The Hidden Face

“What we know of the face is a thin mask of frail, interconnected muscle fibers attached to a layer of fat and skin. What we recognize as the emotions and beauty of the face depend entirely on this mat of tissues.” The face is a mat of tissues? Not perhaps the best term to use if considering the profile of one’s beloved, but James Elkins, in his book How to Use Your Eyes, is less interested in romance and more in the nomenclature of emotions: “Because we attend so closely to people’s expressions, the face is full of names. Many skin folds have names, and there is a term for every curve in the ear and each turn of the nostrils.”

“It is interesting to encounter some of the names of facial features, because they turn the face into a kind of map,” Elkins says, yet even the illustration above, crowded with terms, is merely a beginning. There are over twenty-five names, for example, for the various parts of the ear, from the antihelix to the tragicus. Even this picture doesn’t do justice to a full mapping of the ear:

An ear is a fairly inexpressive portion of most faces, of course, but the muscles about our lips and eyes, and our cheeks, allow for the revelation of a world of hidden feeling. According to Daniel McNeill, the author of The Face, the nineteenth century French researcher Guillaume Duchenne developed a novel way of searching for these connections. He collected the heads of victims of the guillotine and attached live wires to the faces, to chart the range of expressions. He had to work fast, too, because death blunts the facial muscles after a few hours.

Modern researchers, McNeill points out, have favored less grisly methods of investigation. They simply filmed interviews with psychiatric patients, and toted up the expressions that rise to the surface of a patient’s face. In one five hour session, the patients revealed nearly 6,000 distinct expressions.

Does the English language have names for all of these? I don’t think so. Especially since many if not most of these expressions are subtle combinations of emotions that we do have words for, various stews of sweetness and calculation and worry and determination, all stirred together. Here we enter the territory of “nameless emotions,” as the film editor Walter Murch so eloquently labels this gray area of language.

So many words for the muscles of our faces, so many more that can’t encompass the emotive combinations those muscles produce as they respond to and reflect the even more complex landscape of human thought.

An inner landscape that is subtler still than the expressions it conducts throughout the day. This is perhaps especially true when in moments of great emotion we express ourselves at the rate of 160 words a minute. This observation combined with another, that the mind within a severed head remains conscious for a minute and a half after decapitation, inspired the fiction writer Robert Olen Butler to write his grim and haunting collection Severance, 62 fictions of 240 words that each express the passionate last gasp of the mind.

I remember in my early teens staring as this image from some history textbook of King Louis XVI’s newly severed head being displayed, seemingly regarding the raucous Parisian crowd, and I’d wondered what Louis might have thought of his celebrating former subjects.

According to Butler, the king’s mind looked mostly inward:

thrash and flurry in the undergrowth a bird a boar a stag the rush of wings of legs I lift a Charleville to my shoulder the musket cool to my hands I squeeze the trigger and feel heavily that half heartbeat of silence and then the cry and the kick of her, the night my bed I shudder the trees nearby I am alone at wood’s edge be a man the king my father says but I am not a man and I feel the beast there invisible in the dark—the beast of Gévaudan—he is far from Paris but he steps from the woods before me a wolf as big as a lion a hundred dead in the countryside he has passed by the animals of the field to savage a man or woman or child and he faces me and he lifts his ragged muzzle to the sky and howls liberty to kill, equality of death, fraternity of beasts and I wake and I am still a child my king’s horsemen are off slogging through the marshes of the Auvergne to find him but he is with me and I am king now and I pass the smoking musket to my man who hands me another and I shoot and shoot again and again and the bird falls and the boar and the stag but behind me is the beast and he seizes me by the head

In Ang Lee’s film Lust, Caution, based on the short story by Eileen Chang, there comes a scene when Mr. Yi—a Chinese collaborator with the Japanese occupation in Shanghai during World War II—reflects alone on the death of his lover, Jiazhi, a death he himself ordered, when it was revealed that she was a spy who had planned for two years to betray him. At the penultimate moment, however, Jiazhi warned him of danger, which allowed his escape and her capture. In the film’s quiet last moments Yi’s face expresses a range of shifting sorrows.

Tony Leung is an accomplished actor, but he isn’t quite able to get across what the author Eileen Chang reveals of Yi’s thoughts in her original short story, thoughts that are much less romantic than what the movie implies:

“He was not optimistic about the way the war was going, and he had no idea how it would turn out for him. But now that he had enjoyed the love of a beautiful woman, he could die happy—without regret. He could feel her shadow forever near him, comforting him. Even though she had hated him at the end, she had at least felt something. And now he possessed her utterly, primitively—as a hunter does his quarry, a tiger his kill. Alive, her body belonged to him; dead, she was his ghost.”

Our faces have evolved for eons in order to speak for us in addition to our words, but our thoughts turn a more supple interior gaze to a secret mirror of our own making, a hidden face whose features fiction writers, poets, and memoirists all struggle mightily to reveal.

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October 28th, 2011 by admin

Nameless Emotions

When the celebrated film editor Walter Murch was working on the movie adaptation of Milan Kundera’s novel The Unbearable Lightness of Being, he would receive dailies from the director, Phil Kaufman, every two weeks. Murch made a series of photographic stills from the various filmed scenes sent him, in an attempt to locate what he considered the decisive emotional moment.

As he recounts in his book In the Blink of an Eye, Murch regarded those stills gathered together as “hieroglyphs for a language of emotions,” but a language that didn’t necessarily include any known words.

“What word expresses the concept of ironic anger tinged with melancholy?” Murch asks, describing a scene featuring the actresses Lina Olin and Juliette Binoche, and then answers himself, “There isn’t a word for it, in English anyway, but you can see that specific emotion represented in this photograph. Or the photo may represent a kind of nervous anticipation: The character is scared and lustful at the same time, and yet she is confused because that lust is for another woman. And that woman is sleeping with her husband. So what does that mean?”

Murch used those stills to locate for the director the emotional complexity a given scene needed to be built upon, a complexity that can be seen but not necessarily be easily expressed in words: “If you can simply point to an expression on an actor’s face, you have a way around some of the difficulties of language in dealing with the subtleties of nameless emotions.”

Are they so nameless, though? When writers dig deeply into their imagined characters, that route offers branching possibilities and a call for a more careful attention.

José Saramago, speaking in an authorial sotto voce in his novel The Double, identifies what he calls “subgestures”:

“People say, for example, that Tom, Dick or Harry, in a particular situation, made this, that or the other gesture, that’s what we say, quite simply, as if the this, that or the other, a gesture expressing doubt, solidarity or warning were all of a piece, doubt always prudent, support always unconditional, warning always disinterested, when the whole truth, if we’re really interested, if we’re not to content ourselves with only the banner headlines of communication, demands that we pay attention to the multiple scintillations of the subgestures that follow behind a gesture like the cosmic dust in the tail of a comet, because, to use a comparison that can be grasped by all ages and intelligences, these subgestures are like the small print in a contract, difficult to decipher, but nonetheless there.”

Of course single words can never express the full range of our reactions–they conceal as much as they reveal. Writers who don’t yet understand this settle for presenting a reader with the “banner headlines” of their characters’ inner lives. How much more difficult to locate, in ourselves as well as in our creations (because the interior drama of our lives is a well from which we draw), the fine print of emotions. How much of my anger contains fear, which is laced with envy and the shame that envy brings? How much of my joy contains relief, a certain smug self-satisfaction, and a touch of regret I can’t quite place? Squinting at fine print like this can edge us closer to naming the unnameable.

Photo credit: Undead Backbrain.

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August 28th, 2010 by admin

Any Novel’s Negative Twenty Questions

During the production of the movie version of The English Patient, the novel’s author, Michael Ondaatje, became friends with the film editor for the project, Walter Murch.  Their relationship eventually blossomed into The Conversations, a book of, well, conversations, Ondaatje and Murch’s back-and-forth about any subject under the sun, filmmaking, art, fiction, science, poetry.  A wonderfully intelligent and witty book.

One of my favorite sections is their discussion of the quantum physicist John Wheeler’s invention of a variation on the parlor game Twenty Questions, a variation he called “Negative Twenty Questions.”

In the normal version, someone leaves briefly while the remaining folks agree to choose a particular object that’s in the room. The returning person gets twenty questions to guess the agreed-upon object, with “Is it bigger than a breadbox?” being the classic opening gambit.

In Negative Twenty Questions, however, all the remaining folks privately pick their own objects, though the person returning doesn’t know this.  In fact, as Murch observes, “Nobody knows what anyone else is thinking.  The game proceeds regardless, which is where the fun begins.”

When returning Joe (let’s call him) asks the standard bigger-than-a-breadbox question, if the first person says no, then the other players, who may have selected objects that are bigger, now have to look around the room for something that fits the definition.  And if “Is it Hollow?” is Joe’s next question, then any of the players who chose new and unfortunately solid objects now have to search around for a new appropriate object.  As Murch says, “a complex vortex of decision making is set up, a logical but unpredictable chain of ifs and thens.”  Yet somehow this steady improvisation finally leads—though not always, there’s the tension—to a final answer everyone can agree with, despite the odds.

Wheeler thought this game reflected the structure of the quantum world, yet Murch observes that it reminds him of making a film: the casting will influence how the costumer will dress the lead actor, which will in turn influence the art director’s design of the set, which in turn influences. . .  and somehow, with all these subtle developing variables, a movie gets made.

Reading this section in The Conversations over again recently (it’s the kind of book that invites returning to and making rediscoveries), I was reminded of the great Brazilian writer Clarice Lispector’s description of writing a novel, from her Selected Cronicas:

“The book came together simultaneously as it were, emerging more here than there, or suddenly more there than here: I would interrupt a sentence in Chapter Ten, let us say, in order to write Chapter Two, which I would then abandon for months on end while I wrote Chapter Eighteen.  I showed endless patience: putting up with the considerable inconvenience of disorder without any reassurance that I would finish the book.”

How familiar this seems to me, various parts of a book calling to each other, unexpected connections reaching out.

I first became aware of this process when I was a graduate student at City College and studied with Donald Barthelme.  I remember him urging me during one conference to consider writing a novel—probably because at the time I mainly wrote prose poems that barely extended into the territory of the short story, and Don always liked to mix things up a bit.  The very idea, though, alarmed me. I couldn’t imagine ever writing any single thing that continued into hundreds of pages, and my squeaky timid protest to Don’s suggestion was, “I wouldn’t know where to begin.”

His response surprised me.  “Whenever I begin a novel,” he said, “the beginning never stays at the beginning.  It ends up in the middle, or near the end.  It never stays put where I started.”

I’d always assumed that one began a novel by starting on page one and slogging through to the last sentence, so this revelation served as some relief to me, and made the task of writing a novel appear a little more approachable.  Still, I don’t think I fully understood him until I began, years later, to work on my first novel, and found myself putting together its different sections like pieces of a puzzle that had as yet no defined borders, while trying to discover and answer my own secret twenty questions.

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February 1st, 2010 by admin