In this assignment, I analyse Dexter’s opening sequence by employing semiotic tools and interpret the intended meaning in the polysemic signs which anchor to the connotative associations in the narrative structure of this generic text.
I have opted to carry out a semiotic analysis of Dexter’s opening credits that airs on premium cable, Showtime. In order to develop an unequivocal semiotic analysis, the meaning of the terms and different aspects of semiology must be made clear. There is a set of analytical tools used to examine a media text such as a sign, a signifier and a signified, iconic, indexical, symbolic, polysemic, intertexuality, codes, paradigms and syntagms. Semiotics is the study of how signs make meaning while a sign could be anything that represents something else. The signifier is the sign itself and the signified refers to the mental concept. Iconic describes a sign which resembles the signified whereas Symbolic refers to a sign which does not resemble the signified but is purely conventional. Indexical represents a sign which is innately connected in some way to the signified. Paradigm refers to a set of signs that are put together to induce meaning. Syntagm, on the other hand, is the term used to describe the construction of a sequence of signs in a particular relationship to one another. A media text containing many meanings is known as polysemia and its existence in relation to other media texts is called intertexuality. Now it is feasible to delve into the semiotic analyses of Dexter’s opening sequence as the basic terms of the semiotics are comprehensible.
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One of Barthes’ arguments in Rhetoric of the Image is that “all images are polysemous; they imply, underlying their signifiers, a ‘floating chain’ of signifieds, the reader able to choose some and ignore others” (1977, p.32-55). The narrative structure of the opening is filled with polysemic codes where the paradigm of signs are combined to show a man going through his morning routine, the interpretation of the coded message actually convey a different meaning depending on the analysis of the syntagmatic relations of the signifiers. The signifiers not only represent their denotation but also contain malicious belligerent connotations leading the audience to an entirely different signifieds or notion of discernment based on their construal.
The genre is the crime and suspense drama series as the use of verbal rhetoric and paradigm is particular of this type of generic text. The title scene of Dexter is a complex combination of signs where every element is signifying the message of murder. This view is supported by Fiske (1990, p.40) who states: “The conveyance of messages takes place through the development and use of codes, the form and existence that these take depends on the society and culture within which they operate”. The blood drops are an indexical sign which has connotation of murder. The title Dexter is an iconic linguistic sign written with blood stains spewed across it. The typography is indicative of murder and crime, using the Soda Script font in red which is yet another signifier. It contains connotative value as its signifieds are danger and devil that is usually depicted as coloured red and wearing a red costume in both iconography and popular culture. Further association of the red colour sign connotes to the phrase “caught red-handed”, meaning either caught in an act of crime or caught with the blood of murder still on one’s hands. It also sets a tone of violence which could be interpreted as a significant characteristic of the show. By deciphering these codes we can construe the intended meaning of the media text. In regards to coded messages Robert Innis writes that “an articulated code has a ‘vocabulary’ of basic units together with syntactical rules which can be used to generate larger meaningful combinations”.
The very first shot in the opening scene shows a mosquito sucking blood out of the man’s arm that he then slaps and kills. The mosquito is a signifier and signified is it sucks blood. It denotes to the viewer that killing a mosquito is good. The close up facial expression of the man is a presentational code after he kills the mosquito a subsequent self-satisfied smile spreads on his face. When you interpret the coded message being used you get a connotative implication that this is a man who likes killing or that is how he starts his daily routine. The narrative structure of the text also employs syntagmatic value by the linking of signs from paradigm sets for an intended meaning. The one scene shows the man using a dental floss which is a signifier and it’s denotative of removing food and dental plaque from teeth. He wraps it around his fingers tightly that we can see the fingers areas turn white which connotes to his use of strength and force. In the next shot we see a close up of his neck which consists of syntagmatic relationship signifying connotative aspect if we compare it with preceding and following shots. Subsequently the next coded message is a close up shot showing a rope swaddled around the hands that is being pulled making the blood rush to the sides and turning the area around the ropes on his hands turn white. These syntagmatic signs consist of coded message and rely on the intertextuality of the text. Kristeva referred to texts in terms of two axes: a horizontal axis connecting the author and reader of a text, and a vertical axis, which connects the text to other texts (1980, p.69). The interpretations of the meaning of these juxtaposed coded signs rely on the reader’s previous experience of seeing strangulation scenes in other texts. After examination and coalesces of the signifiers and signifieds in the following shots, its denotative of a man clearly tying his shoes in the morning.
The aesthetic codes and conventions used to show a close up shot of a grapefruit being sliced contains polysemic signs. The paradigm method in which the slow motion and graphic slicing of the grapefruit splatters the juice is denotative but also operates indexically indicative of blood spatter at a connotative level. The extreme close up shot of the grapefruit is a sign which resembles distorted flesh. The close up scene of opening the shower null with force making a fist and the shot of his biceps are metonyms of his vindictive personality which signifies his use of force, strength and power. There is an extreme close up shot of slicing of the meat which is still wrapped in a plastic bag connotes to a corpse in a bag. In this context, signifiers not only represent denotation but also carry connotation leading the audience to different signifieds.
The visual rhetoric of the man when he is looking at himself through the mirror is a blurred close up shot which is an artifice of connotation. With regard to media artefacts Long and Wall (2009, p.40) stated that “a text is manufactured or constructed out of elements of language and existing meanings”. The deliberate blurring of his reflection on the mirror presents us with a constructed signifier. The blur is a symbolic sign which distorts the vision, making it harder to identify anything or anyone. The blur could signify the man’s secrete persona as his facial features are obscured. Furthermore, it connotes to the implication that he is hiding a dark secret or his true self and does not want to be perceptible. Serial killers are invisible: they look like anyone else is, they could be anyone else.
At the denotative level of the syntagmatic structure of the scenes we see the man simply putting a white t-shirt on, however, these coded signifiers also anchor to the connotative signified. The codes and conventions employed anchor to the intended meaning thus exhibit possible polysemia of the signs. The polysemic visual signifier is a symbolic close up shot of the man’s face where he is pulling the t-shirt tightly over his head which provides anchorage to the connotative association of a bag over a suffocation victim. The conventions used to provide a connotational framework at this echelon is a cultural code. The big close up shot of his face is an indexical sign and denotative of him trying to catch his breath and reinforces the polysemic connotation of suffocation. The polysemic analysis of the contours of his face emerging from behind the stretching fabric could be interpreted as him being the victim or his close connection with the murder or crime. The purposely use of the signs has connotative implications that he could be a victim or he could be a criminal and predator who commits the murders. At a mythic level we understand this sign as activating the myth of murderers: Most killers lead lives that appear “normal” to anyone in the general public. Connotatively, the semiotic analysis of these coded signs interpret the simple relatable morning rituals of the man who takes pleasure in cutting into objects and cooking things that could have been alive signify the delight he gets in killing living and non-living things e.g mosquito, fruit, meat. The narrative structure of this text is a superb paradigm composition of signifiers and signifieds that has polysemic signs which once decoded connotes to menacing and destructive meaning.
The rhetorical manner in which he holds his neck in the shaving scene is a symbolic sign containing coded message of strangulation. The drops of blood from the shaving accident are signifiers and the implication of murder is signified. Subsequent combining of signifiers and signifieds in a sequential close up shots denotes to a man eating an omelette which also anchors to the connotative meaning of the signifiers. The razor-sharp knife he uses to slice the omelette is a signifier. Even the black colour of the sharp knife is a coded signifier. We can interpret the polysemic meaning of the metaphorical sign of knife taking into account that it is not a bread knife which is generally used. The knife symbolises murder and the colour black stands for death, enigma, and pain. The red liquid is a signifier and the ketchup is signified. However, employing analytical tools of semiology we can interpret the connotative meaning of calculated use of the fluid to represent blood. The use of ketchup instead of mayonnaise or sauce is a premeditated sign. The signs have connotation of obsession with blood of the main character of the show which signifies that he could be a killer or he is closely associated with the blood and criminal activities. Moreover the analysis of indexical sign of blood epitomise the symbol of life or of taking it.
The close up shot towards the end is a signifier where we get to see the clear view of Dexter’s face for the first time which abstracts him from the context and places the main focus on his face and presentational rhetoric of the text. The facial expression on his face is denotative and also connotes to a disturbing underlining meaning as he looks us in the eye. The shot lingers for just a little too long which provokes uncomfortable and agitated reaction and connotes that the man is hiding a dark secret. The suggestive sly smile spreads on his face that connotes his devious, vicious and cunning personality traits. It also connotes to the ability of the man to present himself as a normal face to the world but underneath he knows he is hiding his true nature from the world.
“The most common nonliteral sound to accentuate character personality or emotion is music.” (Sonnenschein 2001).
In this generic text, the presentational rhetoric is employed in encoding the non-diegetic music to convey the connotative meaning of playfulness and ominous. The music and digenetic sound evoke emotional and dramatic reaction through a combination of its elements: rhythm, melody, chords and instrumentation. The music signifier contains sassy and sinister horns that punctuate the visual signs in the paradigmatic narrative structure to direct our attention and induce particular meaning. For example the blood drops falling on the sink which connotes to a more sinister meaning in this context. This clearly relates to the Saussurean analytical division of the sign into a ‘sound-image’ (signifier) and the mood of the generic text is signified.
This notion is further supported by Cook (1998, p.8) who writes:
“By working with the image the sound seeks to explain the events, emotions and meaning, to transfer its clarity of meaning to the other”.
The diegetic environmental sounds aid in accentuating the actions of the character and anchor to the connotative meaning of the signifiers. The music and sound are very successful in providing a multi-accentuate meaning to the text which connotes to the menacing, sinister, mysterious and ambiguous characteristics of the man and the generic text.
Gibbs (2002, p.82) articulates “Mise-en-scène enables you to anchor your understanding of a film” In this text mise-en-scène of the narrative structure of lighting, actor, cinematography and camera makes possible a series of suggestive meanings. The careful use of paradigm and syntagm in the narration abet us to decode the connotative association and experience nonliteral meaning as well as literary one. The paradigm use of graphic and gritty nature of close up shots in the entire narrative anchors to the connotation of intimacy, closeness, asphyxiatation, leaving no room for the viewer to breath. With regard to Close-Up shot frames Munsterberg (1970, p.33) writes “The close-up heightens the vividness of that on which our mind is concentrating on”. Editing, extreme CU frames, lighting, sound, and swiftness of the images reveal polysemia with notion of perception. Every signifier is polysemic, emotionally poignant and revealing. The indication of fear, concealment and murder is the ultimate goal of each scene.
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The intensity, saturation, hue and depth of colours play a significant role in the syntagmatic structure of the text anchoring to dark, mysterious, fiend mood. The enhancement of the colour red directs our attention on this particular element of the composition and also connotes to a more sinister meaning. The long shot of the man when he is leaving is a sign and alteration in the tone of the light also has polysemic meaning as it renders our own notion of vision (and judgement) as unreliable or at least questionable. The purpose of the change in the lighting signifies that the man leads a double life or he has two personalities. When he is alone in his room he is himself as the tone of colours are saturated presenting a darker and baleful disposition of the man. But once he is outside the use of cheerful morning bright colours reinforces the connotation of the man leading a double life and keeping a secret. The nod he gives to the camera or audience is a sign which signify his acknowledgement that we know his secret. The question arises that if he is portrayed as an antihero seeing that he is the main character of the show and has connotation of close associated of blood and murder. It also fortifies the myth of killers that the murderers could be anyone at all and are quite indistinguishable from ordinary people as we see the narrative structure following the man doing daily rituals with polysemic relationship. (Cameron & Elizabeth 1987)
The rich use of symbolic metonymies in the narrative structure to create malevolent connotations out of a denotatively peaceful routine which we can all relate to makes this media text fascinating to analyse semiotically. The codes and conventions used in the rhetoric construe syntagmic relationship which instantly conveys one sign or denotation to the audience but semiotic analysis of these signs decipher the true intended meaning. At the connotation level all the visual symbols are interacting to create a sinister, darker, destructive notion of perception which insinuates murder.
Barthes, Roland (1977), The Rhetoric of the Image in Heath, Stephen (Trans) Image, Music, Text. New York: Hill and Wang. pp. 32-51
Innis, Robert E. (1986), Semiotics: An Introductory Reade. London: Hutchinson. pp. 88
Kristeva, Julia (1980), Desire in Language: A Semiotic Approach to Literature and Art. New York: Columbia University Press. pp.69
Long, Paul and Wall, Tim (2009), Media Studies: Texts, Production and Context. England: Longman. pp. 40
Sonnenschein, David (2001), Sound Design: The Expressive Power Of Music,Voice and Sound Effects in Cinema. USA: Michael Wiese. pp. 178
Saussure, Ferdinand de (1974), Course in General Linguistics. London: Fontana. pp. 128
Cook, Nicholas (1998), Analysing Musical Multimedia. London: Oxford University Press. pp.8
Gibbs, John (2002), Mise-en-scène:Film Style And Interpretation. London: Wallflower Press. pp.82
Munsterberg, Hugo (1970), The Film: A Psychological Study. New York: Dover Publications. pp.33
Cameron, Deborah and Frazer, Elizabeth (1987), The Lust To Kill. Cambridge: Polity Press. pp.158
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