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Review of  Telecinematic Discourse

Reviewer: Julia Gillen
Book Title: Telecinematic Discourse
Book Author: Roberta Piazza Monika Bednarek Fabio Rossi
Publisher: John Benjamins
Linguistic Field(s): Discourse Analysis
Text/Corpus Linguistics
Book Announcement: 24.2939

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This collection of articles approaches an area of media studies relatively rarely examined by linguists. A variety of approaches are taken to the language of films and television series across British, American and Italian cultures. The authors offer a variety of methodologies and perspectives on the complexities of telecinematic discourse -- more specifically, films, film trailers and television series. One key theme taken up in several chapters is that spoken dialogues of such genres have to differ from spontaneous discourse at every linguistic level to be acceptable; authentic rhythms, content, and a lack of teleological efficacy of everyday talk would not be tolerated. Yet at the same time, an impression of verisimilitude has to be established in the audience's minds to enable a degree of suspension of disbelief. How such dilemmas are realised in different genres is one significant focus of the work, as are the ways in which individual characters can be differentiated. The authors all argue that when working from a linguistic basis, it is necessary to combine analyses that attend to other modes and offer diverse, always detailed, demonstrations of their empirical work.

Chapter 1. Introduction: Analysing telecinematic discourse
Roberta Piazza, Monika Bednarek and Fabio Rossi

This chapter, by the editors, sets out to differentiate the two media discourses studied -- that of cinematic film and TV series. Four key issues are identified: the relationship between represented and interactive participants; the interface between the verbal and visual; the definition of characters; and the relationship between real life and fictional discourses. The authors explain and illustrate how the re-creation or re-presentation of the world ''is always in line with the specific socio-cultural conventions of the society in which telecinematic texts are produced. It is also in line with a particular 'media logic' (Iedema 2001: 187) which differentiates these products….'' (p. 9). This sets the agenda for the following chapters, which take different approaches to identifying and analysing how media logic operates in specific examples.

Part I. Cinematic discourse

Chapter 2. Discourse analysis of film dialogues: Italian comedy between linguistic realism and pragmatic non-realism
Fabio Rossi

Rossi demonstrates how the dubbed audio track featured not just in foreign films, but also in Italian films, compares with spontaneous real-life talk. He finds that film genres display fewer characteristics of spontaneous speech such as redundancy, hesitation, overlap, etc., and show a higher degree of coherence and cohesion. However, this aligns with audience expectations; just as camera conventions are not naturalistic, but become expected, the introduction of an ''excess of realism'' would be jarring to the viewer.

Chapter 3. Using film as linguistic specimen: Theoretical and practical issues
Michael Álvarez-Pereyre

The author demonstrates how the very qualities that differentiate film discourse from spontaneous real-life talk make it suitable for pedagogical purposes. He points out that the objection that dialogues in films are different from spontaneous speech is to ignore that substantial proportions of language as it is encountered are not spontaneous. Thus, Álvarez-Pereyre further develops investigation of, what he terms, 'filmspeak' as a genre.

Chapter 4. Multimodal realisations of mind style in Enduring Love
Rocío Montoro

‘Mind style’ is a stylistics term referring to the ''linguistic features that project the peculiarities of characters' cognitive make-up,'' (p. 70) in the author's explanation. Here, Montoro extends the traditional language-based approach of stylistics into a multimodal approach. She combines the analysis of verbal signs as ''mind style indicators'' (p. 69) with the analysis of gestures and camera perspectives. Montoro aims to increase our sensitivity to how qualities of characterisation achieved in the novel ''Enduring Love'' are skilfully realised in the film adaptation of the same name, including through the use of camera angles and gesture.

Chapter 5. Pragmatic deviance in realist horror films: A look at films by Argento and Fincher
Roberta Piazza

As is the case with other authors in this volume, Piazza is particularly interested in how unconventional characters are depicted, here, in the genre of ''realist horror'' or ''slashers.'' He demonstrates how deviance, characteristic of horror films, is communicated through violation of Gricean cooperative maxims. As the book exemplifies as a whole, this chapter endeavours to offer an approach to film studies ''rooted in linguistic stylistics'' (p. 86) and, through painstaking work, to demonstrate the benefits of this. That is, rather than offer a broad critique of the films, Piazza considers very short sections intensively, examining the pragmatics of language used against all elements of the multimodal realisation. It is shown how in this genre the killers infringe the maxim of relevance, thus presenting themselves to the audience as abnormal.

Chapter 6. Emotion and empathy in Martin Scorsese’s Goodfellas : A case study of the “funny guy” scene
Derek Bousfield and Dan McIntyre

The authors take a pragmatic approach to examining linguistic, paralinguistic and kinesic manifestations of fear, seen as deriving from a lack of empathy between two characters. The careful analysis of a two minute and 30 second scene includes a multimodal transcript, likely to be helpful as a model to others investigating both linguistic and non-linguistic features of film. They demonstrate how the emotion of fear is realised in the complex interplay of modes.

Chapter 7. Quantifying the emotional tone of James Bond films: An application of the Dictionary of Affect in Language
Rose Ann Kozinski

Kozinski shows how the language of ''official'' James Bond films differs from Austin Powers parodies in the expression of emotionality. She deploys the Dictionary of Affect in Language (Whissell 2009) to enable quantitative analysis. The parodies adopt a distinctive tone she terms ''pleasant and active'', whereas the Bond films demonstrate greater variety over time. Their tone relates partly to the specific actor and partly according to temporal cycles of variation in plot.

Chapter 8. Structure and function in the generic staging of film trailers: A multimodal analysis
Carmen Daniela Maier

This chapter demonstrates an approach to the analysis of comedy film trailers through examining their narrative structure. The author creates a framework for investigation drawing on the work of Labov & Waletzky (1967). Applying this reveals how all the nine stages of the prototypical comedy film trailer contribute to the purpose of promotion, some implicitly and some explicitly. Each stage is also associated with certain kinds of information given and functions. Each specific trailer varies in how many of the stages are used and their precise sequencing, but overall the model appears robust.

Part II. Televisual discourse

Chapter 9. “I don’t know what they’re saying half the time, but I’m hooked on the series”: Incomprehensible dialogue and integrated multimodal characterisation in The Wire
Michael Toolan

This chapter combines quantitative and qualitative analyses of TV series texts with audience research. Toolan makes use of Kozloff's (2000) idea of ''linguistic opacity'' as part of the aesthetics of the TV series, demonstrating how a strategy of deliberately inducing comprehension problems in the audience is, at first sight, paradoxically, one of the means through which the audience is engaged. So the police officers’ struggles to interpret the gang’s intercepted communications involve the audience in this process. Toolan ends by examining how dialogues are embedded multimodally and explains how, for many viewers, this work was exceptional in conveying psychological depth and sociological plausibility.

Chapter 10. The stability of the televisual character: A corpus stylistic case study
Monika Bednarek

Stability of characterisation is usually assumed to be important to TV series, i.e., that they do not change drastically over time. Using a corpus linguistics approach, Bednarek demonstrates how stability of characterisation is achieved, while still permitting the character some room for stylistic differentiation, important for engaging the audience. Central to her investigation of the ''Gilmore Girls'' are analyses of a character's diachronic language variation across seasons and variation according to interlocutor. For example, a term may appear far more frequently in earlier episodes as the audience is encouraged to identify a character’s likes and dislikes, but can later become more implied as the character has become more established.

Chapter 11. Star Trek: Voyager’s Seven of Nine: A case study of language and character in a televisual text
Susan Mandala

Here, the development of a character through a TV series, an essential part of the plot, is shown to be achieved in large measure through changes in (im)politeness strategies. In this case, the character focussed upon makes a journey from cyborg to near-human, linguistically realised through adaptation to politeness norms. For example, her early lack of negative politeness (Brown & Levinson 1987) is gradually modified as she mitigates face-threating acts.

Chapter 12. Relationship impression formation: How viewers know people on the screen are friends
Claudia Bubel

Using conversation analysis, Bubel investigates alignment patterns among four central characters of the TV series Sex and the City. The specific interest is the negotiation of friendship through shifting alignment patterns and interpersonal affiliation/disaffiliation. In analysing shifting alignment patterns Bubel considers both the negotiation of intersubjectivity and the display of common cultural attitudes. She also illustrates the ways in which, during conversation the four central characters affiliate with, for example, one other and thus disaffiliate, at least momentarily, with at least one other.

Chapter 13. Genre, performance and Sex and the City
Brian Paltridge, Angela Thomas and Jianxin Liu

Drawing on Butler's (2004) notion of performativity, the authors analyse how gendered identities are performed through the genre of casual conversation. A major issue here is multimodality: non-linguistic modes of expression belonging to the character such as dress and gesture are significant, as well as the means by which these are framed. This chapter links strongly with the last in providing theorised readings of this TV show that, for many, was a significant cultural event.

Chapter 14. Bumcivilian: Systemic aspects of humorous communication in comedies
Alexander Brock

Brock explores the creation of humour at various levels of language in terms of linguistic deviance or incongruity by discussing a wide variety of examples. He shows how incongruity can reside at any level of language, for example, phonological, semantic or in the construction of an alternative reading of the world. Brock demonstrates how incongruities can become predictable, thus endangering the effect of humour. He concludes that the development of a more complex understanding of humour is needed.


This is a genuinely innovative collection of texts, examining aspects of media discourse from a variety of different linguistics-based approaches. I can imagine that a number of the chapters will be much cited as they lead to promising directions of further investigation. However, I do own to two questions that keep lingering as I have read and then re-read this book, wondering how best to communicate its qualities to prospective readers. I want to achieve something more useful in an evaluation than a mere reflection of my own subjective responses to the chapters, grounded in my personal experiences.

I find it difficult to move far from my subjective responses with what became my first major question: Is it necessary for the reader to have engaged with the particular film or TV series in question in order to relate to the chapters, and does a depth of engagement (i.e. in practice a liking for the film or TV series) help? I have to admit that in general, I did often more vividly appreciate the authors' approaches when I was already familiar with the media product. So, for example, my own strong positive responses to ''The Wire'', ''Sex and the City'' and ''Star Trek: Voyager'' assisted my understandings of some of the chapters about TV series. In particular, Toolan's multifaceted approach to the language of ''The Wire'' seemed extremely informative and original. When I was not familiar with the topic, I sometimes struggled to understand the authors' points. For example, it was completely reasonable of Piazza, Bednarek and Rossi to illustrate their introductory arguments in Chapter 1 through an extract from ''No Country for Old Men,'' a 2007 Coen brothers film, as a substantial proportion of likely readers may be assumed to have seen it. As it happens, I regret to admit I have not. For me, the extract the authors chose to discuss seemed hackneyed and lifeless. Two unsubtle pieces of characterisation jump off the page as indicative of psychopathic travelling baddie first encountering a hapless, defenceless victim. I emphasise, of course, that this is no comment against the film, but rather a reference to how the text seemed narrow and clichéd to me when unfamiliar with the full multimodal presentation. As a result, I doubtless lost something in my understanding of the discussion.

Yet, to return to my original question, it was not always the case that familiarity with the media product led to my learning more from or further appreciating the chapters. Rossi's chapter, working with dubbing in mid-twentieth century Italian films, conveyed fascinating insights into the nature of film language. There are many very good chapters in the book; each possesses some good qualities, but space precludes me from writing a proper appreciation of them all. In my opinion, Rossi's and Toolan's chapters were the most informative, multifaceted and enjoyable to read. Toolan's energy in combining a number of different approaches positively fizzes off the page. Through willingness to combine methods including audience research, he wisely avoided the presumption of homogeneity of reception, that for me at the very least flavoured some interpretations in other chapters.

My second question remains one that still genuinely puzzles me. For me, there is a glaring dividing line between the two approaches taken in the book. Did the editors expect this dichotomy to emerge? The issue here is between two approaches to telecinematic discourse. The first approach, that is most clearly introduced by the editors, and exemplified in most chapters, is an explicit recognition of the crafted nature of telecinematic discourse. Both Rossi and Toolan, among others, never lose sight of the artificiality of the media product. All authors, whether explicitly or implicitly, contribute insights into how scripts are written and become effective. However, some tend to occlude attention to the realised character as crafted, and instead analyse the language of characters virtually as if they were real. Personal intentions and communicative means through which they are pursued are ascribed to the character herself or himself. There is always some reference to the context as a media product, but nonetheless, I felt the tone to be very different from the more dominant recognition of media product as craft. I regret that the editors did not choose to discuss this issue and matters arising -- a concluding chapter could have been fascinating.

In sum, this is a thought-provoking book, appropriate for those who wish to experiment with diverse approaches to media discourse from linguistic perspectives that take account of other modalities. The editors and publishers have done an excellent job of presentation; the texts are enhanced by careful figures and tables, and the composite index is admirable.


Brown, Penelope & Stephen Levinson. 1987. Politeness: Some universals in language useage. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.

Butler, Judith. 2004. Undoing gender. New York: Routledge.

Iedema, Rick. 2001. Analysing film and television: a social semiotic account of Hospital: an unhealthy business. In van Leeuwen, T. & Jewitt, C. Handbook of visual analysis. London: Sage (183-204).

Kozloff, Sarah. 2000. Overhearing film dialogue. Berkeley: University of California Press.

Labov, William & Joshua Waletzky. 1967. Narrative analysis: oral versions of personal experience. In J. Helm (ed). Essays on the verbal and visual arts. Seattle: American Ethnological Society (12-44).

Whissell, Cynthia 2009. Using the revised Dictionary of Affect in Language to quantify the emotional undertones of samples of natural language. Psychological Reports 102: 469-483.
Julia Gillen is Senior Lecturer in Digital Literacies in the Literacy Research Centre and Department of Linguistics and English Language, Lancaster University, UK. Her teaching responsibilities include supervising dissertations in language and the media and convening an undergraduate course called Understanding Media. She researches language in multimodal interaction, approached through a sociocultural perspective. Fields of study include: virtual worlds; Twitter; early childhood; sports journalism and the Edwardian postcard.