May 2011, arsenal cinema

Magical History Tour – Close-up: Face (2)


This month the Magical History Tour will again be dedicated to the "face" as a filmic event. Based on sixteen films, we will show examples of the depiction of the human face throughout the history of cinema and present positions of individual directors in regard to representations of the face. In some of this month's films, the emblematic faces in close-up of stars such as Marlene Dietrich, Marilyn Monroe, James Dean, and Jean-Paul Belmondo – based on which the September program retraced the tensional relationship between narration and projection – will be juxtaposed with lay actors, whose in a cinematic context still "blank" physiognomies became the necessary foil for the directors. During the history of cinema, the originally unknown (film) faces of Maria Falconetti in LA PASSION DE JEANNE D'ARC or Enrique Irazoqui in IL VANGELO SECONDO MATTEO soon became the unmistakable "faces" of films and historical characters, thus entering into the canon of media faces. The mask-like "second" face made unrecognizable through make-up is another focus of the Magical History Tour. The representation of the face in Ingmar Bergman is also highly instructive. He saw the true quality of cinema in the closeness to the human face. We will screen several of the full-length films together with shorts by Karø Goldt, Stephen Dwoskin, as well as Christoph Girardet and Matthias Müller, which despite or perhaps because of their short format are impressive formal examinations of the human face.

The strong bodily presence of Asta Nielsen in her films, or that of her facial expressions, is one of the most striking characteristics of this early movie star. The Hungarian film theorist Béla Balázs saw in her, as a corporeal narrator, the epiphany of the filmic art of expression, and called her facial vocabulary exemplary. In Visible Man, he describes a scene from DIE FREUDLOSE GASSE (The Joyless Street, G.W. Pabst, GER 1925, Oct. 1 & 2, on the piano: Eunice Martins), in which the shots of Nielsen's face become the "dramatic stage" of the metamorphosis of pain (dismay, despair, anger, determination) in view of her lover's infidelity. For Balázs, this is an expressive example of his theory of polyphone physiognomy. In DIE FREUDLOSE GASSE Asta Nielsen plays a young proletarian woman who during the times of inflation in Vienna becomes a prostitute out of deprivation and hunger.

IL VANGELO SECONDO MATTEO (The Gospel According to St. Matthew, Pier Paolo Pasolini, I 1964, Oct. 3 & 4) Suggestive and all but expressionistic shots of the face (as well as the back of the head) of the lay actor Enrique Irazoqui dominate Pasolini's movie about the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus Christ. After a lengthy search, the Italian director discovered his leading actor by chance. "When Enrique entered my study, I immediately knew: That's my Christ. He had precisely the beautiful, proud, and at the same time human and transfigured face of El Greco's depictions of Christ." Yet Pasolini was less interested in the factual similarities between Irazoqui and the faces of Christ in art history. Instead, he falls back on art-historical staging strategies and depicts Jesus as a universal archetype and icon.

SOPRALUOGHI IN PALESTINA (PER IL VANGELO SECONDO MATTEO) (Location Hunting in Palestine, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Italy 1963, Oct. 6 & 13) Pasolini's research at the sites of the Gospel, the Sea of Galilee, the Jordan, and Jerusalem, were not only dedicated to location scouting but also to the quest for faces for the film IL VANGELO. Conversations with Father Andrea, the ecclesiastical advisor of the film project, as well as reflections on the Palestinian landscape and its people reveal how Pasolini, a professed atheist, delved into the biblical material.

REPRISE (Hervé Le Roux, F 1996, Oct. 7 & 8). The starting point of the film is a photograph showing the angry face of a woman raising her fist in a threatening manner. The photo is from a short documentary from 1968 on the end of a strike and the resumption of work in the factory "Wonder" near Paris. Twenty five years later, the director Le Roux starts searching for this woman. All he has is the photograph of her face. He looks for persons involved in the strike at the time, confronts them with the historical material, records their reactions, asks them about their memories of the events and the mysterious woman in the photograph. Le Roux's exciting investigations result in a complex portrayal of the situation at the time.

LA PASSION DE JEANNE D'ARC (The Passion of Joan of Arc, Carl Theodor Dreyer, F 1928, Oct. 9 & 11, on the piano: Eunice Martins) "Nothing in the world can be compared to the human face. It is a landscape that one never gets tired of exploring. To see how it is given a soul from within and transformed into poetry." (Dreyer) Balázs' idea of the "human face as a document" is applicable in two ways in Dreyer's film on faces and gazes. The faces without make-up and in extreme close-up not only document the fragile psychological landscape of the protagonist (played by the theater actress Maria Falconetti) or the hypocritical depths behind the physiognomies of soldiers and clerics. In their iconographical staging (concentration on the face in front of an unspecific background) – in a similar way as with Pasolini – the faces also become inscribed in the collective imagination of historical events.

MOUCHETTE (Robert Bresson, F 1967, Oct. 10,12 & 14) Bresson's reasons for working with lay actors, whom he calls "models", can be found in his Notes on Cinematography and have as much to do with his understand of play as with his understanding of staging: "No actors. (No directing of actors). No roles. (No rehearsing of roles). No staging. But the use of models taken from life. BEING (models) instead of SEEMING (actors)." For Bresson, the face was of very special importance: "Model: All face!" Fully in this sense, the distrustful character of little Mouchette repeatedly shows itself in the defiant expression of her face and gaze, displayed to the narrow world of a French provincial village. A chain of disappointments, animosities, psychological and physical injuries, and human coldness lead her to putting an end to her life.

Masks, make-up, and changes in media form the background of THE DARK KNIGHT (Christopher Nolan, USA 2008, Oct. 15 & 18), MEPHISTO (István Szabó, HU/FRG/A 1980, Oct. 17 & 21; supporting film: PHOENIX TAPES #6; Christoph Girardet, Matthias Müller, GER 1999) and M BUTTERFLY (David Cronenberg, USA 1993, Oct. 19 & 20; supporting film: ASCOLTA!; Stephen Dwoskin, I/GB 2008). Klaus Maria Brandauer in the role of the ambitious and vain actor Höfgen in MEPHISTO, who sacrifices his convictions for his career, and Jeremy Irons as René Gallimard in M BUTTERFLY, whose love of a Peking opera singer makes him the plaything of Chinese espionage, put on masks in two central scenes so as to take on a second identity, as it were, with their "second" faces. While Brandauer's rigid Mephisto face is at once a defensive barrier and a hide-out, the moment of applying make-up in M BUTTERFLY marks Irons' final transformation into the figure of his own projec-tion. In Christopher Nolan's THE DARK KNIGHT, the mask-like nature of Heath Ledger's torn-off Joker face, his smeared clown make-up, and his diabolic facial expressions refer more to a dehumanization of the character. Like a playing card, he resembles a negligently animated void. In all three cases, the mask also stands for a change in media: to the theater, the opera, and the world of comics.

A totally different kind of unmasking marks the start of Béla Tarr's KÁRHOZAT (Damnation, Hungary 1987, Oct. 27 & 31). The several-minute-long sequence of a shaving make the different textures of the scene – stubble, shaving foam, skin – haptically experienceable, but even the rigid and emotionless face without beard and foam reveals little of the protagonist's feelings: The scene is the consistent exposition of a weave of relationships between the protagonists Karrer, a female singer, her husband, and the proprietor of a bar.

"The most essential quality of cinema is the possibility of coming closer to the human face", Ingmar Bergman stated in 1959. Fathoming the human face and its boundaries, the thin layer between inside and outside, is a central point of reference of the Swedish direc-tor. We will screen PERSONA (Ingmar Bergman, Sweden 1966, Oct. 23 & 24; supporting film: SOUL RESEARCH LABORATORY # IV: SEARCH AND HIDE, Karø Goldt; A/GER 2007), whose symbiotic relationship between a nurse and an actress culminates in the merging of their faces, and ANSIKTET (The Magician, Ingmar Bergman, Sweden 1958, Oct. 25 & 26), in which the battle between magic and rationality takes place in an expressive chiaroscuro on the faces of its protagonists as well.

STAROJE I NOWOJE (GENERALNAJA LINIJA) (Old and New, Sergej Eisenstein, USSR 1929, Oct. 29 & 30, on the piano: Eunice Martins) Merely the smiling face of the peasant Marfa Lapkina, who in the still young Soviet Union passionately fights for the collectivization of farming and against the big landowners and clerics, stands out as an individual from a mass of faces, which Eisenstein uses here predominantly as cultural or social exponents. We see cascades of facial classes and types, often caricatured, monstrous, smug, or bloated. Among them, Marfa Lapkina, whose initials and smile directed towards the distance reminds the spectator of another media icon in the Parisian Louvre.