February 8, 2010

The power of the face in cinema

In film school, one of our required courses was called "Media Criticism and Theory." I had it with arguably the worst of the professors teaching it, a guy so inexplicably consumed with white guilt that he had us read all these weird and highly irrelevant essays about how white people were ruining everything. But one thing stuck with me, and that was from critic/writer/essayist Walter Benjamin in his famous essay "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction." Essentially, the bit was (or so my professor summarized) that in this wacky industrial age of art, the only thing that can maintain an "aura," or captivating presence, is the human face. I went and re-read the essay today and am actually having trouble finding where it says that (you can slog through it yourself here). The closest it comes is talking about the aura emanating from old-timey photographs of dead people. But even if both my professor and I interpreted it wrong, I stand by it as the truth.

It makes sense that human faces would be universally captivating. Faces are essentially the first thing that babies recognize. A study found that babies, MINUTES after birth, preferred looking at pictures of human faces over other subjects (side note: where do you get the babies for this research? "Excuse me, ma'am, may I borrow your newborn? It'll just be a moment..."). Personally, I've always been drawn to faces in art and photography - I just find it more interesting, as something I feel fundamentally connected to. It's a living person, not a bowl of fruit (which isn't to belittle still life).

So what does this have to do with cinema specifically? Well, I tend to think that the human face is the first and last great spectacle on the screen. What other object of focus can make you laugh, cry, shudder, or experience virtually any other emotion? (And not the movie as a whole - just a shot of something.) I'm not even involving words or sound in the equation - just the image of the face. Any number of comedians have elastic faces that can make you laugh, dramatic actors have emotional faces that can make you cry, and a range of people have faces that are frightening by themselves or with a little help from makeup. Think how powerful that is.

The reason this popped into my head recently was from watching two very different performances directed by two directors who just "got" the face thing. The first is obvious; the second, less so.

I saw Dreyer's La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc for the first time last week and was blown away. Here is a silent film from 1928 that features mostly close-ups of makeup-free faces to tell the story of Joan of Arc. Renee Jeanne Falconetti, as the title character, gives what Pauline Kael called "maybe the finest performance ever recorded on film," all without speaking a word. How? Well, Joan of Arc was alternately thought to be crazy and schizophrenic or a saint, the daughter of God. Falconetti communicates all this and more with her bleak, frenetic, fearful, tear-stained, hysterical, pious face. It has more impact than a thousand on-screen explosions or sex scenes. It was art, but also a spectacle in its own way. I was transfixed like I haven't been for much more complex visuals.

I also watched the little-known film Love Me or Leave Me last week, which stars Doris Day and James Cagney and tells the true story of 1920s singer Ruth Etting. I highly recommend it, since it blasts open the 50s, the biopic, and Doris Day's persona to show a bickering, loveless marriage and a moral conundrum of fame where no one is right. Naturally, being a film about a singer, there are many scenes of Day singing (not in the style of a musical - more the straightforward depiction of a Walk the Line or Ray). This was the first Doris Day film I had seen, and I know she's considered a bit of a lightweight actress but definitely not in this one. The director, Charles Vidor, could have really spiked up the musical numbers and made it more musical-esque (and there are a couple of those, but only because they take place at the Ziegfeld Follies), but mostly he just lets Day speak for herself. I'm not a big fan of concerts and usually for me watching someone sing is about as worthwhile as listening to a painting, but I was entranced. From the jubilance in her eyes for "Stay on the Right Side, Sister" to the mournful and self-protecting stance of "Ten Cents a Dance," she imbues every song, no matter how standard, with a deep meaning.

I must be in the minority on this one, otherwise blockbusters would be more in the style of Bergman than Bay. But sometimes, the power of the face catches on with the general public. Even the fanboys and/or Middle America connected to Heath Ledger's Joker, a performance that relied heavily on dialogue and body language but was also fairly face-oriented, I would say (beyond the makeup,too - the crazy eyes, the tics, the restless mouth). And what about one of this year's breakout roles - Christoph Waltz as Hans Landa? Sure, we love to hear him dissect and prance about his dialogue, but would the performance be half of what it was without his facial gymnastics? Tarantino, for all his cuts and mayhem, left the camera pretty stable on Landa so he could just work the audience. If you still don't understand what I mean, think of it this way: I could watch those performances on mute and still find them pretty compelling.

Maybe, someday in the future, when we've exhausted all the possibilities for car chases and blowing things up, there'll be a sort of reset and we'll come to embrace the ultimate spectacle again. I can dream, right?

What are some silver screen faces you've been drawn to?

No comments: