Roland Barthes (#110 of 4)

The Most Assassinated Woman in the World Exporting Perilous Pauline: Pearl White and the Serial Film Craze

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The Most Assassinated Woman in the World: Exporting Perilous Pauline: Pearl White and the Serial Film Craze
The Most Assassinated Woman in the World: Exporting Perilous Pauline: Pearl White and the Serial Film Craze

“Garbo still belongs to that moment in cinema when capturing the human face still plunged audiences into the deepest ecstasy.” Thus begins famed cultural theorist Roland Barthes's 1957 essay entitled “The Face of Garbo,” which concluded by claiming that Greta Garbo's face, unlike that of the contemporary Audrey Hepburn, belonged to the realm of ideas, rather than events. One should take such a proclamation to mean that Garbo's face—its projection on a large screen—transcended the bounds of nationalistic interest and attained a degree of universality: an idea. Barthes's interests embody an Eisensteinian notion of cinematic signification, emphasizing individual frames and filmic components over narrative coherence. Such an aesthetic leaning will not be surprising, however, after reading editor Marina Dahlquist's recently published collection of essays on silent serial queen Pearl White, who, much like Garbo in later years, was valued across the globe for her face and body—and, more to the point, what each of those stood for in relation to an articulation of the femme nouvelle blossoming at the end of the 1910s.

Of particular reference here is the serialized film The Perils of Pauline (1914), though various, subsequent films are discussed. Over the course of seven essays, White is discussed in a global context, trotting the globe from France, to Sweden, to Czechoslovakia, to India, and to China, respectively. Alone, each essay provides clear historical context. Together, they assemble an invaluable addition to the canon of what Miriam Hansen terms “vernacular Modernism,” and supplements previous understandings and articulations of this concept with rigorously detailed examinations of precisely how White's body and persona impacted various cultural and nationalistic, artistic movements. In some cases, as with the surrealists and the French, the impact was exponential. In Sweden, censorship prevented Pauline and her serial sisters from frequenting screens. Yet, regardless of the degrees of impact, these essays conduct their historicity with a sensitive, keen eye for not just culturally specific detail, but together provide a comprehensive approach to the topic in ways that few edited collections manage.

A Lover’s Discourse: Terence Davies’s Films

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A Lover’s Discourse: Terence Davies’s Films
A Lover’s Discourse: Terence Davies’s Films

In a dark room, two women regard each other, the older one cloaked in shadow, the younger one better lit but turned away. The older is caring for her sick husband, wrapped up in bed sheets, while the younger thinks of killing herself due to the pangs of lost, despised love. “Sometimes it's tough to judge when you're caught between the devil and the deep blue sea,” she says, a little bent over, to which her staunch, stiff counterpart snaps back: “A lot of rubbish is talked about love. You know what real love is? It's wiping someone's ass, or changing the sheets when they've wet themselves, and letting 'em keep their dignity so you can both go on. Suicide? No one's worth it.”

The moment comes late in Terence Davies's new film, The Deep Blue Sea, which opens theatrically tomorrow, and a sneak preview of which began the BAMcinématek's retrospective of the British director's nine-film career (next week, Film Forum will screen a new 35mm print of 1992's gently gliding The Long Day Closes). This Deep Blue Sea scene, coming late into the story of a London woman struggling to move on post-WWII and post-love, in some ways sets the tone for all of Davies's work.

Going Nowhere Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot

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Going Nowhere: Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot
Going Nowhere: Jeffrey Eugenides’s The Marriage Plot

If there's a love triangle at the center of The Marriage Plot, then it's isosceles—two towering male characters (one autobiographical, one biographical) grounded by one basic female, Madeleine Hanna, about whom, despite her prominence in the novel, we end up knowing very little. She's an English major at Brown University who loves both Jane Austen and Roland Barthes; she's better behaved than her older sister; she's shown, at one point, perched on her dorm room's bed in some kind of pajama, eating peanut butter from the jar with a spoon, looking for all the world like a commercial of a girl hard at work. For much of the novel, Madeleine's work consists of a paper about the use of the marriage plot in Victorian novels, a de facto focus arising from a college course entitled, of course, “The Marriage Plot.” It starts as an assignment, turns into her undergraduate thesis, and is later edited into a published article (presumably by Madeleine, though aside from her peanut-butter bender we rarely see her consult her books for anything but romantic fortunes, and her only use of a pencil comes in the form of a Dear John letter), but through her hours of work on “I Thought You'd Never Ask: Some Thoughts on the Marriage Plot,” those elusive thoughts never really take shape.

What we can glean from the story comes to us in the form of characters defined not by marriage, but by sex—the having of it, the anticipation, and the desire to explicate of it. The novel opens with Madeleine hung over in bed, an enticing stain on the dress she fell asleep in. Two of her previous boyfriends are summarized right away, one of whom would speak only of circumcision, the other of whom she was ashamed to like because of his side career as a male model; she's described at one point wishing he were an athlete or a politician instead, grasping for platitudes of masculinity. At the end of her first date with her future husband, Leonard Bankhead, the syntax contorts to emphasize the fact that they don't kiss goodbye over what actually does happen. Later, or perhaps earlier (chronology is one of this novel's great victims), Madeleine meets the other side of her triangle, a religious studies major named Mitchell Grammaticus, at a toga party, and her toga briefly slips off her shoulder in front of him. Having now succeeded in viewing her breast, Mitchell loves Madeleine, but Madeleine loves Leonard. Leonard loves Madeleine, too, but he also loves the manic effects of his manic depression. Nobody loves Mitchell, except late in the novel when Jesus loves him.

New York Film Festival 2010: Certified Copy

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New York Film Festival 2010: <em>Certified Copy</em>
New York Film Festival 2010: <em>Certified Copy</em>

[Writer's note: Certified Copy is best seen cold. However, discussion of it requires spoiling elements. If you have not seen it yet, do not read this piece. Just know that the film is incredible.]

If I remind him of that walk along the Via Nazionale he says he remembers it, but I know he is lying and that he remembers nothing; and I sometimes ask myself if it was us, these two people, almost twenty years ago on the Via Nazionale, two people who conversed so politely, so urbanely, as the sun was setting; who chatted a little about everything perhaps and about nothing; two friends talking, two young intellectuals out for a walk; so young, so educated, so uninvolved, so ready to judge one another with kind impartiality; so ready to say goodbye to one another forever, as the sun set, at the corner of the street.—Natalia Ginzburg, He and I

A man and a woman stop in a café. They're perfect strangers or just-acquaintances, and having a perfectly good time. Then the man tells a joke that the woman doesn't enjoy. She starts crying, and the man conveniently gets up to take a phone call outside. A waitress asks the woman what's wrong, and the woman describes the problems that arise once you've been married for 15 years. When the man comes back inside, we no longer know the nature of their relationship. They laugh at the absurdity of the thought of being married, only to argue eventually over whether he's neglected her and the kid.

This is the point during Certified Copy when a lot of viewers check out, the spot where it shifts from a funny, sunny jaunt through Italy to a rom-com version of Persona. But Abbas Kiarostami's new movie has been preparing us for this moment all along. The two people are simultaneously playing the new couple and the old one, plus the actors playing them. The dissolution of personal identity is merely the last goal of Kiarostami's overall project in this film, which is to dissolve the line between copy and original altogether.