Romans sweating is cheating: Roland Barthes against Hollywood

According to Roland Barthes, prominent French literary theorist and semiotician, the film Julius Caesar (1953) is full of errors. In Mankiewicz’s film all Romans have fringes not because its historically accurate, but because a fringe serves as a sign of Roman-ness. For a Frenchman like Barthes, the fringes look funny when combined with the “exotic” American “gangster-sheriffs” that star in the film. The only exception is Marlon Brando and his latin forehead. Why does the fringe as a sign of Roman-ness look so ridiculous? Because it allows its aim to become very obvious; that is to transform Hollywood actors into Romans by just changing their hair.

Marlon Brando as Mark Antony

In the following passage, Barthes explores another sign from the same film: sweat.

Yet another sign in this Julius Caesar: all the faces sweat constantly. Labourers, soldiers, conspirators, all have their austere and tense features streaming (with Vaseline). And closeups are so frequent that evidently sweat here is an attribute with a purpose. Like the Roman fringe or the nocturnal plait, sweat is a sign. Of what? Of moral feeling. Everyone is sweating because everyone is debating something within himself; we are supposed to be in the locus of a horribly tormented virtue, that is, in the very locus of tragedy, and it is sweat which has the function of conveying this. The populace, upset by the death of Caesar, then economically, in this single sign, the intensity of its emotion and the simplicity of its condition. And the virtuous men, Brutus, Cassius, Casca, are ceaselessly perspiring too, testifying thereby to the enormous psychological labour produced in them by a virtue just about to give birth to a crime. To sweat is to think- which evidently rests on the postulate, appropriate to a nation of businessmen, that thought is a violent, cataclysmic operation, of which sweat is only the most benign symptom. In the whole film, there is but one man who does not sweat and who remains smooth-faced, unperturbed and watertight: Caesar. Of course Caesar, the object of the crime, remains dry since he does not know, he does not think, and so must keep the firm and polished texture of an exhibit standing isolated in the courtroom.

Here again, the sign is ambiguous: it remains on the surface, yet does not for all that give up the attempt to pass itself off as depth. It aims at making people understand (which is laudable) but at the same time suggests that it is spontaneous (which is cheating); it presents itself at once as intentional and irrepressible, artificial and natural, manufactured and discovered. This can lead us to an ethic of signs. Signs ought to present themselves only in two extreme forms: either openly intellectual…as in the Chinese theatre, where a flag on its own signifies a regiment; or deeply rooted, invented so to speak, on each occasion, revealing an internal hidden facet, and indicative of a moment in time, no longer of a concept. But the intermediate sign,…the sweating of thought, reveals a degraded spectacle, which is equally afraid of simple reality and of total artifice. For…it is both reprehensible and deceitful to confuse the sign with what is signified.

Roland Barthes, 2009, Mythologies, Published by Vintage, pages 16-18.

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