The “Filmic” and Emotion

Is “filmic” the appropriate term for what Barthes is attempting to convey in the “The Third Meaning”?

According to Barthes’ “The Third Meaning,” the filmic and the third or obtuse meaning are all of the same fabric. Though these things share a number of qualities, what is particularly striking, in my opinion, is that such cannot be discussed in “language” (60); it extends “outside culture, knowledge” and “information” (55) and carries “a certain emotion” (59), a “love” that can seemingly be tied to and/ emphasize beauty, ugliness, eroticism, grief, etc. The obtuse meaning or the filmic is the “signifier” that does not have a “signified” (61); it does not have a meaning that can be ascribed to it in and of itself. With this in mind, let me attempt to tackle the ambiguous leading question about this intangible subject.

First, let one run with Barthes and try out some affirmative responses. One could say that the “filmic” is the appropriate term because Barthes is writing about something that is, in his opinion, unique to film. The third, obtuse meaning is what distinguishes true film from other arts including that of cinema (65). Unfortunately, this response seems lacking. If any of you can flesh it out further, give it a go.

Let one then try another confirmatory response: on a technical level, the filmic is the appropriate term for what Barthes’ is attempting to convey. In “The Third Meaning,” Barthes devotes much discussion to the subject of “stills.” Only films contain these particular type of stills, which is where one finds the obtuse meaning/ filmic, situated within the story that is communicated and represented by the writer, filmmaker, cast and crew.  Though this “accent,” or what viewers feel as a particular emotional response, exists outside but also within the film, one must fully grasp the film before extracting what is filmic from stills.

Now, let one turn to the other possibility: that “filmic” may not be the appropriate term here. Barthes’ discussion of Eisenstein’s stills seems to stress the subjective and emotive elements that a viewer can perceive but not necessarily articulate. However, are there not other arts that provoke a similar sensation? Barthes claims that other artistic works, such as photographs and paintings, cannot be filmic because they “lack the diegetic horizon” (66). Though he makes a bit of an exception for comics, photo-novels, ethnographic pictograms, stain glass, etc., saying that they occasionally have something of the obtuse meaning, he ultimately bars them because they are not “doubled by another text, the film” (66, note 1). This seems to be an arbitrary distinction that simply seeks to distinguish film from other arts.

Upon reflection, doesn’t a painting or photograph’s title communicate a message and can it not be read visually and symbolically? If one answers “yes,” one is still operating in the first and second level of meaning, but let one muse further. Occasionally, just as Barthes states is rare in films, something is felt, in addition, that cannot be expressed in words: an emotive pang, joy, revulsion, etc. This seems to be what is conveyed in Barthes’ discussion of Eisenstien’s stills.

I could have attached a number of paintings, engravings and photographs that, I believe, contain an obtuse meaning, but I was drawn to bestow on you a clip that I think some of you will recognize and might generate some interesting discussion: I feel that both the scene with Cameron from 1:25 on and the painting itself contain something of the obtuse meaning that Barthes speaks of. Could one say that the film dramatizes the “filmic” or obtuse meaning that is already existent in the painting?

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One Response to The “Filmic” and Emotion

  1. Raj says:

    “[The Filmic] seems to be an arbitrary distinction that simply seeks to distinguish film from other arts.”

    I felt quite similarly about Barthes’ use (coinage?) of the term ‘filmic’ and saw his essay in general to possess the sort of film-as-art-unto-itself thinking that Eisenstein rejects in his panegyric to DW Griffith and Dickens. It doesn’t seem as if the pause required to appreciate the filmic is inherent to film. For Barthes the narrative/diegetic elements of film are carried not so much in the movement of frame to frame but in the “possibility of configuration” afforded by such movement, which causes to unfold the “inarticulable third meaning”.

    Granted the opportunity to pause a film and study a particular frame is a fairly specific task. However in the clip from Ferris Bueller linked above it seems as if Cameron is performing something akin to the pause and interrogation of the filmic when he stares at Seurat’s painting. He closely focuses on individual pixels/points and becomes emotionally moved by these moreso than by the whole of the painting itself. Cameron is as much able to derive an emotional resonance (the obtuse meaning) from closely investigating the ‘cellular’ component of the painting as Barthes can from investigating a particular cell from a film. So the film does seem to dramatize the obtuse meaning (emotion) of Cameron’s response to the painting as well as, in showing that (and how) Cameron does respond to the painting, that obtuse meaning can be found in there as well.

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