In Roland Barthes’ essay, “The Third Meaning,” he posits two levels of meaning in a film or photographic image: the first is the simple or informational level which simply tells you everything you can learn from the setting, the costumes, the characters, their relations and so forth; and the second is the symbolic level, which shows you the connotations inside an image. The example he gives is a still from a film by Eisenstein — Ivan the Terrible.
In the picture, two courtiers are raining down gold over the young Czar’s head. Barthes finds in the image not only the two obvious levels of meaning but also a third level of meaning, which he calls obtuse. It goes beyond the information of the scene and the communication of the scene into something complex and difficult to determine. Barthes calls this the obtuse meaning as opposed to the obvious meanings, which are simple or symbolic. “OBTUSUS means that which is blunted rounded in form. Are not the traits which I indicated (the make-up, the whiteness, the wig) just like the blunting of a meaning too clear, too violent?
Do they not give the obvious signified a kind of difficultly prehensible roundness? ” The Third Meaning, Research Notes on some Eisenstein Stills, R. Barthes In his second attempt to make clear his analysis, Barthes returns to the idea of the obvious meaning and uses example from another Eisenstein film, The Battleship Potemkin. In those images we see an old woman with a closed, upturned fist, which signifies her determination to participate in the revolution. Then he shows another image from the same film of two women with their hands over their mouths stifling a sob.
What Barthes says is that this doesn’t distract from but accentuates the symbolic meaning, but then he shows another image of the old woman seeming to express something else, an obtuse meaning, something difficult to define, something that eludes obvious analysis. He says that this obtuse meaning has something to do with disguise and lack of intentionality. Things seem to be expressed even beyond what the person intends by their gestures. He even compares the two stills of the same old woman, the one where the image obviously signifies grief, the other here something more complex is communicated: “I quickly convinced myself that, although perfect, it was neither the facial expression nor the gestural figuration of grief (the closed eyelids, the taut mouth, the hand clasped on the breast): all that belongs to the full signification, to the obvious meaning of the image, to Eisensteinian realism and decorativism.
I felt that the penetrating trait- disturbing like a guest who obstinately sits on saying nothing when one has no use for him- must be situated somewhere in the region of the forehead: the coif, the headscarf holding in the air, had something to do with it. (R. Barthes) In the next image, the obtuse meaning vanishes leaving only the communication of grief. I would like to look at some examples of The Third Meaning in the work of Marlon Brando as Don Corleone and Al Pacino as his successor in “The Godfather”. From the beginning Brando is shrouded in darkness, we see him from behind and before him is a supplicant who comes to ask for a favor. The obvious meaning is the information in the scene — the father’s outrage at his daughter’s violation, his hesitancy in approaching the Godfather and so forth.
The symbolic meaning is in the fact that the supplicant is the lower or lesser party and the Godfather is the king, they are symbolically separated. There is a third meaning almost immediately in the film indicated by the way Brando is seen gesturing in response to the supplicant’s request. Which makes us immediately wonder why he is so reluctant. We learn later in the movie, that Brando’s entire role as the Godfather fills him with deeply ambivalent, deeply ambiguous and complicated feelings.
He would like to be a true American, to do legitimate business, instead he is the head of a Sicilian crime family, forced to wait for respect from people who secretly don’t give it to him, who think him no more than a glorified thug. His gestures in the scene, his slight wave of the hand, his proud demeanor, his pain that after a long life he is still regarded as no more than a common criminal -all of these ambiguities are communicated elusively. They are present in Brando’s response to the situations in which he finds himself. The supplicant has come on the day of Don Corleone’s daughter’s wedding asking him to act like a dog.
Instead of throwing him out, he puts the man through a deliberate charade of making him say the right words to respect him. In all the time we cannot but feel that there is something going on in Brando’s consciousness as the Don, which is deeply troubling to him. So we watch the movie from then on, with these three levels of meaning already defined, the simple or informational level in the story, the symbolic level with the supplicant kissing the Don’s hand, and the third meaning or obtuse meaning being what is elusive in Brando’s performance that we can’t yet put a finger on.
The film then cuts to the wedding, which all takes place at levels one and two, but we as an audience now know that there are depths to this film and to Brando’s performance that we are going to look out for. Another example of the third meaning happens after Brando has been shot by the rival gang, and he’s informed for the first time about who killed the men who did it. When he’s told that it’s Michael, a look of great pain surfaces on his face, and we understand that he wants to protect his youngest son from the life of crime which has consumed all the other members of his family.
The scene is enormously powerful, because Brando has been shot and because we know that Michael has made the fateful decision to be the one who carries out his revenge on behalf of his father. While we think this is a perfectly normal reaction of a son to want to avenge his father’s attempted murder, we are plunged into the same complexities as at the beginning of the film, which is: can Michael stay out of the criminal world and live a normal American life and marry Kay? The third meaning doesn’t inform or symbolize it discloses; it reveals what is going on inside the character, almost in spite of the character’s intentionality.
The emotional power of the Godfather, lies in the fact that underlying currents are at play that are deeper than the informational or symbolic levels at which so much of the reality seems to occur. This ambiguity is very clearly brought out in the scenes in Sicily when Michael (Al Pacino) begins to experience what his future life holds for him as a gangster on the run. He’s in Sicily in the Corleone village protected by local peasants, far from the reality he’s known in New York.
He meets a beautiful girl and experiences a “coup de foudre”, they fall in love just by looking at each other, almost immediately Michael has to explain himself to the girl’s father which he does convincingly and instinctively by telling the father in no uncertain terms, that he wants to marry the daughter even before he had spoken to her/ marriages were arranged by men in this patriarchal structure. Michael’s declaration of intent satisfies the father, surprises Michael’s companions and perhaps Michael himself and he endears himself to the family.
All of this emotional drama takes place at the informational and symbolic level, the meanings are obvious, Michael is going to marry somebody who symbolizes innocence and purity. We see that in their pre-nuptial encounters and at the wedding, but something very interesting happens during their first sexual intimacies. Michael, in spite of himself is in awe of the girl’s beauty, sensuality and voluptuousness, we feel that Michael treasures his new bride and is straining in himself for the same purity of behavior as she is showing.
We also know that Michael has a girlfriend back in New York, we’ve seen him with Kay Christmas shopping, we’ve seen Kay being invited in the family portrait at his sister’s wedding. So the questions that crosses our minds are, is Michael being unfaithful, or is he following some innocent, idyllic romance that is doomed? All of Al Pacino’s gestures at this point of the film are close to the third meaning, is he disguising something about himself, some bad corrupt side to himself, can he really ever be as pure as the girl? In Pacino’s expressions, all of this ambiguity comes out.
Finally in the film the third meaning is expressed most convincingly in Brando’s death, we see him playing with a little boy in the garden, trying to be like any other grand-father, a kindly benign old man, and then he clutches his heart and has a heart attack. In the moments leading up to his death, his gestures are all of disguise, in fact he’s a corrupt criminal but in the scene he’s playing a gentle loving grand fatherly figure, straining for redemption by acting normally. Brando’s performance like Pacino’s goes way beyond the symbolic and informational levels into a level of disguise that presents the character in all its complexity.
To conclude in the words of Barthes, the third meaning structures a film differently, without subverting the story. The level of the third meaning, that the filmic finally emerges: “ The filmic is that in the film which cannot be described, the representation which cannot be represented. The filmic begins only where language and metalanguage end. – The third meaning theoretically locatable but not describable – can now be seen as the passage from language to signifiance and the founding act of the filmic itself.