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differences: A Journal of Feminist Cultural Studies 14.3 (2003) 89-111

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The Close-Up:
Scale and Detail in the Cinema

Mary Ann Doane


One of the earliest attempts to produce film theory, that of the French Impressionists in the 1920s, generated a concept—photogénie—which is usually considered to be theoretically incoherent. No doubt this is due to the fact that photogénie is designed to account for that which is inarticulable, that which exceeds language and hence points to the very essence of cinematic specificity. Photogénie names a supplementarity, an enhancement, that which is added to an object in the process of its subjection to a photographic medium. For Epstein, it is inextricably bound up with an ethics: "I would describe as photogenic any aspect of things, beings or souls whose moral character is enhanced by filmic reproduction" (Bonjour 20). The close-up is the privileged site for this experience of photogénie, and Epstein often labored to produce a language that would be adequate to this experience. Witness, for instance, the linguistic contortions in his description of the close-up of a face breaking into a smile:

I will never find the way to say how I love American close-ups. Point blank. A head suddenly appears on screen and drama, now face to face, seems to address me personally and swells with an [End Page 89] extraordinary intensity. I am hypnotized. Now the tragedy is anatomical. The décor of the fifth act is this corner of a cheek torn by a smile. [. . .] The orography of the face vacillates. Seismic shocks begin. Capillary wrinkles try to split the fault. A wave carries them away. Crescendo. A muscle bridles. The lip is laced with tics like a theater curtain. Everything is movement, imbalance, crisis. Crack. The mouth gives way, like a ripe fruit splitting open. As if slit by a scalpel, a keyboard-like smile cuts laterally into the corner of the lips. ("Magnification" 9)

The description verges on the obscene, perhaps because it transforms the face, usually reserved as the very locus of subjectivity, into a series of harsh and alien objects (a geographical site, a wave, a theater curtain, a piece of fruit, a keyboard). The excessiveness of Epstein's language is consistent with the inescapably hyperbolic nature of the close-up. (The title of Epstein's article is "Magnification.") But in addition, Epstein's prose extracts and abstracts the close-up from the scene, from the body, from the spatiotemporal coordinates of the narrative, performing, in effect, its monstrosity. Any viewer is invited to examine its gigantic detail, its contingencies, its idiosyncrasies. The close-up is always, at some level, an autonomous entity, a fragment, a "for-itself."

The close-up has inspired fascination, love, horror, empathy, pain, unease. It has been seen as the vehicle of the star, the privileged receptacle of affect, of passion, the guarantee of the cinema's status as a universal language, one of, if not the most recognizable units of cinematic discourse, yet simultaneously extraordinarily difficult to define. (At what distance from the object or tightness of the frame does it begin? At what point does the medium shot become a medium close-up and the medium close-up give way to the pure close-up?) For Walter Benjamin, the close-up was one of the significant entrance points to the optical unconscious, making visible what in daily life went unseen.

Epstein's extravagant language, perhaps unconsciously and certainly despite the invocation of morality, delineates the close-up as a lurking danger, a potential semiotic threat to the unity and coherency of the filmic discourse. The most heavily used close-up, that of the face, fragments the body, decapitating it (bringing to mind the perhaps apocryphal story in which Griffith's producer, confronted with the close-up, complains, "We pay for the whole actor, Mr. Griffith. We want to see all of him" [qtd. in Heath 36]). The close-up in general is disengaged from [End Page 90] the mise...