Not the Face (!)

17 Oct

Not the Face (!)

In “From Beats to Arcs,” Newman’s mention of the “reaction shot” comes and goes as quickly as the reaction shot itself. The reaction shot, usually a close up on a character’s face is “a classic soap-opera device that intensifies our interest in character psychology” (20). Let’s see if we can tease out Newman’s meaning a little more.

Faces actors make on television are vastly exaggerated and over-the-top. Sometimes this is obvious, but I would like to argue that ninety-nine percent of the time the absurdity of these faces zooms right by us. This absurdity is buried deep down in the show’s own system of representation if not in TV’s own universal semiology. Its effect is latent rather than obvious. We notice when faces on TV are less accentuated, but we don’t notice when they are.

Recently, when I asked a friend to justify her claim that “Arrested Development” is the best TV show of all time, she listed one reason as lying in Michael Bluth’s (Jason Bateman’s) facial responses to his family’s worrisome and often painfully ironic lack of self-awareness. These shots are thrown in constantly throughout the series, inhabiting the mere breathing room between a joke and a cut to the next scene.

In that sense, Michael Bluth’s odd faces, which really only become recognizable after a fair deal of watching, are a functional and necessary element of storytelling. They are, perhaps, “Arrested Development”‘s version of a “laugh track,” better suited to maintaining the show’s intense tongue-in-cheek than an actual recording of canned laughter. “Arrested Development” deals in some of the driest, subtlest, most self-referential forms of humor ever seen on TV, so it should be no surprise that it employs a queue mechanism, a built in prompt for the audience to look for the joke in what they just saw or heard.

Face acting on TV is not a new trend (a close-up of Alice Kramden’s ‘I’m exasperated’ face on “The Honeymooner’s is one of the most intense things I’ve ever seen), and its long history probably has to do with how obviously jarring it is to experience a person’s face on TV. When we speak with others in our lives, sometimes we look at their face and sometimes we do not. We never, on the other hand, stare transfixed at another person’s face in the way we stare transfixed to a TV screen. The kind of looking is different, a more intense, deliberate, and prying kind of sight than we normally use when gazing on such a sacred part of another person’s body. It’s quite a crisis: what happens when we so heavily mediate the face, which is largely held to be the most im-mediate way to understand someone’s emotions? TV storytelling cleverly employs the face to give us instructions – LAUGH, CRY, etc. – because looking so directly at the human face is shocking to the point of inducing self-awareness. To oversimplify: comfortable self awareness corresponds to comedy, uncomfortable self-awareness corresponds to drama.

A newer function of the reaction-shot-as-silent-laugh-track results from our having grown accustomed to it in extremer and extremer forms. The face on TV is still a queue, a command, but often now the command is not only LAUGH, but IDENTIFY. Michael Bluth is not only the protagonist of his show, but also without contest the only character the average person could ever fathom identifying with. That’s why it’s his face that clues us in whenever Tobias commits unintentional homosexual innuendo. The intensity of face acting serves to orient the viewer in the distant (“entfernt,” we might say – “distanced” in German – when we consider that the German word for television literally includes the word “far” or “distant”) narrative, to suggest an internal point of view for the viewer to see from. We literally “face” the TV, which, being a mirror, presents us with a face parallel to ours. Immersive and enthralling TV shows rely on this deep identification with one or more characters, this conflation of their face with ours.

We have perhaps arrived at a more specific sense of what Newman refers to with “our interest in character psychology” that face acting brings about. “Breaking Bad”‘s Bryan Cranston is also a champion of this kind of face acting that, despite its haunting ambiguity, provides untold amounts of reference points for the regular viewer and the new viewer alike. This is the force behind the final moments of the season 2 episode “Days Out,” in which Walt furiously punches his own reflection in a reflective paper towel dispenser until both the metal and his reflection in it are unrecognizably dented out of shape. However mysterious and hard to read we find Walt’s facial expression, we still take our queue to identify with it. Walt’s dissatisfaction with his own identity and emotions, which he also deals with through constantly changing details of his face such as facial hair, is meted out in a violent warping of his image: to the viewer, an uncomfortably literal punch in the face.

5 Responses to “Not the Face (!)”

  1. Eric Thurm October 18, 2012 at 10:08 am #

    I think the increased importance of facial expressions in TV acting over time is important, and Alessio has a lot of great analysis (particularly with regard to the importance of character psychology), but I’m not sure about the equivalence between laugh tracks and reaction shots. Shows like “Arrested Development” eschew a laugh track as, in part, a sign of hipness – if you don’t get the joke while watching, the show doesn’t really care. That’s part of why it and other laugh track-less single camera shows (think “30 Rock”) get away with such a high volume of jokes. Alessio’s point that you have to watch the show for some time to start picking up on Jason Bateman’s reaction shots puts the lie to the identification of such shots with a laugh cue. Instead, the “substitute laugh track” is used for more laughs as a way of testing if the audience is in on the joke.

    • mkatiehunter October 18, 2012 at 2:11 pm #

      Eh I disagree, I like the “face acting moment” = laugh track analogy. You brought up 30 Rock. Liz Lemon’s “face acting” serves the same function of Michael Bluth’s. The same thing happens with Jim in the Office. It’s more subtle but I think it’s a natural evolution of TV comedy, the phasing out of the laugh track for more subtle means of cue-ing the audience.

  2. mikkikressbach October 18, 2012 at 10:09 am #

    I think you make some really good points with regard to how the close up can be used to produce affect and identification. But from a formal (and practical) standpoint, I want to just note that the use of the close up on TV also undeniably linked to the issue of scale. As I believe Patrick touched on in class, the TV screen requires a different use of scale when it comes to shot proximity and length. This issue of scale fed back into film during the 1970s and leads me this question of trying to correlate scale with identification: looking at film history would you say the increased use of the close up in Hollywood from the 1970s actually permitted greater character identification? (I probably would not. Affect, perhaps yes, but identification, no. Feel free to disagree.) Identification in film has been linked to the issue of “suture” which is said to occur with the shot-reverse-shot. You seem to make an alterative argument for TV (which I’m not necessarily opposed to), but how can we perhaps think through some of these major issues with regard to TV’s concern for affect, character identification and form? Which leads us to: is there a language of identification (on the level or form? narrative?) for TV?

  3. rohulray October 20, 2012 at 12:04 pm #

    Wow, that was some IN-YOUR-FACE analysis, Alessio (harharhar I hate myself). Reaction shots of Michael Bluth (or Jim in The Office, as mkatiehunter mentioned)) also tend to reinforce our identification with these characters as the “straight” guy (“straight” as in normal), a crucial device in comedic storytelling. Indeed, with the rise and increasing sophistication of single-camera sitcoms, the reaction shot has evolved into an effective beat and subtle tongue-in-cheek cue that can inform the audience’s reaction to a scene.

    I feel like in dramas (most notably soap operas, as Newman stated), however, reaction shots have a history of being overstated or heavy-handed, but have also recently evolved into a subtle, nuanced device that articulates character psychology. Alessio mentioned Breaking Bad, but I think AMC’s other critical darling, Mad Men, is the king of this kind of unspoken, almost-subtextual storytelling — there are countless beats in an understated drama like Mad Men in which a reaction shot’s framing of a character’s facial expression is pregnant with emotional residue from earlier events in the narrative.

  4. evanharold October 20, 2012 at 4:29 pm #

    Your argument seems most appropriate to comedies in a very typical sense, and I guess dramas, but more accurately just shows that are unsurprising and bland. I’m not really on board with “Breaking Bad.” If we take the reaction shot as functionally synonymous with the laugh track (I agree), then the description of Cranston’s face as “mysterious” completely undermines that force of emotional guidance. I’m glad Rahul brought up “Mad Men,” and I think he’s completely right in his analysis of that show and “Breaking Bad” by extension. The reaction shots we see are so understated, so mysterious and ambiguous, that they are virtually meaningless to viewers who aren’t picking up on the show’s contextual momentum.

    The laugh track fills a space so eery, it seems like some sort of avant garde performance when it’s tinkered with:
    Big Bang Theory:
    Breaking Bad:

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