In lieu of an abstract, here is a brief excerpt of the content:

  • In Your Face: Physiognomy, Photography, and the Gnostic Mission of Early Film
  • Tom Gunning (bio)

Béla Balázs, writing in the 1920s, declared, “At present a new discovery, a new machine, is at work to turn the attention of men back to a visual culture and give them new faces.” 1 This claim exemplifies an almost forgotten utopian tradition of film theory, one that saw cinema not only as a new art form or a new language, but as a new instrument of knowledge. For theorists such as Balázs, the motion picture camera had the ability not only to capture reality, but to penetrate it as a new instrument of the visible which had a revelatory mission. We could call this potential for uncovering new visual knowledge the gnostic (from gnosis, knowledge) mission of cinema. For Balázs and other utopian theorists, the gnostic potential of the cinema was especially evident in the conjunction of the cinematic device of the close-up and the subject of the human face:

It is the “microphysiognomics” of the close-up that have given us this subtle play of feature, almost imperceptible yet also so convincing. The invisible face behind the visible has made its appearance. . . 2

One could find parallel quotes from other utopian theorists of the 1920s (as well as parallel ideas in Benjamin’s somewhat later essay, “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”), such as Vertov (“a shot of the banker will only be true if we can tear the mask from him, if behind the mask we can see the thief”) or Jean Epstein (“I am sure . . . that if a high speed film were made of an accused person during his interrogation, then beyond his words, the truth would appear, unique, evident, written out”). 3 [End Page 1]

I would like to use this detour into film theory to highlight something about the origins of cinema and this overdetermined fascination with the close-up and the human face. In earlier canonical accounts of film history, the close-up transformed cinema from a mere means of reproduction into a unique art form, a transformation often attributed to D. W. Griffith. Not only is this account discredited on factual grounds (Griffith did not invent the close-up, and in fact it occurs rather infrequently in the films he made for the Biograph Company, which are generally seen as the foundation of his later film style), it also obscures the complex archeology of the facial close-up in early cinema. 4 A close examination of this archeology underscores the key role that the gnostic view of cinema played in both the invention and the form of early cinema.

Behind the gnostic impulse that motivates the invention and the practice of early cinema lurk ambiguous relations woven among visuality, technology, knowledge, representation, and entertainment in modern culture. Uncovering the role that capturing the face played in both cinema and its antecedents traces a saraband between seeing and knowing within the new visual terrain opened up by photographic technology, which could not only reproduce human eyesight but exceed it. At the center of this figure lies the expressive human face whose relation to knowledge and communication forms a central preoccupation of Western culture, serving as a pivot between individuality and typicality, expression and destiny, body and soul. The attempt to bring photography, and especially motion photography, to bear on this most polysemous of human objects reveals a crisis in understanding visual representation beneath a proclaimed confidence.

It is well known that close framings of human faces appear at the origin of cinema. The early Edison kinetosocope films Fred Ott’s Sneeze (shot in 1894) and the May Irwin Kiss (1896) frame figures at the waist in a manner that clearly emphasizes the transformations of their faces as they perform simple biological actions. Even earlier, one of the first cinematic or protocinematic apparatuses was fashioned by George Demenÿ in 1891 precisely to obtain a moving image of the human face (and especially the mouth as it spoke) in order to aid in teaching deaf children to speak. 5 The Edison and Demenÿ motion pictures may seem to diverge sharply in...