Acting: The Camera's Closer View
Acting: The Camera's Closer View
Why, you can see them thinking."
—A spectator's comment on Biograph's The Way of Man, in Moving Picture World, 3 July 1909, p. 11
In 1908, the most important quality for film acting was clarity. The actors in demand were those who could tell the story with gestures, clearly visible at stage distance. It was then still fashionable to admire French filmmaking, and as Rollin Summers explained, the French were considered better film actors because
[They] seem natural adepts at pantomime. An arch of the eyebrow, a shrug of the shoulders, a gesture of the hands, all these are aids in expression to them. The American relies in his daily life, more entirely, upon his words (Moving Picture World, 19 September 1908, p. 211).
In another issue, the Moving Picture World asked rhetorically:
What is it in the films of some foreign manufacturers that makes them in such demand in this country?… The faculty of bringing out in pantomime the salient points of a story (17 October 1908, p. 295).
The Edison Company hired the celebrated pantomimist Mlle. Pilar Moran to make some films for them, but soon discovered that this was not what was wanted for the moving picture. Stage pantomime, with its stylized gestures and artistic traditions, was not going to be clearly understandable to the new audience, and in addition, it conflicted with the precepts of realism.1
The traditional gestures of the melodramatic stage lingered longer. Most of the actors and actresses, and their directors, were drawn to the film industry from the road shows, the barn-storming melodramas. Melodrama style was what they knew, and audiences across the country were familiar with it too. Given the distance of the actors from the camera in 1907 and 1908, stereotyped and familiar gestures made the simple stories clear. Gene Gauntier, leading woman for Kalem, remembered that in 1907:
All points to be made, even in the foreground, must be given plenty of time; a stare must be held, a start must be violent. If the director wished certain words to register they were enunciated slowly and distinctly leaving no doubt of what they were, in the spectator's mind…. But one must remember that then the figures were very small ("Blazing the Trail").
Two reviewers of Biograph's After Many Years, writing in the same trade journal a week apart, disagreed on the quality of its acting. The first thought it poor, while the second insisted, "Anyone who sees this film cannot say that the American actor is not equal to the foreigner in pantomime." By the end of 1908 Biograph films were being praised for acting in almost every review, partly, perhaps, because critics didn't know how to identify the other components of Griffith's style that were making these films not only clear but expressive. Then the commentators began to note the change from melodramatic gesture. In The Welcome Burglar, it was pointed out, "characters act naturally, as real people."2
By 1910 the melodramatic style was under attack from the public as well as the critics. Such exaggeration was too disturbing to the illusion of reality; it wasn't "natural." "A Reader" wrote to the World to complain about excessive pantomime acting: it was better to explain in titles, if needed, and let the actors be "more natural."3
The replacement for the exaggerated pantomimic gestures was "facial expression." According to one reviewer:
The most striking feature in [Pathé's Memento of the Past] is the facial expressions…. It can all be read in the two faces and is as graphic as it would be if the spoken words could be heard…. The action here is unusual and the control of the facial expressions is remarkable (Moving Picture World, 10 September 1910, p. 574).
When The New Magdalen (Powers) arrived in late 1910, it was observed that Joseph Golden, the director, was an exponent of the facial-expression school—the Saxon (restrained/facial) as opposed to the Latin (whole body/exaggerated) acting style. The restrained style was exemplified in the acting of Pearl White: "Though she stands rigid and motionless, it is easy to read in the face of Mary Merrick that she is torn with internal emotion."4 This positioning of Saxon versus Latin gives another clue to the reasons for the changes in style in the course of the Progressive uplift movement. Controlled emotions are approved behavior in Victorian society, the "excess" of the foreign-born immigrants from Latin countries and the films coming from such countries are to be feared, or at least found ridiculous. Naturalness is equated with restraint.
Pearl White standing "rigid and motionless" exemplifies another element of the new acting style. In 1907 producers considered it necessary to have "action, and more action." If they were called moving pictures, they must move. Now it was found that repose could be a more subtle and effective way of portraying feelings. A critic noted that it was "a peculiarity of the Biograph style" that when two women from opposite sides of the economic system meet in the "editorial-like" Gold Is Not All (March 1910), they gaze at each other "overlong"—"a trick that the Biograph players sometimes carry to an extreme," he thought. These actresses were employing the "pause," the better to emphasize the moment, the contrast that the two represented. If not well done, to be sure, it could resemble the over-obvious "stare" of an earlier time that Gene Gauntier described.5
The actors with D. W. Griffith led the way in this more restrained style, despite the fact that even in 1911 he was criticized for allowing his young actresses the excessive jumping that for him signified youthful exuberance. Thus, according to the World, the acting in Biograph's In the Days of Forty-Nine was "first-class all the way," but "this leading lady, capable as she is, has still the absurd habit of jumping up and down to express delight as a child of ten might jump."6 ("This leading lady" was Dorothy West.)
Frank Woods, the New York Dramatic Mirror's "Spectator," also gave credit to Biograph for the new style:
New York Dramatic Mirror, 4 June 1910, p. 16">
Probably the most marked change that has taken place in the style of picture acting in the last year or two has been in the matter of tempo…. Generally speaking, it has given place to more deliberation…. One producing company, the Biograph, was a pioneer among the American producers in this reform, and its films have long been distinguished by deliberation and respose (New York Dramatic Mirror, 4 June 1910, p. 16).
Reviews of Biographs through the early months of 1911 continue to praise the naturalness of the acting. Louis Reeves Harrison noted the expressive qualities of eyes and lips:
I have seen an accomplished young actress portray the vanishing of human reason so vividly that its light seemed to die out as we watched her. In another, more difficult role, she conveyed clearly the fact that she was exhibiting concealment and caution by her wistful scrutiny of a suspected husband (Moving Picture World, 11 February 1911, pp. 348–349).
A reviewer of IMP's The Scarlet Letter called the acting superb: "a play that draws as much upon facial expression and emotional work as it does upon action." The young comedienne in Pathé's The Latest Fashion in Skirts was praised because "she is content to stand still without wringing her hands and feet, and to let the humor of the situation speak for itself. That is the very essence of successful acting before the camera."7
With the change of film styles, it became a rule that actors should never acknowledge the presence of the camera. The pretense of reality demanded that the spectator be hidden, a voyeur at the feast. To acknowledge his presence would be to destroy the illusion, even to embarrass him. The Mirror's Frank Woods began a campaign on this subject midway through 1909:
There is one important fault in the average pantomime acting that is being too much overlooked, viz., the tendency of nearly all players to appear conscious of the camera. Doubtless the best players and the best directors believe that they have overcome this fault. The good director is constant and persistent in his instructions to his players to keep their eyes away from the camera, and the good players try to obey the injunction. Many of them succeed, but is the mere act of keeping the eyes off of the camera enough? Should there not be absolute unconsciousness that the camera is there—or rather should there not appear to be this unconsciousness?…. All action must take place in such a manner that the camera takes the best possible view of the picture, but is it not true that the nearer the players can come to making it appear that they are unaware of the camera, the nearer to absolute realism they will attain?… There are a number of ways in which the best producers in some of their star pictures betray what may be termed camera consciousness. A player will turn his face toward the front in a way that he would not do were he participating in an actual event. He does this perhaps to show his facial expression, but it is often at the sacrifice of a natural attitude…. Again, the director may display camera consciousness by the manner in which he disposes his characters, as, for instance, when a company of soldiers is marched up and halted, facing the camera as if to have their pictures taken (New York Dramatic Mirror, 10 July 1910, pp. 15–16).
Woods was expressing a widely felt need to preserve the illusion of being present at a real event, but it was not easy to get rid of camera consciousness. Some months later, an anonymous correspondent in Washington, D.C., delivered a diatribe against overdone pantomime and added that the same was true "for the actor or actress who frankly gestures to the camera!"8 At the same time an exhibitor wrote:
Wish you would suggest to the manufacturer that it is time to eliminate the pointing habit. Why, oh! why is it necessary for the actor, every time he goes forth, to stick out his arm and point the index finger in the direction he is going?… It stamps the production at once as amateurish if not ridiculous (Moving Picture World, 17 September 1910, p. 621).
Marion Leonard, meanwhile, having left Biograph and the direction of D. W. Griffith, earned this complaint in 1911:
Thus we have Miss Leonard, of Reliance, compelled or allowed… to do a lot of talking to the audience—looking directly at the camera and taking the audience into her confidence. I imagine a Vitagraph girl who did it would be fined! (C. H. Claudy, Moving Picture World, 10 June 1911, pp. 1300–1301).
In the beginning of 1912, reviewing the progress of the previous year, Frank Woods suggested that the great advance in the art of acting had taken place prior to 1911:
Who can look back on the methods of picture playing three and four years ago, without a shudder? In those days the actors were told to "step high" in walking or running. Each player called by gesture on high heaven to witness each assertion. Talking, gesticulating, and grimacing at the camera was the constant habit (New York Dramatic Mirror, 31 January 1912, p. 51).
In the Famous Players version of The Count of Monte Cristo, directed by Edwin S. Porter late in 1913, the renowned stage actor James O'Neill looks directly at the audience and points at the wall of his cell to show how he plans to escape, as obviously as in any film of 1907. O'Neill's prestige was great, but this archaic style was definitely no longer acceptable to the film audiences. It broke the illusion that spectators were in his world. The audience couldn't feel themselves inside the film if the actors acknowledged their presence "out front."
Tom Gunning perceptively observes that toward the end of this period the avoidance of camera consciousness is pointed up in Griffith's films by the observance of a kind of reverse acknowledgment of the lens, the hiding of the most private emotions from the camera's steady gaze.9 When Lillian Gish in The Mothering Heart (Biograph, June 1913) watches from behind a tree as her young husband drives off with another woman, Gish's stricken face disappears from sight, and only her fragile little hand is seen to slide on the rough tree bark as she turns to flee back to her house. The most well-known example of these "hidden" scenes of private emotion is
the return of the soldier in The Birth of a Nation (1915), where he is drawn back into the house by the arms of his unseen mother.
The call for naturalistic acting cannot be attributed entirely to differences between the stage and the film medium. There was a dichotomy in acting on the stage as well. When Sarah Bernhardt's Queen Elizabeth was brought to America in 1912 by Adolph Zukor and Edwin S. Porter, it was a succès d'estime, a draw for the "better classes," but the common viewpoint was more in accord with the report of the following exhibitor:
And by the way, if you run Queen Elizabeth, stop with the scene before the last, cutting out that absurd death flop into the pile of cushions placed before the throne for no other reason than to save the Bernhardt bones. It gives a comedy finish that is hurtful (Moving Picture World, 19 October 1912, p. 239).
If the divine Sarah's appearances in film seemed ludicrous to film audiences, it wasn't only that she didn't understand what was appropriate to the new medium. Her stage style was of the old school, larger than life, grandly eloquent, deliberately artificial and stylized.10 Older audiences familiar with the legitimate theater were accustomed to this conception of high-style acting, but a new audience, knowing only modern film acting, didn't understand it. The Italian diva Eleanora Duse and the American star Minnie Maddern Fiske belonged to a newer school of naturalistic acting, which demanded a repose and a subdued intensity and was in keeping with the requirements of a naturalistic theatrical production style. This style was characterized in the following terms by Madame Simone, the French stage actress:
No grand entrances because there are none in real life. No stagey exits, because they do not occur in real life. When two people talk they do not indulge in elocution, they just say the words that come to them without thinking of their stage value. When a lot of people are being entertained in a room they do not all stand about silently listening to the conversation of two people. They talk among themselves, and the buzz of subdued conversation pervades (New York Dramatic Mirror, 7 February 1912, p. 29).
And, added the journalist who reported Madame Simone's observations, "Persons who have studied motion picture productions realize that the principle here avowed by Madame Simone is a matter of common practice in the better examples of motion picture playing."
In 1913 Louis Reeves Harrison invented the term "intense drama" to describe a drama with depth of characterization, where, he said pointedly, the characters are not puppets.11 The intensity Harrison was trying to identify was not entirely the result of the actors' ability to convey emotions by facial expression. Thus, Richard Griffith observed that the 1915 film The Coward "makes conspicuous dramatic use of pause, even of immobility, to draw the spectator close to the emotional core of the action." With regard to the acting of Charles Ray and Frank Keenan in the film, he wrote:
Museum of Modern Art, 1969], pp. 19–20">
The players seem to project with great intensity, but the rhythm of their performance is actually established by camera angle and by cutting, and it is these that really create the dramatic tension. The resulting seemingly involuntary revelation of unconscious passions is a form of acting unique to the film medium. "Soul-fights" was the period's phrase to describe this (Film Notes, ed. Eileen Bowser [New York: Museum of Modern Art, 1969], pp. 19–20).
The emphasis on facial expression led naturally to the need for a closer view of the actor, because the stage distance of nearly all filmmaking in 1907 and 1908 made it difficult to see such detail. Indeed one of the more startling experiences in looking at films from 1907 together with those from about 1912 onward is the difference in relative closeness of the camera to the actors. If one spends some time looking at the early films and then goes to a later one, it is as though the film has sprung to life, become dynamic. There are many other factors that contribute to this feeling, but the closeness, and the intimacy it creates, is one of the strongest. As a spectator in 1907 would not have had the same experience, it is necessary to struggle a bit to see such changes as they might have been seen at the time. What is to us a very small change in camera position may have seemed striking to that audience. In fact, the contemporary comments on these changes, or the memories of those who experienced them at the time, when filtered through a modern conception of a close camera position, have led to distortions or actual mistakes in the history of use of the close-up.
Although the giant close-ups of faces to which we later became accustomed are the most impressive manifestation of this intimacy, they were actually rather rare throughout this period, with the exception of just a few films. When writers in the period 1907–1912 speak of close views, this should be thought of as relative to the other shots. They are not usually speaking of close-ups, or "bust shots" as they called them when they first began to be used.12 In 1907, for scenes of significant action, the actors were almost always placed at least as much as twelve feet away from the camera, in compositions that showed part of the floor or ground in front of their feet and the top third of the frame above their heads—what I have sometimes referred to as "stage distance." There were certain exceptions in 1907, of which I will speak in a moment.
When commentators first began to mention close views, they were probably speaking of the so-called "nine-foot" line, which came into use in 1909–1910. When this distance is combined with the camera placed at right angles to the chest level of the actor, rather than at eye level, the "empty" space over the actor's head disappears, and the actor's feet or ankles are at the frame line. Barry Salt believes that this practice began with some Vitagraph films in 1909 and was gradually adopted by most of the other companies the following year. It is really not possible, of course, to be certain about such matters, since so few films survive, but there is some evidence to suggest that other companies also introduced the practice in 1909. None of the companies used the new composition consistently, even in 1910. In any event, the closer camera position was apparent to editor Thomas Bedding of the World when he discussed the acting in Biograph's The Way of Man at the beginning of July 1909. He noted that the photographer "puts his camera near the subjects… and you see what is passing in the minds of the actors and actresses."13
Later in the same month, in an article entitled "The Factor of Uniformity," the closer camera position brought a complaint:
These figures were so large that they occupied the entire perpendicular dimension of the sheet, that is, the figures that were nearest to the camera. The consequence was that the people in the theater had the idea that the film showed a story that was being enacted… by a race of giants and giantesses (Moving Picture World, 24 July 1909, p. 115).
Unfortunately we do not know what film was being complained about, but I think the reaction does show that the closer position was already being used in July 1909. The twelve-foot distance (stage distance) became known to cameramen as the "French foreground" because European filmmakers kept to it long after the closer position, known as the "American foreground," became widely accepted in the United States.
In May 1910 the World claimed that Thanhouser was the company with the reputation for closer views, while the New York Dramatic Mirror at the beginning of 1912 described Biograph as "the first company—at least in America—to introduce heroic figures in its pictures."14 But while it is always interesting to speculate, it is of little use to look for "firsts" with so many films of the period other than Biograph unavailable for viewing.
Barry Salt suggests that the influential La Mort du Duc de Guise might have introduced the lower camera angle in America. There the camera was placed sufficiently low to give the impression of looking slightly up at the actors, as on the stage, which gave them a heroic look even though the distance remained at twelve feet. If this is indeed the source of the idea in the United States, the timing was right, because the French Film d'Art was a big event in America early in 1909. Tom Gunning thinks the succès d'estime of the film may have impressed itself on D. W. Griffith for this and other reasons, including its restrained acting style.15
In September 1909, the use of the low camera angle came in for criticism from the World, in the review of Biograph's The Mills of the Gods:
The photography of this film is quite up to the standard of the Biograph studio in definition and tone values, but apparently the photographer has been sitting at the feet of Dunkoop. Some of his figures tower almost up to the ceiling in their heroic size (Moving Picture World, 11 September 1909, p. 345).16
This is an extraordinary exaggeration to our eyes, but confirms my theory that what seem to us slight changes were much more noticeable to people of that time. When Bedding of the World delivered a diatribe against closer views as late as 1911, it is startling to realize at the end that he is speaking not of close-ups, but only of the "nine-foot line":
There is nothing more absurd on the part of the manufacturer, nothing which destroys the art and beauty of the scene more than showing us greatly enlarged faces of the leading actors. The manufacturer does not care if he shows us the leading lady wearing the same dress for five years. No, such details do not concern him; all that he wants is to show us how she can twist her mouth and roll her eyes. In too many cases these enlarged pictures show all the defects of the makeup; but the manufacturer does not worry at such small details…. Many beautiful scenes are marred by showing these enlarged figures, with the head touching the very upper part of the frame, and the feet missing (Moving Picture World, 11 March 1911, p. 527).
Vitagraph's Auld Robin Gray, released in October 1910, used a cut from stage distance to a shot of the actors at their waist level, which left the top third of the frame "empty" above their heads. In most of the surviving films from the period, this kind of shot seems to me to be quite as frequent as those in which the heads brush the top of the frame. But once again, there was so much inconsistency of styles within films and within groups of films at this time of great changes that, combined with the fact of so many lost films, statements about who may have led a change in style are still very inconclusive—and that includes D. W. Griffith, who was to be credited in 1913 with having invented just about everything. These changes of distance and angle are slight and may occur in only one or two scenes in a film. The precise angle of the camera is difficult if not impossible to determine when the distance between camera and subject is great. Modern-day audiences are unlikely to notice them, but they were probably more striking then. In any case, they were not universal in 1910 or even 1911. Further research and the restoration of other films for viewing may make these matters more clear.
For a long time to come, the World continued to complain of closer shots, finding an unacceptable distortion in them. The critic chiefly responsible was editor Thomas Bedding, who, it will be remembered, considered himself something of an expert on photography.
Extreme close-ups were used on occasion, but only to show an object, a letter, or a newspaper insert, to help clarify a plot. The actor's face was not considered a proper subject for such a close-up until about 1912. In the period before 1908, real close-ups, while not common, are not unusual either. They appeared, first of all, in the single-shot subjects called "facial expression" films, in which the entire subject matter consisted of grimaces, sneezing, laughter, and so forth. It is of interest that this very term used in early cinema was revived in connection with the new style of acting.
In addition, close-ups or semi-close-ups of faces were used as introductory or ending shots in the early story films, shots that are "about" the story but not integral to it. The "optional" shot of The Great Train Robbery in 1903—showing the man shooting the gun at the spectator, which could be placed at the beginning or end of the film as the showman chose—is very well known. Such shots, while no longer optional with regard to placement, can still be found with some frequency in the period 1907–1908, and even later, positioned at the beginning or end of the film. Today's film theorists describe them as nondiegetic or emblematic shots: they are related to the film and comment on it, but are definitely not part of the events of the narrative.
Edison's Laughing Gas (December 1907), a linked-episode comedy about the contagious effect of a laughing spell, begins with a close-up of a big black woman's face, looking at the camera, her jaw tied up to indicate a toothache. Following a visit to her dentist and the administration of gas, she enters a subway car in a state of uncontrollable laughter, and every passenger catches it from her; then she passes it on to a milkman, a policeman, and a judge, and finally she disrupts a church service. It is a typical antiestablishment joke of the pre-reform era. The last shot is a close-up of her face, again looking into the camera lens, laughing.
A later example is the final shot of The Aborigine's Devotion (1909, World), in which the camera is placed much closer to the actors than anywhere in the rest of the film. An Indian who has been left with the care of the trapper's child after the white man's death defends the child when a fur thief appears. In the last shot, the noble Indian directly faces the camera, holding the white child he has protected. The composition is reminiscent of a Raphael Madonna and Child, all curves and drapery. Vitagraph's Playing at Divorce (December 1910) has a similar emblematic shot at the end. When the parents have given up their plans to separate after seeing their children making a game of divorce, there is a cut to a closer view, in which the couple are seen head-on, hugging the children as a kind of summation. This might be thought of as a little more integrated than earlier examples, although the act of facing the camera effectively removes it from the narrative context at the time when this film was made, because it was no longer acceptable to break the illusion by acknowledging the presence of the camera. The spirit of the emblematic shot lingers on in many kinds of narrative structures; it becomes more integrated but still retains the final position, making a kind of statement about the film after the actual narrative events have ended and the film has "closed."
More rarely, in films before this period, closer views of the same scene can be found in the midst of the narrative, if not exactly integral to it. One of the latest of such pre-1907 examples, and the one most resembling the modern use, is found in Biograph's The Silver Wedding of 1906. Here, in the course of a robbery of the wedding gifts, there is a cut on action, quite well matched to the previous shot, to give us a closer view of the work of the thieves.
We do not usually find these closer views integrated into the narrative structure of 1907–1909 films, I think, because filmmakers at the time were struggling with the problem of continuity of the scenes. For them, given the models available to them, closer views would have interrupted the smooth flow of the narrative.
This attitude is reflected in the conservative views of those critics who, from 1909 on, rejected the newer methods and condemned the "inconsistency" of varying camera distances. The World took this position in July 1909 in "The Factor of Uniformity," from which I have already quoted the part about "giants and giantesses." From that point, the writer continues:
A little later on in the course of the picture the figures had been photographed at a greater distance from the camera and so were less monstrous to the eye; while, in even a third part of the picture, the figures were so far away from the camera that they appeared of their natural size…. Now, here there was a total lack of uniformity, due entirely to a want of intelligence on the part of the producer and the photographer, and the effect on the minds of the people who saw this picture was extreme dissatisfaction (Moving Picture World, 24 July 1909, p. 116).
At the beginning of 1910, an exhibitor made a similar complaint about Vitagraph's The Life of Moses, where the inconsistency was particularly noticeable because of painted backdrops that lacked perspective. In his view, the fad of facial expressions was being overdone, the camera had to be too close, and the actors were packed in like sardines. When you can see the feet, the exhibitor wrote, you can scarcely see the heads, and when the heads are shown you can't see the lower part of the bodies. What he wanted, by contrast, was spectacle: "the stage should be large and deep" in order that the Egyptian chariots can be seen in full, not in parts. The World editor who reprinted this letter, however, did not agree with him.17
A similarly conservative attitude was maintained by one or two writers on the World for several years, until almost no American was keeping to the earlier stagedistance style except for Edwin S. Porter, who retreated to an even more conservative stance than usual when he first began to direct feature films based on stage plays for Famous Players. When Porter was still at the Rex Company in 1911 the World's editorial position was:
The Rex releases are examples, to our mind, of the proper thing to do. Here Mr. Porter works on a large stage, and places his camera at a considerable distance from his actors. The result is that he avoids abnormality of size, and when you see the pictures on the screen, they express the proper sensuous impression of size (Moving Picture World, 15 April 1911, p. 815).
These opinions seem rather ludicrous to us now, but at the time they may have represented the typical reluctance of some people to abandon the familiar art for new directions. Given the popularity of the films directed by Griffith for Biograph, however, it is probable that audiences in general found films more exciting as camera positions were varied.
During this period, a closer camera position was often taken for a practical reason, or what was at that time a practical reason. The characters are standing and then sit down, for example, and the producer wants to keep them at the center of the screen. In such cases, sometimes the producer cuts to a more distant view of the same scene because (1) the characters are about to stand up, or (2) another character is about to enter and space must be made for him. (A slight tilting or panning movement of the camera would serve the same purpose, but we still discuss the use of camera movement in a later chapter.) Whenever small children are part of the scene, the cameraman places his lens closer to their faces. In 1911 Epes Winthrop Sargent explained some of the practical uses of a close-up:
Bust pictures … are useful in determining action that might be obscure in the large scene. It not only magnifies the objects but it draws particular attention to them…. Many points may be cleared in a five-foot bust picture which would require twenty to thirty feet of leader to explain, and the bust picture always interests. Sometimes in a newspaper illustration a circle surrounds some point of interest…. The bust pic ture serves the same purpose (Moving Picture World, 5 August 1911, pp. 281–282).
It is when such changes in viewpoint are used for emphasis or expressiveness, however, that they become important to the narrative system being developed in this period.
Where the closer views are integrated in the narrative structure, the opportunity arises for more subtle and detailed facial expression, as well as for a more restrained and natural acting style, which the World commentators wanted to encourage. In Rollin Summers' prescient article of September 1908, he noted that where shades of emotion are to be expressed, the picture as a rule should be at close range: "The moving picture may present figures greater than life size without loss of illusion."18 This aspect of film form is closely related to the changes in acting style: as long as the actors remained at stage distance, broad and stylized gestures were needed to make the spectator understand what was going on.
The 1910 editorial in the New York Independent referred to in chapter 4 speaks knowledgeably of the ability of the director to
vary at will the distance of the stage, giving us a close view at critical moments. When we would see more clearly what emotions the features of the heroine express or what is in the locket she takes from her bosom we have no need to pick up our opera glasses. The artist has foreseen our desire and suddenly the detail is enlarged for us until it fills the canvas (quoted in Moving Picture World, 15 October 1910, p. 865).
The intimacy of the closer view permits the spectator to gaze on the faces of the actors as an unseen voyeur. Thus, a commentator on Griffith's Brutality remarked:
The Biograph producer plays upon his characters as though they were musical instruments, and we are full of admiration for the impressions he
is able to make just by facial expression. In his beautiful photographs his characters appear as through fine opera glasses. Every change of expression is more clearly pictured than if they were truly before us, and one isn't embarrassed drinking the effect in. Is it not truly soul-music? Can such impressions be created in any other way than on the screen? (Moving Picture World, 14 December 1912, pp. 1081–1082).
The significant term here is "one isn't embarrassed." The appeal of this new closer view of the actors is to the fantasy life of the voyeur in all of us. We can share in the intimate life of another human being without the person's being aware of it and without any obligation on our part. The closer view is an essential part of the new style that was to become the classical Hollywood cinema. It is only as it becomes part of a complex of varied camera positions that break up the spaces of a scene, or our viewpoint of a scene, that it joins this new narrative system.
Earlier, we saw how the chase films of 1907 and before used closer views at the point when the actors entered or left the frame. The same movement was used in more complex narratives, such as The Mill Girl of 1907, to link shots in space and time. The significant action was always reserved for the moment when the actors reached the center of the composition and were at stage distance. The composition was symmetrical and centered. The new use of closer views of actors' faces took advantage of this same movement toward the camera, but now the important action or emotion sometimes could be portrayed off-center, without losing the attention of the spectator. Such occasional asymmetry added to the dramatic moment, throwing the composition off-balance, giving more vitality to the image. Moreover, having the actors move into a close-up instead of cutting to it alleviated the producers' feelings that a close-up would interrupt the narrative flow or the emotion or mood. As a result, the movement into close-up (rather than cutting to it) characterized the use of the closer view of the human face for quite a long time, while "inserts" of inanimate objects or parts of a body, such as hands, appeared as direct cuts. The reluctance to cut to the close view of the human face seems to me to show that such images were not thought of in the same way as "inserts."
Griffith made a film at the very end of 1909 using this kind of close-up as the dramatic climax of his narrative structure. This was The Last Deal, released on 27 January 1910. The sequence in question shows the progress of a poker game, with some players in midshot or semi-close-up, their backs to the camera. The hero is an inveterate gambler, and the scene is intercut with shots of his wife at home, praying for his salvation. When the gambler leaves the game, ruined, he comes into midshot, and then into semi-close-up. The spectator is shown his realization of where his compulsion has led him, while the other actors in the film may not see it. After this, the gambler returns home, determined to reform, and the film closes with the scene of domestic happiness and tranquillity that occurs at the end of so many Griffith films.
The most dramatic use of this kind of "actor moving into close-up" can be found in The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912), when rival gangs stalk each other through city slums and back alleys in a sequence of movements as carefully choreographed as a ballet. Elmer Booth as a gang leader brings his men around corners, pauses, and slowly, slowly, edges up to the lens of the camera. Booth's face fills the lower right side of the screen in extremely tight close-up and is held there some seconds with deliberate intention. This is another of those archetypal images from the films of D. W. Griffith, an image of threatened violence and terror. He repeats it in the second episode of Home, Sweet Home (1914) when a man contemplates the murder of his brother and again with the face of Gus, the would-be rapist in The Birth of a Nation (1915), but surely never again with as strong an effect as in The Musketeers of Pig Alley, where he holds the shot for some seconds, a pause before the violence that follows.
Mae Marsh, in Screen Acting, speaks of the craft of acting for the camera, a craft she learned as an inexperienced young girl working for Griffith in this period. In her opinion, "The effectiveness of the closeup seems to be in inverse proportion to the amount of facial action in it."19 Restraint, the least possible movement, the smallest of gestures: these were the characteristics of an acting style for the intimacy of the close-up lens.
Lillian Gish, in The Mothering Heart (1913), in the boldest of close-ups, on a direct cut, challenges the rule that an actor does not look into the camera lens. She plays a woman in shock at the death of her baby: she seems to stare directly into the camera, absolutely unmoving, almost expressionless. As she sees nothing, in fact, she does not make that fatal eye contact with the spectator, but in coming close to it, the image more daringly conveys raw emotion.
Within this period, the close-ups of actors' faces are usually saved for such dramatic moments, keeping their full impact. Mae Marsh recalled that actors longed for the opportunity the close-up gave them, until directors accused them of wanting a film made up of only close-ups. The close-up would play a part in the intimacy demanded by the star-worshipping fan. Up to 1915, however, it was used sparingly.