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MCA: Glimpses of the Close-up

Glimpses of the Close-up

Recently, Tom Hooper who directed the film adaptation of the musical Les Miserables, came under the fire of negative and almost chastising criticism for the way he conducted his cinematography. The major blame was that he, not only used the close-up too often, but had his characters break the fourth wall by looking directly at the camera! Yet the movie went on to be nominated for Best Picture 2013. Tom Hooper, the very director accused of breaking the basics of cinematography, was the winner of the 2010 Oscar as Best Director for his movie The King's Speech.
Hooper gave a simple reaction to the fierce criticism. The close-up, he said, would better serve the emotional purpose behind it. To achieve intense attention from the audience. But no comment from him on whether he made too many close-up shots or not is to be found, as yet!
It is common artistic knowledge now, that the close-up is only one type of shot. That the long and medium shots are the mainstay in any filmic narrative. The long shot is the equivalent to the summary in fiction writing where we get description and explanations between scenes or moments of intense impact; where something similar to the close-up in a movie occurs in fiction. We also know that too many close-ups would make you squint or tilt your head to focus or even leave the theater. One cannot think of a whole movie made of close-up shots. But, guess what? I found out that the late John Cassavetes, the father of American independent filmmaking and the maker of The Dirty Dozen 1967, made Faces in 1968, predominantly in close-ups! Watch it free here.

I used to love Marlon Brando. My truly favorite actor. There were others such as Richard Widmarck, Monty Cleft, Robert Wagner and Burt Lancaster. I also loved those actors who did not shine enough to be stars such as John Erickson, George Chakiris, George Hamilton, Jeffery Hunter etc. Then there were those who were sidekicks to the main protagonist or otherwise slight villains. Such as Hardy Kruger, Horst Buchholtz ( note the bad sequence), Brandon De Wilde (Shane), and John Saxon. I loved John Saxon in the old John Huston movie The Unforgiven 1960.
There came a day when I heard both Saxon and Brando were in one Western movie! A big motivation for an unusual trip away from home. I went to see this movie, called The Appaloosa 1966, in the Coliseum cinema house (or movie theater)! I was very young and had to take a bus with a friend and cross a bridge over the river Nile to get to that movie theater. My excitement to see Brando with Saxon was so great that everything was worth it, including the remote sense of nausea that set in and was aggravated by the movie and that resided in me for days. The movie was completely unwatchable for me!

Furie, S.
The Canadian artist Sidney Furie,, who directed that movie, reckoned so much on the close-up shot. Brando, I learned later, was disinterested in the movie although he gave one of his finest performances (I confirmed this later). He, probably liked the close-up shots and was, obviously, repeating experience gained from his earlier cowboy movie. John Saxon was great and so was Emilio Fernandez. One thing about Brando, nobody acted bad if Brando was there. Remember Karl Malden, Ben Johnson, Katy Jurado and others in the cast for the film Brando himself directed, One-Eyed Jacks, they were all great.

Jurado, K.
 There was something wrong in watching close-ups on a wide screen, open-air cinema house. The close-ups in The Appaloosa felt so bad. I was turning my head restlessly, trying to keep myself from throwing up. And there was hand-wrestling on deadly scorpions. The guy who was with me denied that the movie gave him any adverse effects in the stomach. That was when I thought about the close-up shot, wondering where it fit. We discussed its value and otherwise in the bus back to our homes. I remember that I used some big words about how to shoot a good movie but the fact was that I knew nothing about shooting movies! Technically, I mean. Forget about calling it an extreme, a medium or just a close-up.
Furie did not invent the close-up as a charged moment in his visual narrative. It was started as a trend in Westerns by Sergio Leone and other Italian makers of Spaghetti Westerns!
Watch this clip to see how objects, not only human features, were brought forward into significance by various shots from Leone's movies.

Most people like close-up shots! Most actors crave for close-up shots.
The clip below was voted the best by many movie-goers. It depicts Nicole Kidman in one of her good performances:

Many great movie masters knew how to make close-ups memorable. A very special moment in film narrative where intensity overrides any other purpose for watching the movie. Here is an analysis of Hitchcok's usage of the close-up:

"I have never seen my life in focus", said the protagonist Sabzian in the Iranian filmmaker Kiarostami's nineteen ninety docufiction of 90-something-minutes widely acclaimed and titled the Close-Up. The protagonist Sabzian, in the quoted sentence above, referred to both his exposure to the technique of the close-up and to revealing his inner complexes, beliefs and aspirations. Kiarostami warned the actor, Sabzian who was playing himself in the movie, that he would use two types of cameras or lenses. Kiarostami, who is known for his mastery of the long shot, incredibly proves his loyalty to it in the closing scene of this intricate reenactment of real story. He proves the inclusive view of reality achieved by the long shot!


Kiarostami knows that the close-up is "a captured moment in the evolving document of life!" The movie Close-Up is memorable for the announced medium close-up which prevails during the court-room scene but also has other memorable close-ups such as the one in the bus, when Sabzian meets Mrs. Ahankhah, a fan of the film he was reading the script of, (The Cyclist). This is a very close and revealing sequence. Another memorable scene is when the filmmaker goes to see the arrested impersonator of movie-maker Makhmalbof (below). But Kiarostami likes the long shot better, as stated above. He suddenly pays attention to the fate of a can rolling down the steep alley and listens to the sounds it produces in its inevitable journey down the road. You can see a glimpse of smoke that vanishes in the contorted skyline of the city. This scene of the can serves as a nice salutation to the broad context of his film narrative; to the reality.

It is in the closing scene of Close-Up when the filmmaker achieves the sense of the real and near by shooting from afar; when the impersonated and the impersonator reconcile and are shown in their full sizes in a way as if Kiarostami wanted to relieve us from the intensity of the too close!
Watch Close-Up full and free on Youtube.


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