Monday, October 29, 2012

In praise of expressive chins

Posted By on 10.29.12 at 06:00 PM

Imagine this 1,000 times larger
  • Imagine this 1,000 times larger
Last week I had the good fortune to visit my maternal grandmother in Boston, where she's lived for the past few years in an assisted living community. At 91, her short-term memory is just about shot, but she still speaks with authority about a range of subjects—including painting, which she studied formally in the 1930s. One story she's fond of telling (I heard it twice in two days) is of a life drawing teacher who made her spend months copying diagrams of skeletons and muscle groups before returning to conventional portraiture. The point was that she recognize how much is conveyed about a person through his basic architecture, which lesser artists overlook by focusing on more immediate qualities.

How nice it was to see my grandmother's lesson given form in The Master, which I revisited this past weekend. Some of the film's most striking images are close-ups of its actors' faces. Where most directors have employed 70-millimeter film to create epic landscapes, Paul Thomas Anderson uses it to grant almost supernatural importance to jawlines, bridges of noses, and the heights of foreheads. (I assume this effect will be lost on a small screen.) Before their relationship is fully developed, one senses a fundamental opposition between the characters played by Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman through the stark difference in the shapes of their cheeks.

In Histoire(s) du Cinema, Jean-Luc Godard avers that cinema is the heir of painting, and he often illustrates this point by juxtaposing favorite film frames with iconic still images. I try to keep this in mind whenever I risk taking moving images for granted; no matter how bad a movie may be, it will usually succeed as an anatomy lesson so long as there are people in it. Take, for example, the current release Smashed. I didn't much care for the movie, but I'll grant that it offers plenty of time to study the faces of Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Aaron Paul. There's something about Winstead I could never quite warm to: maybe it's the way the lower half of her face broadens and turns dull at the chin, like the round end of an egg. It suggests complacency to me, a small reserve of warmth and fat that lets her character weather the trials of alcoholism without too much drama. Compare this with the inherent tension in the faces of Lee Remick and Jack Lemmon in Days of Wine and Roses (the movie that Smashed reminds me of most), and you'll see the difference between merely competent screen acting and performers making the most of their natural instruments.

From Smashed
  • From Smashed
From Days of Wine and Roses
  • From Days of Wine and Roses

Ben Sachs writes about moviegoing every Monday.

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