I find closeups of actors’ faces to be the most consistently disappointing images of recent movies shot in wide-screen. Since few faces are that much wider than they are tall, a wide-screen closeup often results in lots of empty space—as closeups tend to be filmed in shallow focus, the remaining portion of the shot usually contains little in the way of depth-of-field. A full-screen closeup in the 2.35:1 aspect ratio is just as awkward, granting an incomplete view of the face under consideration. Wong Kar-wai’s new wide-screen feature The Grandmaster contains numerous closeups; and one of the most disappointing things about it is that they’re hardly more interesting than those shot by any Hollywood hack. The movie is plagued with these all-too-familiar swarths of aesthetic unconcern, which fill nearly two-thirds of the frames in which they appear.
One of the nifty things about The Spectacular Now, the deservedly popular coming-of-age drama that’s been playing around town for the last month, is how director James Ponsoldt makes wide-screen closeups part of a significant aesthetic strategy. “The anamorphic format conveys a sense of wide-open spaces in which [the hero] Sutter finds endless diversions,” Andrea Gronvall wrote a few weeks back, and it’s true that many of the film’s most striking images are those photographed in long-shot. When Ponsoldt switches to close-ups during moments of heightened emotion, the effect is twofold: the spectator gets a little jolt from the shift in perspective, and he responds all the more sympathetically to the characters’ inner lives because he knows how big is the outside world that Ponsoldt asks him to momentarily disregard.
Ponsoldt uses closeups not to cue the audience’s emotional response, but because he cares about how his characters feel and he wants to study how their faces convey emotion. This strategy helps to make the film’s love story all but irresistible—Ponsoldt makes us fall in love with the characters as they fall in love with each other. More importantly, he extends this compassionate style to several of the film’s other characters, suggesting that the heroes’ romantic love has managed to sensitize the rest of the world. For just how long is Bob Odenkirk in The Spectacular Now? It can’t be more than ten minutes, yet he makes as deep of an impression as if he had a primary role. Ponsoldt shoots much of Odenkirk’s final scene in closeup, lovingly capturing those expressions of sympathy and deep regret that the actor has rarely displayed before. As in his closeups of the young leads, Ponsoldt uses the negative space to bolster our intimacy with the character. The shots leave a bruising impact.