Analysis Of Semiotics In The Film Taxi Driver

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This visual essay looks at the work of filmmaker Martin Scorsese, focusing in on the film ‘Taxi Driver’. The aim was to make a correlation between this film and theories of semiotics, in particular the symbolisms Scorcese uses to question the protagonists Loneliness and Masculinity. This was achieved through researching what symbols were actually used, or in particular what Scorcese purposely symbolised, for example water and money. To understand the theories of symbols and their use in film, research was also made into the signifier and signified and this theory’s role within the film, and the internal response one has to the signifier.

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The semiotician Roland Barthes once said about film that “trivial aspects of everyday life can be filled with meaning”, and this stands true with something as simple as a characters haircut, or even their way of walking. For example, what does James Dean’s hairstyle in ‘Rebel Without a Cause’ say about his personal attitude towards life? Or what about Ryan Gosling’s character’s tattoos in ‘A Place Beyond the Pines’ ? In this essay, I will discuss our visual essay, a study of ‘Taxi Driver’ by Martin Scorsese and its semiotics. Film is an art of visual abbreviations. Each image can be seen as a sign to some extent. Hence, to visually show the symbolisms and signs in the film was the most effective way of getting our points across. While discussing our visual essay, I will discuss theories of semiotics that Scorcese took advantage of to create ‘Taxi Driver’.

Semiotics – Signifier and Signified

Films construct their meanings through signs.

The theory of the Signifier and Signified was created by Ferdinand De Saussure in his work ‘Course in General Linguistics’. The sign is described as a ‘double entity’ and has two separate parts: The Signifier and the Signified, however there is no relation between the two.

Signifier: The physical form of the sign, eg. A photograph or a word.

Signified: A mental concept that has a correlation with the physical form.

The signified need not be a ‘real object’ but is some referent to which the signifier refers. For example, the word F-I-R-E can be a referent of a physical Fire. The concept of the signified does not exist in any physical form. It is a thought that exists within a system of differences. The signified often means different things to many people. The relationship between the two is arbitrary, says Saussure. Thus, the idea of a fire is not linked to the signifier by any relationship. It could just as easily be represented by another sequence of letters. Only the complicated system of Language and society’s relationship with language can account for the ways that relationships between concepts and physical forms are formed.

Later on Saussure says that “the individual does not have the power to change a sign in any way once it has become established in the linguistic community”. However, in cinema it can often be the contrary. Colours seen on screen for instance are signs that can evoke many different emotions depending on context. The reds in ‘The Shining’ for instance. When Jack walks into the hotel lobby for the first time to do his interview the pillars in the lobby are very red in contrast to the rest of the background. Later on, we see this very lobby being flooded with blood. As Jack spirals into insanity and murder, the amount of red seen increases. In stark contrast Lester Burnham in ‘American Beauty’ fantasises the teenager Angela’s body covered in roses that are in saturated shade of red. Two different mental concepts, and two different portrayals of the signifier, red.

Semiotics – The Icon, Index and Symbol

Charles S. Peirce said the mental form a sign takes, it’s signifier, can be classified as one of three types. An icon, an index or a symbol. We focused in particular on the symbol and how something as banal as water can symbolise the protagonists inner rage.

The connection between the signifier and signified in symbols must be culturally learned. It then becomes associated with the concept it represents over time. There’s no logical connection between a symbol and what it represents. This stands well in everyday life and can do so with film as well.

“We do not yet know,” semiotics Charles Deleuze says on page 69 of The Movement-Image, “what relationship Peirce proposes between the sign and the image.” Peirce was not anticipating films such as Taxi Driver to take such advantage of symbolism. There are symbols shown in film that are widely agreed upon having a distinct meaning, such as certain colours which I discussed earlier. But as symbolism is built upon a system of differences, almost anything in a film can be symbolic, without the filmmaker intending it to be. As we discuss in the video essay, Scorcese uses simple objects such as water to bring us into the mind of Travis. If water is shown on many occasions in the film, each audience member makes up their own mind on what it means on each separate occasion.

Semiotics in Multimedia

These two theories of semiotics have significant relevance in the world of Multimedia, in particular in Advertising. Through successful verbal and visual, advertisements aim to promote a product/brand. A lot of techniques used in advertising are similar to those in cinema.

Many critics and sceptics of advertising see the practice as so manipulative through semiotics that consumers are unable to rationally decide what they actually need to purchase. The advertiser puts in subtle cues that attract the audience toward the brand/product. For example, a company such as Calvin Klein often promote their perfumes using the image of a beautiful man/woman using this perfume. This images connotes youth, vibrance and a sex appeal. They are seen as almost godlike, mythical. It can work as a signifier for the mythic signified feminine/masculine beauty.

For the audience, awareness of the manipulative nature of semiotics in advertisement is important. It is more difficult for the consumer to know whether they need the product, or are just at the hand of good, semiotically inspired advertising.

Problems/issues with Semiotics

Semiotics is able to question, analyse and reveal film signification. Whereas there are plenty of semiotic studies that are concerned with film themes or film plots in films such as Taxi Driver, symbolism still requires a deeper understanding of its sign-processes. There is a difference between a films themes, and what a film uses to accentuate these themes, for example symbols. An issue with this theory of the symbol in film is differentiating between the two. It is straight-forward to see masculinity as a theme in Taxi Driver, but it can also be seen as a symbol for a derelict society in the grander scheme of the film. It was something to consider and eventually settled these thoughts based on our personal opinions and thoughts of the film.

Problems/Issues/Limitations with Visual Essays

Generally, Visual Essays are easier to digest and concentrate on than Audio or Literary ones, especially when attempting to explain semiotics in film, a visual art. However, creating a visual essay did not come without its setbacks.

Visual aids are often too simple, and therefore a crucial topic can lose its complexity. While we attempted to keep in all topics we researched, we had to condense down aspects, in particular the introduction. We were unable to discuss in depth the theories of the Signifier and Signified, focussing more so on the Icon, Index and Symbol. With a three minute timeframe, we were limited to what we put out and only created what we felt most important. We were happy with the outcome, however it was a limitation.


To conclude, semiotics is prevalent in so many different aspects of today’s world. As visual communications and arts grow, so to do the potential for semiotics. In the world of multimedia, they can exploit and take advantage of the consumer. Yet, in good cinema they take advantage in the best way possible, creating thoughtful art through theories of semiotics such as the Signifier and Signified, along with the Icon, index and Symbol.

10 Jun 2021

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