I’m Ready for My Closeup . . .

closeup16The simplest yet most revealing filmmaking technique is the close-up, and yet it is a technique taken for granted because it is so familiar that we don’t notice it. Still, the close-up influences our sympathies and sense of identification with a character, making it a powerful technique. Recently, I have been thinking a lot about the impact of the close-up. 

It started last week when I researched and wrote about I Want to Live, and I was struck by the number of close-ups of star Susan Hayward’s emotion-filled face. Director Robert Wise made good use of close-ups in the film to reveal what Hayward’s character is feeling and to influence us to sympathize with her. A few days later, I saw the ending of Sunset Boulevard, which ends with faded star Norma Desmond moving toward the camera and reciting her famous line, “I’m ready for my close-up, Mr. DeMille.” Then I saw Frost/Nixon over the weekend, which offers some thought-provoking ideas on the power of the close-up.

 Frost/Nixon is based on the play by Peter Morgan, who adapted his work for the big screen. He also penned the scripts for The Queen and The Last King of Scotland. All three films revolve around  historical figures at crucial moments in their lives, but they also share in common a point about the influence of the media in the construction and circulation of public image.

  Frost/Nixon is all about the impact of television and its influence on making or breaking political leaders as well as journalists. In the film, David Frost and Richard Nixon are presented as having much in common, including their understanding of television. Though scorned by network and newspaper journalists as only a talk-show host, Frost bested them when he landed the Nixon interview. He thought that Nixon would make a compelling interview, and he believed he could get something out of Nixon that others couldn’t because he understood the power of the close-up from his talk-show experience. Nixon also knew it, because in the film he complains about his 1960s television debates with Kennedy, convinced that close-ups of the sweat on his upper lip cost him the presidency.  But, Nixon did not learn his lesson, because he is tripped up by Frost, goaded into admitting that his actions during Watergate were not legal and that he inflicted damage on the American people.  Then the camera lingers on his face as “the reductive power of a close-up” (a phrase used in the film) captures and encapsulates his regret, his downfall, and his realization that his political life is over.  

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Fictional films also benefit from the power of the close-up, though with different intent than television news or talk shows. Conventionally in films, the close-up produces a sense of intimacy between the viewer and the subject, revealing what a character is really feeling and eliciting our sympathy. Director Ron Howard uses close-ups to this effect throughout the film but in the final sequence, the use of close-ups is masterful. Frost and Nixon are shot in close-up much like a TV interview as the former bombards the latter with questions on Watergate. But, there are deeper layers of meaning in the close-ups. We see the effect of the questions on Nixon’s face as Frost asks them, and we see the impact of the answers on Frost’s face as he listens to the answers. Each knows what is at stake in regard to their futures in this interview, and each knows that only one of them will come out on top. Out of Frost’s mouth are questions about Watergate; on his face is the realization that his future rides on this interview. This is the story of Frost/Nixon, not the interview itself, and it is told through the close-ups.  If you were to watch a video of the real interview, none of these other issues would be part of it.

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Also, close-ups of the other characters who were there — some on Frost’s side, some on Nixon’s — convey their emotions as they watch the interview. Nixon’s loyal aid, Jack Brennan, played by Kevin Bacon, reveals his devastation as he realizes what is happening to his President, while Frost’s producer, who is as much out on a limb as the talk-show host, looks at once tense and proud. Howard’s use of close-ups underscores the central idea of the film, which is about the power of media to construct layers of meaning to its images — to reveal, express, manipulate, and influence without the viewer being aware of it.

 

Like most close-ups, the shots of Nixon do make us feel sympathy for him, even as he admits that he hurt his country, especially in discouraging good people from serving their country in politics. If there is a problem I had with the film, it’s that too much sympathy was created for him — much of it through close-ups. But, Frost/Nixon offers a thought-provoking perspective on the meaning of media-based techniques, and I highly recommend it. In my opinion, it deserves its Oscar nominations.

 D.W. Griffith is often credited with the invention of the close-up, but that is not accurate. His contribution was to innovate it — that is, to use it in a way that inspired others to follow suit until it became a standard convention of storytelling on film. It was Griffith who determined its purpose as a technique to reveal emotion or information, and he did this through consistent use. The close-up became one of the primary techniques of continuity editing, which is the backbone of Hollywood filmmaking. Ron Howard has shown his command of this style over the years, and Frost/Nixon‘s emphasis on close-ups as it makes a point about them in the narrative is smart filmmaking. 

 I Want to Live, Sunset Boulevard, and Frost/Nixon inspired me to think about other films with famous close-ups and to appreciate this simple technique. I offer a few of them here. If anyone has any additional examples, I would be interested in hearing them.  

closeup7Broken Blossoms’s famous closeup of Lillian Gish’s forced smile, in which she forces up the corners of her mouth with her fingers, expresses her broken spirit and elicits pity from the audience.

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The closeup of Dirty Harry and his Magnum is so memorable that it has inspired mythic versions of it in which the mythic elements have been exaggerated.

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closeup1Henry Fonda’s steely eyes are unforgettable in Once Upon a Time in the West.

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This shot from Stagecoach begins with this medium long view of John Wayne before tracking into a closeup of his face. This is the shot that main John Wayne a mainstream star.

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This still shocking closeup from Un Chien Andalou assaults the viewer with an image of a razor blade cutting an eyeball, eliciting an extreme emotional reponse.

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Ingmar Bergman’s closeups in Persona reveal the psychological interconnections between the central characters.

Also, there is Marlene Dietrich in Josef von Sternberg’s movies, the snow globe in Citizen Kane, Bela Lugosi’s illuminated eyes in Dracula, Buster Keaton’s Great Stone Face, Jimmy Stewart as Mr. Smith . . . .

0 Response I’m Ready for My Closeup . . .
Posted By medusamorlock : January 26, 2009 6:08 pm

Glad to hear that you enjoyed “Frost/Nixon” — I also was very impressed with it especially for the reasons you mention in terms of illustrating the power of the media and television specifically. Stayed with me and all performances are terrific. Even someone with little interest in history would find the movie a compelling experience.

In terms of great close-ups, aren’t there some great back and forth shots of Bonnie and Clyde at the end of the movie when they realize they are about to die in the ambush? I should go back and look at the movie right now but I think that’s how it goes.

Classic television shows — especially beautifully photographed shows like “Outer Limits” — were a haven for amazing close-ups, too!

Great post, SuziD — as always!

Posted By medusamorlock : January 26, 2009 6:08 pm

Glad to hear that you enjoyed “Frost/Nixon” — I also was very impressed with it especially for the reasons you mention in terms of illustrating the power of the media and television specifically. Stayed with me and all performances are terrific. Even someone with little interest in history would find the movie a compelling experience.

In terms of great close-ups, aren’t there some great back and forth shots of Bonnie and Clyde at the end of the movie when they realize they are about to die in the ambush? I should go back and look at the movie right now but I think that’s how it goes.

Classic television shows — especially beautifully photographed shows like “Outer Limits” — were a haven for amazing close-ups, too!

Great post, SuziD — as always!

Posted By Robert Davenport : January 26, 2009 6:47 pm

I agree that close-ups can be very powerful and convey more than is evident in a story than words, but think that they need to be used discreetly. Sometimes inexperienced directors seem to overuse them–especially today.

Using largely medium and long shots in his early movies at Fox, Otto Preminger was one director who focused the viewers attention by slipping a close-up into a film almost seamlessly, as he did in one scene near the end of “Where the Sidewalk Ends” (1950), showing the impassive mask slipping that tough guy cop Dana Andrews tried to project to the world only when he was alone.

When Cinemascope and other technical achievements were being invested in quite heavily by the dying studio system, there was a dearth of close-ups in many films. I was reminded of this very strongly when watching “Night People” (1954), directed by Nunnally Johnson recently. A cold war story that should have been filmed in black and white to emphasize the bleakness of the setting in post-war Berlin, the movie would have benefited from seeing Gregory Peck’s anxious face in close-up, but the cinemascope process negated the use of that tool for this film at the time. I did not see one closeup throughout the entire movie!

This was a good blog and a thoughtful subject.

Posted By Robert Davenport : January 26, 2009 6:47 pm

I agree that close-ups can be very powerful and convey more than is evident in a story than words, but think that they need to be used discreetly. Sometimes inexperienced directors seem to overuse them–especially today.

Using largely medium and long shots in his early movies at Fox, Otto Preminger was one director who focused the viewers attention by slipping a close-up into a film almost seamlessly, as he did in one scene near the end of “Where the Sidewalk Ends” (1950), showing the impassive mask slipping that tough guy cop Dana Andrews tried to project to the world only when he was alone.

When Cinemascope and other technical achievements were being invested in quite heavily by the dying studio system, there was a dearth of close-ups in many films. I was reminded of this very strongly when watching “Night People” (1954), directed by Nunnally Johnson recently. A cold war story that should have been filmed in black and white to emphasize the bleakness of the setting in post-war Berlin, the movie would have benefited from seeing Gregory Peck’s anxious face in close-up, but the cinemascope process negated the use of that tool for this film at the time. I did not see one closeup throughout the entire movie!

This was a good blog and a thoughtful subject.

Posted By Stooge : January 26, 2009 8:27 pm

Knockout post! Fascinating stuff

Posted By Stooge : January 26, 2009 8:27 pm

Knockout post! Fascinating stuff

Posted By debbe : January 27, 2009 11:23 am

wow. i saw frost nixon yesterday. I agree with you suzidoll, it did make nixon a very sympathetic character. but the close up where, as you describe at the end where all is going on in nixon’s face where he realized what he did and what it meant… brilliant.
I liked the movie. I thought it was a good movie, perhaps not a great movie, but the two stars were amazing. I thought frost with all his tics in his close ups- like you mention where he knew his credibility was on the line felt like a chess match. I like the way you describe the power of the close up. It makes me think about the movie in a different way. well done. again.

Posted By debbe : January 27, 2009 11:23 am

wow. i saw frost nixon yesterday. I agree with you suzidoll, it did make nixon a very sympathetic character. but the close up where, as you describe at the end where all is going on in nixon’s face where he realized what he did and what it meant… brilliant.
I liked the movie. I thought it was a good movie, perhaps not a great movie, but the two stars were amazing. I thought frost with all his tics in his close ups- like you mention where he knew his credibility was on the line felt like a chess match. I like the way you describe the power of the close up. It makes me think about the movie in a different way. well done. again.

Posted By Thivai : January 28, 2009 11:20 am

Once Upon a Time in the West is amazing in that it defied the traditional solitary individual struggling in the vast landscape dominated perspective of the traditional Western. The tension is almost unbearable as Leone holds the close-up on his characters in confontational moments… and it expressed the industrial closing/control of the American West in its claustrophobic interiors and long close-ups.

Posted By Thivai : January 28, 2009 11:20 am

Once Upon a Time in the West is amazing in that it defied the traditional solitary individual struggling in the vast landscape dominated perspective of the traditional Western. The tension is almost unbearable as Leone holds the close-up on his characters in confontational moments… and it expressed the industrial closing/control of the American West in its claustrophobic interiors and long close-ups.

Posted By Helen : January 28, 2009 5:37 pm

I’m not really a person who pays much attention to the direction of a movie, but I’m convinced Jodie Foster won her 2nd Oscar due to one closeup in Silence of the Lambs. She talking to Lecter in his cell and he encourages to tell the story about growing up and the lambs. It’s a very powerful scene. Not that she’s not good in the film, but that one scene is great.

Posted By Helen : January 28, 2009 5:37 pm

I’m not really a person who pays much attention to the direction of a movie, but I’m convinced Jodie Foster won her 2nd Oscar due to one closeup in Silence of the Lambs. She talking to Lecter in his cell and he encourages to tell the story about growing up and the lambs. It’s a very powerful scene. Not that she’s not good in the film, but that one scene is great.

Posted By GarethB : January 31, 2009 2:53 pm

I love the close-ups in The Dog Problem where there are twinkling coloured light in the background. It is never revealsed what the lights actually are as they are out of focus but I think that adds a bit of mystery. It is a very unusual effect which makes the moment feel special and it also connects the two characters together as they connect in a very personal way for the first time in the movie. This works very well with the extreme close-up which never show both faces in the same frame.

Posted By GarethB : January 31, 2009 2:53 pm

I love the close-ups in The Dog Problem where there are twinkling coloured light in the background. It is never revealsed what the lights actually are as they are out of focus but I think that adds a bit of mystery. It is a very unusual effect which makes the moment feel special and it also connects the two characters together as they connect in a very personal way for the first time in the movie. This works very well with the extreme close-up which never show both faces in the same frame.

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