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Back Off: Too Many Close-ups!

Fox Searchlight Pictures

Watching John C. Reilly’s and Jonah Hill’s humongous faces stretching from side to side and top to bottom in Cyrus, shot after shot, scene after scene, I couldn’t stop thinking that a century ago, when D.W. Griffith “invented” the close-up, it had an element of the sacred. Directors employed it when they thought it wasn’t enough to show the individual on a great proscenium stage — how many regarded the screen in those early days. They realized they could use the camera to do something that couldn’t be done in the theater: bring the face forward, isolate it, and — if the moment and the subject were right — give you a glimpse of a soul. In his excellent Slant piece on the Film Forum’s Chaplin retrospective, Christian Blauvelt quotes Chaplin on the philosophical implications of that sudden isolating effect: “Life is a tragedy when seen in close-up, but a comedy in long-shot.” Well, Cyrus is a comedy seen in close-ups, and something doesn’t jibe.

Co-directors (and mumblecore stalwarts) Jay and Mark Duplass shaped many of the scenes via improvisation, and my guess is that their near-nonstop close-ups serve two functions: to show off the ways in which their actors are thinking onscreen and to create the kind of intimacy that can, given the ways in which they humiliate themselves, make you squirm. (Ruminating on the film’s visual strategy, Glenn Kenny offered me another alternative: The close-ups are meant to emphasize these mama’s boy’s oral fixations. Points for creativity!)

Cyrus is a squirmfest — there’s no escape — and a lot of it, especially early on, before it turns sincere, is a hoot. But those close-ups are finally off-putting. I’ve come to love Reilly’s face, with its low forehead and small eyes and odd ridges; it can be enormously soulful. But putting the camera so close brings out its puttiness, and the character of John, a maladroit sad sack, seems violated. Hill’s face is big enough without the magnification, and Marisa Tomei’s Molly — the least credible character, given her instant attraction to John at his most embarrassingly needy — makes even less sense with her obliviousness under a microscope.

I had many of the same problems with a more fumbly mumblecore effort, Frank V. Ross’s Audrey the Trainwreck, which launches a wonderful new venue: Aaron Hillis’s reRun Gastropub Theater, a 60-seat hi-def cinema with its own bar in the back of Dumbo’s reBar. (More on this anon.*) There aren’t quite as many close-ups as in Cyrus, but when they come there’s often little to see in the protagonist’s face. (As his romantic semi-interest, Alexi Wasser does have adorable cupie-doll eyes.)

The overuse of quivery hand-held close-ups conveys a lack of visual imagination, a tentativeness when it comes to portraying an individual in relation to other characters and to his or her environment. It ends up suggesting that works like Cyrus and Audrey the Trainwreck are navel-gazing movies instead of movies about navel-gazers in a world in which so little is certain. And I think it shows a TV-ish disrespect for a tool that should be treated — like the human face — with reverence.

*So this was a mis-attribution--for which I apologize. The fine critic Aaron Hillis is curating the films at the reRun Gastropub but, as he writes, neither created not bankrolled it. That honor (and it is an honor!) goes to Jason Stevens, to whom I owe a bourbon (from the main bar, not the dinkier limited good-bourbon-less bar in the theater itself).

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