Essays (book reviews)

The Face on Film
by Noa Steimatsky
(Oxford University Press, 2017)


This is, in so many ways, a remarkable book – and, sadly, one that has received little attention since its appearance in 2017. Beautifully produced and illustrated, it weaves film theory and critical analysis, cultural anthropology, art history, philosophy and phenomenology into a gripping account of the passage of a particular motif throughout 20th century cinema: the face.


What we have before us, however, is no simple, linear, compare-and-contrast history of the face in silent film vs. the talkie face, the luminous glamour-face vs. the abject horror-face, the hyper-expressive Hollywood face vs. the blankly inscrutable 1960s European face, or other similar staples of theoretically-minded cinema histories. All those themes are touched upon by Noa Steimatsky (author of Italian Locations: Reinhabiting the Past in Postwar Cinema, University of Minnesota Press, 2008), but her goal is broader.


She artfully keeps rephrasing this goal and turning it around from different angles throughout the book: what is the face for? What is the real work that images of the face do? What do faces allow us to do, feel, cope with, sort out? What is being brought together, or held apart, in our eternal engagement with faces, whether in a cinema, at the computer, inside our homes, or out on the street?


Perhaps this book did not break out in the context of the academic publishing market – so few do, nowadays! – because it is hard to summarise in a nutshell. Yes, it is about “the face on film” – many essential screen faces, from Falconetti and Humphrey Bogart to Henry Fonda and Edie Sedgwick. But it is also about something larger than the literal, human face as photographed. It is about the idea of the face – Steimatsky calls this a dispositif, or a figure – that is formed (always differently, according to its location and point in history) at the intersection of cultural myth, artistic tradition, lived experience, and ideology. So the face is not just the face: sometimes it stands in for the body, or the person, or the soul, or the mask, or “the image” itself.


As Steimatsky richly demonstrates, there is always something appearing and something else disappearing in any strong image or story of the face – something being both revealed and hidden. Her book takes the measure of that ever-shifting complexity.


The face on screen not only comes to mean a lot; it is also the basis for a thorough and elaborate process of metaphor-making. That should be evident enough in a 21st century context where most of us are on Facebook, and refer blithely to sharing some “face time”! But Steimatsky is also very sympathetic to those film critics and theorists throughout the 20th century who, in their various ways, evoked cinema-going as a “face to face” encounter – where the movie image itself, or the emotional experience it can ignite, becomes a kind of face that enraptures or disconcerts us. In the lingo that Gilles Deleuze and Félix Guattari bequeathed to us, that’s all-pervasive faciality at work.


This book also resists being pigeonholed into any particular school or tendency. As Steimatksy gently lets us know, her project is not devoted to the application (and hence valorisation) of any one theory, be it Marxist theory or the still currently fashionable affect theory. It refuses to reduce the films it discusses to mere symptoms of this or that socio-political trend or context. In one of its strongest passages, Steimatsky asserts:


The cinema offered then, as it can still do today, a privileged space in which to really feel and think through these tensions. For as it did since its earliest days, the cinema navigates in unique ways the forces of art and commerce, of the human and the technological, to work through both the duplicitous power of images, and their regenerative, reflective potential.


It is hard to say, ultimately, that this book even has a thesis – in the sense of a barrow to push, an argument to polemically stake over and above other, neighbouring intellectual positions. The tone of The Face on Film – tone matters here, because it is such a finely written, wrought text – suggests that Steimatsky uses the dispositif of the face not as a battering ram, but rather as an extremely sensitive Geiger counter, one that allows her to navigate through and between different histories, tendencies and special moments of artistic invention.


The book has a particular historical focus: from the end of World War II through to, roughly, the mid 1960s. Alfred Hitchcock’s The Wrong Man (1956), Andy Warhol’s Screen Test series, the work of Robert Bresson across the ‘50s and ‘60s, and a very rare oddity by Michelangelo Antonioni, Il provino (a 30 minute “preface” – pre-face! – to the 1965 anthology I tre volti) are among the key examples, dazzlingly analysed, drawn from this core period. To tell her full story, however, Steimatsky begins in the 1920s, with the on-fire theoretical writings of Béla Balázs and Jean Epstein, as well as Carl Dreyer’s still unsettling classic, The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928).


Already cinema in the ‘20s, through its diverse avenues, had presented us with the extremes of faciality: ecstatic redemption on the one side; pitiless, even sadistic interrogation on the other side. At stake, always, is a fugitive human fullness that is either glimpsed in a revelatory flash of photogénie, or slips out somewhere between the frames, beyond anything the camera-machine can capture, hold or grasp. This seesawing motion sums up the type of hard, terse pathos to which much of The Face on Film is devoted, and which it expresses magnificently.


Arriving at the 1950s, Steimatsky picks up the thread of essayistic criticism in its unfolding history with Roland Barthes. Many of us are familiar with his famous essay “The Face of Garbo”, but here we spend more time with several, suggestive pieces that never found their way into his Mythologies collection of 1957. Barthes is more than a mere case study for this book; he also provides an inspiration, a careful method of musing approach, even a model of writing.


Although Steimatsky draws on a good deal of French criticism, from André Bazin in the ‘40s to Jacques Aumont today (his still untranslated 1992 book Du visage au cinéma is the closest cousin to this one), she is also immersed in a rich tradition of Italian work, something too little reflected in English-language film scholarship beyond a small circle of Italianists.


In an odd and not particularly sensitive review of The Face on Film in Senses of Cinema online, Tyson Stewart remarked that “the cinematic face as radical other, which we encounter in an ethical yet violent spectral face-to-face, is not grappled with”. But this is exactly, to my mind, what it does grapple with! Stewart – who takes the whole thing a bit too literally as a supposedly comprehensive history of cinematic faces (which, of course, it is not) – regrets the absence of more “popular” mugs, such as those from the horror genre.


Naturally, every reader of The Face on Film will spin off from its pages, in their own musing, to their own favourite or most intriguing faces: I had everything from Anna Faris and her smiley face (as immortalised in Gregg Araki’s wonderful 2007 comedy film of that title), to the radical philosopher Alphonso Lingis’ stark tales of the “defacing” of ancient tribal tombstones, whirling around in my head. Of more recent vintage, the uncanny valleys created on the actors’ faces by digital de-ageing in Martin Scorsese’s The Irishman (2019), or Lucrecia Martel’s disquieting riff on “facial recognition” technology in her short AI (a trailer made for the 2019 Viennale), may well leap to mind.


But, as that Deleuze chap once put it, books are not significant for what they “solve”, and still less for what they summarise; they matter for what they invent and provoke, for the paths they open up. By that criterion, The Face on Film is a stunning success, and easily among the very best cinema books of the 2010s.


© Adrian Martin January 2020

Film Critic: Adrian Martin
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