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A Semiotic Analysis: an Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge

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    An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge is a short story set during the American Civil War by author Ambrose Pierce. That was later adapted into a short film by director Robert Enrico and became an episode of The Twilight Zone in 1963. Enrico used dialogue and voice-over sparingly, and relied heavily on the rural landscape, and how it transformed through war and the psychological state of the protagonist Peyton Farquhar, to convey his ideas.

    An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge has an enormous amount of semiotic analysis in the short film. Just in the beginning of the film we see this through the sign on the tree, the Owl Creek Bridge itself and the driftwood. Our first sign of semiotics in the film we see a sign nailed to a tree stating, “ORDER ANY CIVILIAN caught interfering with the railroad, bridges, or trails will be SUMMARILY HANGED, The 4th of April 1862 (Enrico, 1968). ” This gives us the timeframe and setting showing us that it’s during the Civil War in Northern, Alabama. This also shows us that our protagonist is an insurgent of war.

    They don’t tell us in this installment what actions he did to put him in this predicament, but we eventually end up discovering this later in Ambrose’s stories actually tells us why he is about to be hanged. One of the next important scenes is the bridge scene that Farquhar is about to be hanged from. A man stood upon a railroad bridge in northern Alabama, looking down into the swift water twenty feet below. The man’s hands were behind his back, the wrists bound with a cord. A rope closely encircled his neck. It was attached to a stout cross-timber above his head and the slack fell to the level of his knees.

    Some loose boards laid upon the sleepers supporting the metals of the railway supplied a footing for him and his executioners, two private soldiers of the Federal army, directed by a sergeant who in civil life may have been a deputy sheriff. At a short remove upon the same temporary platform was an officer in the uniform of his rank, armed. He was a captain. A solider at each end of the bridge stood with his rifle in the position known as support, that is to say, vertical in front of the left shoulder, the hammer resting on the forearm thrown straight across the chest, a formal and unnatural position, enforcing an erect carriage of the body.

    It did not appear to be the duty of these two men to know what was occurring at the center of the bridge; they merely blockaded the two ends of the foot planking that traversed it (Pierce, 2008). The Owl Creek Bridge suggests connection and transition. Confederate sympathizers had presumably destroyed the bridge in an attempt to prevent the North from advancing deeper into enemy territory. With this important pathway restored by Union forces, the North’s war effort once again gained momentum in northern Alabama, ushering in the ultimate defeat of the Confederacy and bringing an end to the Civil War!

    Ironically, the target of Farquhar’s sabotage attempt becomes the platform on which his execution is staged. By sabotaging the bridge, Farquhar was attempting to destroy order and connection, just as he erodes order by fantasizing, in the final moments of his life, about disconnecting himself from his physical body. The bridge serves as an intermediary space, joining the creeks opposite banks, it is neither one side nor the other, but a connection between them. Similarly, the bridge joins life and death for Farquhar.

    Right as the rope snaps Farquhar escapes into the water, the bridge suggests a foreshadowing between fantasy and reality. Before the rope snaps and he falls into to the water he notices a piece of driftwood floating in the water. As we see the driftwood making its way downriver, it represents both Farquhar’s unreachable freedom and he begins imagining his own escape in the water. At first, the driftwood distracts Farquhar from thoughts of his wife and children. It eventually becomes an extension of Farquhar himself, as he imagines floating in the water as though he is driftwood.

    The driftwood also indicates Farquhar’s distorted sense of time. At first, he sees the water racing rapidly beneath him, and then sees the dancing driftwood. He notices how slowly it seems to be moving in the calm water of the creek. This abrupt change in his perception marks Farquhar’s transition from reality to fantasy. From then on, he takes liberties with the details of his own story and supplies the ending he desires: a brave escape rather than an execution for being a war criminal. Ironically, although he envisions himself as driftwood of sorts, it is driftwood that led to his capture in the first place.

    The driftwood thus serves as his means of undoing just as it ultimately represents an unattainable freedom. An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge show enormous amounts of semiotic-analysis that dive deeper into the meaning of the film and an element of foreshadowing. (Bershen, 2010) The author Ambrose Pierce used these signs or symbols for readers and viewers to understand the protagonist life and struggle he went through. Truth or Fiction in Filmmaking? Concerns about documentary ethics are not new, but they have intensified over the past several years in response to changes in the industry.

    By the late 1990s, U. S. documentary filmmakers had become widely respected media makers, recognized as independent voices at a time of falling public confidence in mainstream media and in the integrity of the political process. At the same time, documentary television production was accelerating to fill the need for quality programming in ever expanding screen time, generating popular, formula-driven programs. The growth of commercial opportunities and the prominence of politics as a documentary subject also produced tensions.

    Documentary filmmakers, whether they were producing histories for public television, nature programs for cable, or independent political documentaries, have found themselves facing not only economic pressure but also close scrutiny for the ethics of their practices (Aufderheide, Jaszi, & Chandra, 2009). One of the biggest controversies that provides an excellent example would be Fahrenheit 9/11 from its indictment about the Bush administration geopolitics (Aufderheide, Jaszi, & Chandra, 2009).

    Critics of the movie said it could demoralize the country in a time of war. It’s a message that’s undermining the war on terrorism,” said Melanie Morgan a radio talk show host at KSFO (Schneider, 2004). In 2007, the documentary Manufacturing Dissent filmed by two Canadian documentarians Rick Caine and Debbie Melnyk who started out to make a friendly film about Michael Moore and in their research, found Moore had told BIG LIES in all his movies, which caused many to question Moore’s claims. And since these Canadian filmmakers are far left and were fans of Moore, their movie was taken seriously by the liberal press whereas a film out of the right side would be dismissed as biased.

    No one likes to be played for a fool as Moore apparently did with the American public, even if they are on the same side politically as is Moore (IMDb, 2007). The treatment of archival materials is widely recognized as a site of ethical challenges, but there was a wide range of responses. Filmmakers repeatedly referenced problems with using historical materials, which document specific people, places, and times, as generic references or in service to a particular and perhaps unrelated point. During a conference of industry professional in Washington DC several groups discussed many important ethical perspectives of filmmaking.

    The conference was entitled Making Your Media Matter 2012; discussing the honest truth and ethics in documentary filmmaking and they were given an ethical scenario. In your historical film featuring memories of the Vietnam Era, you have some great footage that makes your point. The only problem is to get a plausible sequence you will have to interpolate some close ups, from a demonstration in Philadelphia into a story about Washington DC. Now they happened at the same time and you will only use a few close ups. So can you use the Philadelphia footage as a substitution for DC footage that you don’t have (Aufderheide P. 2010)?

    In my opinion I would say no because of historical accuracy. My theory behind this is because in the future other documentarians could use this film as archived footage and that could become part of the historical record in the future and will tell a false story of the past. Documentarians on a daily basis have profound ethical conflict when creating visually compelling and accurate films. The ethical conflicts they face emerge largely because nonfiction filmmakers and writers believe that they carry large responsibilities.

    To portray them as storytellers who tell important truths in a world where the truth they want to tell are often ignored or hidden. Many filmmakers and scriptwriters believe that they come into a situation where their subjects, are relatively powerless and they as media makers hold some power. They believe that their viewers are dependent on their ethical choices. Many even see themselves as executors of a higher truth, framed within a narrative (Bershen, 2010). At the same time, nonfiction filmmakers and script writers are vulnerable in a wider media system.

    They constantly face resource constraints and are often trying to behave conscientiously within a ruthlessly bottom-line business environment. They sometimes deal with hostile ceo’s or powerful celebrity subjects. Indeed, any subject’s withdrawal of affection may result in denial of access to material in which the filmmakers have invested heavily (Bershen, 2010). When filmmakers face ethical conflicts, they often resolve them in an ad-hoc way, keeping their deep face-to-face relationship with subjects and their more abstract relationship with the viewers in balance with practical concerns about cost, time, and ease of production.

    This ethical conflict is put in motion by these features of a filmmaker’s embattled-truth-teller identity are, ironically for a truth-telling community, unable to be widely shared or even publicly discussed in most individual cases. Filmmakers are constrained by contract, but far more often they are constrained by the fear that openly discussing ethical issues will expose them to risk of censure or may jeopardize the next job.

    Work Cited

    1. Aufderheide, P. (2010, September). Making Your Media Matter 2010
    2. Conference: Honest Truths–Documentary Ethics in Practice. Retrieved March 4, 2013, from Center for Social Media: http://www. enterforsocialmedia. org/making-your-media-matter/video/making-your-media-matter-2010-conference-honest-truths-documentary-et Aufderheide, P. , Jaszi, P. , & Chandra, M. (2009, September).
    3. Honest Truths: Documentary Filmmakers on Ethical Challenges in Their Work. Retrieved March 4, 2013, from Center for Social Media: http://www. centerforsocialmedia. org/making-your-media-matter/documents/best-practices/honest-truths-documentary-filmmakers-ethical-chall Bershen, W. (2010, September 1).
    4. A Question of Ethics: The Relationship between Filmmaker and Subject. Retrieved March 4, 2013, from International Documentary Association: http://www. ocumentary. org/magazine/question-ethics-relationship-between-filmmaker-and-subject Enrico, R. (Director). (1968).
    5. An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge [Motion Picture]. IMDb. (2007, October 19). Manufacturing Dissent: Uncovering Michael Moore. Retrieved March 4, 2013, from Internet Movie Database: http://www. imdb. com/title/tt0961117/ Pierce, A. (2008). An Occurrence at Owl Creek Bridge. London: Forgotten Books. Schneider, B. (2004, June 25).
    6. CNN. Retrieved March 4, 2013, from Fahrenheit 9/11′ sparks controversy and wins attention: http://www. cnn. com/2004/ALLPOLITICS/06/25/moore. film/index. html

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