Abbas Kiarostami's Shirin and the Aesthetics of Ethical Intimacy

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[C]lose-up sequences are reserved for the critical passages of a story, the junctures of greatest tension or surprise.

Paul Auster, The Book of Illusions

In his densely wrought treatise on cinema as philosophy, Gilles Deleuze famously made a distinction between movement-images and time-images. Inspired by Henri Bergson's taxonomy in Matter and Memory (1896), he split the former category into three groups --perception-images, affection-images and action--images. When he got to the second one, he started off by proclaiming that the affection image comes down to the close-up and ultimately to the face (where the first and the third correspond to the long shot and the medium shot, respectively) (Deleuze 1986, 87). According to Deleuze, the action image enters into a state of crisis in the postwar period (206), where the regime of the movement--image itself is on the wane as that of the time-image emerges. Reaction supersedes action. The reaction shot or the close-up may have consolidated its enunciatory position within the morphology of film grammar, yet even in art cinema it has in a sense been unable to free itself from the structural demands of the larger narrative of the film.

Close-ups of the face are prominent in the cinema of Carl Theodor Dreyer, of course, most iconically in his La Passion de Jeanne d'Arc (1928). The work of Ingmar Bergman has likewise been associated with the close--up, perhaps most notably in Persona (1966), in which a young boy at one point extends his arm to caress a screen upon which the faces of Liv Ullmann and Bibi Andersson appear, blend together, and then vanish. Faces in close-up also tend to feature recurrently in the cinema of directors such as John Cassavetes, Andy Warhol, Maurice Pialat, Jean--Luc Godard, Andrey Tarkovsky, Sergio Leone, Pier Paolo Pasolini, Stephen Dwoskin, and Andre Techine, as well as in the work of younger artists like Atom Egoyan and Olivier Assayas. As a matter of fact, pungent examples of memorable close-ups or affection-images, if we want to stick with Deleuzian terminology are not very difficult to summon up instantaneously. One recalls documentary filmmaker Robert Drew's poignant encapsulation of public grief through an emphasis on the close--up in Faces of November (1964), a wordless recording of the visitors coming to pay their respects to the murdered president in the Capitol Rotunda. Another indelible image that leaps readily to mind is that of Malcolm McDowell's ominous face staring directly at the viewer in the opening scene of Stanley Kubrick's A Clockwork Orange (1971). The close-up of Nico, seemingly distressed, in Philippe Garrel's Les Hautes Solitudes (1974), marks yet another ineffaceable instance. Victor Erice in The Spirit of the Behive (1973) keeps his camera attentively fixed on the faces of some children watching Frankenstein. More recently, there is the opening scene of Philippe Grandrieux's Sombre (1998), in which the camera lingers for several minutes on the animated faces of children in a theater watching a puppet show, as well as Errol Morris's use of his interrotron device in films like Standard Operating Procedure (2008). There is also the unforgettable sequence in the theater in David Lynch's Mulholland Drive (2001), in which his heroines start to weep during the performance. Consider also the face of actress Rosario Dawson reading poetry in Ethan Hawke's Chelsea Walls (2001), according to veteran film critic Roger Ebert the most erotic close-up in the history of cinema. Finally, the two music videos for R.E.M.'s final single, "We All Go Back to Where We Belong" (Dominic J. DeJoseph & Michael Stipe, 2011), which lingers on the faces of John Giorno and Kirsten Dunst in the style ofAndy Warhol's Screen Tests (1964-1966), provide a revealing illustration of the form's emotional subtlety and range. (1)

While the close--up has been an integral part of film's lexicon of emotion for a long time, then, infused with expressive subtlety in films such as those referred to above, the form has rarely been used as a dominant compositional and narrative device across an entire film. …