Moving Image Theory: Ecological Considerations

By Joseph D. Anderson; Barbara Fisher Anderson | Go to book overview

Part Four

Information in Facial Expression

EYES FLASHING OR twinkling, lips moist or dry, smiling or scowling, looming large and sharing our personal space, the human face in close-up is cinema's unique gift and its greatest delight. The power of the close-up was not immediately obvious to early filmmakers, but they caught on quickly. By the fall of 1915, the close-up was sufficiently realized that Hugo Munsterberg, renowned psychologist and recent cinephile, was moved to write:

There is love in her smiling face, and yet we overlook it as they stand in a crowded room. But suddenly, only for three seconds, all the others in the room have disappeared, the bodies of the lovers themselves have faded away, and only his look of longing and her smile of yielding reach out to us. The close-up has done what no theater could have offered by its own means. (1970, 38—9)

As a moviegoer, Munsterberg was struck by the aptness of the close-up for showing an intimate moment between lovers. From his day to the present, the cinema has given us close-up intimacy with screen lovers such as Gish, Garbo, and Valentino; Tracy and Hepburn, Bogart and Bacall, and, of course Marilyn; but in a larger sense the cinema has given us nothing that we did not already have; the human face is one of evolution's masterpieces. It displays our innermost emotions, sometimes by our own intent and sometimes against our will. And sometimes we will it to deceive. Each face is unique in small ways yet similar overall to others, but we easily recognize our family, our friends, and our acquaintances, and strangely enough, people we have never met, faces we have seen only in the newspaper, on TV, or in the movies.

If we haven't bothered to ask how this is all possible, or why, we may take for granted both the information presented in facial expression and our capacity to grasp its meaning, but we should not; there are great mysteries here: the recognition of faces, the facial expression of emotion, and the exploitation of these capacities by filmmakers, along with the related phenomenon of famous faces. These are the issues addressed to varying degrees by Ed S. Tan in “Three Views of Facial Expression and Its Understanding in the Cinema” and by Karen Lander and Vicki Bruce in “Facial Motion as a Cue to Identity.”

Tan's focus is not on the recognition of faces but the recognition of emotion expressed by faces. He describes facial expressions in Alfred Hitchcock's I Confess and asks, “How does recognizing character emotions, important for understanding the plot and appreciating the film as a whole, come about through perceiving facial expressions such as these?” He reviews three possible theories of facial expression. One is the “universal theory of facial expression (UTFE)” which “rests on the assumption that people have an innate capacity for recognizing certain emotions from other persons' facial expressions.” A second theory is “based on the observer's learned conventional knowledge of facial

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