To experience something from up-close is to be given a chance to observe its details. This experience presumes the possibility of an intimate relation to the object of observation, and can either emphasize certain parts of the whole or separate a constituent from its object. Close-ups have been a distinguished topic for film criticism, whether as a modest privilege or an incensed assault. On the one hand this is because of its aesthetic and moral implications, but on the other because it is just so unavoidably visceral.
Whether analysing the role of close-ups in a particular film, looking back to classics, or outlining contemporary trends, this focus aims at defining and questioning our stance towards the cinematic experience of proximity.
While reading your text, I was constantly thinking of Maurer Dóra’s artwork, which has continued returning to me ever since I first saw it five years ago upon moving Budapest. Photos of a hand, marked with letters, ordered after one another in different ways. Hand as a singular metaphor, hand as a part of the flow. An image of a hand meaningful per se, or interpreted in its context. Reversible and interchangeable phases of motion. The tactile sensation turned into glances, as Farocki mentions.
Framing a hand in a close-up really gives it an independent life, a graceful creature dancing, like the hand in Yvonne Rainer’s Hand Movie. And even if an artwork doesn’t liberate the hands this way, a close-up of a hand cannot avoid showing some kind of choreography, even if the hand is digging, kneading or mounting. Maybe these movements have gracefulness by nature, but I sense it comes from being seen up close. “The verb working is becoming the noun of labour in the close-up. It is said that a film is considered to be particularly realistic if it does not omit any detail of the work.” (Das Verb Arbeiten wird erst in der Großaufnahme zum Substantiv der Arbeit. Es heißt, ein Film gelte als besonders realistisch, wenn er kein Detail der Arbeit ausspare.)
These sentences held my attention in particular and I find their inner tension captivating; while being close means getting a detailed picture of a working hand, it also provokes aestheticization. Far from the person who works, and deprived of the conditions and circumstances of their work, what we see is often more similar to a divertissement than an actual hand working. However, some films complete the essence of working with other images and shape some other impressions with the image of the working hand, like in Robert Beavers’ The Hedge Theatre. The sewing hands, the sharp branches in the chilly spring, and the Baroque architecture together create a universe of interwoven meanings, preserving and fulfilling the repetitive nature of sewing, describing the hard material of the white shirt with associations of the stone pillars, tying the images of nature, buildings and work with an incredibly rich and accurate symphony of noises.
It’s interesting that you mention Maurer’s hand project, because it visually resembles a book about gestures for actors from the early 20th century, which Farocki shows in his Film Der Ausdruck der Hände. But I would suggest that there is no original expression of the hands. Hands cannot express something reasonable without any context. Maybe this is what makes me wonder when I see close-ups of hands, especially working hands. Like, how is it possible to produce meaning between two images? I would say this is a realization of a specific idea we get when we think about working. You also wrote about this in your text: “It overshadows the fact that a work is being done, the dance of the hand resembles more of a performance than actual labour, raising the issue of exoticization and almost erotization of the otherwise exhausting and monotonous everyday work.”
Simultaneously, a hand in a close-up can also express this lack of concrete tangibility. But this differs from just making use of a pseudo-naturalistic flow. For this it needs an experience, which only can arise from the viewer’s mind. Hands in cinema are simply everywhere, but only a few of them are conscious about themselves. I believe this is what makes the sewing hands in Beavers’ film so extraordinary. They are really trying to correspond with the other shots, without reaching for a higher transcended purpose. Maybe this is what strikes us by seeing or hearing close-ups, these overwhelming gestures trying to reach our pleasures. But I would say, that this kind of spectacle, which you allude to, coheres to the whole spectrum of making something alienated. So, I wouldn’t ask for ethics of the close-up but for an ideology in their enigmatic character.
After reading your last two paragraphs, I thought you already had found an answer to what close-ups are really trying to do – namely transforming chaos into order. I could imagine that Daniel Spoerri also said something about this in Anja Salomonowitz’ Film. But for him it’s not about forcing order to make pleasure. There always has to be this irreconcilably irritating rest, which also makes those films of Heinz Emigholz so uncomfortable.
Dear Ronny and James,
Being close and feeling uncomfortable are indeed related, and I think we all perceive it as a kind of deficiency if it’s not reflected in the film. When writing about Nadav Lapid’s Ha-Shoter, James also appreciates it for the unusual use of close-ups, how the director does not aim at clarification or control over the spectator’s attention with them. In his case study, the technical depiction of closeness resembles the functioning of an eye: the imperfections deny a feeling of totality, and offer transient states instead.
As viewers, we cannot calmly occupy these images, and a face slipping out of the frame emphasizes its weight when it reappears. The close-ups of Ha-Shoter speak about absence. One of the scenes described by James, when Yaron looks at Shiri’s photo, encapsulates that quality of the film distinctively. It is a close-up of a hand and the photo. The photo itself isn’t exactly a close-up, rather an American shot. Had it been a close-up, it would only show a piece of paper, which without its surrounding would be incomprehensible and meaningless. Had that piece of paper not been there, it would probably be a close-up in order to intensify meaning and our comprehension of Shiri’s feelings.
Dear Ronny and Anna,
Regarding the presence of hands, I feel compelled to broach the topic of unseen hands, hands holding the camera.
This was what prompted my choice of Ha-Shoter, finding a film overt in its digital technique that still conveys a human perspective – one, however, not as overt as in the films Anna mentioned.
My trouble with the conflation of the human body and 16mm film – as described by Anna – is that the filmmakers deciding on medium and formal specificity don’t expand upon what it means to film a hand in 16mm. The superficial seems to be enough, as it was in Jessica Sarah Rinland’s Those That at a Distance Resemble Another.
Funnily enough this film was the one I referred to in one of our first Skype calls. I didn’t mention it by name, but it was the first example I could recall of a film with dubious close-ups (both aural and visual), specifically of hands. Given the film is, from what I remember, made up of static compositions, one gets the impression the hands that should otherwise be holding the camera are instead performing for it, making explicit their existence. Hand-eye coordination applies to the camera’s use, in these examples especially. When one films without either looking in the eyepiece or holding the camera, the image feels untethered and the camera in a position of danger. The camera is in danger of falling over on its tripod, perhaps, but also in danger of producing surveillance footage.
I’m also reminded – in both of your formal analyses – of shadow puppets. In the way a child learns to create a rabbit, barking dog or human through silhouettes of their hands, I get the impression many filmmakers film theirs or other’s hands as an imitation. Showing hands as they are – facing a camera in a frontal close-up, divorced from their owners – puts them in a situation that could never be seen by the human eye.
Though I said above that hands have owners, I’m now questioning this relation. As Ronny mentioned, there are few hands conscious of themselves in cinema. I’d like to see more filmmakers either aware of or filming the consciousness of a hand. Perhaps the only example that comes to mind is in Chantal Akerman’s Un jour Pina a demandé, wherein a rehearsal is filmed of a man performing sign language over George Gershwin’s The One I Love. We see his mouth move with the music and his hands, in turn, keep up, interpreting the song into a gestural language. We see most everything the man performs yet the hands remain an enigma, in both his rehearsal and final performance. Their movements feel more spontaneous than the man’s rigid posture and affectless recitation of the song.
Your note regarding hands on camera, really made me think, because those are the hands which are the most conscious in cinema, probably. This doesn’t mean that those make the right decisions but they know what they are doing especially when they are filming close-ups. In contrast to this I remember what you said in one of our calls about digital cinema. One of the key possibilities of digital cinema is reframing the image – mostly since the era of 4K and 8K technology. You can easily make a close-up out of a medium shot during the editing process, which was never intended on set. It seems so natural to make use of such tools, but for me there also hides this unease. By this I constantly think of Michelangelo Antonioni’s Blow-Up: Thomas, a photographer who desperately believes that he encountered a murder. The film spins around trying to enlarge a print of a photo where he suspects he can see a hand with a gun in the bushes. He urges to make things clear in such a violent way which seems as a dichotomy to the pantomime performers at the end. They are expressing themselves with absence, like a negative concreteness. I’m not quite sure if this is thinkable for the form of film or maybe this is just a utopia of aesthetic theory.
So, there is a permanent void between language and technology. This counts for the picture and sound as well. I would claim that the whole genre of horror is based on that. As I already mentioned in a call there is this early flick from Oliver Stone The Hand starring Michael Caine. After a discussion with his wife he – Jon Lansdale, a comic artist – loses his right hand in a car accident. After he recovers and receives a prosthetic replacement, his biological hand ‘awakes’ and murders. The hand becomes a mind haunting his life like an embodiment of his past. The end reveals that Lonsdale did all the murders by himself. What didn’t really surprise, recalls the unconscious problems coming from cutoffs. I just want to side-note that the animatronic model of the hand in Oliver Stone’s movie was made by Stan Winston and Carlo Rambaldi who also made Edward Scissorhands and King Kong – both movies about dangerous hands.
The assertion that hands work like a vehicle for the distance between the viewer’s eyes and the canvas of the cinema seems in this sense very plausible to me. But there is a difference between showing the distance or objectifying it. Diagonale showed Friederike Petzold’s Canale Grande this year. It’s a movie about a woman making her own tele-vision, but instead she calls it near-vision. Her videocamera is directly connected to the monitor without any receiver. Consequently, her program is only for an invited audience. And of course, the pictures she films are mostly close-ups of her body. She does this because she is sick of the world full of images. At the same time, while watching this movie, I thought this loop functioned like a mimicry of our times, and not only regarding lockdowns, but more generally it mimics a dynamic that most contemporary movies are looking for.
I’m glad you mentioned the ability to crop into close-ups with 4-8K digital negatives, without sacrificing image quality.
This isn’t necessarily a new technique. “Punch-ins” were implemented by Samuel Fuller as early as the 1950s, even. He had limited days and budgets to shoot his films, meaning dialogue scenes would often be covered in a two-shot and with a wide-angle lens. Punch-ins would then be implemented in the edit, cropping the wide-angle image into a close-up that would frame one body or face, before punching back out into the original two-shot. On the day of shooting, only this one set-up would be necessary and the rest of the scene would be finished in the edit.
The difference with Fuller and contemporary 4-8K digital cropping is that his punch-ins are very obvious, making the image much grainier and sublimating the zoom and jump-cut in the midst of a shot. It’s efficient and – contrary to a contemporary, post-production zoom – sacrificed its 35mm fidelity for a transparency; it’s a visible transaction between efficiency and image quality. The images aren’t any less beautiful because of this transaction, either. There’s a relief in watching them and knowing where/how the filmmakers had to cut corners, equally relieving as seeing Fuller emerge from the shadows to snatch off Kelly’s wig in the opening of The Naked Kiss (another great performance of the hand, shown with its adjoining person instead of isolated).
I was impressed, for example, in Ha-Shoter by its inclusion of a long tracking shot wherein the camera’s dolly tracks are visible. Given it was shot on a high resolution digital camera, this shot very easily could have been “punched-in” – occluding the dolly tracks. But this would have served no purpose other than to hide something from the viewer. It was a rare occasion in contemporary cinema that felt “classical” – more so than any film that overtly mimics the 40’s/50’s now-”vintage” colours and film grain. It specifically reminded me of Ophüls’ Lola Montes or Welles’ The Magnificent Ambersons, films also revealing the mechanics of their tracking shots with occasional views of the camera’s dolly tracks. It’s the only kind of “vintage” reference I can bear to watch, i.e., an incidental one.
And going back to hands, I appreciate Jacques Rivette’s credit in La Belle Noiseuse, in which “La Main du Peintre” is a credited actor in the film’s opening, listed after Michel Piccoli and Emmanuelle Beart. There’s nothing hiding behind the hand, whose performance we see in close-ups lasting 5-10 minutes at a time. The cut between Michel Piccoli and the hand is a cut between Michel Piccoli and Bernard Dufour, seemingly. But the specific credit of “La Main” is essential. It’s Dufour’s hand that plays the role of the painter, in the same way Piccoli plays the role of Frenhofer, each distinct from one another.
I’ll leave you two with a song about hands, one that aptly reminds us:
“But then again, our hands are not our friends/
They’re leading lives of their own/
They don’t need us no more than we can/
Want without looking/
Can’t talk without listening.”
Jim O’Rourke, “These Hands” from Simple Songs
Dear James and Ronny,
I find the references to the hands that hold the camera very relevant in our correspondence. Apart from the interpretations and associations you outline, the problem is also useful for me, to articulate my elemental reservations towards the close sounds of working hands. Accompanying quasi-naturalistic, tactile images, the heightened clarity of auditory nuances isn’t simply artificial because we wouldn’t perceive sound that way in real life, but also because in order for the details to sonorize, direct sound from the other side of the camera must be eliminated. That to me, given the context, the supposed relation to work, is dubious. Hiding sound – both the recording equipment and the perceptible traces it leaves behind – has of course always been part of cinema. The difficulties that arose during the abrupt transition to sound film necessitated resourcefulness, and these difficulties were documented by the apparatus, which couldn’t be separated from its methods of reproduction. The silencing of the apparatus in contemporary film is done for the sake of a sharper and more punctuated soundscape, but it doesn’t create any technical challenges or require artistic ingenuity. From this we can infer that filmmakers aren’t interested in any evidence of the the way cinema negotiates with the material world, but only in his or her own preconceived ideas of it. For all its social concerns, I now think of the ending of Nema-ye Nazdik as one of its most striking ethical achievements. As Kiarostami’s crew follows Sabzian and Makhmalbaf, the sound becomes inaudible because of a loose wire. The inclusion of imperfections or the attempt to work on them expresses a view of the world and, inseparably, filmmaking. Not only early sound cinema and the challenged tracking shots come to mind of course; in the documentary traditions, filmmakers as different as Günter Peter Straschek, Wang Bing or Frederick Wiseman are known for their transparent treatment of accidental noises. These mostly occur when people talk – nevertheless, it is unfathomable to me why a filmmaker wouldn’t apply this methodology when filming hands at work.
In general, I find that we all share a certain distrust in images that don’t create an environment around its subject or engage with it, images that deny exploration and impose proximity. At the same, we’re all interested in hands and how they function. To end our correspondence on a constructive note, here are three images that direct our gaze towards working hands with composition, while establishing their backdrop.