Monday, 20 October 2008

In Defence of the Close-Up of the Human Face

Over the last fifty-or-so years there has developed a notion that the close-up, and especially the close-up of the human face, is 'uncinematic'. The reason for this notion seems to be, principally, as follows: the size of the screen on a television set is significantly smaller than the screen at the cinema. Wide, panoramic shots therefore hold up less well on television, as one can't see the details (due to the small size), and so, in the syntax of television, the close-up is king. If this holds true, then the close-up becomes 'uncinmetic' by nature of being a 'televisual' device (for the cinema has a want and need - both artistic and economic - to distance itself from television). Moreover, of course, the size of that giant screen should be used to full effect (so the argument goes) and show us a jaw-dropping panorama in awe-inspiring detail. Although it could be argued that things are changing as the size of television sets and the use of home projections increases, so too must mention be made of the increasing number of people whose primary screening medium is the minute online stream.

I feel it necessary, therefore, to briefly comment in defence of the close-up, before it becomes not only 'uncinematic', but also 'untelevisual'.

It is hard to sum up in words the powerful effect that the human close-up can hold, or the transcendence it can achieve. In his monograph on Vampyr, (which I referenced recently here), David Rudkin mentions that
Benjamin Christensen 'locates the cinema's true landscape of ecstasy and suffering in the human face' (page 8) and I think this goes a long way to capturing my point perfectly. Rudkin goes on to to comment that Carl Th. Dreyer 'spoke of the face as a 'land that one never tires of exploring'' (ibid), and again this supports my point. Through studying the human face the very essence of our being becomes visible, and I find it hard to see how anyone could find that 'uncinematic'. This ability, to make visible the very nature of being, is what defines cinema as an art form, what makes it alive, and what gives it its power.

To illustrate my point, I leave you with four images, two from acknowledged masters of cinema, and two from contemporary directors who I believe could well prove themselves also to be all time masters:

Bookmark and Share


Dan Edwards said...

That scene in Birth is superb. I have always loved Demme's use of the close up, especially in Silence of the Lambs. But then, I love everything about that movie.

Mike McIntyre said...

Great post! I have never seen it commented on, but I think Dreyer's close-up of Inger's face in Ordet, as she lies on the birthing table that is covered with a checkerboard cloth (not the upside-down close-up, but the right-side up close-up, which occurs right after her father-in-law prays, "God, do not send death to us"), is one of the most transcendental moments in cinema. The shot only lasts about twenty seconds. Our view is from underneath Inger's face, and perhaps it is partly this unusual angle that makes her face appear utterly different than in any other scene. In her face, and in her breathing, we see pain, of course, but more than that, we see life itself. And not just that, but life beholding life, as expressed so beautifully in the saying of Irenaeus, "For the glory of God is a living man; and the life of man consists in beholding God." The shot is sublime; Carl Dreyer and Birgitte Federspiel were artists of the highest rank.

Alex Barrett said...

Thanks for that Mike - I agree very much with your comment. I've recently written an article about Dreyer and transcendence, which I'm trying to get published somewhere. If you're interested, keeping checking my blog as I'll post about it once it is (or just post the whole essay up if no one takes it!). Best, Alex.