The Film Theory of Roland Barthes

Fairfax-Image-2Michael Blum at Bookforum:

Following a colorful inspection of his post-Mythologies reflections on film, what emerges is a portrait of Barthes the fetishist, deriving furtive pleasure from “the insignificant detail, the trivial object, the commonplace element that somehow seems slightly out of place.” The import of Barthes’s relish for the “ticklish detail” or the “obtuse meaning,” however, is not confined to mere fetishism. Watts persuasively argues that Barthes’s eye for the sensuous surface of things—whether the idiosyncratic exactness of Sergei Eisenstein’s mise en scène or Michelangelo Antonioni’s meandering landscape shots—has trenchant consequences for what Watts calls a “micropolitics” of film. This micropolitics, according to Watts, finds expression in a kind of egalitarian cinematic gaze, in “an aesthetic sensibility intent upon exploring the inexhaustible fascination with the ordinary.” This angle identifies the revolutionary potential of a film not strictly in its story, message, or even style, but rather in its “fractions and particles,” in those miniature, fleeting, fortuitous, or seemingly insignificant elements that nonetheless manage to “transmit to viewers . . . new conceptions of being a body, of linking one gesture to another, of moving in space, of being together.” This sensibility, conveyed across several of Barthes’s late writings from the mid- to late-1970s, also marks his repudiation of the fettering protocols of theory and the universalizing claims of abstract science. By this time, he is no longer under the impression that the power of cinema resides “in its capacity to hypnotize or render us passive,” but rather in its “ability to transform the sensory experience of the world around us.” According to Watts, Barthes’s cinema not only gradually became a delectable pastime but also a bridge to the world, and a machine for dreaming of ways to change it.

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