26 February 2009

Funny Face

“Nothing in the world can be compared to the human face. It is a land one can never tire of exploring. There is no greater experience in a studio than to witness the expression of a sensitive face under the mysterious power of inspiration. To see it animated from inside, and turning into poetry.” - Carl Th. Dreyer

To watch Maria Falconetti's face in Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc is to experience a form of cinematic purity down to its most essential base -- the close-up. The close-up has always seemed to me to be a significantly unique contribution to art by cinema. There is the close-up in still photography, certainly, but recording a face in close-up for a duration of time allows for multiple layers of expression not found in still photography. The way, for instance, fear can be communicated through the slightest widening of the eyes, or the way eyelids close and mouths part can speak volumes. Falconetti's face as Joan in Dreyer's film is one of purity -- of spirit, of form -- that seems to transcend the screen onto which she is being projected. And I certainly believe transcendence was Dreyer's intention. Joan's close-ups seem to exist on their own plane, never completely relating to the reality surrounding her with the menacing judges and priests. Her gaze does not meet any particular eyeline, but looks to God, in faith and in fear. The struggle to hold onto God while fearing torture and death is expressed exquisitely in Joan's face, and it becomes nearly impossible not to feel that conflict from your seat as you watch the film.

I am always interested in Truths: Gods, religions, theories, ways of being, all of these things which attempt to give meaning to life in earnest ways. In cinema, there are those who are convinced that truth can be capture on film -- be it Eisenstein and montage, Vertov and Kino-eye, the observational documentary filmmakers of the '60s, etc. To me, Dreyer's ideas about the close-up are the most fascinating and possibly the most romantic. This led me to think of other affecting close-ups in cinema. What are those moments where a close-up on a face says more than any dialogue could? Recently, there is one close-up of Anne Hathaway in Rachel Getting Married which was quite powerful that I mentioned on a previous post. There are a couple of Julie Christie in McCabe & Mrs. Miller. And, of course, there is Anna Karina's face in Vivre Sa Vie as she watches The Passion of Joan of Arc and experiences something true. Do you have any favorite close-ups?


James said...

One of mine off the top of my head is when Kevin Spacey's character stares at himself in a mirror across a bar in L.A. CONFIDENTIAL. He sees what he is at that moment; how rotten his soul is and he decides to reform or save his soul. You can actually see him think with no words, no voice over. It might not be a true close-up, but it worked for me.

kazu said...

Yes, I remember that one. His face after getting shot also stuck with me, though I don't think it's a close-up. Don't you also have a favorite Woody Allen close up? I think in MANHATTAN?

Kenji Nakai said...

Boogie Nights, late into the movie, for a good thirty seconds at least. The long close up of the washed up Dirk Diggler's face while "Jesse's Girl" is playing- you can just taste the bad vibes going on in that scene as if you were there yourself. A chinese guy lighting fire crackers in the corner of the room, a coked up sweaty Alred Molina holding a revolver, and a big black body guard weighing the fake coke they just sold. While all that is going on, his face just crys out for the good times he threw away.



kazu said...

That was a good one, Kenji. "Jessie's Girl" makes for such a strong counterpoint to Diggler's dread. I have to watch this movie again.

James said...

Yes, there are two Woody Allen close-ups of him in particular. One, at the conclusion of MANHATTAN, which brings to mind Chaplin's close-up in CITY LIGHTS. Another is his look of utter defeat at the wedding at the end of CRIMES AND MISDEMEANORS. For someone for is not considered a great actor, Allen can display great depth of emotion on his face. That look in CRIMES when he sees Mia Farrow with Alan Alda digs a hole in my heart no matter how many times I see it. Speaking of Mia Farrow, her close-up at the end of PURPLE ROSE OF CAIRO, as she loses herself and escapes from her pitiful life, while she watches the movie screen; another good one.