Originally written for Iraqi readers but if you’re watching American films too, this could be fun to read)
In the history of television, former French socialist president Francois Mitterrand is said to have “invented” the close-up for important politicians like himself. He wanted his head and face to cover the entire television screen, with even sometimes a part of his bold head or his neck cut off. (Did Saddam ever ask for that?)
The idea of course is that such a face is inescapable when talking to a citizen in his or her living room, at home, in the evening, when human resistance to political bulldozers is at its weakest point. The “president in close-up” is like a God speaking to his mortal children about his last decision concerning the human race.
But is it really the most efficient way to talk on screen? If one watches a president like Mitterrand from head to feet, or if a spectator would see only his upper half, attention is inevitably drawn also to his hair or boldness, his suit and tie, his body language, his age, his eyes – or his size compared to others sitting or standing next to him. He is a real man you can like or dislike, admire or curse. That seems to me more important than his message, which comes in importance after being accepted as a fellow human being.
But if his face covers the entire screen of an ordinary tv set, the face is in fact some four times bigger than it is in real life. It is a non-human way of speaking, because in real life you never watch only the face but always also the body and the environment, which gives you a much more complete picture of what’s said and of what’s happening. So, the screen-filling head might have been just a non-democratic reflex of older times. Mitterrand was ridiculed later as “the Emperor” and “the Sphinx” because of his inaccessability and unreadable face. He drove one of his best and most trustworthy friends in the presidential palace to suicide. So much for the “openness” or “readability” of a face in close-up. Mitterrand actually developed an Iraqi poker face.
The point about completeness and truthfullness when seeing half the body or the entire body of the actor is also often lost on directors of American films. Most of these films are defined as “realistic”. But are they realistic? As soon as an actor has to show deep emotion about something, the director focuses completely on the face. Girlfriend quits relation with boy, woman hears who is her real father, man discovers his best friend has killed his neighbor – whatever happens: the actor or actress sits frozen in front of the camera. Close-up. It is so standard in American movie-making that the spectator can predict it.
In a way in such Hollywood films the opposite happens of what would happen in a theater, where the actors have to show through their bodies what they feel – if only because there is also the public sitting in the last row of chairs, ten, twenty meters away from the stage. Close-ups are impossible. Actors have to act as in real life or even exaggerate a bit – which is the trademark of many Egyptian comic actors, who cannot say “no” without moving their heads, arms, eyes, fez and jellabiya.
Now it seems to me that the close-up has become almost standard in American movies and tv drama series because Hollywood needs so many actors for its productions – green, experienced and fully mature. For close-ups, you don’t need good actors. You see the same phenomenon in the sad parade of national soaps and national drama series, from Brazil to Iraq, where tons of cheap actors are all the time filmed in close-up, when something crucial happens. Um Fatima is angry, close-up. Aunt Dalia disagrees, close-up. Pappa comes home, sees Um Fatima crying, close-up. He shouts, close-up, the kids are terrified, close-up. Thief uses family conflict to steal the only goat they have, close-up. Butcher distrusts story of thief, close-up of his moustache. Goat gets slaughtered, close-up of dying eyes.
It is a mystery to me how some of these mass production actors, including the unlucky Muhanned in the Turkish soap “Noor”, can become famous. Probably it is because spectators are seeing them every day or week, because they are handsome and because they play some rebel in the family – the Middle Eastern family is excellent stuff to make revolutions against, whatever actor or actress does it will be adored! My best memory of Muhanned as an actor however, is the scene where he is left to die after being stabbed on the highway. While most bad Hollywood actors fall down immediately after the first bullet or stab in the chest, Muhanned needed I think at least two minutes to hit the asphalt. Well, perhaps this is just a tradition in Turkish cinema, because perhaps Turks want to see people die slowly. I don’t know. But it took real acting and nothing could be copied from Hollywood, especially because one of the longest murder scenes ever made there involved not a highway but an oven, used by a clumsy wife desperately trying to kill her husband with the gas of this kitchen equipment (in a film of Hitchcock whose title I don’t remember).
Apart from film acting experience, there is also a special talent. Not everyone can be a good actor or actress. Talent expresses itself in that small minority of actors and actresses who can “carry a film” as they say in this business. It means that they can make almost any story come to life, even if the screenwriter, the director and the producer are of the kind that should never have gotten into the movie industry. These are the actors and actresses of whom people like to see every film, whatever it is about and whoever is further involved. In my list (I am 54 and from Europe) are for example the names of Laurence Olivier, Gene Hackman, Michael Caine, Gerard Depardieu, Marcello Mastroianni, Michel Piccoli, Tom Hanks, Harvey Keitel, Clint Eastwood – to limit myself to some older males from America and Europe. In every scene I remember these guys in, I remember the whole body, never any close-ups.
I was reminded of my dislike of Hollywood’s close-ups when I read a simple comment of a German camera man who had been working on a movie reconstructing the life and death of Germany’s last terrorist organization, “The Baader-Meinhof Complex”.
I like to share with you what this camera man, Rainer Klausmann, said in an interview: “There are two kinds of camera people: those who think from the lens forward and those who think from the lens backwards. The last group is interested in the technology and not that much in the actors. Such camera men always create a beautiful light, beautiful drives through the lanscape, crane high and crane deep, they’ll make the camera go full circle around the actors and all such stuff. Whatever technology has on offer, they love it. I am actually not interested in any of that. I am interested in what happens in front of the camera, I am interested in the actors and the story that is told. And when you are interested in the actors and when you like them, then you give them automatically a wide freedom to move and you don’t tell them to be focused on the camera. I simply take the camera on my shoulder and I follow the actor. If the actor is good, then it is no problem if now and then the image is a little unsharp.”
Unfortunately most Hollywooders don’t read German. This is an anti-close-up manifesto!