Faces and Feeling

Recently, I had taken to remarking on the extraordinary longevity of Kirk Douglas. That such a man could survive into the third decade of the twenty-first century was an incredible thing, and it spoke of the hope for us all.

Spartacus did not die among his fellows, but lived, I thought; and the proof was before us. To live and see a century. What an idea. It could be done.

I had just begun to say the same about Max Von Sydow. What a triumph over the passage of time it seemed that the young knight was now an active ninety.

Now both are gone and two coterminous eras in art come closer to their end.

Essential to that art, and to the popular ideas of both men, was the human face. Their faces were both of a type – not pretty, or prissily maintained, but in all their gradations and features handsome, sturdy, profoundly admirable. Theirs were deeply cinematic faces, beautiful like natural wonders, and age did not wither them, both, to the end.

Each man gained much from monochrome. Its starkness turned bones into iron and eyes into pools of light.

In Paths of Glory, Douglas portrays Colonel Dax – a man who had seen and endured battle, forced to defend his soldiers’ unwillingness to die.

His nobility is reduced first to bargaining and then to futile anger. His final outbursts, and his bitter parting expression – these are like the stillness and sudden movements of rock formations. In court rooms, inns and prisons, the crags and shadows of his face cast deep pools of blackness. The darkness brings out the briefly flashing whites of his eyes.

In battle, under a steel helmet, his face is washed out, less a set of enigmatic features than a feature in a wider, torn landscape. He catches his breath after movement – of the camera and of men – that leaves one breathless. He is fearful, and then his is resigned.

In war, his face is lost. All that exist are his broadest gestures: his crouching first on the parapet, at the lip of a crater, and then atop a hill of dirt thrown up by the shells. His bent, then sweeping arm exhorting his men onward by example.

There is less dynamism but no less determination in The Seventh Seal. Von Sydow’s young knight, newly returned home from a failed crusade, is pallid and suffering amid desolation as disease consumes his country.

His is a remarkable face. Defiant in its structural sharpness and prominent cheekbones, despite some signs of weakness – in the hollow cheeks, the moistened brow, the glassy eyes. All are signs of a losing battle fought hard.

The knight’s infinitely sad eyes see a contorted Christ on a cross and a land in ruins. His party’s movements first attempt to outrun the end amid society’s collapse into plague and violence, and then, when escape becomes impossible, he plans a final meaningful deed. No other face could have carried the weight of all that.

The young knight’s interaction with death personified is an extraordinary visual metaphor. Death – Bengt Ekerot, another almost historical face – and his victim are equally pale. Their faces luminous, almost gleaming white.

Why are faces like these so important, and so sadly missed when they depart?

Appearances make memories, and human eyesight seeks faces to relate to and intepret. Cinematic memories may be built upon story and spectacle, but empathy is the stuff of attaching feeling to the faces of others.

There are certain faces, we are told, that the camera loves. The traditionally beautiful have help in this regard. They are easy to shoot, and easy on the eye. But faces which are distinctive and striking provide a focal point for complex emotion and are the stuff of memory.

In youth, both Douglas and Von Sydow were strikingly handsome men. But it is the integral qualities of their faces, transcending age, which endure.

The moving image is a remarkable thing and to be captured in movement is a new form of immortality. Celluloid lacks the permanence of oils and the hardiness of stone, but it has its advantages.

To have whole gestures and not poses captured. To have emotions of real range survive rather than attitudes stiffly adopted before the portraitist and the sculptor.

Age is not kind to beauty but posterity often is. And if cinema is, in Roger Ebert’s words ‘like a machine that generates empathy’, the location of that empathy can often be found in the faces of those whose lives and eyes we see.

Audiences owe their feeling to these faces. And the pleasure and emotion cinema can bring is inexorably bound up with them.

Kirk Douglas and Max Von Sydow had those faces, and their work produced and provoked much emotion. Their faces’ grave majesty is now gone. But its likeness is preserved, in memory and in film. And audiences old and unborn can look upon these faces and feel – and hang gratitude for that feeling on the faces of those who are lost.

This essay was originally published in Correspondence, a new journal of art, war and the world.

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