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Closer and Closer: On Close-Ups in Film
Béla Balázs, in Theory of the Film (1930), examines the close-up’s productive, illuminating uses in cinema. He sees this shot choice as serving certain key functions. It is a figure, a vehicle for meaning pointing to something else; whether a face or hand or inanimate object, the shot can signify feelings, intentions, character. It can be revelatory, subtly signaling hidden motivations or repressed emotion. It also has a relation to other shots, is part of a larger engine of meaning that is the film entire. Balázs also considers the degree to which the viewers must collaborate with the text, look for meaning, read the signs.
Balázs believes that one of the most generative, compelling abilities of the close-up is as a compassionate window into a character. He notes how the shot emanates from the screen with a kind of emotional energy matched by the viewer’s own feelings, which are sparked by the image: “[…] good close-ups radiate a tender human attitude in the contemplation of hidden things, a delicate solicitude, a gentle bending over the intimacies of life-in-miniature, a warm sensibility. Good close-ups are lyrical; it is the heart, not the eye, that has perceived them.” Balázs brings the image/character, viewer and director together in this trinity of good will. He suggests that we are leaning into the shot along with the camera, the director and viewer huddled around the subject; whether the close-up is a face or hand or inanimate object, the framing confers upon it a kind of aura we respond to, hearing its music. Josef von Sternberg, in The Last Command, employs close-ups that we may consider in light of Balázs’s poetic definition. The exiled General turned typecast actor goes numbly through the motions in wardrobe, seated (ironically) at a communal table with the dregs of Central Casting. Reaching surreptitiously in close-up into his jacket for a wallet, he removes a Russian military medal and, as the shot pans gently over to his jacket, he pins it on. This gesture is close to the vest, but the previous close-up is a fellow actor looking on, so the point of view is his rather than the General’s. Rather than an evocation of the General’s private relation to the past, this is observed by a mocking member of the proletariat who prefigures the seething mob who will depose the General in a long flashback to come. Still, the tender framing and compassion of this little glimpse overcomes a callous eye and the moment is, Balázs might also remind us, “expressing the poetic sensibility of the director.” The point of view, he suggests, is on some level the filmmaker’s as well, if only in the shot’s emotional register. The director’s compassion has a seat at the table, as does ours.
Balázs offers various examples of the close-up’s way of isolating and bringing forward someone’s nature, motivation or emotional state. These moments are a shared glance, involving the camera eye and the viewer’s, in addition to whatever relations are established between the characters’ points of view. Balázs describes how the “sectional pictures” in shots are, rather than parts of some master picture, a series of discrete images which “merge in our consciousness into a total scene.” He acknowledges the role of both the filmmaker and the viewer in this assemblage. The lucid construction of a sequence of these sectional pictures can help the viewers do work of their own, “an association of ideas, a synthesis of consciousness and imagination.” Balázs points to the collaboration between text and reader, material and mind. The active spectator responds to cues, and one shot followed by another will combine to make sense. The apparatus of montage delivers or presents a series of distinct images, thereby conferring an order and intention, but we must still make an effort to divine meaning from the sequence. Since close-ups are relative to shots that are not close, the viewer must always consider their status in relation to other shots, which have suggestive meanings of their own.
In The Last Command, the General’s flashback journey into the past is bookended by close-ups in a mirror. The medal was something he sought through excavating the past, and this “lyrical” close-up is now a cue for self-reflection. His face in the mirror equates to the long narrative to come, which seems to emanate from that gaze. This sectional picture, in effect, triggers the many images to come just as, Balázs notes, “a movement, a gesture, a form” in one shot can “refer the eye to the preceding and following shots.” The framing of the main narrative with these close-ups operates in the directive, guiding fashion that Balázs highlights. He emphasizes the investigative nature of close-ups, their ability to spotlight the overlooked: “Close-ups are often dramatic revelations of what is really happening under the surface of appearances.” The General’s private moment is an exposure of pain and longing, and perhaps also a recognition of our own assessment of his abject condition. His forlorn close-up and its “‘microphysiognomy’ show[s] a deeply moving human tragedy with the greatest economy of expression.” The long narrative that follows is not the only point here; these shots, Balázs would concur, have a story of their own. Speech is not necessary, because the General’s face speaks for itself: “A single twitch of a facial muscle may express a passion for the expression of which a long sentence would be needed.” A voice-over or monologue would be redundant, since the image itself is a “mute soliloquy.”
In his appreciation of how the silent cinema zoomed in on the “hidden life of little things” and the “poetry of miniature landscapes,” Balázs is acknowledging how the close-up takes us from overview to ground level, from global to local, where the “general is transformed into the particular.” Whether of the face or hand, close shots capture an otherwise hidden emotional language: “The close-up can show us a quality in a gesture of the hand we never noticed before when we saw that hand stroke or strike something, a quality which is often more expressive than any play of the features.” He sees the close-up as a window opening on meaning, and perhaps notes the synecdochal function of the hand as a figure for the face, an eloquent substitute. In the final scene of City Lights, Charlie Chaplin uses close-ups of both face and hand to communicate the characters’ emotional epiphanies, understated as they are. His decision to do so without sound, even in 1931, evinces a belief that silence is the most expressive arena for close-ups. When the Tramp and the Blind Girl who now can see reunite, she feels his familiar hand, but is looking at his face for the first time. Chaplin cuts to a close-up of their joined hands. The Tramp’s hand is who he is to her, the hand that had shown her compassion. Balázs would admire how, with her poignant gestures, “the invisible face behind the visible” reveals itself. He lauds subtle acting and how it can open up a gateway for the audience.
The close-up on their hands is a performance in itself as she goes from recognition to gratitude, a little pat of comfort, and finally a loving caress. Her hand moves up his arm, still in close-up, to his chest, his heart. The shots of the Tramp are tighter, since her discovery is central so far. When she says “Yes, I can see now” she takes his hand to her heart. The final shot—a close-up of the Tramp, tears welling, fingers sheepishly in his mouth and flower in hand— fades after just a few seconds. Chaplin chooses not to indulgently linger, as if respectfully leaving them to the rest of their lives. The fade, rather than evoking the “sadness of farewells and the impermanence of things,” is hopeful. Balázs proposes that a tight shot “can get so close that it can show ‘microphysiognomic details’”; while his point is that the shot can reveal something the character might want to hide, with the Tramp we are close enough to see what we would not be able to in even a medium shot. Balázs illustrates the close-up’s musical, lyrical ability, how it works on us at the deepest level. He feels that this is just enough. The cinema viewer, after three decades of silence, was adept at the “art of reading faces.” These delicate performances at the end of City Lights, hands and faces, confirm Balázs’s view that the close-up allowed a more restrained acting style due to its revelatory spark.
Balázs also recognizes that close-ups have a power that should not be limited to the face or hands, or the human figure at all. He believes that in silent cinema, through the very act of photography, “men and things were thus brought on to the same plane” (58). In his treatment of Michael Romm’s The Thirteen, Balázs examines the metonymic uses of these close-ups, their ability to present human experience through a figurative resonance. A soldier’s agonizing journey across the desert is depicted indirectly, the director employing close-ups of the terrain as an indication of the brutal nature of the experience: “Then the close-ups of the trail mark the beginning of an exciting drama. For the trail changes its shape, it takes on a physiognomy—it shows us the fatigue and then exhaustion of the increasingly uncertain feet and our imagination is stimulated by the fact that we cannot see, but merely deduce or guess the condition of the man by the state of the trail.” Balázs describes these images as signs or markers in place of what the viewer might otherwise have expected to see. The trail has its own face, he suggests, one that stands for the face we know is in agony. An economical reliance on close-ups conveys the inner life of the soldier, his anguish and ordeal, at the same time encouraging—even demanding—that the viewer engage actively with the imagery, make connections: “That we have not seen a close-up of the dead horse brings home the significance of the close-up more than anything else […] He himself has not been shown us even once, but the picture our imagination paints of him is all the more harrowing.” Balázs contends that the images we are seeing—the soldier’s trail in the sand, his lone footsteps, his discarded equipment—are signifiers of the difficulty of his journey, the death of his horse, the impossibility of continuing to carry anything under these alarming conditions. The referents here, the corresponding shots that, in a montage, would connect the dots for the reader and complete the meaning, are subordinated, even rejected. Balázs acknowledges both the good sense of the director and the astute watchfulness necessary in the viewer to take advantage of these cues. Rather than laud the close-up as obvious or a shortcut, which he does do at times, here he highlights both the confidence of the director and the image-making minds of the audience.
Some of Balázs’s most compelling arguments involve the interplay between the film and viewer, his belief that we are constantly woven into the imagery and narrative through our watching, particularly with close-ups: “They show the faces of things and those expressions on them which are significant because they are reflected expressions of our own subconscious feeling.” The shot is a mirror of our own inner state, which aligns us with the character and stitches us into the moment. In the tense pause before the tarpaulin-covered sailors aboard the Potemkin are to be shot, Eisenstein inserts several close-ups of the priest’s hand tapping his cross with the countdown to fire and the soldier’s hand keeping time on his sword. In Balázs’s terms these are evocations of our own tension, and perhaps also confirm (or create) an idea we might have about the oppressive authority of church and state. In a film without much subjectivity, this moment seems to conform to Balázs’s estimation of the close-up’s consonance with our own feelings in a charged moment, as well as to offer a “sign of an internal storm” within the character. In the final scene of Late Spring, Yasujiro Ozu also uses close-ups of a hand to indicate an emotional state, as a figure for a man’s inner life. While this is a sound film, Ozu’s customary restraint and subtlety serve a quiet, dialogue-free moment. Professor Shukichi returns home after his daughter’s wedding, alone and bereft, in discreet long shots evoking his loneliness and isolation. He sits down in a frontal medium shot, as we get closer to witnessing his sorrow. He reaches for an apple, still in medium shot, but then a cut to close-up, his careful peeling. A cut to a close-up of Shukichi’s anguished face, as if the paring of the apple had exposed what he was trying, in his dignified manner, to contain. A cut back to the apple, a weary pause, and the peel drops. The hand and the apple are associative figures for Shukichi’s emotions. The final shot is of the tide coming in, a grand image after the intimacy of the scene and its close-ups. Ozu uses the close-ups as part of a series of other kinds of shots to punctuate their importance. Balázs, remembering that early cinemagoers had to become schooled in the way that shot sequences work, explicates the logic of the relations between shots of varying distance: “If the close-up lifts some object or some part of an object out of its surroundings, we nevertheless perceive it as existing in space; we do not for instance forget that the hand, say, which is shown by the close-up, belongs to some human being. It is precisely this connection which lends meaning to its very movement.” As always, Balázs honors both the integrity of the single image and its relation to others, the sectional pictures in league with other pictures, but maintaining a power of their own.
The close-up, for Balázs, works because it does something other shots, and other art forms, cannot. His emphasis on the variety of its applications is a testament to his admiration for this potent cinematic device. Going beyond the conventional sense we might have of the close-up—as a way for the film to offer a “portrait” of the character, a snapshot—Balázs also reminds us of the synecdochal opportunities (hands, feet) or metonymic flourishes (an apple, a sword) of the close-up. These shots can become a figure, an idea to be read, connected logically to the “total picture” of character or body, but separated, with an ontological status of its own. The close-up gets its foot in the door of intimate realms unreached by the distance of the presentational, proscenium shot, marking its own territory as something uniquely cinematic.
Patrick Walters is a Sylvania English Instructor. In 2017 he attended Film Studies courses as part of his sabbatical. This essay was written for a Film Theory class.