Essential Viewing: The Spielberg Face
A video essay exploring the most singular visual element in the films of Steven Spielberg.
With his two new movies War Horse and The Adventures of Tintin being released next week, Steven Spielberg commands our attention once again. We’ve taken the occasion to produce the following video essay exploring what may be the most singular visual element to his films: the face. This video is inspired by the photo essay “The Spielberg Face: A Legacy” written by Matt Patches and published on UGO.
This video is also an unofficial lead-in to a longer series of videos about Spielberg, produced by Matt Zoller Seitz and Ali Arikan with a team of contributors, which will be released on the IndieWire Press Play blog starting Thursday.
The video briefly features two early developers of the movie close-up before Spielberg, director D.W. Griffith and actress Lillian Gish. You can see some of the first “proto-Spielberg Faces” on Fandor by watching their films, free with a one week free pass.
If there is one recurring image that defines the cinema of Steven Spielberg, it is The Spielberg Face. Eyes open, staring in wordless wonder in a moment where time stands still. But above all, a child-like surrender in the act of watching, both theirs and ours. It’s as if their total submission to what they are seeing mirrors our own.
The face tells us that a monumental event is happening; in doing so, it also tells us how we should feel. If Spielberg deserves to be called a master of audience manipulation, then this is his signature stroke. You can’t think of the most iconic moments in Spielberg’s cinema without The Spielberg Face.
Expressive close-ups of faces reacting to events offscreen. This is a common device in Hollywood filmmaking, perhaps due in part to Spielberg’s influence. Sometimes these shots even make explicit homage to his movies. This is not to say that Spielberg invented the technique. The expressive close-up existed as early as the days of D.W. Griffith, and has long been a staple of both international and classical Hollywood filmmaking.
But it’s safe to say that none have come close applying this technique as prolifically throughout their filmmaking career as Spielberg has. He has used it in a variety of genres in any number of situations: sudden shock or creeping dread, the trauma of remembering the past or of confronting the future, discovering humanity in another person, or discovering humanity in oneself.
From the beginning, Spielberg seemed to understand the cinematic power of faces in punctuating key moments. But for the most part, these early attempts are conventional close-ups that fit into established practices for genre filmmaking: horror, suspense, drama, action.
The breakthrough came with Close Encounters of the Third Kind, a film about humans discovering alien lifeforms, but is really about Spielberg discovering the full power of the face and grounding it in a personal ethos, the perpetual wonder of seeing things new. The film has no less than 30 shots that qualify as “Spielberg Faces” – nearly twice the number of any other Spielberg film. Even one of the alien ambassadors gets one. One could call it a symphony of Spielberg Faces, in which case the orchestra members couldn’t have been better chosen: expressive open-faced, actors like Melinda Dillon, Richard Dreyfuss, and Cary Guffey, a four year old boy who, in this scene gives the face that amounts to a career revelation, a look of childlike awe that would inspire dozens more over the decades. Spielberg is so in love with Guffey’s expression that in one scene he even uses it twice in one minute, coupled with another critical ingredient: the dolly shot. With its kinetic force, the dolly shot underscores the revelatory sensation experienced by those wearing the Spielberg Face. With the dolly, the trademark Spielberg close-up was now complete.
But with accumulated use in film after film, this expression became an all-too familiar cue both for the characters and the audience to feel wonderment. By the time we get to the Jurassic Park movies in the 1990s, the manipulative qualities of the Spielberg Face are fully apparent, utilized nearly every time we are expected to marvel at the film’s computer generated dinosaurs. Nowadays, it seems you can’t have a spectacular special effects action sequence without a Spielberg face to cue you to be in awe.
The Spielberg Face has become something of a cliché, but there is at least one filmmaker who has dared to critically explore this device, and even subvert its power on the audience. That director is – Steven Spielberg. And I’m not referring to the unintentionally satirical character in Close Encounters, who may have experienced one Spielberg Face too many. In his post 9-11 movies, the Spielberg face is an expression of trauma in a world of perpetual danger. In War of the Worlds, Dakota Fanning wears an anti-Spielberg face of innocence lost witnessing unspeakable horrors. In Munich, Avner Kaufman reunites with his wife after years of hunting terrorists. In the first time a Spielberg face is used in a sex scene, the act of intimacy unleashes memories of historical torments he can’t suppress.
But for his most profound use of the face, we must look at one of Spielberg’s most maligned and misunderstood films. A.I.: Artificial Intelligence has been reviled as a cerebral Stanley Kubrick project ruined by Spielberg sentimentality. But the film can also be seen as an interrogation of the emotional ploys Spielberg has used all through his career, especially the Spielberg Face. The film’s hero is a robot boy whose default expression is a Spielberg Face. But this face is an artificial, mechanical façade, created for the enjoyment of its owner. The same can be said for all Spielberg Faces: they’re nothing more than manipulated images projected on a screen, manipulating us to feel something. Except that this time, these Spielberg Faces are clearly not human.
In an age where we find our reality increasingly mediated, replicated and replaced by the digital, A.I. asks a visionary question: where will the future of our humanity will be found? It projects thousands of years into the future, where the human race is now extinct. What remains of us is a robot boy with a Spielberg Face, frozen in a mechanical expression of wonder. Perhaps it is the ultimate testament to Spielberg’s hubris that he would imagine his signature image as the lasting legacy of the human race, but it is the same hubris that gives the movies life. What are movies but traces of our dreams that stay after the dreamers have gone away? Here, the Spielberg Face is the death mask of our species, projecting us, eyes wide open, in an eternal state of wonder at what lies beyond. In this regard, the Spielberg face is ours.
Written, Produced and Edited by
Kevin B. Lee
Inspired by “The Spielberg Face: A Legacy”
By Matt Patches
Published in UGO, May 23 2011
Films Directed by Steven Spielberg
(In order of appearance)
E.T.: The Extra-Terrestrial
Close Encounters of the Third Kind
Raiders of the Lost Ark
The Color Purple
(1985, Warner Bros.)
Saving Private Ryan
The War of the Worlds
The Lost World: Jurassic Park 2
A.I.: Artificial Intelligence
Catch Me If You Can
Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull
Empire of the Sun
(1987, Warner Bros.)
The Adventures of Tintin
(1968, Four Star Excelsior)
The Sugarland Express
(In order of appearance):
Pirates of the Caribbean: Dead Man’s Chest
Dir. Rob Marshall
(2011, Walt Disney / Jerry Bruckheimer)
Harry Potter and the Deathly Hallows Part 2
Dir. David Yates
(2011, Warner Brothers)
Dir. J.J. Abrams
Dir. John Ford
(1939, United Artists)
Dir. D.W. Griffith
The Passion of Joan of Arc
1928, Dir. Carl T. Dreyer
Dir. Michael Curtiz
(1943, Warner Bros.)
Transformers: The Dark of the Moon
Dir. Michael Bay
Soundtrack from Raiders of the Lost Ark
Composed by John WIliams
DCC Compact Classics
Symphony No. 8 in B minor, d. 759 I. Allegro
Performed by The Cleveland Orchestra
Conducted by George Szell
Soundtrack from Close Encounters of the Third Kind
Composed by John Williams
Soundtrack from A.I.: Artificial Intelligence
Composed by John Williams
Warner Sunset Records / Warner Bros. Records
Gary D. Morgan
Matt Zoller Seitz
Kevin B. Lee is Editor of Fandor. Follow him on Twitter.