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(Response Paper) Bela Balazs’ Physiognomy of Things: The Power of Close-up in Cinema

In response to: “Bela Balazs: From Theory of the Film – The Close-up” from the book “Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings” by Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen

A response paper for my Advanced Film Theory and Criticism class

Humans are curious creatures whose most dominant sense is sight. The art of looking beyond the ordinary allows people to discover the soul of things, and in the case of film, this happens through the use of shots. For Bela Balazs in this reading “Bela Balazs: From Theory of the Film – The Close-up” from the book “Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings” by Leo Braudy and Marshall Cohen, this happens through tight shots. A proponent of the formalist film theory, Balazs started with an introduction of the early days of using the film camera in the advent of silent film. He moved on with how the initial discovery made by the film camera was “a new world of hidden life of little things,” stripping the veil of imperceptiveness to give more attention and becoming more sensitive to details, especially those hidden little things that aren’t readily discernible. He said, “The close-up in the silent film period “revealed hidden mainsprings of life which we thought we already knew so well.”

Balazs explained, “Good close-ups radiate a tender attitude in the contemplation of hidden things, a delicate solicitude, a gentle bending over the intimacies of life-in-the-miniature, a warm sensibility. Good close-ups are lyrical; it is the heart, not the eye, that has perceived them.” The lyrical charm of close-up offers a variety of dramatic revelations. A character may have a speechless face, yet the eyes talk. The spectator finds the fate of props and situations in clearer detail. A close-up allows the viewer to see what happens under the surface such as a character’s internal storm amidst that icy calm seen in a wider shot when a tight shot of trembling fingers is shown on screen. Close-ups show significant impressions and expressions, no matter how big or small. He compared its use with that of appreciating an orchestral score. In an orchestra, instead of supposedly just hearing the leading melody or the overall harmonious music, focusing on the smaller details of some or even a single instrument allows further analysis to provide relevant information to the overall presentation. In close-up shots, one sees the “faces of things” by showing at least one new quality in a part of a subject or object being focused on. There is a more expressive and detailed note beyond what reality offers in a normal day – beyond what one would typically notice.

At times, a close-up may give the impression of “a mere naturalist preoccupation with detail,” particularly in cases of not very effective storytelling. However, when used well, it sees beyond the typical focus on real life – and in the words of Balazs, it can “reflect expressions of our own subconscious feeling.” He added, “Close-ups are the pictures expressing the poetic sensibility of the director.” It can establish a film’s mood and tone, provide clues to elements of mystery in the narrative, and even predict certain personalities and events to be unveiled in the story. It is also worth noting though, that as early as the silent film era, there were already cases of overusing a close-up for the sake of form, eventually losing the close-up’s grounding in the storytelling process. According to Balazs, “Having discovered the soul of things in the close-up, the silent film undeniably overrated their importance and sometimes succumbed to the temptation of showing ‘the hidden little life’ as an end in itself, divorced from human destinies; it strayed away from the dramatic plot and presented the ‘poetry of things’ instead of human beings.” I agree with this as there is a clear difference between using close-ups as crucial part of storytelling and using them only for the sake of visual style.

It’s interesting to partake on Balazs idea that, “When showing objects, it still shows as man, for what makes objects expressive are the human expressions projected on to them.” From what I understood with this, objects should take part on the action as it serves the presentation of man. He further reflected on how objects reflect people and this distinguishes art from scientific knowledge. In his own words, “When we see the face of things, we do what the ancients did in creating gods in man’s image and breathing a human soul into them. The close-ups of the film are the creative instruments of this mighty visual anthropomorphism.” However, objects for me should not just be related to the presentation of man, it should be the presentation of the story, and if that means being its own object that is directly or indirectly related to the presentation of man, then so be it. An object should work based on what is required in the storytelling, which may or may not center on the main character. At times, it may center on a specific thought, theme, conviction, or the larger scheme of things, the macro level of presenting the world or even the universe, the message, the voice of the filmmaker, or the narrative voice of the film.

One of the key statements I often remember with Balazs is “Facial expression is the most subjective manifestation of man, more subjective even than speech.” He talked about “the physiognomy of things” and “the discovery of the human face.” Unlike the vocabulary and grammar in speech that are subject to more or less universally valid rules and conventions, “the play of features in a face is not governed by objective canons.” Yet, it is quite engaging to look at how they get rendered rather objectively in a close-up. He discussed the genius behind D.W. Griffith’s pioneering projection of gigantic “severed heads” on screen, which didn’t just “bring the human face closer to us in space,” they also “transposed it from space into another dimension.” I understood this insight as bringing the visuals into another universe as how the spectator sees it. He discussed how an isolated hand would lose its meaning and expression if the viewer doesn’t imagine and connect it to a human being. Meanwhile, a face showing its expression is complete and comprehensible in itself so there is no need to think about or relate it to an existence in time and space. It’s like, if we see a wide shot of a crowd scene, then the edit brings us much closer to one of the crowd members with the close-up readily separating the said crowd member from the rest. Suddenly, there is a sort of intimacy, or at least a more focused communication happening between the spectator and the isolated crowd member, as if the spectator is left alone with him or her, spending some time with him or her. When initially established in a wide shot, then brought to a close-up, our attention is rightfully brought to the face or the eyes particularly shot in a close-up that we don’t think of the prior wide shot anymore. For Balazs, the expression and significance of the close-up shot (the face and/or the eyes) has no relation to space and no connection with it. Watching the “isolated face” on screen takes the spectator out of that space and brings him or her to “another dimension: that of physiognomy.” The spectator goes beyond the physicality of the eyes and other parts of the face. The spectator “sees an expression – emotions, moods, intentions, and thoughts – things that are not in space.” They go beyond physical space as established in the shot. It goes deeper and farther than the physical.

Balazs described melody and physiognomy while stating Henri Bergson’s analysis of time and duration. To better understand the idea, he mentioned Bergson’s definition of a melody, which is said to be “composed of single notes which follow each other in sequence, i.e. in time. Nevertheless a melody has no dimension in time, because the first note is made an element of the melody only because it refers to the next note and because it stands in a definite relation to all other notes down to the last. Hence the last note, which may not be played for some time, is yet already present in the first note as a melody-creating e1lement. And the last note completes the melody only because we hear the first note along with it.” He added, “The melody is not born gradually in the course of time but is already in existence as a complete entity as soon as the first note is played. The single notes have duration in time, but their relation to each other, which gives meaning to the individual sounds, is outside time.” For Balazs, facial expression, physiognomy, has a relation to space similar to the relation of melody to time.” Adding to this, “They are picture-like and yet they seem outside space; such is the psychological effect of facial expression.” Although the “single features” appear in space and get identified through its existence in space, the spectator’s sight of the face leads to a facial expression that is not necessarily relative to the space around it – although filmmakers, I think, tend to utilize this space at times as an extension of the human expression to make a creative or even a more emotional statement. And so, while Balazs’ explanation of physiognomy makes sense, filmmaking as I know it now combines many other devices that don’t always separate the face from its surroundings. In any case, it still makes a good point that if the space and elements around it are removed as the viewer merely focuses on the face, although there may be some lost reinforcement that may happen with the disregard for the face’s environment, the facial expression in itself can still provide significant information in telling the emotions, moods, intentions, and thoughts – things that are not in the surroundings.

Balazs articulated how film utilizes silent soliloquy. According to him, in general, people find redundancy in spoken soliloquy, even describing it as unnatural. As film paved way to silent soliloquy where “a face can speak with the subtlest shades of meaning without appearing unnatural and arousing the distaste of spectators, it becomes a silent monologue of the solitary human soul. It speaks instinctively, subconsciously. It cannot be suppressed or controlled. Even a hypocritical face with the most effective mask serving as disguise incorporates specific expressions that get superimposed on the feigned face. A film actor who lies to another character can maximize the silent soliloquy through the use of the close-up shot. “It is much easier to lie in words than with the face,” he said. This silent soliloquy shows how significant acting performances are on the art of motion picture. No matter how technically good a film is, if the acting falters, the film falters completely. Indeed, “A picture is worth a thousand words.” 

He explained the “polyphonic play of features” where a face offers contradictory expressions, synthesizing complex elements, to provide “an adequate expression of the multiplicity of the human soul.” All the more, this shows the power of acting. This is also utilized in animation – I remember how some animators tend to also call themselves actors as they work on their creative process not just with the aid of animation table and drawing materials (in the case of old-school/traditional/hand-drawn animation) or computer (in the case of digitally produced animation). The common denominator of the two would be the use of a mirror so that they can act out as human beings and find guidance in allowing the characters they are working on to move. I wonder how in the future, the perfection of photorealistic CGI characters and the evolution of actors’ contribution to cinema would provide more topics to discuss and debate on when it comes to the further development of film as an art form.

Balazs discussed the world of microphysiognomy in the silent facial expression, bringing the viewer to a “strange new dimension of the soul,” which is not typically seen with the naked eye or in everyday life. He directed his thoughts to the sound film, putting it down as he believed that microphysiognomy greatly diminished because of sound technology’s capability to say the words instead of merely using the face for communication. Nevertheless, he affirms how the psychology of the face will always be different because “many profound emotional experiences can never be expressed in words at all.” Given the development of cinema many years and decades after Balazs wrote this, I believe his words should not be taken against sound film per se, as his insights still applies to how redundancy in telling a story using the film format still persists these days. Sound and visuals should complement and support each other, not just say exactly the same thing at once. If there is a need to reinforce an idea, a meaning, or a statement, they should work together without becoming redundant.

Balazs substantiated his take on the power of the close-up using the 1928 film “Jeanne d’Arc” by Carl Theodor Dreyer as an example. He said that the close-up leads to the perception of shades of meaning that are “too subtle and simple to be conveyed in mere words.” He explained how the said film was a convincing example of how close-ups mounted battles not in space but in another realm where human conditions impressively held the audience for ninety minutes. With so much complexities to follow, the shots carried the spectators in “presenting the drama of the spirit closer to realization than any stage play has ever been able to do.” However, it should also be noted that this requires masterful craftsmanship from the filmmaker as the separate shots of close-ups, if not done right, would not match each other, to the point that they may be unable to suspend the needed disbelief of what is happening on screen. At times, there may be stories that would require proper establishment of the geographical reference and the different actions only wider shots can offer. Bottomline, the use of close-up shots depends on the requirements of the narrative and the director’s intention for the film. Its use should be more than just a style or a device, it should be part of the filmmaker’s vision.

Work Cited:

Braudy, Leo and Cohen, Marshall. “Bela Balasz: From Theory of the Film – The Close-up,”Film Theory and Criticism: Introductory Readings, Oxford University Press, New York, 1999.

Related Readings (Film Theory and Criticism):
Rianne Hill Soriano
Rianne is a director, writer, educator, and consultant in film and commercial productions. From mainstream essentials to independent flair, she knows the drill in making entertaining and well-meaning productions. She can lead a pack passionate about extreme action and technological edge; she can breathe an endearing and sentimental style for a team with a sweet disposition.

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