Wednesday, 24 April 2013

Too close to call: Close-ups in cinema

We all know the famous closing line from Sunset Boulevard. If you don’t, educate yerself here:

It makes perfect sense that Norma Desmond should crave the ego massage of the close-up at her most ruined and desolate, and it makes perfect sense that director Billy Wilder should choose to give us such a tightly-framed portrait of the insane former actress in the film’s dying seconds, at the moment of total psychic collapse.

After all, in cinema the close-up is the means by which we – those ‘wonderful people out there in the dark’ - fall in love with the figures on the screen, and Desmond wants nothing more than the unconditional love of a silent, distant audience. How many people in our lives do we see so intimately? In normal social interactions, eye contact is brief, respectful, and we don’t get up in people’s personal space. But in the cinema, we’re free to study and drink up beautiful or interesting or sympathetic or repellent faces to our heart’s content. In real life, we can only indulge such curiosity with family members, or a lover. This is the erotics of the close-up, one of the most inviting and addictive aspects of the cinematic aesthetic: whether it’s Maria Falconetti, Juliette Binoche, or Ryan Gosling, we can attentively register every betrayed and involuntary emotion they experience, as if in bed with them.

In early silent movies, stars like Greta Garbo were often photographed using lenses smeared with Vaseline to soften the resulting image and remove any unwanted blemishes from the actors’ faces. Essentially a more primitive (but often more flattering) form of Photoshop, it gave the close-ups of romantic Hollywood movies the clouded quality of the lustful gaze, emulating the manner in which the brain shuts out imperfect details during coitus to increase sexual excitement. Really, the use of Vaseline seems all too fitting: the lubricant smoothing the passage between the friction of reality and desire.

But the close-up Norma Desmond believes she is granting her fans is not the same as the one the audience sees, which is less redolent of love than it is of stark, horrible death, leering out at us and moving towards us as the picture blurs and becomes wholly indistinct, as if Wilder intends to evoke those same Vaseline-soaked pictures from a more naive age.

Film theorist André Bazin postulated that the frame of the cinematic image should not be conceived of as a window, as had been previously asserted, but a mask, showing us a little, but hiding the rest and making us aware as viewers that something is always being withheld. Consequently, the fact that Desmond’s pale visage, plastered in ghoulish, unconvincing make-up, resembles a death mask in this close-up is entirely appropriate: just as her face is a kind of whited sepulchre, hinting at her inner corruption and decay, Wilder’s closing shot intimates quite bluntly the ugliness and rotten core of the Hollywood dream factory behind its seductive surfaces.

Desmond’s swansong mocks the false intimacy of the Hollywood close-up, but it also demonstrates cinema’s preoccupation with how faces can reveal the mind, and perhaps the soul. In her bulging eyes and awkwardly thrusting jaw, we think we see that Desmond’s mind has finally snapped, but of course this flamboyant form of madness could be just another one of her virtuoso, show-stopping performances. It is simultaneously comic and disturbing, and we don’t know whether to laugh at, pity, or fear Desmond. By confronting us with a face that demands to be read, this close-up, like many others, puts the mechanics and ethics of human empathy and interpretation front-and-centre. Such close-ups can make us aware of the process by which we take meaning from the living masks that we all wear, and respond to them.

Even in so ironic and melodramatic an example as this extraordinary scene, it becomes clear that because of the power of the close-up to isolate and individualize on-screen agents and sensitize us to the hidden-presence of psychological experience, cinema is perhaps an essentially (and highly effectively) humanist medium.

Here's one more very powerful close-up: