Barthe’s “third meaning” and the question of live-action vs. animation.

Is Roland Barthe’s “third meaning” only recognizable in live action narrative?

In Barthe’s “Image, Music, Text,” he expounds lengthily on the idea of this “third meaning,” or the “obtuse” meaning, which is essentially the details that transcend the obvious, or intentional signifiers. The still of the grieving woman is lifted into the realm of the obtuse for Barthe when he tries to articulate the meaning he derives beyond the obvious signifiers, and sees “the coif, the headscarf holding in the hair.” He continues with a litany of particular, obtuse details, which end up being the very specific details that make the woman look like she does. He notes the “upward circumflex of the faded eyebrows, faint and old, the excessive curve of the eyelids, lowers but brought together as thought squinting, and the bar of the half-opened mouth” (57).

Obtuse meanings are not obvious, like the shower of gold in the image from Ivan the Terrible. Those obvious signifiers can be assumed to be intentional directorial choices. That’s how movies work – we all know that.

The obtuse details are a bit more tricky when considering how a film is made. There are certainly directors with the nuanced sensibility to inform a scene with layers of signifiers, adding subtle details that serve to blur and add depth to the obviousness of the scene.

But it also seems to me that the obtuse details have to undoubtedly sometimes be products of “real life” – that is, the fact that although the film is depicting a fictional story, we are still seeing real people in a real world. You can’t control every detail. You can’t put how the wind will blow a certain fabric in that particular shot in the script, or how the old lady’s eyes will look (that is her genetics – she brought that with her when she was cast, and it will play into the movie whether the director intended it to or not). I would imagine that the obtuse is partially composed of this layer of real life.

Unlike an animated movie, in which every single aspect of that world comes from the artist’s mind – even the crease in a character’s right pant leg – the film cannot escape the small and arbitrary details of real life.

Barthe acknowledges comics and photo-novels as mediums that do something similar by combining a still and story (66). I don’t think that non live-action mediums are free from obtuse meaning. As a lover of graphic novels, I’ve often found my self mesmerized by a specific panel, creating worlds of meaning in the tiny details that exist only in that image.

I guess what I’m curious about is how the third meaning is reconciled with specific artistic intent (assuming that intent is beyond the obvious). It seemed to me like a lot of what Barthe considered obtuse meanings were things that existed outside of what the director may have purposefully considered. But then how does this work with non live-action narratives? Do we simply ignore that difference and just look at both stills as wholly fictional, created worlds?

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