Sunday, May 23, 2010

Magnification and the Poetry of the Close-Up

Jean Epstein’s article “Magnification” seems to be a love letter to the cinematic close-up, and I am in agreement with his central sentiment. When Epstein describes “the close-up” as “the soul of the cinema,” he is absolutely right. It’s the one moment in the film when you see beneath the surface and get into the interior psychology of the character. It is the moment when actors act, not in the broad theatrical way, but in the subtle flexes of the facial muscles or the ocular reaction that gives away what the other characters of the film may not see. The close-up on the face can show the manifestation of pain or the joy in humor; the face is like a landscape that alters with mood rather than a cut or edit.

Though Epstein’s article presents a compelling declaration of love to the close-up, I do not agree in every aspect of the article. When Epstein writes, “If it (close-up) is too long I don’t find continuous pleasure in it.” Where I feel that in some of the longest close-ups are the most pleasurable as in the Western epics of Sergio Leone. In the film Once Upon A Time In The West, the end has an extremely long edit of close-ups that I find extremely exciting. When the showdown with Charles Bronson and Henry Fonda takes place (very similar to The Good, The Bad and the Ugly), long close-ups build to a satisfactory climax, while the viewer is subjected to the sweat and grit of the face of fear and the nervous twitch of the trigger finger.

When Epstein writes that the “landscape film is, for the moment, a big zero” I again disagree. One needs landscape like one needs an establishing shot. Without one, the close-up is meaningless. It’s like a magic trick of an appearing rabbit, without the hat. The landscape has a poetry all of it’s own. Like the face is just one part of the body, the landscape expresses the painful results of war or the joyful successes of harvest. In a film like Nicholas Roeg’s Walkabout the landscape is like a character in the film. The beautiful scenery of the Australian landscape can be at times inviting and dangerous like the close-up of a face of our hero or villain. When Epstein refers to landscape as “zero” he is plainly not seeing that landscape and close-up add up to something far more than their isolated parts.

The art of cinema is referred by Louis Delluc as “photogenie,” which Epstein “describe as photogenic any aspect of things, beings, or souls whose moral character is enhanced by filmic reproduction.” But I find just about anything is enhanced by filmic reproduction provided it’s shot nicely. When one sees a telephone in normal life it is merely a phone, but when one sees a close-up of a telephone in a film the item carries with it a certain weight. Will this item deliver good or bad news? Will it transport secrets of a rendezvous or that of a threat of blackmail? Filmic reproduction enhances some of the most mundane of household items into the most significant plot points of a film. The art of cinema is its ability to mirror our lives in to forms of escapism. What is escapism when we are so held captive by the close-up.

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