boundaries, physical lines of architectural structures would be crossed by characters through camera angles and movement. In this way, Bong Joon-ho made the crossing of such boundaries more real for the audience. The possibilities of making meaning in film are endless and usually what separates a good film from a less good one is the extent to which such filmic elements are used to create meaning. However, does the audience play a role in the creation of meaning?

In early film theory, the audience was understood as being merely passive observers of the cinematic content of the screen in front of them. Termed the Hypodermic Needle Theory, it saw the audience as being injected with a message and meaning like one would be injected with a needle.[2] Then upon receiving the same message, the audience would react to the message in a uniform manner. Such a perspective was due to film emerging from photography which treated film akin to photography, as a representation of reality. By now, we know of course that we are not being injected with the same message because we do not react in a uniform manner to what we see on screen. Furthermore, neither photography nor film is a true-to-life representation of reality: what we see is only part of what is in front of the camera, there’s a whole world outside it. Nonetheless, this discourse depends on what one may mean by reality since arguably there is also not one universal definition of reality. 

Eventually in the 1920s and 1930s, film theorists came to this realisation that cinema could manipulate reality and that the image on the film roll was not a reflection of the real although the filmstrip physically captured the light of the real motion in front of the camera. Such a theory meant that someone was involved in the manipulation. The first and logical instinct was to explore the author’s involvement in filmmaking. Like the light that makes the picture, the author and their artwork have an undeniable relationship despite the saying “Separate the art from the artist”. This author’s hand is involved in most if not all decisions regarding the making of the film. For example, a list of all the shots is made beforehand and each shot is there for a concrete reason. In fact, the element of choice already spoils the fact that the author dictates any meaning that can be made and thus, uses film to manipulate reality. 

In the 1950s, André Bazin, an influential French film theorist and the co-founder of the ground-breaking film magazine Cahiers du Cinéma, pushed that despite this involvement of the human hand, it is possible to capture reality in all its complexities by respecting it and staying faithful to it as the Italian Neo-Realists did. Evidently, he exclaimed that how you represent reality and the degree of manipulation used has political and ideological meaning. Bazin also called for such a movement of realist cinema in order to give the audience more power in dictating the meaning. This could be achieved by the use of film techniques that used deep focus, minimal editing, shooting on streets, wide shots, leaving it to the audience to decide where to focus therefore, putting the element of choice in the viewer’s hands. His writings were a great inspiration for the French New Wave.[3]  

In the 1970s, Stuart Hall brought further attention to reception theory by elaborating on the different readings of any form of media. Hall saw the audience as active receivers of the message encoded in film which they would proceed to decode into their own meaning by use of their social context and condition. This led to a separation of three sorts of readings possible of a media object: dominant, negotiated, and oppositional. A dominant reading refers to a reading by an audience member that correlates to the intended meaning by the author while a negotiated reading suggests that the audience member understands the encoded meaning yet resists its authority by reflecting their own experiences on it. The oppositional reading completely rejects the intended meaning and alters the message in their mind to fit their own framework of reference. Hall grants the audience power by stating that the message is complete only when the encoded message has been decoded.[4]  

A professor I once had told me that “A film can lack in meaning, but you can give it meaning”. Therefore, it matters what one does with a film. You can take a mediocre film and make it great if you see something between the lines that was not intended to be there. You can also watch a film for a third time and notice something you had not seen the first time which might alter the over-all meaning that you had extracted from the film during your first two viewings. If we assume that cinema can have great impact on society whether by exposing inequality or empowering voices, this impact will not be received if the film is not seen and decoded by an audience. Films need to be seen to exist. A tree does make a sound when falling in a forest even when there is no one there to hear the fall, but the movie theatre cancels the showing if no tickets have been sold. 



[1]Bordwell, D. (1989). Making meaning : inference and rhetoric in the interpretation of cinema. Harvard University Press.


 [2] D. Croteau, W. Hoynes (1997). Media/society: industries, images, and audiences. Pine Forge Press.


[3]Bazin, A., & Gray, H. (1960). The Ontology of the Photographic Image. Film Quarterly, 13(4), 4–9. 


  [4]Hall, S., Segovia, A. I., & Dader, J. L. (2004). Encoding-decoding in the television discourse. Cuadernos de información y comunicación, 9, 215–236.


Rebeka Milius is a third-year bachelor’s student of Media and Culture at UvA. Within the study of film, her interests and writing gravitate toward theories of diaspora, realism and pre-independence Estonian cinema. Outside of university, she enjoys working as a waitress in a hotel, biking, and cooking for friends.

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