Category Archives: cinema

Up-Close, Far Away


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.  

Jean Dorothy Seberg in Breathless (À bout de souffle) 1960, Jean-Luc Godard

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.  

The Zoom Call: A Familiar Scene (Image credit: Compare Fibre, Unsplash)

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.  

‘The side-long glance’ (Pride and Prejudice, 1995 film adaptation)

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: 

the lid 

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. 

Retinas One Yard High: Textual Impressions of a Memorable Face

Early in F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic novel The Great Gatsby (1925), readers encounter the strange, disembodied gaze of the fictional oculist Doctor T.J. Eckleburg, looking out over the ‘grey land and spasms of bleak dust’ of West Egg, a town modelled on Great Neck in Long Island, New York.  

Peering out from an imposing billboard – the quintessential symbol of early twentieth-century material culture – Eckleburg’s eyes are ‘blue and gigantic – their retinas are one yard high.’  Fitzgerald writes: 

‘They look out of no face, but, instead from a pair of enormous yellow spectacles which pass over a nonexistent nose. Evidently some wild wag of an oculist set them there to fatten his practice in the borough of Queens, and then sank down himself into eternal blindness, or forgot them and moved away. But his eyes, dimmed a little by many paintless days, under sun and rain, brood on over the solemn dumping ground.’ 

Eckleburg’s eerie eyes (The Great Gatsby, Baz Luhrmann film adaptation)

For many readers, the eyes of Doctor T.J. Eckleburg leave a sharp and lasting impression on the imagination, not just because they reappear throughout The Great Gatsby’s key scenes or even necessarily because of Fitzgerald’s evocative exaggerated prose. Rather, it is the eerie incongruity of the giant blue eyes against the backdrop of whitewashed railroad fences, commercial wastelands and ash-heaps that seems to haunt most people.  

For some, Eckleburg’s persistent stare represents scientific rationality and the specialized knowledge of a trained physician, while for others the eyes stand in for the all-seeing eye of God. Fading in and out of sight against the mise en scène of Fitzgerald’s eerie industrial hellscape, the eyes have become synonymous with the novel itself, appearing on book covers, in films and in other iconography.  

The Great Gatsby (cover image) Wikimedia Commons

The textual impressions of a memorable face are quite different from those we recall of the faces we pass in the street or see on TV. The ability to remember faces we see out in the world even has its own scientific designation under the category of ‘super-recognizers,’ a term that researchers have used to describe people who have ‘superior face recognition abilities’ (Russell et al. 2009).  

When it comes to literary texts, why do we remember some faces better than others? And what techniques do writers use to impress upon us a lasting image of a memorable face? Unlike in cinema, where we usually instantaneously take in the complete visual frame of a character’s face, writers must construct a descriptive mosaic that pieces together various facial components to form an imaginative whole. These could be thought of as ‘faciality traits,’ to use Deleuze and Guattari’s term; parts that ‘the face holds within its rectangle or circle.’ 

In contrast to the disembodied eyes of Fitzgerald’s billboard, the well-remembered portrait of Satan in Dante’s Inferno is conjured through symbolic colours (red, black and whiteish-yellow), that move in and out of one another as if in a state of decay amid grotesque configurations of facial parts: 

⁠When I beheld three faces on his head! 
⁠The one in front, and that vermilion was; 
Two were the others, that were joined with this  
⁠Above the middle part of either shoulder, 
⁠And they were joined together at the crest; 
And the right-hand one seemed ‘twixt white and yellow; 
⁠The left was such to look upon as those 
⁠Who come from where the Nile falls valley-ward. 

Many readers recall the strangeness of the figure’s three heads, one gazing outwards while the other two rise from each shoulder. Later, from three chins and six eyes trickle ‘tear-drops’ and a ‘bloody drivel.’ The poet and critic T.S. Eliot found this literary face so disturbing to the modern sensibility that he even advised students reading the Inferno for the first time to ‘omit the last canto and return to the beginning of Canto III.’  

Inferno 34 (Digital Dante)

Whether we recall heightened individual features or remember Satan as a single, epic spectacle, it is the dramatic interplay between parts that Dante enacts in these lines that nevertheless leaves a lasting impression on the mind.  

And yet, some literary faces are etched into the reading consciousness not because of their descriptive intensity but instead because they present us with an enigma. Charlotte Brontë’s heroine Jane Eyre captivates the literary imagination precisely because of Brontë’s ability to use conflicting and contrasting perspectives to enchant us with her plainness. Self-described as ‘poor, obscure, plain and little,’ Jane is at one point complimented by Mr. Rochester for her ‘hazel eyes and hazel hair,’ only to inform the reader that her eyes ‘are in fact green.’  

Later in the novel, as she stands in front of a mirror arranging her hair, Jane’s characteristic introspection further complicates the mental image readers have of her visage: 

‘I looked at my face in the glass, and felt it was no longer plain: there was hope in its aspect and life in its colour; and my eyes seemed as if they had beheld the fount of fruition, and borrowed beams from the lustrous ripple.’  

As we see Jane through her own eyes, the impression of the face becomes mutable or is, at the very least, brought into question as we consider the accuracy of impressions encountered in earlier pages. Jane views her face differently after Rochester has declared his love for her and we are led to believe that her physical appearance comes to mirror her internal state. And yet Brontë’s choice of language – borrowed beams and lustrous ripple – is highly dreamlike and ethereal. Readers are positioned to question the veracity of this visual display and wonder whether Jane has been swept up in an illusion of her own making. 

   Orson Welles & Joan Fontaine (1943 adaptation, Jane Eyre)

But perhaps the impression of Jane’s face in this scene is less to do with specific visual markers and more to do with how it makes us feel. A great deal of what we remember about significant faces in literature is indexical to the emotive response we have when we first encounter them on the printed page.  

Like Tom Buchanan, who exchanges a frown with the static glare of Doctor Eckleburg, the imaginative interchange made possible in literary texts means that we often interact with the faces in them as if we were actually there.  

Tyne Daile Sumner

  • Brontë, C. Jane Eyre. London: Penguin, 2006.  
  • Dante, A. The Divine Comedy. Translated by Henry Wadsworth Longfellow. 1867.  
  • Deleuze, G. and Félix Guattari. ‘Year Zero: Faciality.’ In A Thousand Plateaus: Capitalism and Schizophrenia. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1987: 167-191. 
  • Fitzgerald, F. Scott. The Great Gatsby. London: Penguin, 2013.  
  • Russell, R., Brad Duchane and Ken Nakayama. ‘Super-recognizers: People with extraordinary face recognition ability.’ Psychonomic Bulletin & Review 16.2(2009): 252-257. 


Welcome to the blog of Literature and the Face: A Critical History!
We are a research team based at the University of Melbourne
and the University of Geneva.  

Our project aims to chart and analyse the representation of the human face in literary texts from the medieval to the contemporary era. It expects to generate comprehensive new knowledge about changing literary and textual discourses about the face by combining rhetorical analysis, the insights of cognitive literary theory, and digital methodologies. 

Jane Austen, Emma (cover image)

This blog will cover our progress on the project over the next three years. We will share interesting updates about our research, as well as observations and insights from key texts and source material. We’ll feature guest posts from researchers working on topics related to our project as well as interviews, creative writing, event and workshop summaries, reflections and literary analysis.  

Our blog is aimed at anyone interested in the textual, social, cultural, artistic, visual, cinematic, ethical or political history of the face, gesture and emotion. We welcome readers from academia as well as other fields and want to engage with fields as diverse as the visual arts and cinema through to psychology and the Medical Humanities. We also welcome readers from technical and scientific fields that intersect with the history of the face such as Artificial Intelligence and facial-recognition technology.   

Take a look around our site and we can’t wait to connect with you!  

Stephanie, Guillemette, Joe & Tyne