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The "provocation and pleasure" of Roland Barthes' film theory


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As Michael Blum writes at the Bookforum website, Roland Barthes had an outsized influence on film criticism of the 1970s and ‘80s, even though he himself wrote little about film. Blum finds this and other insights about Barthes’ peculiar and complex relationship to film in the new book Roland Barthes’ Cinema by Philip Watts. Read and excerpt from Blum’s review below or the full text here.

Even though Barthes’ name was a flashpoint for film culture in the ’70s and ’80s, only seldom do dedicated considerations of films figure in his own writings. Furthermore, any reference to Barthes’s writings would need to reckon with the enormous changes they underwent over time; for there was, effectively, not one Barthes, but several. The structuralist, pseudo-scientific, jargon-heavy, and even occasionally condescending voice that streaked Barthes’s earlier work gave way—in his later writings—to a spirited thrust in the opposite direction, wherein he exhibited a suppleness of thought, a limpidity of reflection, and an allergy to dogma. The gulf separating this latter Barthes from the Barthes of Jones’s recollection is considerable.

Was one mode of his writing more influential for film culture? And was one mode more influenced by film? These curiosities are central to Philip Watts’s new book, Roland Barthes’ Cinema. Here, Watts contends that film in fact occupied a privileged place in Barthes’s life, and that his regard for cinema—somewhat covert, intermittent, and certainly complex—was also the latent site of his dramatic evolution as a thinker.

Perhaps ironically, Roland Barthes’ Cinema is only secondarily a book about film. Foremost, its sights are set on ideas, their circulation in different circles and their transformation over time. And there have been few milieus more conducive to the frenetic life of the mind than the one that Watts’s book considers: the French scene spanning the 1950s to the ’80s, an era rife with divisive politics (various strains of contending leftisms, all set against the entrenched, conservative Gaullist Fifth Republic) and intellectual and artistic sectarianism (competing philosophies, antagonistic aesthetic camps), all swiveling around political crises (Algeria, Vietnam), and all positively electrified around the time of May ’68.

Image of Roland Barthes via topphotographyfilms.com.