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MARY ANN DOANE The Close-Up: Scale and Detail in the Cinema ofthe earliest attempts to produce film theory, that of the French Impressionists in the 1920s, generated a conce^ii—photoge- nie—which is usually considered to be theoretically incoherent. No doubt this is due to the fact that p/io/o^ert/c is designed to account for that which is inarticulable, that which exceeds language and hence points to the very essence of cinematic specificity. Photogenie names a supplementarity, an enhancement, that which is added to an object in the process of its sub- jection to a photographic medium. For Epstein, it is inextricably hound up with an ethics: "I would describe as photogenic any aspect of things, beings or souls whose moral characler is enhanced hy filmic reproduc- tion" {Bonjour2{)). The close-up is the privileged site for this experience of photogenie, and Epstein often labored to produce a language that would be adequate to this experience. Witness, for instance, the linguistic contor- tions in his description ofthe close-up of a face breaking into a smile: / will never find the way to say how I love American close-ups. Point blank. A head suddenly appears on screen and drama, now face to face, seems to address me personally and swells with an C o p y r i g h t 2 0 0 5 b y R r o w r I'niversity and d i r r c r e n c e s : A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 14:5

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Page 1: Close Up Scale and Detail in the Cinema - Doanne


The Close-Up: Scale and Detail in the Cinema

ofthe earliest attempts to produce film theory, that ofthe French Impressionists in the 1920s, generated a conce^ii—photoge-nie—which is usually considered to be theoretically incoherent. No doubtthis is due to the fact that p/io/o^ert/c is designed to account for that whichis inarticulable, that which exceeds language and hence points to the veryessence of cinematic specificity. Photogenie names a supplementarity, anenhancement, that which is added to an object in the process of its sub-jection to a photographic medium. For Epstein, it is inextricably houndup with an ethics: "I would describe as photogenic any aspect of things,beings or souls whose moral characler is enhanced hy filmic reproduc-tion" {Bonjour2{)). The close-up is the privileged site for this experienceof photogenie, and Epstein often labored to produce a language that wouldbe adequate to this experience. Witness, for instance, the linguistic contor-tions in his description ofthe close-up of a face breaking into a smile:

/ will never find the way to say how I love American close-ups.Point blank. A head suddenly appears on screen and drama, nowface to face, seems to address me personally and swells with an

C o p y r i g h t 2 0 0 5 b y R r o w r I ' n i v e r s i t y a n d d i r r c r e n c e s : A J o u r n a l o f F e m i n i s t C u l t u r a l S t u d i e s 1 4 : 5

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90 The Close-Up: Scale and Detail in the Cinema

extraordinary intensity. I am hypnotized. Now the tragedy isanatomical The decor of the fifth act is this corner of a cheektorn by a smile. [. . .J The orography of the face vacillates. Seis-mic shocks begin. Capillary wrinkles try lo split the fault. Awave carries them away. Crescendo. A tnuscle bridles. The lip islaced with tics like a theater curtain. Everything is movement,imbalance, crisis. Crack. The mouth gives way, like a ripe fruitsplitting open. As if slit by a scalpel, a keyboard-like smile cutslaterally into the corner ofthe lips. CMagnification" 9)

The description verges on the obscene, perhaps because it transformsthe face, usually reserved as the very locus of subjectivity, into a seriesof harsh and alien objects (a geographical site, a wave, a theater curtain,a piece of fruil, a keyboard). The excessiveness of Epstein's language isconsistent with the inescapably hyperbolic nature ofthe close-up. {Thetitle of Epstein's article is "Magnification.") But in addition, Epstein's proseextracts and abstracts the close-up from the scene, from the body, fromthe spatiotemporal coordinates of the narrative, performing, in effect,its monstrosity. Any viewer is invited to examine its gigantic detail, itscontingencies, its idiosyncrasies. The close-up is always, at some level,an autonomous entity, a fragment, a "for-itself."

The close-up has inspired fascination, love, horror, empathy,pain, unease. It has been seen as the vehicle of the star, the privilegedreceptacle of affect, of passion, the guarantee ofthe cinema's status as auniversal language, one of, if not the most recognizable units of cinematicdiscourse, yet simultaneously extraordinarily difficult to define. (At whatdistance from the object or tightness ofthe frame does it begin? At wbatpoint does the medium shot become a medium close-up and the mediumclose-up give way to the pure close-up?) Eor Walter Benjamin, the close-up was one ofthe significant entrance points to the optical unconscious,making visible what in daily life went unseen.

Epstein's extravagant language, perhaps unconsciously andcertainly despite the invocation of morality, delineates tbe close-up asa lurking danger, a potential semiotic threat to the unity and coherencyofthe filmic discourse. The most heavily used close-up, that ofthe face,fragments the hody, decapitating it (bringing to mind the perhaps apoc-ryphal story in wbich Griffith's producer, confronted with the close-up,complains, "We pay for the whole actor, Mr. Griffith. We want to see allof him" [qtd. in Heath 36]). The close-up in general is disengaged from

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the mise-en-scene, freighted with ati inherent separability or isolation,a "for-itself" that inevitably escapes, to some degree, the tactics of con-tinuity editltig that strive to make it "whole" again. Space is "used up"by the face or object, and the lime of the moment, the time of Epstein'scontemplation, is expanded at the expense ofthe linear time of narrative.The close-up embodies the pure fact of presentation, of manifestation, ofshowing—a "here it is." Gilles Deleuze, citing Bela Balazs, claims Ihat "theclose-up does not tear away its object from a set of which it would formpart, of which it would be a part, but on the contrary it abstracts it fromall spatio-temporal co-ordinates, that is lo say it raises it to the stale ofRnlity" (95-96). Of all the different types of shots, it is the close-up thatis most fully associated with the screen as surface, with the annihilationof a sense of depth and its corresponding rules of perspectival realism.The image becomes, once more, an image rather than a threshoM onto aworld. Or rather, the world is reduced to this face, this object.

Perhaps this status as potential semiotic threat can help toexplain the pivotal role of the close-up in film history and theory. Anintensive and persistent search for the earliest incarnation ofthe close-uphas characterized many historical accounts, and candidates range fromEdison's kinetoscopic record of a sneeze to the close shot of a bank robbershooting his gun toward the audience in Edwin S. Porter's 1903 The GreatTrain Robbery to Griffith's early melodramas. It is as though assigning theclose-up a definitive and determinant chronology limited its threat. Withrespect to these discourses, Pascal Bonitzer raises the question, "Why doesthe first appearance of the close-up in cinematographic space always seemto be contemporaneous with the first stammerings of a 'cinematographiclanguage'?" (29).' The close-up, together with an editing that penetratesspace and is at least partially rationalized by that close-up, seems to markthe moment ofthe very emergence of film as a discourse, as an art.

For Balazs, theclose-up was "the technical condition ofthe arlof film" (qtd. in Aumont84). Epstein described the close-up as the "soul ofthe cinema" ("Magnification" 9). Writing in 1916, Hugo Munsterberg natu-ralized the close-up, reducing its potential danger by aligning it with themental act of attention; film was simply a simulation ofthe human mind,its techniques the technological embodiment of that mind's capacities(37-39). Over and against Munsterberg's domestication and rationaliza-tion, the close-up has more frequently appeared as the mark of cinematicdifference and specificity, as in Epsiein's photogenie—lh^ invocation of anotherwise unknown dimension, a radically defamiliarized alterity. Sergei

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The Cl05e-Up: Scale and Detail in the Cinema

Eisenstein, for instance, argued for the disengagement of the close-upfrom reality, criticizing Griffith for liis inability to abstract, to get beyondthe "narrowly representational" {Film 243). The function ofthe close-upin the Soviet cinema was "not so much to show or to present as to signify,to give meaning, to designate'' (238). As a crucial element of montage,the close-up was the support of an intellectual, critical cinema. Tearingthe object from the real, the close-up introduced "absolute changes inthe dimensions of bodies and objects on the screen" (Eisenstein,,4u-rfe/«229). The ordinary rules of classical perspective no longer obtain: "[T]helaws of cinematographic perspective are such that a cockroach filmed inclose-up appears on tbe screen one hundred times more formidable thana hundred elephants in medium-long shot" (112).

As Eisenstein and others have pointed out, the concept isinflected differently through its varying nomenclature in different lan-guages. In Russian and in French, tbe term for close-up denotes largenessor large scale (e.g., gros plan in French); while in English, it is nearnessor proximity that is at stake. The close-up thus invokes two differentbinary oppositions—proximity vs. distance and the large vs. the small. Inthe American context, it is conceptualized in terms of point of view, per-spective, the relation between spectator and image, the spectator's placein the scene, and an assumed identification between viewer and camera.In the Soviet and French context, it is thought as a quality ofthe image,as extensiveness, scale, an imposing stature, the awe ofthe gigantic asopposed to the charm ofthe miniature. In his discussion of capitalism, thecommodity, and tbe mechanically reproduced image, Benjamin delineatesthe defining desire ofthe masses in a capitalist society as a desire for acloseness that is also a ieveiing of difference, a desire, in effect, for theclose-up. He refers to

the desire of contemporary masses to bring things "closer"spatially and humanly, which is just as ardent as their benttoward overcoming the uniqueness of every reality by accept-ing its reproduction. Every day the urge grows stronger to gethold of an object at very close range by way of its likeness, itsreproduction. ("Work of Art" 223)

The decay of the aura, predicated upon distance, finds its perfect embodi-ment in the close-up (despite its association with the false aura ofthe star).Here, closeness is allied with possession, possessiveness, the desire to "gethold of an ohject" by, somewhat ironically, making moot tbe question of

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ownership. In contrast, the Russian and French terms reject possession infavor of transcendence (the image is truly "larger than life"), a scale thaiguarantees unattainability. I will return to this issue later in arguing thatthe close-up performs the inextricability of these two seemingly opposedformulations, simultaneously posing as holh microcosm and macrocosm,delai! and whole. The excessiveness, even hysteria, of much of film theory'sdiscourse on the close-up is symptomatic of a strongly felt loss specificto modernity. Faced with an accelerating rationalization, specialization,and disintegration of the sense of a social totality, the subject clings to thehope of simulacra of wholeness. The close-up, with its contradictory status(as both detail of a larger scene and totality in its own right—a spectacleof scale with its own integrity) responds to this need.

With the linguistic turn of film theory in the 19708 and thequasi-scientific approach of a scholar like Christian Metz, the elation andinsistence upon evaluation characteristic of early film theory's approachto the cIosc-up disappears. Yet, the close-up remains a pivotal figure. Inattempting to demonstrate why there is no unit in the cinema that cor-responds to the word in language (and hence why the cinema is alwaysspeech—paro/e versus langage in Saussure's terms), Metz invokes theclose-up as exemplary:

The image is always actualized. Moreoiier, ev>en the image-fairly rare, incidentally—that tnight, because of its content,correspond to a "word" is still a sentence: This is a particularcase, and a particularly revealing one. A close-up of a revolverdoes not mean "revolver" (a purely virtual lexical unit), butat the very least, and without speaking of the connotations, itsigtiifies "Here is a revolver!''It carries with it a kind o/here (aword which Andre Martinet rightly considers to be a pure indexof actualization). (67)

The close-up, more than other types of shots, demonstrates the deicticnature of the cinematic image, its inevitahlc indexicality. Mimicking thepointing finger, it requires no language and is not comparable to it. Withthe gesture of presenting its contents (making them actual), it supportsthe cinema's aspiration to be the vehicle of presence.

And yet, the most strident of analyses of the close-up insist uponits alliance with a quite particular content, one that is indeed presentedas indissociable from the very mechanism of the technique: the humanface. The face is that bodily part not accessible to the subject's own gaze

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94 The Close-up: Scale and Detail in the Cinema

(or accessible only as a virtual image in a mirror), and simuUaneoiisIy itis the site that is ̂ ee^ and read hy the other—hence its over-representationas the instance of suhjectivity. The scale of the close-up transforms theface into an instance of the gigantic, the monstrous: it overwhelms. Theface, usually the mark of individuality, hecomes tantamount to a theoremin its generalizability. In the close-up, it is truly higger than life.

For Balazs, theclose-up, whether of objects or the human face,is inherently anthropomorphic: "When the film close-up strips the veil ofour imperceptiveness and insensitivity from the hidden little things andshows us the face of objects, it still shows us man, for what makes objectsexpressive are the human expressions projected on to them. The objectsonly reflect our own selves." And yet, something of the object contami-nates the face in close-up as well: "This most subjective and individualof human manifestations is rendered ohjectivein the close-up" (60). Theclose-up underwrites a crisis in the opposition between subject and object.This is particularly true in the silent film, where both were mute andwhere "both man and object were equally pictures, photographs, theirhomogeneous material [. . .] projected on to the same screen [. . .]" (58).According to Jacques Aumont in Du visage au cinema, Balazs did notquite understand the radical consequences of his own theory—that a face"filmed intensively," even one in long shot, is always in close-up and thaia close-up always represents a face: whether a human face or the face ofan object. The close-up and face are hence equivalent, interchangeable,and what they have in common, according to Aumont, is "the operationwhich produces a surface that is sensible and legible at the same time,which produces, as Deleuze says, an Entity" (85). The close-up trans-forms whatever it films into a quasi-tangible thing, producing an intensephenomenological experience of presence, and yet, simultaneously, thatdeeply experienced entity becomes a sign, a text, a surface that demandsto be read. This is, inside or outside of the cinema, the inevitable opera-tion of the face as well.

Deleuze's formulation is even more extreme: "As for the faceitself, we will not say that the close-up deals with \traite] it or subjectsit to some kind of treatment: there is no close-up o/the face, the face isitself close-up, the close-up is by itself face and both are affect, affectionimage" (88). This analysis hinges upon a quite precise definition of theface (which coincides with Bergson's definition of affeet) and a hypotheti-cal history in which the significance of the face is, in effect, compensatory.The face's function as a privileged site of meaning makes up for a loss or

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lack. Accorditig to this qtiasi-evoiutionary history, in order to t)ecome thelocalion ofthe organs of reception (sight, hearing, taste, smeil), the facehad to "sacrifice most of its motoricity" (87). Upon this largeiy immohiiesurface, the features were then oniy capahle of niicromovements, butextraordinarily intense ones that conjoin to make up what we caii "expres-sion." This history produces, for Deleuze, a definition of "face":

Each time we discover these two poles in something—rej'lectitigsurface and intensive micro-tnovenients—we can say that thisthing has been treated as a face /visage7; // has been "envis-aged" or rather yaceified" /visageifiee/, and in turn it staresal us [iUvisageJ, it looks at us /. . . / even if it does not resemblea face. (88)

\ will return later to the way in which the gaze emerges as a crucial com-ponent at the heart of Deleuze's description of "faceification." ("Faclal-ization," Brian Massumi's transiation in 4 Thousand Plateaus, strikes meas more felicitous.) But here, it is ohjecis that, in the manner of Lacan,look back at us and objects that, like the face, have expressions and aretherefore capable of being "facialized."

This understanding of the face requires that it be completelydetached from ordinary notions about its social semiotics. Traditionaliy,according to Deleuze, the face has been given three roles:

1. as the privileged site of individualizalion (it embodies eachperson's uniqueness); i

2. as the manifestation of sociai role or social type;

3. as the primary tool of inlersubjectivity, of relation to or commu-nication with the other (this also refers to an adequate, mimeticrelation, within the individual, between face and character orrole).

Although the face, as traditionally understood, embodies these three rolesboth inside the cinema (when it appears in medium or long shots) andoutside of it, the ciose-up effectively strips the face of ali three: "Thereis no close-up ofthe face. The close-up is the face, but the face preciselyin so far as it has destroyed its triple function —a nudity of the face muchgreater than that ofthe body, an inhumanity much greater than Ihat ofanimals" (99). The close-up pushes us beyond the realm of individuation,of social role, and ofthe exchange that underlies intersuhjectivity. This is

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The Close-Up: Scale and Detail in the Cinema

why the face is indissociably linked with the process of effacement, a movebeyond codification, and why Delenze's disconrse at some points seemsto rejoin the ecstasy of Epstein's photogenie.

In Deieuze's discourse, a particular filmic technique—theciose-up-is equaled with a broad, cuitural-semiotic phenomenon, thatencapsulated in the term "face." Jacques Aumont, in a similar fashion,expounds upon the global significance of tbe face (which is, again, equiva-lent to the close-up in tbe cinema, hoth producing a surface that is simulta-neously sensible and legible). The face is tbe very origin of representationinsofar as it is founded upon resemblance and identity. Wben we say thatsomeone resembles or docs not resemble someone else (or oneself, for tbatmatter), we are referring, ahove all, to the face. According to Aumont,

all representation is really inaugurated by the desire of man tofigure himself as face, la addition, the phrase ''it resembles" isthe first experience of representation [. . .J.

What we call representation is nothing other than themore or less complicated history of that resemblance, of itshesitation between two poles, that of appearances, of the vis-ible, of the phenomenon, of representative analogy, and that ofinteriority, of the invisible or of the beyond-the-visible, of thebeing, of expressive analogy. The face is the point of departureand the point of anchorage of this entire history. It is not possibleto represent without representing the face of man. (15) -

Almost all theories of tbe face come to terms in some way with this oppo-sition between surface and depth, exteriority and interiority. Tbere isalways something beyond, and it is this sense of the beyond that fuels tbehystericization of film theory wben confronted with the close-up. Theclose-up in the cinema classically exploits the cuUural and epistemologi-cal susceptibility to this binary opposition. Dreyer'syoa^ of Arc, a chainof close-ups tbat seem to constitute tbe very revelation of tbe soul, is tbeepitome of the genre. It is barely possihle to see a close-up of a face with-out asking: what is he/she thinking, feeling, suffering? What is happen-ing beyond what I can see? Or, in Balazs's terms, the close-up of the faceallows us to understand that "we can see tbat tbere is something theretbat we cannot see" (76).

Hence are born all tbe metaphors of textuality, of the face asbook, of reading and legibility. The face is the intensification of a locusof signification. For Balazs, the spectator must he able to "read hetweentbe lines" (76). In the natural order of things, the face constitutes a kind

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of universal language, and Balazs refers to the "universal comprehensi-bility of facial expression and gesture" (44-45). However, the discoveryof printing displaced the site of intensive reading from the face lo paper,providing so much to read that it "gradually rendered i Uegihle the faces ofman" (39). The mission of the cinema, for Balazs, must be that of retrain-ing us to decipher the face. According to Susan Stewart,

The face is a type of "deep" text, a text whose meaning is com-plicated by change and by a constant series of altet^ationsbettveen a reader and an author who is strangely disembodied,neither present nor absent,found in neither part nor whole, but,in fact, created by this reading. Because ofthis convention ofinterpt^etatioti, it is nol surprising that we find that one of thegreat topoi ofWestertt literature has been the notion of the faceas book. (127)

In laying out the terms of this history of the analysis of thecinematic close-up, I have been attempting to emphasize not only its fre-quent recourse to hyperbolic rhetoric but also its insistence (outside ofthe case of Eisenstein) upon treating the close-up synchronically ratherthan diachronically, as stasis, as resistance to narrative linearity, as thevertical gateway to an almost irrecoverable depth behind the image. Thediscourse seems to exemplify a desire to stop the film, to grab hold ofsomething that can be taken away, to transfer the relentless temporality ofthe narrative's unfolding to a more manageable temporality of contempla-tion. However, the theory is more adequate to the memory of the film thanto its experience. In memory, it is possible to helieve that the gaze of theface in close-up is directed at me, whereas in reality, given the stricturesof the classical cinema, it is more often caught in a network of other gazes.The remembered close-up effects the reappearance of Benjamin's aura(investing the object with "Ihe ability to look at us in return" ["Motifs"188]), hut in a form that seems to embrace rather than resist technicalreproducibility. Yet, there is simultaneously a strong denial that cinematicspecificity is at work here —the face and the close-up are equaled in thearguments of Deleuze, Aumoiit, and even Balazs. Inevitably, these analyses(particularly those of Epsleinand Balazs) produce nostalgia for the silentcinema, since it is the face that speaks there, and speaks to us (rather thanto other characters) so much more eloquently when mute.

But does the close-up really produce the effects that areassigned to it? Does it look at us? Does the close-up extract its object fromall spatiotemporal coordinates? Does it constitute a momentous pause in

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The Close-Up: Scale and Detail in the Cinema

the temporal unfolding of the narrative? It is instructive to examine a fewexamples. Sessue Hayakawa, for instance, was a crucial figure for Rpsteinbecause of his relative restraint as an actor ofthe silent cinema, rejectingthe histrionics usually associated with the era. Given tbe stony immobil-ity of his face, a slight twitcb of an eyebrow could convey extraordinarysignificance. In Cecil B. De Mille's 1915 The Cheat, a film deeply markedby Orientalism, Hayakawa plays a nefarious Japanese businessman wholends money to a socialite (played by Fannie Ward) who has borrowedand lost charity funds in a bad Wall Street investment. Hayakawa, whohas amorous designs, refuses to allow her to pay him back (holding ber totheir deal, which involved the exchange of sex for tbe money) and insteadbrands her as a sign of his sexual ownership. She shoots him, injuring himin the shoulder, and ber busband takes the blame. At the trial, tension isproduced as an accumulation of close-ups, connected by gazes saturatedwith affect. When asked the question "Who fired thai shot?" Hayakawaglances down and to his left, angling his head just slightly so that he cansee around the lawyer and hold Ward in his gaze (fig. 1). Tbe followingclose-up of her highlights her anxiety, eyes wide open, lower lip trembling(fig. 2). In response, his close-up gives evidence of only a slight narrowingoftheeyesbeforeheassertsthat it was the husband wbo shot him (fig. 5).

Figure iCerii B.DeMille,The Cheat, 1915.

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Figure 2Cecil B. DeMille,7 tie Cheat, 1915.

Figure 3Cecil B. De Mille,The Cheat, 1915.

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The Close-Up: Scale and Detail in the Cinema

Figure 4Cecil B. DeMille,ThfCtieat, 1915.

FiguresCecil B. De Mille.The Cheat, 1915.

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Figure 6Rouben Mamotilian,Queen Christina,1953.

When the husband is on the stand, close-ups of Ward's hyperbolic anxiety(fig. 4) are contrasted with those of Hayakawa's barely mobile, smug com-placency (fig. 5). The eyeline matches are quite precise, suggesting thatboth a space and an affective logic link the various close-ups.| |

The second example is from Queen Christina (Rouben Mamou-lian, 1955), the film Roland Rarthes mentions in his essay in Mythologies,"The Face of Garbo."^ After Christina forfeits her throne and leaves hercountry in order to marry her lover, the lover is shot in a duel. The finalshot ofthe film is a slow track in to an extremely tight close-up of Garbothat is held for an unexpectedly long time (fig. 6). Although Garbo's facehere seems to constitute a veritable zero degree of expression, its blank-ness nevertheless is forced into legibility by the pressure ofthe narrativeculminating in that moment. | ]

Finally, in a frequently cited seene from Hitchcock's Sabotage(1956), Sylvia Sidney (Mrs. Verloc) appears to kill Oscar Homolka (Mr.Verloc), but the stabbing itself takes place off-sereen and is saturatedwith a certain undecidability. Sidney has just learned that Homolka, usingher younger brother to carry a bomb, has caused his death and that of anentire busload of people. At the dinner table, as Sidney carves the meat, shebecomes fascinated by her own fascination with the knife as a potential

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102 The Clo5e-Up: Scale and Detail in the Cinema

Figure 7Alfreti liitrhrnck.Sabalage,

Figure 8Alfrt'd Hiuiicock,Sabotage, 1956.

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murder weapon and is alternately attracted and repelled by it. At one point,the camera tracks in to a close-up of Sidney as she looks across the table atHomolka (fig. 7). The next shot is a tight close-up of Homotka's quizzicalexpression (fig. 8) followed by a close-up ofthe knife, fork, and potatoes,Sidney's hands wavering hesitantly above them, one hand reaching on I tothe knife but quickly withdrawing (fig. 9). A series of glance-object cutsestablishes, first, her own guilty and murderous desire, and second, thegradual recognition by Homolka of that desire (fig. 10). , |

The legibility of all three instances ofthe close-up is intimatelylinked to their very lack of autonomy. This is most visible in Sabotage,where the struggle between Sidney's desire and her resistance to thatdesire is produced between the shots of her anxious face, the knife andpotatoes, Homolka's face, and her brother's empty chair, all of which sig-nify through a relay of gazes. According lo Epstein, the close-up provides"the mimetic decor in which the look suddenly appears as a character"{"•Bonjour'' 22). As Bonitzer points otit, the face in close-up brings withit a "specific terror (that ofthe gaze) [...]. Without the close-up, withoutthe face, no suspense, no terror, domains so crucial to the cinema that itis almost identified witb them" (50). Hitchcock and, differently, Bufiuelunderstood well the limit of that terror as an attack on the eyes them-

Figureg.'Vlfred Hitchcock,Sabotage, t936.

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._ ,̂. . .

104 The Close-Up: Scale and Detail in the Cinema

Figure 10Allred Hitchcock,Sabotage, 1936.

selves —note tbe close-up ofthe ctittitig ofthe eye in Un Cliien andalou, thebloody eye sockets in l^he Birds, or Ihe hollow eyes of Ihe mother's skeletonin Psycho. In tbe second example, The Cheat, Hayakawa's impassive facewould be a complete cipher without its implantation between the shots ofa hysterical Ward, her fearful husband, and the voyeuristic courtroomspectators, all mediated, again, by the lines of force ofthe gaze. In QueenChristina, the close-up seems most extractable, most autonomous (andhence seems to invite Barthes's nostalgia: "Garbo still belongs to thatmoment in cinema when capturing the human face still plunged audiencesinto the deepest ecstasy, when one literally lost oneself in a human imageas one would in a philtre, when the face represented a kind of absolutestate ofthe flesh, which could be neither reached nor renounced" |56]).Yet, Garbo's completely expressionless face invites a reading that is indis-sociable from tbe narrative's adamant production of overwhelming loss.Behind the perfect, seamless face, the unwavering stare, it is impossiblenot to project thought, emotion, although the face itself gives no indica-tion of either.

However, I am not confirming here the banal argument tbat theclose-up must always be read in context and that therefore film theory'sespousal ofthe idea of its autonomy, its unavoidable despatialization, issimply wrong. Indeed, I would agree that there is always a residue of

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separability, an uncontainahle excess, attached to Ihe close-up. But thequestion remains: why the marked discrepancy between theory's exces-sive concentration on the close-up's extractability from all spatiotempo-ral coordinates, its production of a hitherto unknown dimension, and itspractice within specific films'? Why is the memory of and desire for theclose-up as an autonomous entity so overwhelmingly strong? I would arguethat it has a great deal to do with an implicit politics of cinematic scale,most visibly incarnated in the close-up. The experience of photogenie,of a cinephilia intimately bound up with the practice of the close-up,is indissociable from Uie experience of the big screen, the "larger thanlife" phenomenon of the cinema. As Bonitzer points out with reference loEisenstein's comment, "On the screen and only on the screen, a cockroachis worth one hundred elephants" (51).

A number of theorists attempt to elaborate a politics of theclose-up or a politics of the face, but rarely is it formulated in relation toscale. According to Deieuze and Guattari in A Thousand Plateaus, "Theface is a politics [...]. Certain assemblages of power require the produc-tion of a face, others do not [. . .). The reason is simple. The face is not auniversal. It is not even that of the wbite man; it is Wbite Man himself,with his broad white cheeks and Ihe black hole of his eyes" (181, 175-76).In this text, the face is determined by a white wall/black hole system—thewhite wall of signifiance or the field of play of the signifier and the blackhole of subjectivity, of passion, consciousness, the illusion of a depth. Insuch a system, the face hecomes the screen upon which the signifier isinscribed, reaffirming the role of the face as text, accessible to a readingthat fixes meaning. Simultaneously, the "black hole" allows access to anassumed interiority where passions and affects reside. The societies thatdo not require the production of a face are (predictably enough) primi-tive societies, societies that are "collective, polyvocal, and corporeal" asopposed to signifying and subjective. They do not operate through theface but through the body, bringing into play heterogeneous forms andsubstances. The semiotic of capitalism, of what Deleuze and Guattaricall modern White Men, requires the face as a mixed semiotic of signifi-ance and subjectivity, both of which work to annihilate, or at a minimumconstrain, polyvocality. In this argument, the face is not preeminentlyhuman, as has been claimed so often, but inhuman, and the solution is towork toward defacialization —not in order to rehumanize the face, but todismantle it as tbe pathway to the soul, to make it opaque and hence allowhuman beings to become "imperceptible," "clandestine" (171).

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io6 The Close-Up: Scale and Detail in the Cinema

For Aumont, on tbe other band, the face has operated as thevery loeation of the human since it, together with the voice, allow tis aprivileged access to the humanity of the other. The "ordinary face," whichis that ofthe classical sound cinema where speech disciplines and domi-nates, is

an attribute of a free and equal subject with rights like all theothers but that must ceaselessly exercise its liberty and equalityin confronting that of other free and equal subjects. The ordi-nary face ofthe cinema is also that of Western democracy, thatis to say, American and capitalist. It is a trait of imperialism,its ordinariness is an order. (60)

The face in the cinema inherits certain tendencies of the portrait in itsreflection/production of the concept of the bourgeois sttbject, btit it is theshot/reverse shot that consolidates that humanity as an aspect of inter-subjectivity.

Godard and Gorin's strongly theoretical 1972 film. Letter toJane, subjects Jane Fonda's expression in a photograph taken of her inNorth Vietnam (the photo that earned her the nickname "Hanoi Jane") toan intense and frequently misogynist interrogation. In their analysis, herface issimply an "expression ofan expression," a copy of a long line of cin-ematic faces including her own in Klute and Tout va bien and her father'sin Grapes of Wrath and Young Mr. Lincoln. It is an expression of vagueliberal concern, "borrowed principal and interest from Roosevelt's NewDeal," and it "says nothing more than how much it knows" {Letter to Jane).It is the recapitulation of a quasi-Cartesian stance inflected by the require-ments of a media-saturated society: "I am film, therefore I think—at leastI think of the fact that I am being filmed." Godard and Gorin's semioticanalysis of the photograph attetnpts to demonstrate that, despite Jane'spose of listening to the North Vietnamese, the photo speaks too much, itdrowns out the discourse ofthe North Vietnamese. Through framing andfocus, the photo represents a face that represents only its own status as astar, and refuses listening, refuses the possibility of a reverse shot.

The only film theorist who situates the politics ofthe close-upin relation to the question of scale is Eisenstein, with his emphasis on thesuperiority ofthe Russian term—large scale or large shot—to that oftheEnglish—close-up. It is the very possibility cinema has of representingdisproportion, of interrogating and displacing realism, that opens up aspace for political critique. Rut for Eisenstein, with his cockroaches and

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elephants, the close-up is most significantly the close-up of objects, notof the human face:

The representation of objects in the actual (absolute) proportionsproper to them is, of course, merely a tribute to orthodox formallogic. A subordination to an inviolable order of things {. . .].Absolute reatis/n is by no means the correct form of perception.It is simply the function of a certain form of social structure.(Film 34-W

As opposed to the American cinema's use of the close-up to suggestproximity, intimacy, knowledge of interiority, Eisenstein argues for adisproportion that transforms the image into a sign, an epistemologicaltool, undermining identification and hence empowering the spectator asanalyst of, rather than vessel for, meaning.

However, the close-up in the classical Hollywood Him hasnever simply connoted closeness and interiority. Rather, its legihility hasalways been allied with its scale and its status as a form of magnifica-tion. More than other types of shots, the close-up exploits the expanseof the screen—the face or the ohject filmed cover the screen, using up,exhausting all space. At least in part, this explains the theoretical fasci-nation with the diegetic autonomy of the close-up, the repeated assertionthat it escapes the spatiotemporal coordinates of the narrative. The filmis "larger than life," hut it is most visihiy larger than life in the close-up,seemingly promising an expanded cognition and recognition. From thispoint of view, the semiotic status of the close-up seems to bear withinitself a structuring contradiction. Is the close-up a detail, a part of a largerwhole, or is it instead its own whole, its own totality? Balazs claims that "[a]multitude of close-ups can show us the very instant in which the generalis transformed into the particular" (55). Benjamin's notion of the opticalunconscious or the many discourses in film theory about the defamiliar-izing properties of the close-up, its ability to force us to see those minuteaspects of life otherwise lost, buttress the idea that the close-up is, indeed,a detail. On the other hand, Balazs, who embraces the defamiiiarizationargument, also argues that the close-up is not a detail hecause there is nowhole from which it is extracted. The space of the narrative, the diegesis,is constructed by a multiplicity of shots that vary in terms of both sizeand angle—hence this space exists nowhere; there is no totality of whichthe close-up could be a part. And certainly if one accepts the theoriesof the close-up's despatialization, it cannot be defined as a detail, since

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The Close-Up: Scale and Detail in the Cinema

it occupies the only space there is, constituting itself as its own wholeor totality, abolishing off-screen space. Is the close-up the bearer, theimage of the small, the minute; or the producer of the monumental, thegigantic, the spectacular? This confusion, and the apparent collapse ofthe oppositions between detail and totality, part and whole, microcosmand macrocosm, Ihe miniature and the gigantic, is crucial lo the ideologi-cal operation of the close-up, that which makes it one of our most potentmemories of the cinema.

Of course, it is possihle to argue that there really is no contra-diction here since the status of the image as detail or totality depends uponwhether it resides in one or the other of the two worlds/spaces involved inthe cinema—the space of the narrative (the diegesis) or the space of thespectator. In the diegesis, that fictional space produced hy the film, theclose-up-despite Balazs's denial—will always constitute a detail, a part.Yet, in the spectator's space, that of the theater, the close-up will, evenif only momentarily, constitute itself as the totality, the only entity thereto be seen. Three decades of film theory have insisted that the classicalcinematic text works to annihilate this space of the spectator—to suggestthat the only world is that on the screen. Hence, the embrace of the close-up as autonomous entity by Balazs. Deleuze, and especially Epstein, isan attempt to salvage spectatorial space, to reaffirm its existence and itsrelevance in the face of the closed, seamless space of the film. Becausescale as a concept in general can only he understood through its referenceto the human body, this celebration of the close-up is also an attempt toreassert the corporeality of the classically disembodied spectator.

In order to do so, however, one must effectively stop the film,deny it mobility and temporality, and, in addition, deny that the detail, theminiature, also inhabits the gigantic, the spectacular, the space of the bigscreen. It is, ironically, to transform grandeur, largeness, and hence thespectacle into an ideologically subversive tactic, whereas we know thisis the reverse of the case in modernity. As Stewart argues, preindustrialculture located the gigantic in nature, as the origin of the formations oflandscape, hut industrial capitalism allies the gigantic with consumer-ism, an exchange economy, and the commodity (on billboards, in adver-tising in general, and in the cinema) (79-80). Guy Debord claims thatspectacle, the most striking instantiation of the gigantic in contemporaryculture, is a compensation for the loss of unity in the world—it "expressesthe totality of this loss" (29). For Stewart, the movie star exemplifies thecommodification of the gigantic: "The fact that such subjects are larger

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than life' is not a result of their historical acts so much as it is a matter oftheir medium of presentation [...]. And that formation, that generation ofsign by means of sign, provides the aesthetic corollary for the generativecapacity of commodity relations" (91). 1 I

The miTiiature, on the other hand, relates to the commoditysystem as well, but in a different way. For Stewart, the miniature repre-sents "closure, interiority, the domestic, and the overly cultural [...]. It is ametaphor for the interior space and time of the bourgeois subject" (70, xii).The miniature can be held in the hand, possessed, and hence imparts anillusion of mastery, the imprimatur of the subject. The close-up is an objectof vision, not touch, but it nevertheless provokes a sense of the tangible, theintimate. This is Benjamin's desire of the masses to bring things closer, tosacrifice uniqueness for reproduction. Epstein writes, "The close-up modi-fies the drama by the impact of proximity. Pain is within reach. If I stretchout my arm I touch you, and that is intimacy. I can count the eyelashes ofthis suffering. 1 would he able to taste the tears" ("Magnification" 15). Theclose-up, as an isolahle entity, can be taken and held within memory, asa residual trace of the film's commodification of time. As simultaneouslymicrocosm and macrocosm, the miniature and the gigantic, the close-upacts as a nodal point linking the ideologies of intimacy and interiorityto public space and the authority of the monumental. In the close-up,the cinema plays simultaneously with the desire for totalization and itsimpossibility. The cinematic spectator clings to the fragment of a partialreality—a fragment that mimics the effect of a self-sufficient totality. Theclassical close-up assures us that we can indeed see and grasp the whole,in a moment rich with meaning and affect.

It has often been said that we live in an age of the image, in asociety saturated by images. But, if this is so, that image always requires asupport, a screen, hence the equal aptness of noting that we live in an eraof the proliferation of screens as well. Contemporary culture is witnessto an exaggeration of the two extremes of screen size. While the screenbecomes smaller and smaller in personal computers, laptops, palm pilots,and cell phones, the television screen is becoming larger and larger incompetition wilh the construction of cinemas with stadium seating andmammoth screens. The screen haunts both private and public realms.Miniaturized, the image it bears can now literally be held in the hand,sustaining the illusion of its possession. Made gigantic in IMAX theaters,it presents the spectator with a vision of impossible totality, of moderntranscendence.

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no The Close-Up: Scale and Detail in the Cinema

The excessiveness and exuberance of the historical discourseon the close-up can, perhaps, help us to understand what is at stake in thiscontemporary schizophrenia of scale. The French Impressionist concept ofphotogenie was fashioned to evoke that which was inarticulable yet specificto the filmic experience. Its unspeakability is no doubt linked to the desireto make it a corporeal experience, a matter of touching, feeling, tasting,as well as seeing. Yet, the historical trajectory of classical cinema was todefeat that body by annihilating its space, its ability to act as a measureof scale. Photogenie is usually referred to as one of the earliest examplesof cinephilia, a love of the cinema that insists upon its uniqueness and itsability to induce a form of incomparable ecstasy. Such an ecstasy seemedto celebrate, but actually resisted, the lure of absorption into the image,of losing oneself. Today, the gigantic screens of IMAX theaters work toreassert, to reconfirm, that possibility of absorption, which has playedsuch an important role in the history of cinema. In other words, it seemsnecessary today to exaggerate, to hyperbolize the cinema in order to beassured that it works. Yet, the possibility of its failure is also allayed by theproliferation of miniature screens, so that it could be said that the screenis not simply enormous, it is everywhere. The inevitable limit to its magni-tude is compensated for hy its proliferation. Focusing on the close-up, thediscourse oiphoiogenie unconsciously elaborated the way in which detailand enormity, miniature and gigantic, are inextricable in the cinema. It isthe cinema, understood in this way, that laid the groundwork for a futurecultural logic of the screen.


MARY ANN DOANE js George Hazard Crooker Professor of Modern Culture and Media anti ofEnglish at Brown University. She is Ihe aulhor of The Desire to Desire: The iVoman's Film ofthe f940s (Indiaiia University Press, 1987), Femmes Fatales: Feminism. Film Theory, Psy-choanalyifis (Routiedge. 1991), The Emergence of Cinematic Time: Modernity, Contingency,the Archii^e (Harvard University Press, 2002), and has published a wide range of articleson feminist film theory, sound in the cinema, psyrhoanalytit- theory, television, and sexualand racial difference in film.

All translations of Aumonl,Bonilzer, and Eisenstein'sAudela are mine.

The grandiose or totalizingtendencies of these statementsare evidenced hy the relurn ofthe term "man" used in a genericsense.

This essay is a critical textfor Naomi Schor in Reading inDetail, where she traces Barthes'srelation to Hegelian aesthetics.See pp. 81-84.

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(I i r r e r e n c e s ill

Works Cited Aumoni, Jacques. Du visage au cinema. Paris: Editions de VEtoile/Cahiers du cinema,1992. '

Balazs, Bela. Theory of the Film: Character and Growth ofaNeivArl. Trans. Edith Bone.New York: Dover, 1970.

Barthes, Roland. Mythologies. Trans. Annette Lavers. New York: Hill, 1972.

Benjamin, Walter. "On Some Molifs in Baudelaire." Illuminations. Trans. Harry Zohn. Ed.Hannah Arendt. New York: Schocken, t968. 155-200.

-. "The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction." Illuminations.217-52.

Bonitzer, Pascal. Le champ aveugle: Essais sur le cinema. Paris: Gallimard. 1982.

The Cheat. Dir. Cecil B. DeMille. Paramount, 1915.

Debord, Guy. Society of the Spectacle. Detroit: Black and Ked, 1977.

Deleuze. Gilles. Cinema 1: The. Movement-Image. Trans. Hugh Tonilinson and BarbaraHabberjam. Minneapolis: u of Minnesota p, 1986.

Deleuze, Gilies and F6lix Guattari. A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia.Trans. Brian Massumi. Minneapolis: u of Minnesota p, 1987.

Eisenstein. Sergei. Film Form: Essays in Film Theory. Ed. and Trans. Jay Leyda. San Diego:Harcourt, 1949.

-. Audela des etoiles. Trans. Jacques Aumont et al. Paris: Uniond'£ditions, 1974.

Epstein, Jean. ''Bonjour cinema ant! Other Writings." Trans. Tom Milne. Afterimage 10(1981): 8-39.

. "Magnification and Other Writings." Trans. Stuart Liebman. October'b (1977):9-25.

Heath, Stephen. "Screen Images, Film Memory." Edinburgh '76 Magazine 1 (1976): 35-42.

Letter to Jane. Dir. Jean-Luc Godard and Jean-Pierre Gorin. Godard and Gorin, 1972.

Metz, Christian. Film Language: A Semiotics of the Cinema. Trans. Michael Taylor. NewYork: Oxford UP, 1974.

Munsterberg, Hugo. The Film: A Psychological Study, the Silent Photoplay in 1916. NewYork: Dover, 1970.

Queen Christina. Dir. Rouben Mamoulian. MGM, 1955.

Sabotage. Dir. Alfred Hitchcock. Gaumont-British Picture Corp., 1956. ,

Schor, ^&omi. Reading in Detail: Aesthetics and the Feminine. New York: Methuen, 1987.

Stewart, Susan. On Longing: Narratives qfthe Miniature, the Gigantic, the Souvenir, theCollection. Baltimore: Johns Hopkins UP, 1984.

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