Mythologies- Barthes on… Romans in film

In his essay, Romans in films, Barthes draws his attention to the working symbols in Mankiewicz’s film Julius Caesar. One thing which he points as striking is that all the characters have fringes. This is a working symbol of the film because it unifies all of the characters, giving them a chosen ‘Roman-ness’. It is plain to everyone that not all Romans had fringes in real life, some were bald, that much does not stretch one’s imagination. However, Mankiewicz chose to have a symbol as conspicuous as possible, and one thing that everyone CAN share in is a fringe- it draws one’s attention and sits in plain sight for the viewer.

However, one further use of the fringe as a symbol is that it leads readily to the use of a sub-symbol- that of messy hair. In the fringe, we have symmetry; symmetry is tidiness and is therefore a symbol of good conduct and care. In the characters of Portia and Calpurnia, we see excessive, overwrought ‘bed hair’, a symbol in which we are to foster distrust. There is also the symbol of the plaited pony tail- it is tidy to show thought and conduct. But it is always fixed over one shoulder, a conspicuous symbol. The pony tail over the shoulder is asymmetrical, so therefore plays the part of distrust in the same way as the messy hair. It is a counterpoint to the tidy fringes, even in the well-groomed form.

A further symbol in the film is to be found on the forehead- sweat. Every character in the film perspires heavily, all the way through the film. This is quite deliberate. The director had the foreheads of all in the film covered in Vaseline, so as to exaggerate this sweating. On one hand, this symbolises that characters are working hard. However, it is symbolic of something deeper. It externalises the mental lives of the characters. They sweat because they contemplate major ethical decisions, they are in turmoil in wanting to do right.

All characters sweat except for Caesar. He can’t have the symbol of thought because his character is unaware- he does not think. His character was crafted to look like an Anglo-Saxon Lawyer. This was, at the time, a character famously not to be trusted in western cinema. This Imperious, untrustworthy, non-thinking image was brought on through workings of the same symbols. He had the same hair as the other characters- a fringe. He was more imperious than the other characters, to show that he was higher in stature, yet his lack of sweat projected his mental vacuity, making him intellectually lower than the others in the film. Even if we were unaware of his history, we would understand the function of his character from the make-up department’s work.

Barthes draws on two problems with the film. Firstly, the American look seemed strange with the contrasting image of the ‘Roman-ness’ he wanted them to have. Their racial features clashed, and made a mockery of the symbol. Only Marlon Brando, he believed, carried the look well. Secondly, the symbols of the film were exaggerated. Barthes explains that a symbol in a film needs to be more subtle- intricate, so that the mind picks it up without it becoming a feature; or more obvious, not merely a symbol in characterisation, but an intrinsic part of the film’s story.

We learn from this that symbols can convey potent values. One thing to take into consideration, however, is that each symbol can have a qualified meaning conferred from its context. The ‘Roman-ness’ of the fringe works on a Roman face, but to the rounded American face, it conveys an incongruity. We also learn how symbols can have their meaning juxtaposed by manipulating them. The hair, which symbolises unity, can have the opposite effect when messy or asymmetrical.

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This post is in series. To read the other posts CLICK HERE.

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