January 2015, arsenal cinema

Magical History Tour – Close-up: The Face

THE SCARLET EMPRESS, 1934

Faces look at you - everywhere! Without the depiction of human physiognomy, visual communication would be one key element poorer. Without film and its capacity to focus via close-ups, it would be barely possible to imagine the path of facial depiction in the 20th century. In this month's Magical History Tour, we examine the cinematic event - "the face" - and through a selection of 13 films, we present the polymorphy of its portrayal in film. This ranges from faces being perfectly lit on the projection screen, to the faces of stars being shot up close to subjectivize them and create identity, to "motif" faces, to the fact that the face represents perhaps the most prominent overlap between a person’' interior and outer being, or the possibility to create a mask-like "second face" where the face becomes unrecognizable with the use of make-up.

SOME LIKE IT HOT (Billy Wilder, USA 1959, 1. & 3.1.) By the end of the 1950s, Marilyn Monroes status as superstar, sex goddess and the most coveted woman in the world had long been cemented and was thus the sub-text of the close-up of her face in the film's trailer, which shows Monroe in a round "O" that's framed by the letters "H" and "T". The face and word not only formulate the obvious here, but also hint at the point of departure of this fast-paced and hilarious comedy, in which two men dressed as women (the glorious Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis) constantly attempt to suppress their desires and get away from the Chicago mob. 

ACCATTONE (Pier Paolo Pasolini, Italy 1961, 2. & 4.1.) Pasolini has often been described as a "cinema physiognomist". With this film, he took a radically new look at Rome's suburbs, the sub-proletariat and their language. The film centers on Vittorio (Franco Citti), who calls himself Accattone (which means "scrounger" or "beggar" in Italian) and can barely hold himself above water with theft, wheeling and dealing, and pimping. His wife has left him. His girlfriend, who prostituted herself for him, is in jail. When he falls in love with the young Stella, he tries - in vain - to change his life. Chased by the police, he has an accident and dies. In this film that features amateur actors and is set against the backdrop of a bare, neo-realist suburban desert, Pasolini develops a haunting Passion. Present and myth, archetype and icon, rebellion and sensitivity and, of course, identity and representation come together in the changing face of the city.

KÁRHOZAT (Damnation, Béla Tarr, Hungary 1987, 6. & 9.1.) Foam, stubble, skin - in a scene lasting several minutes, an unmasking takes place layer-by-layer during a shaving session that is physically palpable. Finally, the motionless and emotionless face of Karrer is exposed. Leading a dismal life in a bleak suburb, he spends most of his days and nights at the Titanic Bar. The torpor pointed to in the exposition is rooted in the developing love triangle around him, a singer and her husband, whose existential distress is inscribed in the orchestration of filmic spaces and landscapes that is so characteristic for Tarr.

PERSONA (Ingmar Bergman, Sweden 1966, 7. & 11.1.) "The most essential quality of cinema is the possibility of coming closer to the human face," Ingmar Bergman once said. His comment does not come as a surprise: The sounding of the human face and its boundaries,  of the thin layer between the interior and the exterior, is a central element of the Swedish director's work. PERSONA begins with a kaleidoscope of pictures that juxtapose nightmare and homage to film. A lanky boy tries to touch the giant faces projected onto the screen. The process of sounding is extended in the film, which depicts the symbiotic relationship between a nurse (Bibi Andersson) and an actress who has suddenly ceased to speak. During a period of convalescence in a secluded summer cottage the two women's personalities get entangled - the emblematic image of the two women's faces fusing into each other is the film's crystallization point. Injuries and human coldness lead them to put an end to their lives.

STAROJE I NOWOJE (GENERALNAJA LINIJA) (Old and New, Sergej Eisenstein, USSR 1929, 8. & 13.1., 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.

MOUCHETTE (Robert Bresson, F 1967, 10. & 14.1.) 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.

DIE FREUDLOSE GASSE (The Joyless Street, G.W. Pabst, GER 1925, 15. & 17.1., on the piano: Eunice Martins) 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, 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.

FACES (John Cassavetes, USA 196568, 16.1.) One of the pioneers of American independent cinema, Cassavetes once again resisted all of Hollywood's formal, narrative and technical norms in this film. Direct sound and a light 16-mm camera allowed the film to be shot as if it were "a documentary recording of fiction in the moment of its happening" (Ulrich Gregor). This is an iridescent fiction film about the collapse of a marriage over a 36-hour period that Cassavetes tells largely by using close-ups of the faces of his fantastic ensemble, which includes John Marley, Lynn Carlin, Gena Rowlands and Seymour Cassel. Faces (and bodies) between eruption and satire and excess and apathy become the eloquent outer surfaces of a devastated inner landscape.

MEPHISTO (István Szabó, HU/BRD/A 1980, 18., 19. & 22.1.) Tanks and hiding-places, grimaces and facade: A two-dimensional Mephisto mask acting as a second face is the visual match of the protagonists complete lack of face. The vain and ambitious actor Hendrik Höfgen (Klaus Maria Brandauer) is masked and exposed in the same way, sacrificing his convictions, friends and feelings for his career under the Nazis before becoming aware of his personal failure during a ghostly finale at Berlin's Olympic Stadium. In his film based on Klaus Manns eponymous book  inspired by Gustaf Gründgens, Szabo depicts the corruptibility of art and artists under National Socialism as well as the illusion of being able to compromise with power.

REPRISE (Hervé Le Roux, F 1996, 20. & 21.1.) The film begins with an image showing the angry face of a women raising her fist threateningly. The photo is from a short 1968 documentary about the end of a strike and resuming work at the Wonder factory in Paris. In the early 1990s, Roux decided to search for the woman equipped only with this photo. He looked for people who had gone on strike, confronting them with the historical material, recording their reactions, asking them to talk about their memories of the time and the mysterious woman. His investigation unfolds into a complex picture of the era.

"DRUGSTORE COWBOY (Gus Van Sant, USA 1989, 22. & 27.1.) is the vision of a junkie's brain." (Van Sant) Hence, the movie starts and ends with long close-ups of the slightly detached face of the main character (magnetic: Matt Dillon). From the off, Bob starts telling the story of himself and his gang, whose everyday life is determined by regular (quite exhilarating) drugstore raids, but also risky burglaries. Their life, which is totally separated from the rest of the world, constantly navigates along a cliff, until one member of the foursome dies from an overdose. Impressive: the cameo appearance (including close-up!) of the writer W. S. Burroughs as a sus-pended priest and self-confessed junkie.

BROKEN BLOSSOMS (USA 1919, 24. & 30.1., on piano: Eunice Martins) According to legend,  it was D.W. Griffiths admiration for his main actress' beauty that triggered his idea to show the faces of his female stars close up. He is indeed one of the first directors to have worked with close-ups. In BROKEN BLOSSOMS, he used this stylistic approach quite perfectly, focussing on Lilian Gish, Griffiths' face par excellence, who plays a classical Victorian heroine with a "pure soul with such spiritual charisma, who is noble and dignified even when she suffers deepest sorrow and pain." She plays the daughter of a tyrannical professional boxer who takes here away by force from a Chinese merchant in whose custody she has been placed.

THE SCARLET EMPRESS (Josef von Sternberg, USA 1934, 29. & 31.1.) Many said that Marlene Dietrichs face embodied the likeness of the 20th century. Erich Maria Remarque described the result of Sternberg's years of efforts on stylizing it as "a cool, bright face that didn't ask for anything, that simply existed, waiting; a face that could change with any wind of expression. One could dream anything into it." A wide spectrum of dreams flows together in the sixth Sternberg-Dietrich film: Surrealism and expressionism, tragedy and farce. Surrounded by lavish costumes, opulent sets and heavy symbolism, Dietrich performs a breathtaking transformation from innocent Prussian princess to the cool, erotic and dominant Russian Tsarina, Catherine the Great. (mg)