On CinemaScope


Roland Barthes

translated by

Jonathan Rosenbaum

On Barthes On CinemaScope


James Morrison

North Carolina State University

Copyright © 1999 by Jonathan Rosenbaum, James Morrison, and the estate of Roland Barthes, all rights reserved. This text may be used and shared in accordance with the fair-use provisions of U.S. Copyright law, and it may be archived and redistributed in electronic form, provided that the editors are notified and no fee is charged for access. Archiving, redistribution, or republication of this text on other terms, in any medium, requires the notification of the journal and consent of the authors.

  1. If, for lack of the proper technical background, I can't define Henri Chrétien's [anamorphic] process, at least I can judge its effects. They are, in my opinion, surprising. The broadening of the image to the dimensions of binocular vision should fatally transform the internal sensibility of the filmgoer. In what respect? The stretched-out frontality becomes almost circular; in other words, the ideal space of the great dramaturgies. Up until now, the look of the spectator has been that of someone lying prone and buried, walled up in the darkness, receiving cinematic nourishment rather like the way a patient is fed intravenously. Here the position is totally different: I am on an enormous balcony, I move effortlessly within the field's range, I freely pick out what interests me, in a word I begin to be surrounded, and my larval state is replaced by the euphoria of an equal amount of circulation between the spectacle and my body.
  2. The darkness itself is transformed: in the ordinary film, it is tomb-like, I am still in the cave of myths, I have a little flame of illumination which flickers far above me, and I receive the truth of the images like heavenly grace. Here, on the contrary, the cord that binds me to the screen is no longer thread-like, it's a full volume of brightness that is established apart from me, I don't receive the image by those long threads of light that one sees transfixing and feeding the stigmatists, I lean forward on my elbows, becoming as horizontal as the spectacle, and out of my larval state emerge as a little god because here I am, no longer under the image but in front of it, in the middle of it, separated from it by this ideal distance, necessary to creation, which is no longer that of the glance but that of the arm's reach (God and painters always have outstretched arms).
  3. Obviously one must occupy the largest space in a new manner; perhaps the close-up will not survive, or at least its function will be transformed: kisses, sweat, psychology may all reinstate darkness and distance: a new dialectic between men and the horizon, men and objects, should come into view, a dialectic of interdependence and no longer one of décor. Properly speaking, this should be the space of History, and technically, the epical dimension is born. Imagine yourself in front of The Battleship Potemkin, no longer stationed at the end of a telescope but supported by the same air, the same stone, the same crowd: this ideal Potemkin, where you could finally join hands with the insurgents, share the same light, and experience the tragic Odessa Steps in their fullest force, this is what is now possible; the balcony of History is ready. What remains to be seen is what we'll be shown there; if it will be Potemkin or The Robe, Odessa or Saint-Sulpice, History or Mythology.


First published in Les lettres nouvelles, February 1954



  1. With CinemaScope the movies--already unfathomably large--expand. It is not enough to say that they get bigger, though certainly one innocence lost to CinemaScope is the myth of the screen as a site of perpetual dimension, a constant quantity. Rather, CinemaScope lays bare the fact that the size of the screen is, precisely, arbitrary - it shrinks, it swells, it widens. Indeed, most historical accounts of the emergence of CinemaScope root it in a contest of scale. The appearance of the "television," relatively minute but therefore wholly accessible, immediate, available, owned, distends the movie screen by competitive reaction-formation, and the latter bids to make a virtue of its theoretical and actual "unattainability" (pace Raymond Bellour's notion of the film as "the unattainable text") by allying it with a new gigantism.

  2. The appearance of CinemaScope brings with it a whole ideology of expansionism, and it is neither a surprise nor an accident that nearly all of the definitive ventures in widescreen cinema of the 1950s and early 1960s represent genres fraught with the bluster and spectacle of imperial myth and colonial fantasy, in particular the Biblical--or pseudo-Biblical--"spectacular" (The Robe, Demetrius and the Gladiators, Ben-Hur), the historical costume-drama (Exodus, Spartacus, Mutiny on the Bounty, Lawrence of Arabia), or the Western (Man of the West, The Tall Man, How the West Was Won). In fact, most of these examples quite explicitly narrate tales of colonial conflict of one sort or another, and the newly epic dimensions of the screen are typically called upon to confer a triumphal rhetoric of rousing, gung-ho victory upon the enterprise, whether it is all too clear exactly what West is to be "won" and how, or whether a residual if decidedly non-nuanced tact dictates ambiguity in the casting of victor and vanquished, as in the Biblical "spectacular" where precisely so that the question of whether Jews or Romans were the parties responsible for Christ's martyrdom may remain tastefully suspended, proto-ethnicities themselves are routinely placed in genteel abeyance.
  3. In its overwhelming expansionism, fettered only by the regrettable limits of technology, CinemaScope proposes to oust ideology in something like the absolutism of a Hegelian apotheosis: The screen can hold everything, the mind is equal to all its objects, and history can (finally) achieve its long-heralded end. Yet the totalizing force of CinemaScope as a technology also makes newly visible the variability and contingency of technological determinism. Its sweep, its scale, its very Scope, favoring the global, making its representation for the first time a conceptual possibility (Sweeping Panoramas! Casts of Thousands!), simultaneously discloses the very local imperatives that have long been thought to be the province of ideology. Even if the CinemaScope image puts itself forward as the ideal one, it nonetheless gestures backward toward the standard it exceeds and forward to the culmination it presages--where, perhaps, the screen will be everywhere, not confined only to central and now peripheral vision, but achieving total surround, having taken over (at last!) everything.
  4. The ideal of totality almost always serves to apprise its subjects of lack, if only as a spur to its own continued growth, and the most artistically brilliant uses of CinemaScope of the time draw attention to the limitations of the form rather than celebrating its plenary amplitude. Max Ophuls in Lola Montes (1955) repeatedly masks the composition, ardently fulfilling the polymorphism of the screen that CinemaScope itself signifies; Nicholas Ray in Rebel Without a Cause (1955) deploys the vastness of CinemaScopic space to represent claustrophobia; Robert Aldrich in Vera Cruz (1956) enframes frames within frames across the vista of the screen, multiplying the Scope composition into a veritable mise-en-abîme. Still, from the earliest commentary on CinemaScope, the total nature of the technology has dependably received special emphasis. In a representative gambit of 1963, Charles Barr declares CinemaScope the consummation of Andre Bazin's concept of "total cinema," and even if Barr follows Bazin in recognizing the mythic basis of such a notion, he does not let the realization stall the conquest: "[Widescreen cinema] seems the nearest we will get, under present technology, to a `total' cinema...The problem is to devise some way of surrounding each individual in the audience with a total visual world, in the same way that it's possible to surround him with a total aural one" (Barr, 24).
  5. CinemaScope thus fulfills and naturalizes the spectator's desire to submit to cinematic spectacle, and it may be this feature that prompts the uncharacteristic modesty with which Roland Barthes begins his comment on the technology: "If, for lack of the proper technical background, I can't define Henri Chrétien's [anamorphic] process, at least I can judge its effects." This seeming modesty may conceal its share of guile, however, for it is not only the production of auras of totality or the conscription of the figure of the submissive spectator that connects the technology of CinemaScope so closely to the conventional themes of post-colonial theory. Like many of the capital-intensive inventions of the post-industrial century, CinemaScope occupied an embattled position in relation to its own national provenance and world-wide distribution. Among the earliest uses of widescreen technologies is numbered Abel Gance's historical fantasia Napoleon (1927), and Chrétien's perfection of the anamorphic lens was reportedly, or at least mythically, hurried by his fervent response to the compelling sweep of Gance's nationalist celluloid myths. Yet Chrétien's Hypergonar lens went largely unused until Fox Studios purchased Chrétien's technology in 1953 to put it into the service of expanding, totalizing and - at a point when they were under seige - preserving many of the most cherished myths, many of them explicitly nationalist, of the Hollywood stable (see Belton, 120-22). CinemaScope was an outgrowth, rather than a direct implementation, of Chrétien's technology, and Barthes's reclamation of CinemaScope as decisively French perhaps participates in some of the same myths of prideful ownership that many of the movies made in this format took as their conscious or unconscious subjects.
  6. Barthes's meditation on CinemaScope, published here in English translation for the first time, is like a little anthology of the themes that would recur throughout his work. In condensed form, it's all there--the lure of asceticism against the sway of spectacle, the avid attunement to both the dangers and the pleasures of the text, the earnest crusade to expose the lies of Realism but have a little fun while you're at it. Perhaps the most interesting feature of the piece is the tantalizing balance it achieves, to be fulfilled in Barthes's late work, between critique and affirmation. Barthes has come to praise CinemaScope and to bury it at the same time. On the one hand, the "process" liberates the spectator: "I freely pick out what interests me..." On the other, it entraps him: "I begin to be surrounded..." Just when one thinks Barthes has clasped hands with Bazin in celebrating the redemptive transparency of the Cinematic Real, he gives the lie to a naivete he still wants somehow to embrace, in something like the hopeful skeptic's experimental readiness that infuses, especially, his last, most "personal" books. It "remains to be seen," he says here, "what we'll be shown there" on "the balcony of History."
  7. That suggestive metaphor, linking the "epical dimension" of CinemaScope to "the ideal space of the great dramaturgies," shapes the dialectic of the whole piece. At the beginning, "I am on an enormous balcony"; by the end, "the balcony of History" is the site of the spectacle itself. Throughout, CinemaScope heralds the identity of body and spectacle--an identity readers of Barthes know was much sought by the theorist, but never really acknowledged as in any way achievable outside the delusory embrace of mythology. The "larval state" occasioned in the viewer by the "ordinary film" is replaced by a new fullness of engagement and, paradoxically, a greater amplitude of consciousness. Against the fear that the filmgoer's passivity can only be deepened by the spectacle's expansion, Barthes counterposes the notion of "binocular vision," understanding the space of the CinemaScope screen not as an encompassing sphere of false-consciousness, but as a limitless field of double-consciousness. The viewer who was formerly content to look with a single eye now faces an apparently inevitable awareness of being in possession of at least two. What will be "fatally transform[ed in] the internal sensibility of the filmgoer" is, precisely, passivity; the Cyclops who watches the "ordinary film" is henceforth metamorphosed into the Argus-eyed viewer of CinemaScope.
  8. The reader of Barthes's piece on CinemaScope may think of a similar critical performance of twenty years earlier, Walter Benjamin's "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction" (1936). Like Barthes, Benjamin mourned a loss and presaged a discovery. For Benjamin, the invention of photography may have "transformed the entire nature of art" (227). The aura, gone irretrievably, left in its still-lamented wake the vital, hopeful possibility of mass communion--of which cinema, for Benjamin, was only the most glorified harbinger. CinemaScope is perceived by Barthes as transformative in something like the same way. It brings about loss: "[P]erhaps the close-up will not survive . . ." But a "new dialectic between men and the horizon, men and objects, should come into view." The equanimity of both these self-designated mourners, Benjamin and Barthes, appears to be hard-won--Barthes's love of the close-up is wildly visible at other points of his writing, and he could not have looked on its demise with the composure he trumps up here--but its effect is to recast an aura in place of the one past: that of a new-found Utopia of the mind.
  9. As Jonathan Rosenbaum (the translator of the essay printed here) points out in "Barthes & Film," perhaps the best introduction to Barthes's writing on film, Barthes's work is thoroughly imbued with cinematic subjects and references, however ambivalent his relation to the cinema may have been. That very ambivalence is precisely the point: Continually poised in his intellectual life between resistance and submission, jouissance and ascesis, Barthes seems to have perceived in cinema an objective-correlative of these tendencies. In Mythologies alone, three of the chapters are devoted to film, and in each case Barthes postulates an uneasy link between the materiality of cinema--the bodies of the actors, the technologies of the medium--and the distilled essence he finds revealed there. In two of the cases, that "essence" is revealed as nothing but false-consciousness. The hilarious inventory of hair-locks across the actors' foreheads, marking them as "Roman," in "The Roman in Film," exposes pitilessly a "duplicity which is peculiar to bourgeois art" (Mythologies, 28), while in the lively polemic against the film The Lost Continent, the mythologies of exoticism are laid bare: "Faced with anything foreign, the Established Order knows only two types of behavior, which are both mutilating: either to acknowledge it as a Punch and Judy show, or to defuse it as a pure reflection of the West" (Mythologies, 96).
  10. Barthes remained fascinated with film as an emblem of bourgeois ideological domination and, as here, explicitly neo-colonial hegemony, and his own "resistance" to the cinema was as obsessive, his work suggests, as his attraction was compulsive. As Rosenbaum points out, Barthes was no ordinary example of the generic figure of the French cinephile, no joyously voracious but critically distant Gilles Deleuze whose "resistance" to cinema (on the evidence of his two books on film) appeared to coexist comfortably with his avid consumption of it. Barthes's "resistance," on the contrary, is a palpable act of will: "Resistance to the cinema . . ." he muses in Roland Barthes. ". . . [T]he film follows, like a garrulous ribbon: statutory impossibility of the fragment, of the haiku" (54-55). His essay "Upon Leaving the Movie Theater" proposes that act as a welcome return to consciousness, comparable to emerging from hypnosis. It is unlikely such resistance would have to have been so willful if it were not the antithesis of a deeply impassioned fascination. In Roland Barthes, movies appear neither on the list of "J'aime" nor on that of "Je n'aime pas," probably because the imbrication of like and dislike was too complicated in this case. It is when looking at movies that Barthes was most likely to glean intimations of the transcendent in something more than a glimpse: "Garbo's face represents this fragile moment when the cinema is about to draw an existential from an essential beauty" (Mythologies, 57). In a later essay, "The Third Meaning," the indefatigable semiologist admits defeat in front of the movie screen (though only after stopping the flow of the images and fixing on the single frame): The theorist who wanted to account for everything in code acknowledges here the power of elusiveness, declares that there are meanings that escape signification. Whether that escape should be seen as triumph or deceit, what is clear is that Barthes was drawn to the movies as the quintessential "mythology"--and perhaps, in the end, the only one he couldn't dependably find some way to debunk, expose, or liberate.
  11. All of this is meant to suggest an answer to the question of why Barthes's piece on CinemaScope was omitted from Mythologies. Its subject would seem to have perfectly suited it to that collection, especially in the conclusive opposition of myth and history. In form it is compressed, in style mandarin, in tone gnomic, and it was published in Les lettres nouvelles along with the other compressed, mandarin and gnomic pieces finally gathered together in Mythologies in 1957. Yet its highly personal inflections distinguish it from many of those pieces and link it more directly to much of Barthes's later work. Indeed, it is among the earliest of Barthes's reflections on his own body, and leads logically to, say, the meditation on the body as excess in S/Z (1970): "Mediation upsets the rhetorical--or paradigmatic--harmony of the Antithesis (AB/A/B/AB) and this difficulty arises not out of a lack but out of an excess: there is one element in excess, and this untoward supplement is the body..." (S/Z, 28). If there were no bodies, then the relation of mind to text might achieve the pure codification of one-to-one correspondence. But there are bodies, of course--and not always sadly so--and Barthes's blissfully elegiac late work is a sustained effort to reconcile the material excess of the body with the pervasive but mercurial energies of the sign. As D. A. Miller remarks, ". . . Barthes's promotion of the body, without at all failing to insist on the body's material lovability, is moved to conceive this body in its most embarrassed state, devoid of anything that might be called `finish'" (Bringing Out Roland Barthes, 32).
  12. In the piece on CinemaScope, we witness the spectacle of Roland Barthes's body, subject and object, confronting the emergent excess of the CinemaScope screen, and settling into its own residual excess: larval, euphoric, moving effortlessly, fixed oppressively, bound and free, "a little god." The critical mythologist comes face to face here with the passive subject of myth. Perhaps one reason this essay was not included in Mythologies was that it heralds a discovery the early Barthes had not yet made, one the late Barthes taught us again and again, and one post-colonial thought, in particular, dedicates itself to heeding: To expose a myth is not always to liberate one's own body from its power.


Works Cited

Barr, Charles. "CinemaScope: Before and After." Film Quarterly 16.4 (Summer 1963): 4-24.

Bazin, Andre. What is Cinema? Vol. I. Trans. Hugh Gray. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1967.

Belton, John. Widescreen Cinema. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992.

Benjamin, Walter. Illuminations. Ed. Hannah Arendt. New York: Schocken, 1969.

Barthes, Roland. Mythologies. Trans. Annette Lavers. New York: Hill and Wang, 1972.

---. Roland Barthes. Trans. Richard Howard. New York: Hill and Wang, 1977.

---. S/Z. Trans. Richard Miller. New York: Hill and Wang, 1974.

Miller, D. A. Bringing Out Roland Barthes. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1992.

Rosenbaum, Jonathan. Placing Movies: The Practice of Film Criticism. Berkeley: University of California Press, 1995.

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