Reflecting on cinema’s love of the close-up, in 1924 the Hungarian film critic and poet Béla Balázs observed:
‘In close-ups every wrinkle becomes a crucial element of character and every twitch of a muscle testifies to a pathos that signals great inner events.’
When we think of close-ups of the human face, cinema is often the medium that comes to mind. On film, enlarged faces take audiences into a different reality, transporting us to the ‘inner events’ of another person’s emotions and psyche. Although cinematic close-ups focus our attention and senses, bringing us face-to-face with another person and another world, they are also heightened from life in that they convey an intimacy normally reserved for those with whom we are most closely acquainted.
Over the past year and a half, the uncanny intimacy of the facial close-up – usually the domain of cinema and TV – has become a dominant feature our everyday lives with the pandemic requiring us to replace in-person faces with those on a screen. At once there but not there, imitate yet distant, affective yet detached, up-close yet far away, the faces we encounter in videoconferences are most unlike the faces we see in the supermarket or in passing on the street. Appearing in a tessellated grid of juxtaposed frames with eye gaze at close range, the faces in videocalls are both real and alien, distorted in size and metonymically rendered as an exaggerated visage standing in for the human whole.
In a recent article on what is now known as ‘zoom fatigue,’ Jeremy Bailenson observes how on Zoom, ‘behavior ordinarily reserved for close relationships – such as long stretches of direct eye gaze and faces seen close up – has suddenly become the way we interact with casual acquaintances, coworkers, and even strangers.’ In this digital milieu, the irregular size of faces on the screen, combined with the inordinate amount of time spent looking at the ‘front-on view’ of other people’s faces, produces an uncanny and exhausting cognitive effect.
Adding to this strangeness, regardless of who is speaking at any given point, each person present in a Zoom videocall is usually looking directly at the eyes of several other people at the same time. In face-to-face interaction, direct eye contact is rarely sustained, unlike the compounding effect of seeing multiple sets of eyes, expressions, and faces without interruption. The intensity and persistence of this gaze – indirect and yet focused at the same time – effectively transforms social interaction into a predominantly observational exercise.
How can we explain the psychological effect this is having? Is close, sustained observation of each other’s faces in this way changing the very nature of our relationships and how we understand each other and the world? Afterall, the ways in which we structure our gaze in face-to-face interactions is dependent upon a myriad of contextual factors such as the number of people in the room, the nature of our immediate setting, the tone and social atmosphere of our environment and so on. To take this away means placing disproportionate emphasis on the minute, often coded subtleties of facial expression and gesture, often with interpretive consequences that aren’t intended.
Take for example the sidelong glance, which carries significant and subtle social meaning, depending upon the range of contextual factors at play. A glance – fleeting, encoded, strategic – is often used to signal an unspeakable truth, surveil another’s mood, or suggest a complex social cue. The charged domestic scenes of Jane Austen’s novels contain numerous exemplary glances, each giving readers insight into a network of interpersonal social dynamics at work. In Pride and Prejudice, Elizabeth Bennet’s sidelong glance registers a range of cross-relational observations and changes in the mood of a single room:
“She could not help frequently glancing her eye at Mr. Darcy, though every glance convinced her of what she dreaded; for though he was not always looking at her mother, she was convinced that his attention was invariably fixed by her. The expression of his face changed gradually from indignant contempt to a composed and steady gravity”
In literary texts, authors employ precise facial signs such as Elizabeth’s ‘glancing eye’ to draw us into the intersubjective dynamics of a social scene. The rhetorical glue that holds these scenes together, though, is context: where Darcy is sitting, who else is in the room, what has happened immediately prior, and what remains unspoken. The implicit social meaning of a close-up sidelong glance is therefore contiguous with a multitude of contextual markers (frowns, blushing cheeks, smiles, body posture, dress) that we use to understand the nuances of social relationships.
To return to my study of the close-up face online, it follows then that the deeply condensed meaning of the sidelong glance in Zoom risks profound misinterpretation when divorced from its necessary adjacent social clues. In the close-up world of the videocall, we are bombarded with nonverbal cues that would otherwise have highly specific meaning in a face-to-face context. Moreover, the face’s nonverbal synchrony is largely unconscious and effortless but at the same time mediated by our unfortunate ability to see our own faces reflected back on screen.
Although we can change the settings in Zoom to ‘hide self view,’ the software’s default setting shows us our own real-time camera feed. Self-monitoring our idiosyncrasies, we are presented with a mirror-image of our facial expressions and gestural signs. Subtle eye movements, an inclination of the head or a raised eyebrow are cast in full view, giving us a live-feed of our individual attempts at sociality, both subtle and direct. This peculiar self-evaluation – seeing one’s face as if in a mirror as we interact with others – generates a bizarre performative mimesis: interaction becomes secondary to performing the self for our very own approval.
Finally, in getting a closer view of the facial images in front of us, both of other’s faces and our own, we lose a sense of the necessary distance that characterises encounters in the real. In Theory of Film, Siegfried Kracauer, reflects on the distortion of reality that close-ups of faces bring about:
“Any huge close up reveals new and unsuspected formations of matter; skin textures are reminiscent of aerial photographs, eyes turn into lakes or volcanic craters. Such images blow up our environment in a double sense: they enlarge it literally; and in doing so, they blast the prison of conventional reality, opening up expanses which we have explored at best in dreams before.”
The visual impact of the close-up face, as Kracauer describes it, could be thought of in terms of abstract imagery or metaphor. At close range, facial features take on different rhetorical meaning; as if each existed distinct from the whole. Working in a different mode to cinema or the descriptive prose of the novel, poets frequently engage evocative images and metaphors to describe discrete elements of a single face. In ‘Tulips’ Sylvia Plath evokes the image of a single eye ‘between two white lids that will not shut’ as that of a ‘head between the pillow and the sheet-cuff’ while in ‘An Eye, Open’ Paul Celan breaks the image of the eye into a set of discrete images, personifying its various parts:
‘Aching depth of the eyeball:
does not stand in its way, the lash
does not count what goes in.
The tear, half,
the sharper lens, movable,
brings the images home to you.’
As in these lines, the experience of seeing a face up-close is unquestionably poetic, as much as it is, at times, disturbing, exhausting and strange. From the abnormal self-evaluation that persists with the Zoom self-camera view, to the daily oddness of seeing our friends, colleagues and stranger’s faces close-up and sustained on screen for periods far longer than could perhaps ever be tolerated in person, there is still a great deal for us to learn about the social, psychological and cultural consequences of our shift to observing so many faces online. There have, of course, been some advantages to this sudden and dramatic change for but many of us, just like Austen’s Elizabeth, ‘every glance convinced her of what she dreaded.’
Tyne Daile Sumner
- Austen, J. Pride and Prejudice. London: Penguin Books, 2014.
- Bailenson, J. ‘Nonverbal Overload: A Theoretical Argument for the Causes of Zoom Fatigue.’ Technology, Mind, and Behaviour, 2021.
- Balázs, B. Early Film Theory: Visible Man & The Spirit of Film, edited by Erica Carter, translated by Rodney Livingstone, 1924,
- Celan, P. ‘An Eye, Open.’ Poetry, 1971.
- Kracauer, S. Theory of Film: The Redemption of Physical Reality. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1960. p. 48
- Plath, S. ‘Tulips.’ Collected Poems. Harper Collins, 1992.