A Case for the Face: Cinema's Lost Lexicon



We see a face. Its curves become solidly defined lines, then letters, then words that are read to us by the glint of an eye. Through the sheets of misty, soft-focus black and white film projected on the screen identifiable features such as blemishes or wrinkles are imperceptible. The face is simultaneously inscrutable and inviting. Hair becomes curtains framing a stage. We see a turn of the lip and our own twitches in subconscious complicity, yet we don’t know what our own lips truly look like, nor what it feels like for the face that we’re watching when the edge of a lip twitches. The line of sight for the luminous eyes is beyond our own. We address not only these eyes but a chain of addressees one of which is the sea, another of which is the sky, both of which are distinctly and deliberately left out of the frame. The dynamism of the brows reminds us that we are watching someone in motion, and feel ourselves to be likewise propelled forwards, towards something familiar and vague. We don’t know where she is going.
Many years later we see another face. These eyes look straight into and through our own. The solitary, independent tears that roll down the cheeks reflect the light in such a way that they themselves take on the significance of eyes. In this scene they are the principal players. The thin lips are taught in neither a smile nor a grimace. Music plays in the background but by now we are not listening to it. We are puzzling perfect features into a full and imperfect face with difficulty. This face is a challenge – we feel confronted but we endeavour to understand. This time we know that we do understand something, yet the true answer is elusive.
~*~
Cinema can remind us that identity does not exist. More specifically, cinema’s purest and oldest image, the face, can remind us that identity does not exist. The face is the cinematic tabula rasa - the page on which we write the stories of the movies, as in the two cinematic shots described above. However, in the context of today’s identity politics, the idea that we go to the cinema in order to seek out portrayals of ourselves, of concrete identities that align precisely with our own, has become more prevalent than ever. It is undeniable that the innate need for representation is valid and a crucial part of our engagement with culture as a whole, especially in light of the underrepresentation of so many minority groups in mainstream media. But a possibility rarely explored, is that this popular focus on forced presentations of concrete identity in cinema is unfortunate, and that it can strip cinema of its unique ability to portray doubt, inarticulacy and confusion by imposing artificial characters on screen performers. This superficiality is usually left to bad theatre, and this danger may well stem from cinema’s difficult and complex relationship with the theatre. When cinema plays with theatrical elements, the result is either that the attempt falls short and ends up false and contrived, or that a theatrical cinema emerges, robbed neither of cinema’s truth, nor theatre’s spectacle.
            Whether in this theatrical or stylised cinema or not, this truth of cinema might well be the face – the unwatched face, arguably cinema’s greatest tool. There is no other art form which is able to show us to ourselves in quite the same way as cinema. It is because we perceive the face we watch as being unwatched that we align ourselves so strongly with the people we watch on the screen – we are reminded as audiences of what we are. We are unwatched, human, alone but unified. The unique cinematic experience of being alone in a crowd in the dark all watching our own versions of the same thing shows us how we might be together in our loneliness. We experience the film alone, yet we are together. We watch an unwatched face as our own faces are unwatched. We are alone yet feel comforted and understood. In this kind of cinema, the truth is the truth because it is full of contradictions.
The successful marriage of artful stylisation and truthful rawness is rare but unforgettable, and many are afraid of attempting to achieve it. Aside from its elusiveness and riskiness, the reason that we lack long, lingering close ups on faces in much contemporary cinema might be that studio executives are afraid of losing audiences’ attention. This is not unseen, though rarely in films generally referred to as “mainstream.” Andrea Arnold’s American Honey (2016) comes to mind as an exception. Her camera lingers over newcomer Sasha Lane’s face until we feel we know its every nuance from every angle. It is a remarkable film, though it must be admitted that it carries neither the prestige nor the budget and distribution of Queen Christina (1932), nor the academic fame and recognition of Orlando (1992), the two films in which the two scenes described above occur.
            It is easiest to say that if there is a definitive cinema of the face, a cinema of the truth, it is Pasolini’s, or Rossellini’s – full of faces plucked from the cobbled streets of Stromboli, or the harsh dry soil of the Tuscan countryside. Theirs are actors who are not actors yet are invariably the best actors you have ever seen. While it is true that neorealism and the new wave captured and acted upon this desire to observe real faces, the concept of the face as the ultimate cinematic lexicon goes far beyond the avant-garde of the fifties and sixties. It is a popular misconception that stylised cinema, whether of the classical or avant-garde tradition, cannot be true or raw. The two faces in Queen Christina and Orlando illustrate the possibilities of the face as a gesture in stylised cinema.
            The final shot of Rouben Mamoulian’s (though we might as easily say “Garbo’s”), Queen Christina (1932) is simply a framing of Garbo’s face. As the revolutionary and controversial Queen Christina of Sweden, Garbo wears men’s clothes, declares that she will not die an “old maid,” but a “bachelor,” and kisses her lady in waiting just briefly enough for the studios not to suspect an openly same-sex relationship, but long enough for us to know that it’s implied (Queen Christina is believed by most of historians to have been a lesbian). At the close of the film, Christina has just abdicated the throne to elope with her Spanish lover (played by John Garfield), but upon boarding the ship discovers that he has been killed in a duel with another of her suiters. Just before the shot of her gazing into the horizon, she has decided to nevertheless set sail for Spain, oblivious to what her future holds, yet content about it. The film as a whole delights in ambiguity, but it is the masterful shot itself which epitomises the power of the face onscreen.
In directing the scene, Mamoulian supposedly told Garbo, “Darling, just make your face a blank,” assuring her that the audience would paint their own interpretation of Christina’s emotions on her face like a blank canvas. The resulting shot has become legendary, immortalised thus by Roland Barthes in his essay “The Face of Garbo”:
“Garbo still belongs to that moment in cinema when capturing the human face still plunged audiences into the deepest ecstasy, when one literally lost oneself in a human image as one would in a philter, when the face represented a kind of absolute state of the flesh, which could be neither reached nor renounced. A few years earlier the face of Valentino was causing suicides; that of Garbo still partakes of the same rule of Courtly Love, where the flesh gives rise to mystical feelings of perdition … As a language, Garbo's singularity was of the order of the concept, that of Audrey Hepburn is of the order of the substance; the face of Garbo is an Idea, that of Hepburn, an Event.”
However, in pre-Barthes Hollywood where the profit of a film was more important than its future place in the aesthete’s hall of fame, Louis B Mayer was concerned. Having read the final pages of the script, he told Mamoulian that he was worried the ending might be too melancholy or unclear. Mamoulian told him that this was not the case but that he was unable to describe why, because his plan consisted of “mostly visual imagery.” To convince Mayer, he reminded him of how Greek Tragedy, “has an unhappy ending but it never depresses the audience. It exhilarates them.” A fact most likely obscure to both Mamoulian and Mayer, as Bruce Fraser notes in his introduction to Greek Tragedy, “Aeschylus was famous for the use of a non-speaking actor, a 'silent face' (kophon prosopon), who may speak at moments of maximum tension.” Mamoulian may have owed more to the dramatics of Greek Tragedy than even he realised.
Mamoulian couldn’t have anticipated the significance of that final shot. Not only are the audience able to project their expectations for Christina, but the shot itself is a way of delving into the sublime or, as Barthe puts it, “the absolute state of the flesh.” This legendary shot in Queen Christina is perhaps the only truly successful marriage of cinematic artifice and a completely pure face in Hollywood’s Golden Age. This was not an art house film seen by a, however significant, select few, but a Hollywood blockbuster seen and experienced by millions of people. This brought the iconography of the human face to masses.
The second face described belongs to a remarkably similar film from an entirely different world. The film is Sally Potter’s Orlando starring Tilda Swinton (who Hilton Als once dubbed “the avant-garde’s Garbo, a manifestation of ideas in the flesh”). The ambitious independent feature is an adaptation of Virginia Woolf’s supposedly unadaptable 1928 fictional biography of an English nobleman who lives for four hundred years and spontaneously and inexplicably changes sex in the middle of the novel. It is one of few films which combine the representation of underrepresented groups of people and presenting a truly identity-less, amorphous protagonist. Swinton called the film “autobiographical,” and seems to share the sentiments of the immortal Orlando, “the thing that keeps me being a performer is my interest in society's obsession with identity, because I'm not sure that I really believe identity exists.”
Woolf’s use of stream of consciousness and, in the case of Orlando, direct address are often seen as obstacles to the adaptation of her work into film, yet both of these devices seem to me intensely cinematic. Potter used Swinton’s direct address to the camera for Woolf’s literary direct address, however what makes the penultimate shot, a close-up of her face, so significant is that when Orlando looks directly into the camera, her gaze is not accompanied by any Woolfian quip or comment as the previous shots were. Orlando has returned to her stately home that she lost, she has a child, her 400-year-in-the-making magnum opus is being published, and she has come to terms with her ambiguities. Before, in the scene after the mysterious sex change when Orlando says, looking first at herself naked in a full length mirror then straight into the camera, “same person… no difference at all… just a different sex.” Though a striking moment, the penultimate shot is infinitely more direct with no words at all. The gaze is both a confession of contentment and an accusatory declaration that the conclusion of her journey of self-discovery is that there is no conclusion.
Cinematic images are malleable, and what makes the face cinematic is that it is borderless, without language and without genre. What these two shots serve to prove, is that the human face as a means of both storytelling and reminding the audience of the human condition works not only in a select, obscure type of cinema. However important it may be to impose different personalities, identities and characters on the screen, the potency of the bare, exposed face should not be forgotten, nor limited to the hallowed halls of the art house. 


Madeleine Pulman-Jones

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