The Close-Up is a beautiful thing. Striking, powerful, unrelenting, searching. The cornerstone of cinema, of continuity editing.
From top to bottom: Dreyer, Chaplin, Capra, Leone, Cassavetes, Bronstein, Motlagh, and us. By grouping these stills together, we don't mean to imply any equivalency; the only thing they have in common is a human face that fills up the frame. Hopefully, you'll find those human faces as interesting and the images as visually arresting as we do. The close-up can have an enormous amount of impact.
Heck, Dreyer's Passion of Joan of Arc is pretty much all close-ups, all the time, edited together with hypnotic, almost feverish force. So you're not going to hear me saying something like, "Close-ups should be used sparingly to maintain their impact."
All that being said, it has come to our attention that an awful lot of contemporary American independent films, particularly those shot on digital video with a 1.37 aspect ratio, use an awful lot of close-ups. Our own film, The Man Who Loved, as you might intuit from that last still, certainly falls into that camp, for good or for ill.
Some might say that an over-use of close-ups results in a claustrophobic film, but I don't think that's true; to give a sense of claustrophobia, one must be made intensely aware of his or her physical surroundings. A claustrophobic film, like an agoraphobic one, must give the audience some meaningful sense of space. A film comprised solely of close-ups doesn't do that. Instead, it does quite the opposite: it makes things more abstract. Characters in close-up are disembodied and quite cut off from their surroundings, so much so that those surroundings cease to matter. The characters are no longer people in places but ideas untethered and adrift.
Dreyer understood this in making his Passion of Joan of Arc: by keeping us close to Falconetti, he keeps us inside her pain, pushes us into the spiritual glories of her beatific suffering. A process that is assisted ably by his purely visual rhythm (do not watch it with music; that is a heresy.)
The thing is, I'm not sure if we and our contemporaries are going for what Dreyer is going for. The way we hear it (and tell it) we're all about representing life as we live it, keeping it real, insert another cliche here, et cetera, et cetera. And by over-relying on close-ups and thus removing our films from the physical world and the concerns of physical bodies moving through physical space, we run the risk of utilizing a style that runs completely counter to our aims and intentions.
We realized this ourselves just before we began shooting Son of a Seahorse. There were three things that were more-or-less responsible for this realization.
First, there was some dissatisfaction with the use of space in The Man Who Loved. Both Man and Seahorse were shot in our home, with most of the action taking place in the living room-dining room-kitchen area, three rooms which overlap like so:
In one pivotal scene in The Man Who Loved, Sarah (Adrienne Patterson) exits the kitchen towards the dining room and into the living room. Before George (Jacob Hildebrandt, the angry looking fellow from the screenie) can follow, she whips around the living room and back into the kitchen via the hallway. It's a cool little shot.
Unfortunately, because we didn't give the audience any real sense of the physical space the characters were living in, it didn't really work: it was like she was popping up out of nowhere. We didn't realize this, of course, until we actually sat down with viewers who didn't live in our house.
The second thing that led to this realization was the fact that longtime friend and collaborator David Schonscheck was taking the lead role. David absolutely defies any attempt to contain him in a close-up. He's such a big sprawling gangly personality, filled with a nervous energy, always on the move, using his entire body to relate even the most mundane of anecdotes. Filming with David meant we had to frame wide for David, and it occurred to us that this was a more respectful way to work with actors.
Instead of chopping their performances into tiny close-up slices, crafting personalities and creating new life-rhythms in the editing room like tin gods, our actors simply raw materials to use at our will-- instead of that, going wider and holding longer meant we had to trust the actors to set the pace for a given scene, to interact with each other, to hold the audience's attention, to inhabit their characters through movement, gesture, and mass rather than just their voices and faces.
Thirdly, we started playing video games-- Tom coming back to them after a long dry spell and Mary coming to them for the first time. Even more-so than in film, the clear statement of spatial relationships and the ability to impart a sense of geography is paramount in the video game art form. If you can't see how wide a pit is or you can't judge the speed of an enemy (a common problem in the earliest of 3-D platformers and action games), you're screwed; and how many of us have spent needless time wandering around a level after finding the red key trying to remember where the hell the red door was? Spending more time playing, writing about, and creating video games really got us thinking more critically about the spatial element in our films.
The end result, I think, is a much stronger-- and much more realistic-- film. Something to think about the next time you're zooming in for that close-up.
A final note: this is not directed at or inspired by any particular film by any particular contemporary filmmaker. We're just commenting on a trend and trying to inspire some thought and some debate.