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How nice it was to see my grandmother's lesson given form in The Master, which I revisited this past weekend. Some of the film's most striking images are close-ups of its actors' faces. Where most directors have employed 70-millimeter film to create epic landscapes, Paul Thomas Anderson uses it to grant almost supernatural importance to jawlines, bridges of noses, and the heights of foreheads. (I assume this effect will be lost on a small screen.) Before their relationship is fully developed, one senses a fundamental opposition between the characters played by Joaquin Phoenix and Philip Seymour Hoffman through the stark difference in the shapes of their cheeks.
In Histoire(s) du Cinema, Jean-Luc Godard avers that cinema is the heir of painting, and he often illustrates this point by juxtaposing favorite film frames with iconic still images. I try to keep this in mind whenever I risk taking moving images for granted; no matter how bad a movie may be, it will usually succeed as an anatomy lesson so long as there are people in it. Take, for example, the current release Smashed. I didn't much care for the movie, but I'll grant that it offers plenty of time to study the faces of Mary Elizabeth Winstead and Aaron Paul. There's something about Winstead I could never quite warm to: maybe it's the way the lower half of her face broadens and turns dull at the chin, like the round end of an egg. It suggests complacency to me, a small reserve of warmth and fat that lets her character weather the trials of alcoholism without too much drama. Compare this with the inherent tension in the faces of Lee Remick and Jack Lemmon in Days of Wine and Roses (the movie that Smashed reminds me of most), and you'll see the difference between merely competent screen acting and performers making the most of their natural instruments.