AUDIOVISUALCY: Videographic Film and Moving Image Studies

A video essay about the faces of Greta Garbo and Jean-Claude van Damme


by Matthew Cheney

'I'll love you, dear, I'll love you
Till China and Africa meet,
And the river jumps over the mountain
And the salmon sing in the street,

'I'll love you till the ocean
Is folded and hung up to dry
And the seven stars go squawking
Like geese about the sky.

[from "As I Walked Out One Evening" by W. H. Auden]

Long before the first movie's light flickered to life, artists had been fascinated with faces. Other body parts may fascinate for the way they are kinetic or geometric or erotic, but the person resides in the face. We know each other through our faces, we judge, we linger, we avert our gaze. Faces offer emotion and thoughts, they reveal us and hide us. They are solution and mystery. We watch them, we seek them out. They terrify and disgust, they move us to sadness and pity, they amuse us and bedazzle us, enchant us, enrapture us.

Is it any wonder then that one of the most beloved techniques of the cinema is the close-up? More than a portrait in motion, the close-up is a magnification. It unites the power of both telescope and microscope. It provides the audience with the pure voyeuristic pleasure of seeing without being seen.

The greatest faces in the cinema let us linger in our looking and yet still feel some vague sense of being looked upon. There is the illusion of connection. To look into the eyes of the screen's greatest faces is to feel the power of your own gaze reflected back.

The image of Garbo, of course, has always been the famous face, the perfect face. And it is the image of Garbo we are speaking of, because Garbo separate from the lights and make-up and, most especially, the camera — that telescope, that microscope, that idealizing eye — separate from the machinery of her image, Garbo was not Garbo, but rather a person, a human being, ordinary in many ways, extraordinary in a few, a bit like us, perhaps, in her imperfect everyday humanity. Stars are not stars for who they are, but for how they are. Greta Lovisa Gustafsson is someone we can never know; Greta Garbo is the trace she left behind on the heart of the world. The stars' power is not inherent in them, but in their presentation and re-presentation.

Roland Barthes said, "A mask is but a sum of lines; a face, on the contrary, is above all their thematic harmony. Garbo's face represents this fragile moment when the cinema is about to draw an existential from an essential beauty, when the archtype leans towards the fascination of mortal faces, when clarity of the flesh as essence yields its place to a lyricism of Woman." ["The Face of Garbo" by Roland Barthes, trans. Annette Lavers]

Garbo is Woman, yes, but the face lives, too, outside of its gender, as Garbo showed most vividly in Queen Christina. It is true that her face is one iteration of perfect Woman, but also of perfect Man.

Ours is not as much an age of ideal faces as it once was. Barthes said, "Viewed as a transition the face of Garbo reconciles two iconographic ages, it assures the passage from awe to charm." Garbo's face, he said, was an Idea in the Platonic sense, a concept, while faces now are not Ideas, not concepts, but substance: Events.

For me, there is one face now that possesses at least some of the Idea that was the face of Garbo, and this is the face of Jean-Claude van Damme. I court laughter in saying that, I know, but separate the face from the movies — Garbo's face, too, must be separated from clutter of her movies' imperfections. Van Damme's body, certainly, is the subject of his movies, the engine of the action and the object of plot. But it is his face that bears the meaning.

Ignatiy Vishnevetsky wrote that "Van Damme's reactions come out through every pore of his skin, and, like the great silent actors of the past ... he brings every muscle in his face into precise alignment." ["Van Damme and the Action Stars" by Ignatiy Vishnevetsky]

Other action stars have their bodies beaten, bruised, cut, shot, mangled — they bear their scars as medals or jewels in a crown of masochistic nobility. Their faces, though, are masks and armor, always superficial, never a surprise. Van Damme is different, unique, closer to Buster Keaton than John Wayne. It is a face capable of expressing sadness, vulnerability, but also, perhaps more than anything else, grace. Van Damme is the only action star of whose face — given the right light, the right angle — we might use the word lovely.

He is, in a word, Garboesque.

Unlike Garbo, though, Van Damme has allowed his face to be both concept and substance, both Idea and Event. He has allowed us to watch it age. In watching, we have learned not only about him, but about the kind of beauty that adheres through the passage of time.

A weakness of our culture is a pervasive, insidious belief that women's faces cannot age into beauty, that beauty exists in youth and not in the expressive imperfection, the unique cartography of each life that is the aging woman's face. Against such a curse, Garbo kept her face to the Ideal and retreated from the lights and the cameras and the audience's eyes.

In the aging of Jean-Claude van Damme's face, in its movement from Ideal to Event, perhaps we can see a shadow of Garbo, too, and cast our adoration back toward her ghost and let her know we see now the cage we created with our love and longing, the prison of the Ideal, and we are sorry, and we are grateful, for she, too, was always and forever lovely.

'The years shall run like rabbits,
For in my arms I hold
The Flower of the Ages,
And the first love of the world.'

But all the clocks in the city
Began to whirr and chime:
'O let not Time deceive you,
You cannot conquer Time.

[from "As I Walked Out One Evening" by W. H. Auden]


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