Archive for the 'Actors' Category
Bette Davis, ca. 1950; caricaturist unknown.
Janet Frobisher, mystery writer, has murdered her husband. Naturally, she telephones her lover and asks him to come over. But before he arrives, Janet finds that the runaway George Bates has come calling. George has been her husband’s partner in bank fraud, and now they’ve gone further. They robbed the bank at gunpoint, and a policeman was shot. George faces Janet and demands to know where her husband is.
Nobody is likely to call Another Man’s Poison (1952) a masterpiece, or an undiscovered auteur gem. (Irving Rapper has, however, signed some better-than-average pictures.) Like many ordinary movies, though, it can tell us some interesting things about cinema if we look closely. Especially when that look takes in Bette Davis.
I had to restrain myself from adding a soundtrack link for this entry. You know the one. The earworm may be at work already. But having you listen while you read would probably only distract from my point.
Eyeball to eyeball
That point is one I’ve made before. We humans are very good at watching each others’ eyes. Evolutionary psychologists debate how that skill might have evolved, but there’s little doubt that we can “mind-read” on the basis of others’ gaze direction and other eye-related cues. Of all the arts, cinema probably has the most powerful ability to galvanize and channel our reactions solely through the way people use their eyes.
But what’s an eye? I argued in an earlier entry on The Social Network that eyeballs as such aren’t very expressive, despite poets’ claims to see the soul there. Dilations are about all you get. The real expressive work gets done by gaze direction, the brows, and the lids. Blinks help too. Lately, watching films from the 1940s and early 1950s for a book I’m planning, I was struck by how the great divas of that era used their eyes.
Consider for example Barbara Stanwyck in the Mitchell Leisen weeper No Man of Her Own (1951). Helen Ferguson has innocently assumed the identity of the dead daughter-in-law of a wealthy family, and she’s torn between revealing her lie and protecting her baby. So in most scenes her look is intent and direct. She uses the screen actor’s usual tactics of steady gaze and motivated blinks, with brows and mouth carrying the emotional impact (below, shocked anxiety; then distress).
Even when she’s thinking, her eyeline remains steady and she doesn’t play much with her eyelids.
What about when Stanwyck is much less innocent, as in Double Indemnity (1944)? Devious as she is, Phyllis Dietrichson meets Walter Neff’s eyes squarely. “There’s a speed limit in this state, Mr. Neff.”
When Phillis isn’t looking straight at Neff, it’s when she’s pretending to be demure and concerned about her husband’s safety—and acting as coy as Brigid O’Shaughnessy in The Maltese Falcon. But once Neff sees through her effort to insure her husband, she glares at him unwaveringly.
Part of Stanwyck’s star persona is the bold woman who responds frankly to whatever is put before her. When it comes to evasive maneuvers, though, there’s Bette.
Putting a lid on it
Publicity photo for Jezebel.
Her eyes are big and can be quite round, of course. They also sit remarkably centrally on her face, thanks to her high forehead; this quality is accentuated when her hair is brushed back, as it often is. What especially interests me today, though, is her eyelids. If Bette rolls her eyes at us in those Warners publicity shots, she can also create hooded eyes that suggest she’s harboring secrets.
Bette has remarkable control of those eyelids; she can close them to a very exact degree. In performance, the slight drooping of the upper lid, combined with a small shift in her gaze and a turn of her head, can shade the line or word she speaks. Add that sullen mouth and her vocal tone and rhythm, and you get a nuanced suite of micro-emotions.
Take the moment in Another Man’s Poison after Janet Frobisher tells George that she’s killed her husband. She rushes into a two shot favoring her as George says: “You could’ve divorced him.” Her reaction is an eye-flick, evading his look but still radiating defiance.
Now begins a series of micro-movements that shift Janet’s reaction away from George. She explains how her husband kept her tied to him. “He/ was/clever”: On each word, her expression, eyelines, and eyelids change minutely. Then she pauses.
“He saw/ to that/ too” gets mapped onto three more changes, with traces of a smirk accompanying an eye-shift on the word “too.”
But Janet isn’t looking straight at George yet. She’s got more to say by way of explaining why divorce wouldn’t work: She and her husband continued to have sex. She puts it more indirectly: “He paid me”—pause when she lifts her eyes to look back at George—“visits.”
This instant of looking sharply back at George, as she had at the start of the shot, drives the point home and becomes the climax of this phase of the exchange. Eyelids, brows, chin, mouth, and gaze have all cooperated in creating an emotional detour away from and back to her questioner. Bette’s tiny side-glances show us a woman thinking and reacting to what she’s thinking, relishing what she’s going to say and then watching the effect of what she says. It all takes eight seconds.
Don’t be the wide-eyed ingenue
You can see the two stars’ technique operating very early in their careers. Stanwyck is the name star of So Big! (1932) and Davis is fifth-billed. Above, we find Stanwyck, playing the nobly suffering mother Selina, using her direct-gaze strategy (though as she ages, the eyes get a little pinched). By contrast, we have Davis as the saucy young illustrator Dallas O’Mara. Selina’s son Dirk asks Dallas why she doesn’t love him. When she answers, William Wellman’s staging gives Davis a little aria of face-time at the piano.
Dallas explains that she’s attracted to men who have confronted the rough side of life. I can provide only excerpts of what is a forty-second shot, full of shifts of head position, facial expressions, and eye movements, complete with finely calibrated eyelid work. The passage reminds us that Davis’ dynamic expressions and eye movements are often motivated by her playing characters full of jittery pep, talking fast and thinking faster. She will even deliver phrases with her eyes closed—here, speaking of men with hands scarred from work and struggle.
As she says, “You haven’t a mark on you, Dirk,” Dallas reaches across to grip his forearm. A new phase of the scene begins, but still with the suite of slight head turns and eyelid action.
Dallas says that if he’d kept on as an architect instead of taking refuge in a safe business job, his face would show it. As in Another Man’s Poison, Davis concludes her monologue by turning to face the man and deliver the final line directly. From early in the scene, however, Dirk has turned his face aside in shame.
Where would his marks of character show? “In your eyes, in your whole being.” She peers up at him, her face closer than at any other point in the scene, and her hand lifts from his arm to accentuate her frank but brutal blow to his pride.
Which makes our last view of her all the more arresting. In the final scene, Dallas meets Dirk’s mother and imagines her as an ideal subject for a portrait. Now the flighty young artist is riveted on the steady, serene gaze of the older woman.
In this climax, Dallas becomes what Dirk has called her—“a wide-eyed ingenue”—but in her rapt admiration she proves herself worthy to be Selina’s daughter-in-law.
Bette, eyeballing us
Now that we know the role Bette’s upper eyelids play, we can appreciate other moments when she milks their effects virtuosically. Go back to Another Man’s Poison. George tells Janet that he has the weapon used in the bank robbery—the pistol that bears her husband’s fingerprints. As George starts his line, she’s taking a drink in the foreground. Lifting the glass, she tips her head back too so that her eyes are just visible under her lids—and they’re looking out at us.
George says, “I’ve got the gun.” Janet lowers the glass, but she keeps it poised. Now her lids and eyelines present her reaction to George’s information that the pistol bears the husband’s fingerprints. You see her thinking about evasive action.
This moment in effect spotlights Davis’ use of her eyes; she’s frozen in place, and they’re the only things that move.
Early in the film, we’re given a sort of primer that trains us to watch Janet/ Bette’s eyelids. The first scene shows Janet making her call to her lover from a phone booth. It’s staged with her in profile, so that her brows and mouth are relatively unmoving and the eyelids, centered in the frame, become quite salient. I won’t try to follow all their tiny fluctuations, in coordination with the chin’s angle and the mouth, but these samples should give you the flavor. (Note the very slight difference between the first and the third image, and the second and the fourth).
A more frontal view of La Davis would have been a more characteristic star introduction, but it’s as if the film is saving her full-face firepower for later scenes.
There’s other evidence that Bette was considered to be able to hold a scene by an eyelash. In Payment on Demand (1951), flashbacks from Joyce and David’s miserable marriage take us to happier days. One scene shows the couple embracing on a hospital bed after Joyce has given birth to their second child.
Joyce learns of David’s plans to move out of town, but she resists and sits upright. This brings her distraught reaction home to us with the now familiar coordination of eyeline, eyebrows, and eyelids with the mouth and shakes of the head—another suite of micro-behaviors I can merely sample here.
But then Joyce relaxes and falls back, hiding her face as the camera cranes up slightly.
Director Curtis Bernhardt has reframed the shot so that as Joyce curls up on the pillow, one eye peeps out. We don’t see her mouth replying to David’s lines, but we get the customary fractional eyelid changes, as in the phone booth scene above.
Eventually Davis moves her shoulder and reveals Joyce’s mouth, but for several seconds we’ve been obliged to follow the small movements of her lids as the only clue to her calming down—and getting her way with David. This is, needless to say, all done without a close-up.
Hollywood cinema is a highly formal cinema, as conventional in some ways as commedia dell’arte. Yet that doesn’t mean it must trade only in gross effects. Admittedly, much of today’s cinema has sacrificed nuance for brute force. All the better, then, that returning to even minor films from the studio era can remind us of how many opportunities the medium affords. Bette Davis isn’t the only virtuoso performer, of course, and many of her contemporaries show the same kind of gifts, sometimes put to different ends. She offers a convenient illustration of how film actors can cultivate meticulous control over facial regions we don’t normally think about. She makes up for being short and rather slight by playing her face like a chamber ensemble, with every “voice,” eyelids included, contributing to the restless dramatic flow.
Okay, I know: The song was running through your head all the way through. You deserve a break. Go ahead, but you might as well watch something too.
On the evolutionary implications of our eye behavior, see Michael Tomasello et al., Why We Cooperate (Cambridge: MIT Press, 2009). Tomasello argues that the need for social cooperation favored signals of shared attention; to work together, we need to notice things that other people are looking at. He also points out:
All 200-plus species of nonhuman primates have basically dark eyes, with the sclera—commonly called the “white of the eye”—barely visible. The sclera of humans (i.e., the visible part) is about thee times larger, making the direction of human gaze much more easily detectable by others. A recent experiment showed that in following the gaze direction of others, chimpanzees rely almost exclusively on head direction—they follow an experimenter’s head direction up even if the experimenter’s eyes are closed—whereas human infants rely mainly on eye direction—they follow an experimenter’s eyes, even if the head stays stationary (pp. 75-76).
But tracking my eye direction helps you, not me; how could it have evolved? Tomasello hypothesizes that making eye direction salient developed in a cooperative social environment. It’s part of social intelligence, in which mind-reading works to everyone’s benefit in shared tasks.
A vast resource on all things Bette is this site. Some perceptive remarks on her acting style are at Uncle Eddie’s Theory Corner. Jim Emerson offers an interview with Miss Davis in a smoke-filled room, while Roger Ebert presents an admiring appreciation of All About Eve.
An earlier blog entry here reflects on the performance of another sacred diva of the period, Joan Crawford. If you’re interested in a wider account that fits such matters into a broader theoretical perspective, including folk psychology, try this essay.
The Magnificent Seven.
In the long trailer for The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo, Rooney Mara as Lisbeth Salander makes a gesture to show that her fabulous memory has recorded the documents Blomkvist wants her to read over. She raises her hand toward her head and flicks her spindly forefinger.
It reminded me of how important gestures are to film performances, and how comparatively rare they are today. One feature of what I’ve called the contemporary intensified continuity style is a reliance on tight facial shots, so that actors work more with their eyes, eyebrows, and mouths than with other body parts. This solves one perennial problem actors have: What do I do with my hands? But it does cut off a lot of expressive possibilities. When filmmakers used more medium and long shots, actors could use all their equipment—stance, bearing, knees (as in The Cary Grant Crouch), elbows (The Cagney Cocked Elbows), shoulders. And arms, and hands. Nowadays if actors want to activate their hands in a dialogue, they usually have to lift them to their faces because the director hasn’t provided a looser, more distant framing.
I’ve already shared some thoughts on eyes (and argued that they aren’t as expressive as we usually think), eyeblinks, and sleeves. I’ve written about hands before, and Tim Smith has tested some of the things I discussed. Now I’d like to write about two of the best hands in the business. Before I do, though, let’s look at some simpler cases.
Rooney/Salander’s finger flip is a one-off, a staccato gesture that communicates instantly. It reminds us that she is, for all her cybernetic genius, rather nonverbal. Her dialogue is laconic, her face impassive. The gesture comes and goes like a keystroke. If there are air-quotes, this is an air-period.
Something more emphatic happens in Wuthering Heights, as you’d expect from (a) the more extroverted emotion of the tale and (b) the fact that the owner of the hand is matinee idol and occasional ham Laurence Olivier. Early in the film, Lockwood is staying the night in Heathcliff’s dismal mansion. He tries to close a shutter, and finds the windowpane already broken. He’s startled by what he hears (“Heathcliff! It’s Cathy!”) in the stormy night. He also thinks he sees a phantom woman. Unnerved, he pulls his hand back through the pane and stares at his trembling fingers.
This occurs in the frame story. Later that evening Lockwood is told of the tragic romance of Heathcliff and Cathy, and we get an extended flashback. Cathy yearns to join the high-flown elite in the neighborhood and is about to go out with Edgar Linton. In her petulance Cathy calls Heathcliff a stable boy and a beggar with dirty hands. Heathcliff stares down at those hands (“That’s all I’ve become to you, a pair of dirty hands”), before he slaps Cathy with one, then the other, crying, “Well, have them, then—have them where they belong!”
He stumbles from the room in a mixture of anger, shame, and confusion. Coming down the stairs he confronts Linton, who has just arrived to pick up Cathy for the party. Heathcliff stands awkwardly on the stair, his hand held at an angle, as if it’s something he’d like to slough off.
Back in his stable loft, Heathcliff smashes his fists through a window, in the manner of the broken pane that Lockwood will discover in the frame story.
Later Heathcliff, now wealthy, returns to the neighborhood. When he visits Cathy, who’s now married to Linton, he initially hesitates to shake hands with his old rival. It’s a beat long enough to remind us of the class difference marked in a pair of hands.
For a more unstressed example, consider The Magnificent Seven. Throughout the movie Steve McQueen invents hand business with the apparent aim of stealing every shot he’s in. At the very start, poor Yul Brynner is trying to be the brooding main attraction, ominously lighting a cigar. But Steve is making us watch him by shaking shotgun shells against his ear and then holding his hat up against the sun.
Soon afterward Steve sets a whisky bottle precariously on a fence post while Yul is acting seriously serious. Then McQueen has the nerve to fiddle with his hat so that Yul can no longer ignore him.
Much later Steve faces down Calvera’s outlaw band and strides into the foreground, back to us.
In such a setup, the actor who turns away is traditionally ceding the audience’s attention to the frontal players in the distance. Not Steve. Once he gets into place, he swivels just a bit and swings his hand behind his gun belt. (That instant surmounts this entry.) Then he tucks one finger in his hip pocket in the lower right corner of the shot.
If Tim Smith ran an eye-scanning experiment on this shot, my hunch is that a fair number of his subjects would watch Steve’s digits.
McQueen’s scene-grabbing reminds us that once a filmmaker has framed the performer from fairly far back, judicious use of the hands can activate areas of the frame we normally don’t watch. After all, in most shots the upper half carries the most information, especially with respect to the actors’ bodies. My favorite example of highlighting a lower corner remains a shot from Kriemhilde’s Revenge (above). The director, Fritz Lang, laid out his frames with the precision of an engineer.
Even in a less exactly composed shot, slight hand movements down the frame can add gradation of emphasis. Smash-Up: The Story of a Woman presents some hard-boiled poker players forced to listen to a radio song that interrupts their game. They sit still, but their fingers stir a little, suggesting their impatience to get on with playing.
Now we’re moving into the area I described earlier this fall as scenic density. Several of my examples there involve small gestures. To take another instance, here’s Mercedes McCambridge in her Oscar-winning performance in Robert Rossen’s All the King’s Men. As tough campaign strategist Sadie Burke, she’s trying to explain to Willie Stark (Broderick Crawford) that he’s running as a dummy candidate for the very men he opposed at the start of his political career. (The whole movie will remind any Wisconsiner of what our Governor and his pals have been up to lately.) The scene pivots around drinking, and the saliency of Sadie’s hands is heightened by the fact that the men’s hands aren’t used at all.
After she pours herself a drink, Sadie tells Willie he’s been framed, holding her glass at her waist.
She walks away to the right, then turns and says that Willie is “the goat.” She sets her glass down at the far right of the shot.
She steps toward him and leans on the chair, tipping forward.
Jack Burden (John Ireland) steps to center frame and says that’s enough. But she presses in on Willie, saying his egotism has made him blind. There’s a cut to a tighter framing as Sadie faces Willie in profile.
She turns away, mocking Willie, and yanks the speech out of Jack’s typewriter.
She steps left to the foreground and pauses, momentarily abashed by her attack on the man she loves. Her hands do something below the frame line.
Stepping back and turning away from us, she lets us concentrate on Willie. He quietly asks Jack, “Is it true?” As Sadie shifts her position, she raises her arm and we see she’s pouring another drink.
Jack replies after a pause: “That’s what they tell me.” As Willie hangs his head, Sadie’s hand emerges at the bottom of the shot to offer him the drink she’s poured. A more assertive director would have cut to a big close-up of Willie and the proffered glass, but here the information slides into a rarely used area of the frame. The Kriemhilde trick, we might call it.
Willie takes it, and Rossen cuts to a low angle on all three, with Jack and Sadie watching the key gesture: Willie, a teetotaler, downs the drink.
Now the only hand visible is his, and the narrative momentum has passed to him. He’ll change his tactics and crush his handlers.
I can’t resist a more recent example of a similar strategy. In Mysteries of Lisbon, Raúl Ruiz keeps fairly far back from his players, filming many scenes in a single distant shot. Even when he breaks the scene into shot/ reverse-shot, he can isolate gestures in the full frame in ways that echo the handwork in Kazan (and in the work of other directors, particularly in the 1910s). Elisa de Monfort, quietly mad with vengeance, calls on Eugénia, the wife of her hate/love object Alberto de Magalhães. In the opening setup, Elisa sweeps in to wait for Eugénia, setting a purse on a distant end table. (The action is quite marked on the big screen, but might be missed on video; this is the price the modern director pays for using long-shots, I guess.)
At the end of the conversation, Ruiz cuts back to the main set-up. Because of Eugénia’s position, the purse nestles in the sort of slot that we find at the bottom of the frame in All the King’s Men above. Elisa rises and goes to pick it up, her gesture highlighting it.
It contains the eighty thousand francs she is trying to return to Alberto, a love pledge he has been refusing. Elisa picks it up, then drops it back to the table, defiantly leaving it for him.
By now I’d again bet that Tim Smith would find our eyes fastened on this tiny bit of the screen. Hands point us to props, and close-ups may not be necessary.
All hands on deck
I’ve praised Henry Fonda’s handicraft earlier on this site (and in Film Art: An Introduction). Maureen O’Hara said of him: “All he had to do was wag his little finger and he could steal a scene from anybody.” But to see his long fingers and fluid wrists at full stretch, put him in a combo. There’s a remarkable six-minute scene in Mister Roberts that lets Fonda (playing Roberts), William Powell (as the ship’s doctor), and Jack Lemmon (as Ensign Pulver) make beautiful music. I can’t go through it all, but let me mention some high notes.
Roberts wants to give the crew a day’s liberty, and to that end he’s bribed a port officer with a bottle of whisky he’s been saving. But Pulver, a lecherous layabout, has convinced a nurse to come to the cabin he shares with Roberts, and he’d planned to seduce her with the Scotch. So to help Pulver out, Roberts and Doc will concoct fake Scotch with ingredients they have at hand.
As I work it out, Powell supplies gravitas, a steady ground bass of minimal, exact gestures. Lemmon, playing Pulver as wound much too tight, punctuates his passive role with nervous head movements and stabbing arms. He supplies percussive accents. Fonda’s relaxed but severe playing, neither stolid nor spiky, is the melody that floats through it all.
At the start, after the older men have entered, Pulver is slouching, Doc is wiping off sweat, and Roberts is looking for his monthly letter requesting transfer.
As Doc replaces his hat, Roberts stresses his explanation about the whisky with a quietly tapping forefinger, a gesture you can hear on the soundtrack.
When Pulver realizes that the sacred bottle is gone, he jolts into activity, frantically pointing, as if in amplified imitation of Roberts.
Throughout the scene, Pulver will echo Roberts’ gestures, as when the senior officer lays his arm across his belly.
This mirror-effect is tied to the larger dramatic dynamic: Pulver looks up to Roberts, but his selfishness keeps him from being anything like his model. In the film’s last scene, however, he will become the new Roberts.
As Roberts and Doc decide to help Pulver, they give virtually silent-film renditions of the concept, “planning and preparing.” Powell roles up his sleeves, and Roberts claps his hands and then rubs them together as if hatching a plot. Hand-rubbing will be his refrain through the rest of the scene.
No actors under age fifty today, I think, would dare this sort of straightforward stylization. Here’s something to do with your hands, cast members.
When Doc requests a Coke to add to their ethyl alcohol, Pulver yanks a bottle out from his mattress and thrusts it across the CinemaScope frame.
Doc adds the Coke with surgical precision. All eyes are on his hands, while Roberts’ hands are out of frame.
Pulver is still skeptical and sits back down on his bunk. The dramatic impetus passes to Fonda, whose long forefinger rests meditatively under his nose: Thinking personified.
Fonda has to shift his hand in order to remark that Scotch has always reminded him of iodine. But what other actor would rotate his wrist and stick his thumb under his eye as he says that line? Try it yourself, and I bet you find it awkward. He executes it smoothly.
Without having to get up, Roberts reaches back into the medicine chest and pulls down a bottle of iodine. He passes it to Doc and signals the handoff with a little flourish.
Earlier we’ve seen Doc do the mixing as a solo performer, in the over-the-shoulder shot shown above. As Doc blended the stuff in other framings, Fonda kept his hands below the desk top, giving Powell the stage. But now we get two for the price of one: Powell’s meticulous adding of a drop of iodine to the brew, Fonda’s revisiting his calculating hand-rubs.
Fonda’s slightly out-thrust tongue is a grace note.
Pulver tries to sample the blend, but Doc beats him to it. “We’re on the right track!” he declares. Doc asks Roberts what else he’s got and Fonda, in a beautiful medium-shot with eye-catching colored medications arrayed before him, mimes the act of mulling over the next ingredient. His hand flits gracefully over the bottles and jars.
They settle on hair tonic for a touch of ageing. Again Doc adds the ingredient with precise pouring, and now he prepares for Roberts to test it. Into the frame come Fonda’s hands.
To accentuate the climax of the scene, Roberts rises to take the drink, forestalling Pulver.
Roberts clears his palate, then drinks it, pinky extended, as daintily as a lady at a party.
He stares at the glass, swallowing. Then Fonda’s hand lowers out of the frame so as to let us concentrate on his expression. His strangled line tops the whole comic arc: “You know, it does taste a little like Scotch.” Now his face does the work.
All three players are reintegrated into a master shot: patient Doc, frantic Pulver, and stalwart Roberts as they realize they’ve succeeded. Pulver, after lunging with his characteristic abruptness, finishes the glass in a hunched-over gulp.
“Smooth!” he yelps.
You might argue that such hand jive is rather “theatrical,” and perhaps some of the business came from Fonda’s three years in the Doug Roberts role on Broadway. Even so, it has clearly been recalibrated for the cinema. Theatre taught actors how to use their hands, but cinema gave them further lessons, and film directors learned to choreograph hands in relation to framing and shot scale.
My discussion doesn’t exhaust the scene, but I hope it suggestst how choices about staging and performance can make hands carry story information and express character. They can add nuance to a moment; they can surprise us by slipping into and out of visibility; and they can inflect a facial expression or line reading. If filmmakers today lock their framing on facial close-ups and moving lips, they’re depriving us of some beautiful music.
P. S. 18 January (from Midway, Utah and the Art House Convergence): Thanks to three alert readers. First, Adrian Martin spotted an orthographic error, now corrected. Second, David Cairns of the indispensable Shadowplay) writes of scene-stealing in The Magnificent Seven:
You do know what Yul said to Steve? “If you don’t stop playing with your hat, I’ll take off my hat, and then we’ll see who they’ll look at.”
And from James Benning, with the laconic message: “Here’s another.”
I wrote about Jim’s related project here.
PPS 20 January: This entry’s title, as many readers noted, referenced the great Johnny Otis song “Willie and the Hand Jive.” Today Ethan de Seife writes to tell me that Johnny died the day before my blog was posted. So take it as not only an homage but a valedictory.
“The happy heart loves the cliché.”
–Myra Hudson (Joan Crawford) in Sudden Fear.
Sometimes your audience gets what you’re saying faster than you do. Years ago, after I gave a lecture in a class at Columbia University, a grad student came up and said: “What you’re doing is looking for the conventional side of unconventional films and the unconventional side of conventional films.” I’d say it’s not all I try to do, but the student’s chiasmus does capture a lot of what interests me.
It’s especially on target for Hollywood cinema. I don’t understand criticisms of Hollywood for not being realistic. It’s a highly stylized, artificial cinema, only a few notches above ballet or commedia dell’arte. Some of our best critics, like Parker Tyler and Manny Farber and Geoffrey O’Brien, have understood this. All the artifice will demand plenty of conventions, yes, but there are always filmmakers ready to treat them in fresh ways. And the churn is swift. American studio cinema is constantly finding new variations on its traditional forms, formats, and formulas.
Do-overs are allowed
Sleep, My Love
Take replays. The repeated sequence has become so common in our movies that nobody much notices it any more. We’re quite used to seeing an earlier action revisited. Often the replay simply serves to remind you of what happened, as when clues to a mystery are given in fragmentary flashbacks. The replay may also aim to get you absorbed in a character’s mental life. John, the hitman in John Woo’s The Killer, is traumatized by the fact that he blinded an innocent woman during a contract hit, and the moment of her wounding haunts him.
Sometimes, however, we get multiple-draft replays, in which the second version significantly alters the first. A common gambit is to have the second version show more of what happened, as in the money drop in Jackie Brown. Other cases show contradictions, as when conflicting testimony is dramatized in flashbacks. The most recent version I’ve seen occurs in The Debt, when the central 1966 section of the film concludes by showing what really happened when Dr. Vogel slashed Rachel and fled. In such cases the replay becomes less a true repetition and more of a revision, a new version questioning or canceling what we’ve seen before.
The idea isn’t new. You can find the replay in various forms in trial films of the 1930s, as I’ve discussed here. But the replay really came into its own during the 1940s. Directors and screenwriters experimented with the device as part of a broader initiative, burrowing into new niches in the ecosystem of classical narrative.
In those films, it’s common for replayed scenes to show an incident haunting the protagonist, as when the tormented bride of The Locket is assailed by memories as she walks down the aisle. Sometimes a flashback fills in information that was cunningly omitted from the earlier version, as in Mildred Pierce. And we also have competing accounts of what happened, as variant replays furnish multiple drafts. The most famous example is probably Crossfire.
By 1950, Joseph Mankiewicz could dream up one of the most daring experiments of the period, one that anticipated the repeated scene in Persona. For All about Eve, Mankiewicz planned to present Eve’s memorable monologue about the power of theatre twice: first through the sympathetic eyes of Karen (Celeste Holm), then from the perspective of the bitter Margo Channing (Bette Davis). What would viewers and other filmmakers have made of it? But Fox studio head Darryl F. Zanuck ordered the replay dropped, for reasons I speculate about in this entry’s codicil.
Mankiewicz’s unseen experiment with Eve’s “Audience Aria” reminds us that replays affect the soundtrack too. The most common use of replays is probably auditory, that line of dialogue that flits through a character’s consciousness—an auditory flashback, in effect. “Who knows what you may do the next time?” asks the sinister voice of the psychiatrist as Alison (Claudette Colbert) totters up the stairs in Sleep, My Love (1949). Several snatches of dialogue can flow together to recall a host of earlier scenes. In The Hard Way (1943), on another staircase, Katie (Joan Leslie) becomes distraught as bits of dialogue spoken by several characters flash through her mind.
More unusual is the audio replay in Duvivier’s wonderfully stylized Lydia (1941). A flashback to a ball is introduced by Lydia’s voice-over, recalling the splendid ballroom with its mirrorlike floors and the “divine aggregation of musicians, hundred of them, I think.”
But then her old lover corrects her memory and we get a flashback showing a more modest ballroom with a small ensemble.
Over these later shots, however, we hear bits of Lydia’s earlier description of the big ballroom and troops of musicians, in contrast to what we see. The sound flashback functions as a wry narrational commentary on Lydia’s stubborn romanticism.
Purely auditory replays tend to be subjective, but could we have an objective one? And can it promote surprise and suspense? As we say in Wisconsin, you bet. (Not you betcha.)
The replay machine
A lighthearted instance appears in The Pajama Game (1957). Sid Sorokin (John Raitt) , the new superintendant at the Sleeptite Pajama Factory, is falling in love with Babe Williams (Doris Day), the no-nonsense head of the labor union’s Grievance Committee. He sings into his Dictaphone about her in the song, “Hey, There (You with the Stars in Your Eyes).”
At the end of the song’s first section, he plays it back and then comments sourly on the lines he’s just sung. By the end, he’s joining himself in a duet, harmonizing nicely.
This instant playback wasn’t a cinematic invention, though. The same number, including the Dictaphone gimmick, was employed in the original Broadway production.
The Dictaphone, which used both wax cylinders and plastic belts for recording, was a popular device for businesses. Erle Stanley Gardner employed it for dictating many of his novels. A competitor to the Dictaphone was the SoundScriber, a late 1940s device using vinyl phonographic discs. The SoundScriber figures in a more sustained and suspenseful replay scene a few years before The Pajama Game.
In Sudden Fear (1952), Myra Hudson (Joan Crawford) is a prosperous playwright who has outfitted her office with a SoundScriber. She uses it for dictating plays and correspondence. One evening before a party, euphoric after her new marriage to the handsome actor Lester Blaine, she meets with her attorney to prepare a new will. He proffers a draft that assigns a modest sum to Lester, but she considers it insulting. She switches on the SoundScriber and dictates a new will, one leaving all her estate to Lester.
But we’ve had our suspicions about Lester, since he’s played by Jack Palance, an actor with more juts to his facial planes than a Giacometti bust. Our fears are confirmed after Lester hooks up with his old girlfriend Irene (Gloria Grahame). When they learn that Myra is making a new will, they believe she’s going to give the bulk of her estate to a foundation.
On the evening of the party, as she starts dictating her new will, the guests arrive and she descends to meet them. Irene and Lester slip away and meet in Myra’s study. Fade out on Lester closing the door.
Next morning, Myra return to her study and discovers she left her SoundScriber on all night. She hits replay and listens to herself bequeathing all her money to Lester. This is the replay that launches the big action. As she’s about to switch off the machine, she hears the conversation starting between Lester and Irene. The microphone, left on accidentally, has picked up their plotting.
The couple is still under the false impression that the new will leaves Lester penniless. We hear him declare his contempt for Myra while caressing and embracing Irene. They start planning to kill her before she can sign the new will.
The SoundScriber scene gives us two plot developments, past and present, simultaneously. The recording fills in the gap left by the fade-out: Now we know what happened behind those closed doors. On the visual track, we can watch Myra’s developing anxiety about the couple’s murder plot but, more piercingly, we register her realization that Lester has never loved her.
Across seven minutes, Joan Crawford executes a carefully modulated solo performance, for the most part with no accompanying score. Meanwhile, Palance and Grahame get to act viva voce. And David Miller’s direction scales and times things nicely. I won’t try to analyze the very end of the scene, let alone its frenzied aftermath. I just want to trace the dynamics of the double-layered time scheme the replay machine gives us.
Joanie, more than shoulders
The recorded scene develops from the lovers’ frustration with keeping up a false front, then to their suspicion that Irene will cut Lester out of her will, then to the mistaken belief that she’s just done so, and finally to their decision to kill her. Myra’s playback scene proceeds, I think, in four stages as well. Myra starts out placid and almost giddy in her love for Lester. She’s abruptly shocked and disenchanted when she learns he doesn’t love her; her stomach churns. A third phase consists of her discovery that Lester and Irene intend to kill her, and she devolves into sheer panic. The last phase, of which I’ll show only a bit, initiates a search for a way to defend herself.
Myra comes in euphoric. As she replays her dictation of the night before, she strolls around her study, going far back to the distant refrigerator for a glass of milk and then coming forward. She seems to savor hearing again her own declaration of her devotion to Lester.
Myra’s circuit around her study isn’t just filler: it etablishes the rear area for use later. But now, as she’s about to turn off the recording, she hears Lester’s voice: “What’s up?” She backs up a little, bumping the desk as she realizes that there’s more on the disc. This recoil, as a performance decision, will get magnified in the course of the scene. Then Miller cuts to a reaction shot.
The first of several optical point-of-view shots gives us a close view of the twin SoundScriber units (good for product placement too). Myra has set the milk down on the console.
As we hear Lester venting his contempt for her, Myra’s eyes fill with tears. Worse, he adds that he’d like to tell her he never loved her for a moment. “I’d like to see her face.” He can’t, but we can; in the closest shot yet, she looks right at us. Hollywood can be brutal.
She turns away and, seen from a new angle by the desk, she advances toward us. On the track, Lester is pitching woo to Irene. Myra realizes that he lusts for this other woman. She sighs. Listen closely and you can hear her emit a soft whimper as well.
Another cut to the SoundScriber as Lester says he dreams of holding Irene: “I don’t know how I stand it, not being with you.” On these last few words, cut to Irene, turning away in shame.
She rushes back, having heard enough. A low angle shows her about to switch off the horrible recording when Irene is heard noticing the attorney’s draft of the will on the desk. “It’s the will!” Myra freezes, accentuating the line, and then starts to turn when Lester begins to read the draft.
Having hidden her face from us for a little while, Miller’s direction makes the next close view all the more powerful. (Note the eyebrow work.) Lester’s reaction to the will proves it’s been about the money all along. As he curses Myra, she doubles over grabbing her stomach. This, I take it, is the high point of the scene’s second phase–a sheerly physical reaction to Lester’s cynical betrayal of her love.
Phase three starts, I think, when Irene is heard purring, “Suppose she isn’t able to sign it on Monday.” The line is heard over a shot of the machine, and not a POV at that. The visual narration cunningly delays, by just a few seconds, Myra’s reaction to Irene’s hint. The cut shows her listening, stunned. Lester agrees with Irene. “I’d get it all! Why not?”
Myra turns, as if in disbelief, and a closer view of SoundScriber underscores Irene’s response: “Lester, I have a gun.”
This triggers the scene’s big movement: Myra’s retreat from the recording. Back to the extreme long shot, low angle, as she hurls herself toward the rear wall and sidles along toward the refrigerator, taking refuge behind the chair. The lovers discuss how to arrange an apparent accident, all the while kissing and declaring their love. Lester exclaims, “I’m crazy about you! I could break your bones!” as only Jack Palance could say it.
Again we get an optical POV shot, but now from Myra’s position across the room as Lester muses on “a nice little accident.” And in the cut back to Myra, we hear Irene say, “We’ll work something out. I know a way.” The recording needle is stuck in a groove, and we hear her say it again: “I know a way.” Music comes up for the first time, shifting the action to a new pitch.
I know a way. This mechanical glitch, I think, pushes fear into panic. The tightest close-up yet of the spinning disc is a sort of mental subjectivity: It’s not what Myra sees exactly, but an expression of her being riveted by insistent, maniacal repetition of Irene’s assurance: I know a way. Myra rushes out of the shot and hurls herself into the bathroom to vomit. All the while we hear, again and again: I know a way.
The couple’s plotting has driven Myra out of the room, as the music rises and nearly suppresses Irene’s “I know a way.” In a closer view of the bathroom, Myra staggers to the sink and splashes water on her face, while the record still spins and Irene’s voice taunts her.
But now we get the start of a new phase, with Myra trying to seize the initiative. In a burst of anger she rushes back to the machine, switches it off, and fumblingly takes out the disc. By the time she does so, we’ve heard Irene’s “I know a way” thirty-one times. Talk about hammering the audience.
Myra grips the disc, proof of the criminal conversation, and….
…But my analysis has gone on too long. It’s reasonable, although mean, to stop with the end of the replay. The rest of the sequence builds on what we’ve heard and seen, developing Myra’s efforts to defend herself.
I should note, though, that there follows a hallucinatory sequence in which we get not only perceptual subjectivity, like the POV shots, but also mental imagery and sounds as well. That sequence also includes auditory flashbacks of the usual sort, Myra’s anxious memories of things that Lester and Irene said on the SoundScriber recording. They’re replays of a replay, if you want to get fancy about it.
In a way this scene is just is a variant of a common storytelling convention: Someone accidentally overhears a key piece of information, in an adjacent room or over the phone. But the sequence shrewdly recasts this convention in ways that pay off on many dimensions. We get the suspense attached to the lovers’ mistaken belief that Myra will cut Lester out, and we get Myra’s reaction to it. That reaction is compounded of her sense of betrayal, her disillusion, and her realization that she’s in danger. Had she been eavesdropping on their conversation, she could have burst in on them and denounced their misreading of her will. As it is, she must helplessly listen to them unfold their plans.
After more than a decade of female Gothics–aka”woman in peril” movies, aka I-think-my-husband’s-trying-to-kill-me movies–from Suspicion and Gaslight to Woman in Hiding, Miller and his colleagues found a fresh way to put a lady in a cage. Schema and revision, a key process in the history of any art form, allows ingenious artists to remake what tradition hands them. Twenty years later, Francis Ford Coppola and Walter Murch would build an entire movie, The Conversation, around the audio replay and its possibilities for objectivity and subjectivity. Over and over, the unconventional burrows inside the conventional.
After this film, Joan Crawford became a spokesperson for SoundScriber. (See below.) Who would know better than she the advantages of the gadget? Perhaps Joan even had a stake in the firm. Such fruitful synergy wouldn’t be unknown in Hollywood. Jack Webb found the Teleprompter so useful in shooting Dragnet episodes that he invested in the company.
On All About Eve and Zanuck’s purging of the replay of Eve’s monologue: I suspect that it was a forced byproduct of another decision Zanuck had taken. The film consists largely of flashbacks, and Mankiewicz had intended to move through them by shifting from one character to another. At the awards dinner the flashbacks begin with Karen, and then another block of them, grounded in Margo’s memories, was to take up later episodes in Eve’s ascent to stardom.
But the film ran very long, so Zanuck cut the framing portion at the dinner that would have introduced Margo’s flashbacks. The result is that in Karen’s flashback, we occasionally hear Margo’s narration of certain episodes Karen didn’t witness. But once we’ve lost Margo’s narrating frame, then it becomes quite difficult to justify re-hearing Eve’s ruminations on theatre from anything approximating her point of view. I suspect that consistency of this sort played a role in Zanuck’s cutting Eve’s monologue. Plus it was a pretty daring move on Mankiewicz’s part. And the film is already pretty long. The fullest account of the changes, though still not as specific as I’d like, is in Sam Staggs’ All About All About Eve (St. Martin’s Griffin, 2001), 170-172. As Staggs points out, Mankiewicz did work differential-viewpoint flashbacks into The Barefoot Contessa (1954).
Sudden Fear is available on a so-so DVD transfer from Kino Lorber.
The interplay between film and fiction in the 1940s is fascinating, and we can sometimes find rough equivalents between techniques. Here is a stream of auditory flashbacks in Steve Fisher’s novel I Wake Up Screaming (1941), ending with the protagonist’s inner monologue.
I’d remember Lanny Craig saying: “They crucified me . . . it was because of Vicky Lynn!” And the night Robin Ray said: “She’d laugh, see, and it was like Guy Lombardo’s band playing.” And Hurd Evans: “I only get two hundred and fifty a week.” Tick-tock, the faceless clock on Sunset. “It’s possible to build a case out of nothing,” the assistant district attorney said. Where was Harry Williams? If he’d been murdered, where was his body?
By the end of the thirties, of course, such montages were already heard in radio programs as well.
Joan Crawford was also a spokeswoman for Pepsi-Cola, having married the man who became the company’s CEO. This image comes from a nifty survey of her endorsements available here.
What do John Ford, Andy Warhol, and David Fincher have in common? Eyeball these remarks.
Ford, asked what the audience should watch for in a movie: “Look at the eyes.”
Warhol: “The great stars are the ones who are doing something you can watch every second, even if it’s just a movement inside their eye.”
Fincher, on the big club scene in The Social Network: “What’s cinematic are the performances . . . . What their eyes are doing as they’re trying to grasp what the other person is telling them.”
It isn’t just cinema that makes eyes important. Eyes are felt to be significant in literature, from the highest to the lowest. In just a couple of pages of a pulp adventure story you can read these sentences:
“Then it certainly does look very mysterious,” he said, but his blue eyes were quiet and searching.
Chief Inspector Teal suddenly opened his baby-blue eyes and they were not bored or comatose or stupid, but unexpectedly clear and penetrating.
What do quiet eyes look like, actually? Or searching ones: perhaps they’re moving a bit? Bored or comatose eyes might be droopy, so let’s count the eyelids as part of the eye. But what could make eyes, by themselves, penetrating? Nonetheless, we think we understand what such sentences mean.
Watching eyes is tremendously important in our social lives. We need to monitor other people’s glances to see if they are looking at us. We need to track what else they might be looking at. We need to watch for signals sent by the eyes, particularly attitudes toward the situation we’re in. For example, we seldom look directly into each others’ eyes, as characters in movies do constantly; in real life, “mutual gaze” is intermittent and brief. But if two people stare intently at each other, we’re likely to assume keen attraction or rising aggression.
In an essay from Poetics of Cinema available on this site, I talk about mutual gaze in cinema and how it can be exploited for dramatic purposes. The same essay takes up the issue of blinking; we blink frequently, but film characters seldom do, and the actors usually make the blinks emotionally expressive (of fear, uncertainty, weakness, etc.).
The problem is that eyes, by themselves, tell us very little about what the person behind them is thinking or feeling. We can show this with a little experiment.
Do the eyes have it?
What do these eyes tell us?
Certainly they give us information–about the direction the person is looking, about a certain state of alertness. The lids aren’t lifted to suggest surprise or fear, but I think you’d agree that no specific emotion seems to emerge from the eyes alone.
So what happens if we add eyebrows? (I’ve tipped the one above to conceal the brows; now you get to see the face’s proper angle.)
Now there’s a degree of surprise. The brows are lifted somewhat. But still the emotion seems fairly unspecific: not particularly sad or angry or distressed; probably not joyous either. Then what?
I’d call this dazed, slightly perplexed surprise. The sloping brows suggest the man is trying to figure out what’s happened; but the mouth is a slight gape. You can almost imagine the lips murmuring: “Ohhh,” or “Wow,” and not in appreciation or pleasure. If you wanted to show someone being blindsided, this is a pretty precise way to do it.
Of course context helps us a lot. Eduardo Savarin has just been gulled by his partner Mark Zuckerberg and by the interloper Sean Parker. His stock in the company that he co-founded is now worthless. So the situation informs our reading of Eduardo’s expression, and this permits the actor to underplay. Actor Andrew Garfield doesn’t give us bug-eyed surprise or frowning bafflement; he relies on our understanding of what he must be feeling (what we would feel) in order to refine and nuance his expression. When an actor underacts, we’re often expected to fill in the emotions we could plausibly imagine him to be feeling, on the basis of the story at this point. In isolation, the expression might be vague or ambiguous; the narrative situation helps sharpen it.
Back to the main question: How informative are the eyes alone? Try this one.
Again, I’ve tipped the shot a little to conceal the brows. Not much evident from the bare eyes, is there? Again, a certain focus and interest, but that’s about it. No marked surprise or fear or sadness.
Something has been added. The brows aren’t lifted in surprise or fear or sadness or distress; they seem to be relaxed. The angle of the look suggests concentration, but we’re not getting as much information as we got from Eduardo’s brows. We need a mouth.
The impression of concentration is greater, and I think we’d agree that this small smile of satisfaction gives us some insight into what the character is feeling. Again, the eyes tell only part of the story.
And again context matters. Mark Zuckerberg has just figured out that he can enhance The Facebook by adding users’ information about their romantic relationships. The tight, sidelong smile confirms not only his genius but also his view that college is partly about getting laid.
Less with the eyebrows
At this point you might be getting impatient with me. Isn’t this all obvious? Of course the actors use their faces–they’re paid to do that. But sometimes going obvious can get us to notice things. For one thing, the eyes in themselves aren’t that emotionally informative. Pupil dilation can convey physical arousal, but that’s another story for another time. More commonly, the eyes give us the all-important information about what the person is looking at. The lids convey alertness, or drowsiness, or if they’re pinched a bit, concentration or anger.
Sometimes the eyes give us all the information we get. Here is Mark just before he agrees to take the job coding for the Winklevoss brothers’ project, The Harvard Connection. He moves from alertness to calculation by narrowing his eyes. As the phrase goes, you can hear the wheels turning.
Crucial to this moment is that nothing but Mark’s eyes and lids move; he doesn’t even turn his head. At the film’s climax, he will open up a little bit, and the eyelids play a central part. Getting the news that the Facebook party has been busted, Mark starts to breathe more laboriously, then wobbles his head slightly and closes his eyes. For once his concentration is broken.
It’s about as close as Mark comes to a canonical expression of sadness.
Obvious as it seems, by isolating the eyes we can notice the division of labor among eyes, eyelids, brows, and mouth: Each component supplies a bit of information. We’re remarkably skillful in integrating all these cues. What researchers into face perception call the informational triangle–the two eye regions tapering down to the mouth–creates a package of social and psychological signals. It’s this whole ensemble, the most informative parts of the face working together, that guides us in making sense of other people, or of film acting.
I’ve come to especially appreciate eyebrows. Daniel McNeill, in The Face: A Natural History, writes:
The eyebrow is the great supporting player of the face, and its work generally escapes notice. It helps signal anger, surprise, amusement, fear, helplessness, attention, and many other messages we grasp almost at once. Indeed, without eyebrows the surprise expression almost disappears. The eyebrows are such active little flagmen of mind-state it’s amazing anyone can wonder about their purpose. We use them incessantly (p. 199).
Since eyebrows are so important, actors must control them carefully. In the film’s first scene, Erica Albright moves her eyebrows vivaciously (and widens her eyelids too), but Mark’s brows are rigid and knit together.
This scene introduces us to Mark’s facial behavior. He will glance to the side when he’s pressed, but he’ll focus sharply on the other person when he’s trying to dominate the conversation. His mouth seems to be dominated by the triangularis and mentalis muscles, creating the inverted smile sometimes called the “facial shrug,” even when the lips are relaxed. Erica smiles a lot, something that usually triggers a responding smile. But not from this guy, though a smirk will occasionally flit over his mouth when he says something insulting. The closest we get to a true smile, I think, is at the blowout conclusion of the contest for internships, and that’s seen in the fairly distant long shot at the top of this section.
Above those eyes and that mouth sit those hooded brows, almost never lifting or lowering. Which is to say that Mark seldom shows surprise, and his anger will usually be visible in the set of his mouth (and in his words.) His flatlined brows sometimes suggest keen concentration, sometimes aloofness when he tilts his head back, or more pervasively the sense that everything in the vicinity is irritating. He seems to be permanently scowling, an effect that Fincher and DP Jeff Cronenweth accentuate by lighting that draws his brows closer together and hollows out the eye sockets.
How different this performance is from the actor Jesse Eisenberg’s everyday facial configuration (or at least the one he employs to send us other signals) can be seen in the making-of documentary accompanying The Social Network on DVD. One example surmounts this entry and shows a much different set of expressive cues–raised eyebrows, wider eyes, more cheerful mouth. The actor’s face is very mobile; he can even turn in the inner corners of his brows, which is hard to do voluntarily.
In one section of the making-of, Jesse reports that Fincher was often telling him, “Less with the eyebrows,” and onscreen Eisenberg delivered. By the end, for the last shots of Mark alone, Fincher asked for what’s become famous as the Queen Christina effect–an expression that could be read in many ways. “I want everybody to put anything on it.”
The result is a portrait of Generation Whatever, or an image of stoic loneliness, or of bemused curiosity about an old girlfriend, or. . . .
One more consequence of my noting the obvious: The centrality of faces to modern movies. Today’s films use close-ups very heavily, probably more than at any other point in film history. (The Way Hollywood Tells It explores some reasons why.) What I’ve called the “intensified continuity” style of modern cinema relies on tight single shots of individual players. So modern players must be maestros of their facial muscles and eye movements. In other styles of filmmaking, currently and historically, the actor’s performance is projected onto more body parts through gestures, stance, gait, and the like. Recall Cary Grant, who performed with his whole body. Of course he wasn’t bad in close-ups either.
Faces aren’t everything in movies like The Social Network. Most characters use their arms and hands freely–probably the Winklevi the most. Mark is straightjacketed, but even he will gesture sometimes, as when a drooping Twizzler becomes his hand prop. He usually prefers a shrug, though it’s executed without the eyebrow lift most people add. Postures and personal walking styles play key roles in the film as well.
Still, as in most movies today, here eyes and brows and mouths are the main channels of emotional information. Fincher again: “It was really a movie about kids’ faces.” And even films from the 1910s, made before directors used a lot of cutting, often used long-shot staging to direct attention to the body’s most informative zones. A 1913 book on film acting noted, “Facial expression is perhaps the most important part of photoplaying. . . . After all is said and done the eyes are really the focus of one’s personality in photoplaying.”
I can’t offer a complete account of nonverbal behavior in The Social Network here, but I want to end with a hypothesis that would be worth more detailed inquiry. The film’s central relationship is that between über-nerd Mark and Econ-major Eduardo, the coder and the aspiring tycoon (although he also supplies Mark with a crucial algorithm). Through facework, Fincher and his actors delineate the contrasting personalities and trace their shifting dynamic.
From the start, we get Mark’s stare of frowning concentration, drawing on the muscle called the corrugator, Darwin’s “muscle of difficulty.” By contrast, Andrew Garfield’s performance is marked by a look of worry and abashment. He’s often kinking his eyebrows, furrowing his brow, and ducking his head. Fincher motivates this behavior by having him often stoop over Mark’s workstation, tilt his head downward, and lift his eyes from underneath his brow.
In this shot/ reverse-shot passage, Mark’s mask never slips but Eduardo, wrinkling his brow and tipping his chin down a bit, looks apologetic.
Even when Eduardo has every right to berate Mark, he looks like he’s the one in the wrong. Instead of displaying the jammed-down, pinched-together brows of an angry man, he won’t lose his patient, slightly anxious look.
See the last image on this entry for a moment when Eduardo seems on the verge of tears–and this is after he’s gotten an invitation to join two alluring women.
You can argue that the blindsided expression we dissected earlier is one culmination of the facial cues that Andrew Garfield has been blending in the course of the film. But things are more complicated. The plot gives us two forward-moving timelines, one in the past tracing the rise of Facebook, the other in the present, during which Mark is deposed in two lawsuits. At an early deposition, Mark’s implacable stare works to make Eduardo revert to his old obeisance.
But in a climactic face-off, we come to see a different Eduardo.
Eduardo’s quiet testimony about whether anyone’s share but his was diluted (“It wasn’t”) affects Mark more deeply than the bluster of the Winklevoss brothers. The words are delivered without the usual sidelong glance, kinked eyebrows, or head ducking that has defined Eduardo earlier. His brow is smooth, his brows level. This is man to man, and it’s Mark who breaks off eye contact.
You could nuance this transformation by tracing it scene by scene, and contrasting it with the body language displayed by other characters. For today I simply wanted to sketch the broad development that I think is at work in this core relationship. The drama of domination and betrayal is played out in eyes, eyebrows, mouths, mutual gazes, and the like as much as it is in the dialogue and incidents.
There is no art, Shakespeare’s Duncan says, to read the mind’s construction in the face. He’s right about the reading part; we grasp expressions fast, intuitively, and often reliably. But there is art in the performer’s construction of the face, and of the director’s cinematic shaping of it.
John Ford’s remark about looking at the eyes is quoted in Joseph McBride’s Searching for John Ford (Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2010), p.2; the Warhol quotation comes from Andy Warhol and Pat Hackett, POPism: The Warhol ’60s (New York: Harper and Row, 1980), p. 109; quotations from David Fincher come from the bonus features on the collector’s edition DVD of The Social Network. My quotations about eyes in fiction are drawn from Leslie Charteris, Prelude for War (New York: Doubleday, Doran, 1938), pp. 171, 173. The 1913 quotation about eyes comes from Francis Agnew’s Motion Picture Acting (Syracuse: Reliance Newspaper Syndicate), p. 40; I learned of it from Janet Staiger’s article, “‘The Eyes Are Really the Focus’: Photoplay Acting and Film Form and Style,” Wide Angle 6, 4 (1985), pp. 14-23.
Ed Tan offers a very good analysis of the issues I mention here in his article “Three Views of Facial Expression and Its Understanding in the Cinema,” in Moving Image Theory: Ecological Considerations, ed. Joseph D. Anderson and Barbara Fisher Anderson (Carbondale: Southern Illinois University Press, 2005), pp. 107-127. I find Vicki Bruce and Andy Young’s In the Eye of the Beholder: The Science of Face Perception (Oxford University Press, 1998) a very helpful guide to ideas in this research area. The “facial shrug” is described in Gary Faigin’s excellent The Artist’s Complete Guide to Facial Expression (New York: Watson-Guptill, 1990), pp. 104-105.
There’s a fascinating debate in the human sciences about whether particular aspects of nonverbal communication are constant across cultures. Gestures vary considerably, but are facial expressions universal to some degree? Or do they differ from culture to culture? Are they primarily expressions of the person’s emotion, or are they signals which have developed, through evolution or cultural convention, to influence others? You can read more about these and other issues in Paul Ekman and Wallace V. Friesen, Unmasking the Face (Cambridge, MA: Maor Books, 2003) and Alan J. Fridlund, Human Facial Expression: An Evolutionary View (San Diego: Academic Press, 1994). The classic account is by Darwin, whose 1872 book Expression of the Emotions in Man and Animals is available in an edition in which Ekman includes an afterword explaining the development of this research tradition.
Up to the minute, more or less: Contemporary research on smiling and eye contact.
PS 2 February: Thanks to William Flesch for correcting my Shakespeare citation: I originally attributed it to Hamlet.