Published: Feb. 1, 1999 By

[1]   "The camera has uncovered that cell-life of the vital issues in which all great events are ultimately conceived; for the greatest landslide is only the aggregate of the movements of single particles. A multitude of close-ups can show us the very instant in which the general is transformed into the particular. The close-up has not only widened our vision of life, it has also deepened it." Bela Belazs, 1952

[2]   Looking at how contemporary close-ups function in films about feminism and reproductive threat suggests one way in which seemingly innocent imaging practices effect political agendas. In the past twenty years, close-ups have begun to overpopulate edited sequences; the comforting plenitude of the close-up's consistent provision of detail works in concert with its elision of distance and perspective to eliminate the field. As close-ups dominate visual representations from television baseball to the reproductive threats of Aliens to the road film bonding of Thelma and Louise, they take up visual and temporal space, eliminating from that space the significant cultural coordinates for which they substitute, including both the patriarchal terrain within which feminist action has political meaning and the market/commodity system that enables the image to function as a site of transaction.1Producing a structure of free-floating exchange, close-ups spawn the illusion of knowledge and certainty located in the image itself as the site of meaning, the answer to all questions, and the kernel of epistemological nourishment. The use of the field-excising close-up demonstrates not only how imaging and editing conventions accomplish patriarchal work, but also enacts the very terms of the job.

[3]   The close-up doesn't get this task simply by reason of its intrinsic fascination; its strategic over-use is a symptom of larger cultural shifts, specifically in threats to patriarchal order. As technology becomes increasingly able to demystify and assume the paternal function–as we can now identify with almost complete certainty the identity of a child's father and as fertilization becomes a laboratory commonplace–and as culturally central metaphors (everything from the family to patriotism and Truth) fail to hold sway, images that compensate for the paternal metaphor's loss of aegis appear in their place.2 These images, which also include bodybuilder superheroes, male mothers (who, coincidentally are also bodybuilders), and microvideographic renditions of corporeal and computer parts, function not only to bolster up the failing paternal metaphor, but also to dramatize the very terms through which it is supplanted.3 A metaphor which sustains the previously uncertain relation between father and child by appending a name bows to a close-up image of ovum fertilization; the order of metaphor and paradigmatic connection is slowly replaced by detailed images of the metonymical links that fill in the gaps (between father and child, owner and property, citizen and nation) metaphor previously sutured within a larger pattern or field.4 The close-up stands in for the field so that we do not see what the field is missing; the metonymy of the close-up series supplants the part-to-whole arrangement of the traditional editing sequence. It is therefore no surprise that in some cases, series of close-ups appear in films where patriarchy and reproductive order are overtly threatened as one way of containing the threat.

[4]   The close-up at issue here is no longer only Hollywood's conventional "head shot" close-up which provides the illusion of a camera really close to its subject which is really large in the frame. The prototype of this kind of close-up would consist of a shot of a head or body part, since camera distance is determined in relation to the scale of the human body. Close-up images like this may be produced by a camera that is physically close to an object, by the use of a telephoto lens which produces the illusion of the camera's closeness to an object, or through the use of various magnifying lenses. In this convention, we might also understand overly close shots as an effect of relative scale; for example, an overly close sequence might involve too many close ups, medium close-ups, or medium shots when the implied field of action is a large battlefield or even a baseball game.

[5]   But what renders the feeling of close-upness has changed in the last thirty years to include not only conventional practices involving camera distance, but also imaging possibilities derived from newer microvideographic and digital technologies. This includes images of the microscopic as in Quincy or PBS documentaries, digital renditions of the microscopic as in Intel and Listerine commercials, and digitally-enhanced details as in Blade Runner (1982) or Terminator (1984).5 Images of the microscopic are produced through magnifying lenses, microvideographic cameras that penetrate into minute spaces, and digital imaging technologies. Digital imaging extends the microscopic field to the truly infinitesimal, producing a new field altogether whose coherence is understood to be an effect of the camera's empowering proximity to the previously unseeable (even though digital images are often generated as realistically-rendered imaginary scenes). While these images of the microscopic imply extreme closeness, their image of closeness is rendered in long to extreme long shots that present the microscopic as if it were in the scale of the normal world–figure against ground. Within film narratives, these micro fields often seem to provide the answers to the causes of disease, the mystery of alien conception, or the fingerprint and video trail of fleeing female rebels.

Close Encounters of the First Kind, or A Short Hop Through Baseball

[6]   The earliest example of the consistent overuse of close-ups occurs in televised baseball where the game's paradigm fades in favor of a frenetic attention to individual players. While baseball might be a bit distant from reproductive matters, it is not so far from issues of paternal order as the idea of the familial team nurtured through joint effort disappears in favor of commodified individuals who are apparently out for themselves. Baseball provides an instructive example of how series of contiguous images are introduced to mitigate the boring moments of a slow game–to compensate for baseball's paradigmatic stretches of emptiness.

[7]   Gerry Whannel, sports media historian, notes that from 1966, when television cameras were first fitted with telephoto lenses, to the 1980s, the close-up went from an incidental atmospheric component to the central constituent of sports television.6 In the mid-1980s telephoto close-up shots of chewing, spitting, swearing, and crotch-grabbing began to dominate the baseball field, shots which emphasized the individual over the game. At the same time, extra long images of the field and of the game itself began to disappear, sacrificed to the iconization of the players, so that baseball games, as telecast, became a proliferation of individual images only tenuously connected to a field of play that no longer provided the organizing logic for its rendition. Baseball commentary began to focus more and more on contract disputes, injuries, and players' personal triumphs and tragedies. The shift to the close-up (or medium close or medium shots–all too close in relation to the vastness of the context) as a primary televisual element accompanied the increasing commodification of players as personalities.7 This turn to the close-up was not merely a pragmatic correlative to our interest in personalities (it might be the other way around), nor was it only an accident of technological enthusiasm.

[8]   According to Whannel, the close-up guarantees the "presence of . . . entertainment values which organize visual images according to the need to highlight pleasure points–action, stars, drama–attempting to construct an entertaining assemblage capable of winning and holding an audience;" it complies with the axiom of "maximum action in minimum space" which minimizes the visual and verbal work television has to perform (94-95). While the idea of an economy of action does seem to account for our willing acceptance of the field's loss, attributing the close-up with "entertainment values" screens the close-up's specific compensatory functions. While a single close-up included as an element in a continuity edited sequence might enhance space and increase knowledge (especially if we have been systematically denied a view of players' faces), the wholesale shift to close-up sacrifices the more distanced context that extreme long shots normally provide–that is, the game, the physical and strategic interrelations of the players, and even the complete trajectories of balls. Too many close-ups, thus, disenable comparison and a sense of the relation of the players to one another or to the spatial and temporal whole.

[9]   In the absence of field there is no immediate way to determine the larger significance of the single facial figure or body part that occupies the frame. Hence, the body image becomes significant in itself, while the power and meaning conveyed by the illusion of proximity can seem to be immediate and available rather than relative or partial. The close-up's loss of field is a loss of political valence; this loss enables the self-same projections of body to answer all questions, satisfy all desire, occupy all fissures, and reproduce ideologies of individuality and commodity value. Our view of the detail is no longer prohibited; the machine gives us all with skin-pore clarity at the cost of the field as well as the illusion of too much something in the space of absence that structures desire. The ensuing absence of field does not step in to take over the function of desire-inspiring absence; too many close-ups don't produce an overwhelming desire to see the game (except perhaps occasionally); rather, the close-up seems to get us there, appearing to extinguish prohibitions by giving us what we couldn't have, but at the same time eliminating the field that made such having meaningful in the first place. Thus, instead of desire, there is ennui; the imaginary fired by the game shifts to individual accomplishment and player careers that essentially migrate off screen altogether.

[10]   The over-valuation of the contemporary close-up represented most strikingly by television baseball is also somewhat different from deployments and understandings of the close-up as typically employed in classical Hollywood editing techniques or Soviet cinema, the two cinemas around whose practices theories of the close-up have been formulated. In 1916, for example, Hugo Münsterberg saw the close-up as an objectification of mental acts of attention; "It is as if that outer world were woven into our mind and were shaped not through its own laws but by the acts of our attention."8 Enacting attention, the close-up is a psychological prosthesis even if attention is directed by something beyond individual whim. In one of his brief considerations of the close-up, Sergei Eisenstein remarks the ideological difference between the close-up's Soviet and American deployment: Soviets say "large scale," Americans say, "near," or "close-up." The Soviets refer to the image; Americans refer to the illusion of its camera production. In the Soviets' more overtly politicized film practice, the close-up is qualitative, indicating the value of what is seen. Its function is to "signify, to give meaning, to designate." For the Americans the close-up presents a "key detail," an aid to narrative focus.9

[11]   Aligning D.W. Griffith's use of close-ups with an ambivalent America characterized by speed, modernization, and "the traditional, the patriarchal, the provincial," Eisenstein links America's fast conservatism to its attachment to "viewpoint"–to an emphasis on the position of the viewer in relation to a film narrative reduced to a series of shots that inscribe the viewer's (patriarchally provincial) view (198). Another Soviet film pioneer, Lev Kuleshov, attributes the American use of the close-up to a preoccupation with narrative essentials to the exclusion of all else.10 For both filmmakers the close-up is already a symptom of an American mind which eschews image quality, social meaning, and any larger context; the American close-up represents a superficial indexicality that pragmatically highlights essential details in exchange for instead of in relation to a field that would, as in Soviet films, provide the shot with enhanced contextual significance. The Soviet perception of the American close-up's narrative function predicts the contemporary close-up's transition from an element of commodity narrative to a commodity image finally emancipated from both narrative and field.

[12]   Eisenstein's estimation of the close-up's demonstrative function in American cinema grounds Jacques Aumont's later observations that the close-up centers cinematic representation in the character and erases, through its use of faces, what a 'close-up point of view' might possess that is atypical, excessive, or even troubling."11 Even if, in the system of cinematic representation, the close-up is inscribed as a permanent danger–that of the elimination of depth and the loss of recognition–the ideological fullness attributed to the face as a site of affect and personality counteracts the close-up's troubling fragmentation or loss of spatio-temporal field. The close-up produces what Gilles Deleuze calls an "affection image." "The affection-image is the close-up, and the close-up is the face . . . abstracted from the spatio-temporal co-ordinates which would relate it to a state of things, and abstract[ing]   the face from the person to which it belongs in the state of things."12 As Deleuze theorizes them, close-ups operate as a part of a montage system of privileged view and essentialized details where the close-up signals the private and longer shots the public. Close-ups function to highlight and emphasize significant features, facial expressions, and other sites of especial meaning within the larger narrative and visual field.13

[13]   The classical close-up "is an actual `magnification,' or affirmation of a meaning and its articulation" where "in relation to the classical economy of representation, it is inscribed as a permanent danger, that of the elimination of depth, the loss of recognition, standing metonymically for everything which functions as a `supplement' with respect to the scene" (Aumont, 188, 122). The contemporary proliferated close-up provides the image of the unauthorized view which carries its own compensation. Importing the logic of metonymical serial linkage as an organizing principle, contemporary close-ups displace over-riding paradigms (such as story or spatial relations) in favor of a series of detached images significant because of the privileged view they present. Rather than acting as an erasure, the close-up's fix is a compensation, not for the disturbing qualities of the image, but for the way the image, its production, and its rampant proliferation make up for the loss of the field.

[14]   The close-up that has begun to dominate contemporary representations entraps while it seduces. There is no limit to what we can see when the close-up appears to give us all, when the possible scale of shots is endless, and when seeing becomes a knowing empowerment. In televised baseball, the close-up's danger is allayed by the partial images of the players themselves whose career success and off-field narratives provided in voiceover seem to produce a new field of significance. This potential new field, which in this case augments the image aurally, is a supplement rather than a field, the difference being that a field is intrinsically relational and metaphorical, whereas a supplement is an appurtenance, another art that appends to the image not in a part/whole relation, but rather as something that ornaments or adds on to a scene that already functions as a whole. Supplements to the scene might also take the form of narratives or other shot systems presented in contrast to the close-up. These supplements, however, are also necessary for the constitution of the close-up's appearance of self-contained field. With the voiceover, the close-up loses whatever dangers of fragmentation it might have presented or whatever anxieties of dislocation; it seems located and meaningful within a second narrative–that of the tradition of baseball–produced around the narrative of the immediate game.14 Together close-up and supplement evoke a lost nostalgic field not linked to the narrative and spatial circumstances that locate the close-up in literal space and time, but rather to a field of dreams forever irrecuperable. The close-up, therefore, does not only occlude the field, it substitutes the illusion of a field that only exists as imaginary. The close-up's evocation of this ghostly field fills the locus of social logic and interrelational cause/effect, enabling baseball's almost-too-obvious ideological work to continue as ideology instead of as transparent commodity propaganda. The exigencies of commodity culture which become all too immediate in player imaging seem to serve not the interests of a market trading in images, but the interests of a halcyon tradition of famous players we are permitted to witness. This is not the literal field, but an imaginary one mapped on top of the real–or actual–game and its televised rendition.

Close Encounters of the Second Kind; or The Field Becomes Alien

[15]   The possible ideological benefits of excising the field become even more evident in such 1980s films as Alien and Aliens which present questions about unauthorized reproduction, or the 1990sThelma and Louise which imagines a kind of women's revolt. While losing the field of a game is a model for this excision, there are more important stakes in losing the field of significance around unauthorized or inhumane reproductions or in the rebellious actions of women. These more recent films present narratives of heroic human action while obscuring exactly whose interests those actions and their imaging actually serve. Close-ups provide the illusion of a more concrete and factual version of the facts and mechanical connections that constitute our imagined versions of procreation. But we envision the too-close–we produce computer simulations of the unseeable–because we already imagine and need to imagine the microscopic sites of mechanical contiguity and cause/effect that substantiate our theories. Large fields seem to provide less meaning than this invasion of the overly close. Space, for example, is too capacious to constitute a meaningful field unless we imagine ourselves in a star-littered cosmos that is a projection of something like cellular biology which one seminally womblike (Star Trek) or dentate (Star Wars) space ship polices and controls.15

[16]   Space indeed becomes the field of the close-up in theAlien(s) series, where the galaxy serves as the enlarged domain of a gender war over reproduction gone awry. Imaging as if in microvideographic clarity the vampiric ingress of an alien reproductive order, the 1986 Aliens close-up claustrophobia provides a clue to the threat presented and assuaged by the concatenation of female heroics, the close-up, and an unauthorized and threatening form of reproduction. Employing both the image of an enlarged microscopic field and claustrophobic series of head shot close-ups, Aliens demonstrates how the loss of field enables the recuperation of a patriarchy that has lost the metaphorical aegis of the paternal family and has become the syntagmatic extension (still cast in familial terms) of its technological equipage.

[17]   Aliens is James Cameron's sequel to Ridley Scott's 1979Alien, the outer space transposition of Howard Hawkes' 1951 The Thing where Antarctic explorers come across a frozen alien who reproduces itself among an all male research team.16 Both theAliens films and The Thing present closed and delimited environments disrupted by the advent of a reproductive invader.Alien introduces woman crew members, including Ripley (Sigourney Weaver) who is the only one to survive the alien's onslaught. Ripley reappears as the protagonist in the 1986 sequel, this time as the cosmic vampire who knows the alien's real threat, and who at the end of the sequel, seems to have secured human reproduction from the alien's primitive multistage operation. The over-proximity of Ripley's encounter with the alien effaces the gendered terrain of a reproductive battle whose stake is the survival of patriarchy.

[18]   The 1979 Alien transposes threats to reproductive order from nostalgia to technology, while the 1986Aliens rewrites that transposition in more overtly gendered terms. The surface politics of Aliens seems to situate the intrepid Ripley as a feminist heroine. The smartest and most in tune with the alien, Ripley is the stalwart defense against the alien's further encroachment on human survival in the galaxy. As Susan Jeffords describes it, "Ripley thus seems to epitomize, both for the films and their many viewers, the type of a new woman, one who not only holds her own in a man's world, but is the only person to survive successfully in it."17Pointing out that the film takes place around the issue of maternity, Jeffords also insightfully links the alien's reproductive mechanisms to the "mother" company's commercial and controlling proliferations, making them both representatives of a "non-feminism" Ripley battles. In shifting from the "anti-feminist" company "Mother" of Alien to the "non-feminist" alien mother ofAliens, the sequence also sneakily aligns Ripley with the company. With this maternal shift Ripley's feminist heroism is appropriated for the company–for a patriarchy that has assumed the frightening form of transnational corporatism's syntagmatic simulacra in its ability to appropriate everything it touches as it spreads through space. Ripley's "feminism," Jeffords notes, "is thus not an independent stronghold for the `new' woman, but instead is an image appropriated by and constructed through the `new' corporatism, a corporatism that sees its own survival intimately linked to the production of a `new' woman who will take on and perform its nurturing tasks and insure its reproduction" (77). A smart act for space, a signal tactic for the Reagan 80s.

[19]   Narratively aligned with an implied reproductive rather than sexual difference, the alien's interpolations are gauged as alien, while what they really represent is a reproductive order already present in the system itself. The Company's colonizing parasitism is fearsomely dignified in the "biological" correlative offered by the alien. The alien whose reproduction seems primarily metonymic (accomplished through association and contagion) parallels the imperialist acquisitiveness of the digitalized company that infiltrates and converts planets to its use. While the alien seems a feminized vampiric threat to human order, its ability to penetrate human systems comes from the fact that human systems already accommodate the alien's reproductive logic just as human bodies easily accommodate the alien's larvae.

[20]   If the corporation has become a reordered purveyor of an order that works through metonymy, if its success occurs more on the order of a cancer than a family, and if that newer order is then displaced onto the alien as threat, it would seem that in fighting the spectre of this newer, cancerous vampiric order, Ripley becomes the survivor and champion of a nostalgic, older, more metaphorical, in fact old-time patriarchal order. In the course of the film she indeed becomes the metaphorical mother to an abandoned child; she finally relies on the traditional values of self-reliance and instinct instead of on the pyrotechnics of nuclear fission to destroy the alien.18 By thus referencing tradition, Ripley becomes the heroine of a familiar patriarchal order realized through its maternal correlates, fighting a new, perverse patriarchy that spreads itself without regard for species integrity by means of its monstrous maternal media. By linking both old and new patriarchies to feminized characters–Ripley and the alien–patriarchy can have it both ways without being implicated at all, particularly in so far as any of this reverberates a continuing 1980s' gender battle. The old order Ripley battles the new order alien; old order patriarchy is vindicated while new order patriarchy reaps the benefits.

[21]   These alignments are enabled by the film's close-up politics that persistently lose the larger fields of contrast and social significance. In its simultaneous deployment of the field of the microid imaged as alien and the excision of the social field through the use of series of overly close shots of human agents, Aliens loses the field that would enable us to keep track of the patriarchal affiliations and benefits of Ripley's battles. By deploying an enlarged microid field of tunnelled terrain suggestive of the features of the human female reproductive tract, Aliens engenders the field of operations and projects that suggestive engenderment back onto the psycho-ideological operation of the film's close-ups. While the spaceship in Alien retains the sterile artificial womb atmosphere of techno-culture, Aliens moves to a planet that is all too enmired in rain, mud, muck, discharge, cocoons, and the other incomprehensible and belatedly identified products of the alien's reproductive project. Appearing as a combination insect, dinosaur, bat, skeleton, deathshead, and vagina (or "penis") dentata, the alien conducts its reproductive attacks in an overly-corporeal battlefield that has shifted from the neat uterine metaphor of the space ship to the all too graphic terrain of the female reproductive system with its tubes, egg-room, and slime-covered cocoon repository.19

[22]   The field of inter-patriarchal reproductive battle is thus displaced onto an overly close set of images that uncannily reincarnate human reproduction, externalizing the stages of human embryo development in forms that look like the familiar metamorphic processes of butterflies and preying mantises. The alien's apparently atavistic reproduction recalls versions of human reproduction as imaged by the fullness of microvideographic close-up imaging technologies. The logic of alien development is familiar, but what has also become familiar is its graphic resemblance to the contemporary microscopically-envisioned images of human reproduction.20 While we might remember the stages of insect development, it is only as we envision human pre-uterine and uterine existence, or as that vision becomes culturally immediate through microvideographic technology, that the alien's cycles reverberate with our own, detached and enlarged. Laying eggs in a monstrous version of fallopian activity, the alien procreates in a manner that echoes the human, but on a much larger scale. The eggs eventually hatch into small spider-like creatures that vaguely resemble boney foetuses with their probing, parasitic umbilici. While the human floats into and attaches to a womb, emerging eventually through a "mouth," the alien foetus attaches itself to a human "womb" or cocoon through the mouth, gestating there until it emerges rather apocalyptically in a reverse penetration from the solar plexus as a larger infantile version of the adult. The ensuing alien offspring is an uncanny version of the child–threatening, rambunctious, screaming its pterodactyl version of need. The literal images of this reproductive scenario play out a systemic battle through the overly close contrast between what is positioned as a primitive metonymy (impregnation through contact) practiced by the alien and an invisible and only metaphorical, heterological parenting located in Ripley's relations with her cat and the orphan Newt.

[23]   The micro-scale similarities between alien and human reproduction, however displaced and distorted, also convey a threat very much like the close-up's dangerous "loss of recognition" articulated by Aumont. If reproduction is located in the microscopic recesses of the female body blown up to celestial magnitude, then there is no distinction between inner and outer space, no difference between a slowly whirling egg in a PBS documentary (that likens the egg to a heavenly body) and the vastness of space in which humans become like gametes.21 But seeing too much may also undermine notions of heterogeneity, especially when such vision facilitates cloning and gene splicing. While images of human genesis center, fascinated, on the sperm's wriggling penetration of the egg, the alien produces fertile eggs by herself. Her autogenic reproduction challenges the heterologous law of human reproduction on a level we wouldn't ordinarily begin to see. Laying eggs at a furious pace, the alien seems to reproduce herself by herself. Even if she is a monstrous version of a queen bee fertilized once elsewhere by a disposable drone, the paternal function is missing in images of her reproduction. She presents the spectre of parthenogenesis, a capability imaginable in human reproductive technology, but frightful in its apparition of paternal obsolescence. Even as she seems defiantly independent, the detachment of her reproductive stages images the new patriarchy of reproductive technology, our own current capacity for the disengagement of reproductive parts and stages that, threatening to mess with paternal order, must be recontrolled by it. And the film can image detachable reproductivity because it has excised the field. The alien's threat–its ability to reproduce itself without reference to a field of human meaning–is like the close-up itself, increasingly reproduced without reference to other spatial fields. Both substitute an atavistic or nostalgic field in the place of social and political relevance.

[24]   The film's bevy of facial close-ups might seem to equal and counter the microid field of the alien's reproductive challenge. By counterposing facial close-ups to the alien's reproductive field rendered through medium to medium long shots, Aliens constructs the illusion that there is a contrast between the alien's threat and the close-up's fullness, the close-up seeming to answer for the alien's unknown or all-too-familiar threat. This produces a delusive dichotomy between the alien's threatening unauthorized reproductions and the close-up's comforting fullness. The film's consistent overuse of close-up shots which increasingly disallow perspective and proportion, also produces claustrophobia. Reminiscent neither of a primal scene nor of some uterine experience, this close-up claustrophobia registers in a fear of threatened blindness of castration and prohibition as well as in a feeling of myopia. The film occasionally links this myopia to the alien via point of view shots; but the close-ups also perform alienation by excising the field of inter-human relations. Single heads filling limited spaces emphasize singularity over solidarity; group shots in the film actually increase tension by doubling paranoid images. Not only is each mission member unsure of the others, the entire group is imaged as unsure of its position in relation to the alien's threat. Aliens's close-ups, thus, don't so much excise a field as they reproduce in themselves the threatening field the alien already represents. Because the larger political and ideological stakes of the battle against the aliens are associated with specific team members (Ripley with wise instinct, Burke with the Company, Hicks with humanity, Hudson with humanity's weak side, the android Bishop with a matter-of-fact mechanical), the claustrophobic field appears to condense and enhance the drama of a clash of interests. But this focus on individuals is delusive; there is no field but the field reiterated in the close-up; close-ups organized in a extended series fight enlarged versions of the alien's more metonymical reproduction with only the illusion of a different perspective.

[25]   The close-up signals the regime of blinded scrutiny the alien's representation entails. We are too close to see; with no field our perspective is limited to the local and the particulate. The close-up is the correlate of the alien head that emerges from the head of the alien, its toothsome mouth approaching too close to its human challenger, representing an ever opening face of projection, a perpetually telescoping perspective, and vertiginous view that brings us to the face of death, the true and final uncanny located not in what we see, but in how we see it.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind; or Field Excision

[26]   Scott's 1991 Thelma and Louise returns to Aliens' questions of the field and patriarchy, demonstrating even more clearly how a systemic proliferation of close-ups enables the ideological separation of female protagonists from the field of social action.Thelma and Louise reproduces a crisis in a field situated as the metaphorical locus of a battle for female enfranchisement, liberation, and self-realization. Squeezed into the comforting mold of the traditionally male buddy film, Thelma and Louise appears to trace the narrative journey of female resistance, empowering in its images of feminist response to centuries of oppression–shooting a rapist, having an orgasm, blowing up a sexist teamster's truck, deciding to die rather than give in. If read symbolically as gestures countering a patriarchal field of oppression, cinema's traditionally dismissive and/or misogynist representations of women, or representations of women in western culture, Thelma and Louise's actions seem cathartic and revolutionary.

[27]   But how one reads this film depends largely on the field one sees; and the film's strategic use of the close-up makes certain that only the illusion of a field ever appears, a field itself excised by the ideological exigencies of the film's overly-prominent close-ups. Like television baseball, Thelma and Louise seems to give us what we want while expunging its paradigmatic significance. Critical discussions of Thelma and Louise present this problem with the field in the form of questions about the film's difficult and widely-varied (even fanatical) responses. Film Quarterly and Cineasteboth published symposia of film critics' contrasting impressions of the film that focused around such issues as whether Thelma and Louise is "a male nightmare of emasculating women run amok" or a "parable of female bonding;" whether it portrays "women breaking their chains and liberating themselves" and "impl[ies]   that `all forms of sexual exploitation, great and small, are consequential and damaging'" or "`[sends]   the message that little ground has been won'."22In any case, as Cineaste insightfully observes, "the film has tapped into the depths of gender conflict in our culture, as evident in the striking similarity between such questions raised in the media and those raised in national debate over gender, language, and law during the Clarence Thomas confirmation hearings" (28).

[28]   Spectators' responses, as Lynda Hart observes, also replicate critical extremes, reflecting on the one hand "the familiar denunciation, couched in aesthetic terms, of [the film's]   lack of verisimilitude" and on the other "the fear that its content is all too imitable."23 The film's affective and political ambiguities parallel one another precisely around the issue of law; not the law of gender in society, that is, traditional patriarchy, but around principles of order itself as a symbolic crisis plays out in the film's narrative and in its image system–in the relation between its close-ups and their absent fields. While it may appear that the narrative of women taking the law into their own hands is threatening, what is more menacing is the way the film's close-up excision of contrasting fields a) enables the film's vicious ambiguity; b) enacts and contains threats to patriarchy; and c) casts patriarchal crises as local feminist concerns so that women's images bear the brunt of patriarchal anxieties. This last effect reinforces a cultural tendency to displace anxieties about paternity, power, and continuity onto women in the first place. In so doing the film performs a disciplinary function in clearer terms than when patriarchal anxiety is allied with women's literal liberation, the image of Aliens. freedom seems to authorize change, while punishing liberation appears to salvage the system. If the system itself is out of kilter, the women's challenge produces the kind of patriarchal chaos represented by Thelma's rude and insensitive husband Darryl stepping in his pizza. But patriarchy quickly recovers itself, working quickly, "professionally," and above all, sympathetically, to corner the outlaws.

[29]   Superficially, Thelma and Louise appears to contrast two visual fields: the field of patriarchy that consists of institutions (the police, motels, businesses, bars, gas stations, communications technologies, and the home) and the women's field which no longer appears to be some stereotypical female space in patriarchy–kitchen, restaurant, bed–but an outlaw space produced by the women's narrative boundary crossing and figured as a vast desert, distant mountains, or the expansive range of the face. These two fields are linked to specific filmic distances; the patriarchal is imaged primarily in medium to long shots that constantly locate the characters in a perspectivally proportioned field, foreground against background, with figures visible and identifiable against their context. When alone, the women are imaged primarily in close-ups that cut out the field, isolating and alienating the women from any context at all. Close-ups follow close-ups in sustained sequences that defy traditional continuity editing rhythms by reducing the number of re-establishment shots. The women's faces appear large and luminous, often in shallow focus against an indeterminate blur. Taken mainly in the car, the close-ups are unnaturally close, so close as to make the open road seem like a closed closet. Louise and Thelma's faces appear in close-up together, seemingly providing an image of a female bond, but also demonstrating the interchangability and commonality of the faces, a disindividuation that contributes to their generic femaleness. And even if the two characters can be carefully distinguished by their relative states of calm, as the film continues they become more and more indistinguishable not only because they begin to act alike, but also because the accumulated weight of close-up images has rendered them commensurate. These close-ups alternate with what appears to be a field imaged in extreme long shots of spectacular western landscapes against which Louise's tiny car is barely discernable and only identifiable by narrative implication. Big woman images juxtaposed to images of a big empty landscape play against authority's renaissance perspectives, but in their large scale, women and landscape become too much the same.

[30]   The film's system of camera distances is completely articulated with the narrative, though in a way that creates an ideologically convenient set of contradictions reflected in the film's reception and criticism. When the women exist within society or communicate with male characters, they are imaged primarily in medium to medium long shots. When they are alone together, they are presented overwhelmingly in medium close to close-up shots. While the neat inverse correlation of camera distance to the women's distance from a patriarchal social would seem to make an almost allegorical sense–longer shots place them within their environment, close-ups detach them–the allegory is suspiciously like the performance of a naturalized ideology of the woman's place where in the proper perspective women have a proper context, while the close-up seems to provide them with too much independence and agency. And like ideology this tidy allegory obscures certain disturbing contradictions such as the meaning of the close-up's hyperbolic inter-relation with the extreme long shot as a way of presenting the illusion of context, but also as a way to erase context with the landscape's alternative brand of imagistic fullness.

[31]   What then appears to be a formal, imagistic reification of the women's alienation from patriarchy actually reenacts a rift between the commodity ideology fixed on separable contiguous (or metonymically arranged) images of the close-up and the patriarchy's continuing enactment of a comforting relational institutional economy. More than just what Hart calls the film's "`incoherent geography'," "the oxymoronic logic of a narrative that sets out to show the impossible–two women together outside the confines of the patriarchal symbolic" (436), the contrast of these fields performs the threat posed by emerging logics of contiguity incarnated by the computer and viral models of contagion as those are displaced onto the women themselves by means of the proliferated close-up. Thelma and Louise's escape and recapture contains this threat, not as the impossibility of women together, but as the necessary restitution of patriarchal power.

[32]   The "impossible" female relation is made entirely possible through its inscription in and containment by the close-up that excises the patriarchal field which it might threaten but which also, and more immediately, threatens it. Sustaining an ideologically-motivated split between Thelma and Louise and their field of social action, the film prevents any visual association among the deeds of the women, the culture that compels them, and the men who pursue them, isolating their challenges to the status quo, and making readings of the film's overtly conservative gestures difficult. By displacing the threat of the organizational failure of patriarchy into the threat of feminism and separating that feminism from the visual field via the emblematic over-use of close-up images, the film salvages the tatters of patriarchy by imaging the apparent self-destruction of an independent female subjectivity in the face of Hal Slocum's (Harvey Keitel) compassionate paternalism.

[33]   The stakes of this defused struggle against patriarchy reemerge in the self-contradictions performed by the film's practice of proliferating close-ups, that is, stacking close-ups in sequence without re-establishing space, or playing the close-ups against extreme long shots. On the one hand, it would appear that these stylistically beneficent, but overdetermined close-ups function exactly as they should in this narrative. If we consider Deleuze's analysis of the close-up's functions, then Thelma and Louise's faces are synecdochal of their struggle and commensurate in size to our interest in them. The close-up involves an exchange of the relative dimensions of the field and the part, trading proximity for relativity which simultaneously threatens the integrity of the field by fragmenting it and restores unity by providing a large-scale cohesive image in its place. The film's use of close-ups parallels Thelma and Louise's challenge to patriarchal hegemony while reasserting them into a patriarchal economy. The focus on Thelma and Louise substitutes the fullness of a new dimension of privatized female bonding for the threatened field of patriarchy. Finally, the "deterritorialized" close-up image individuates the women by substituting the facial part for the whole, while simultaneously suspending individuation by removing the context upon which the image depends. In this way Thelma and Louise as individuals are reduced to the generic "woman."

[34]   If we connect this Deleuzian reading of the close-up's strategies with the insights of psychoanalytic articulations of image and sexual difference in cinema, we might see that Deleuze's notion of deterritorialization is also an ambivalent denial of the very existence of the close-up as a spacial fragment depending on and created by an off-screen space that it inevitably connotes and obliterates. In other words, Deleuze's ideas about the close-up parallel a naturalized gendered logic that makes Thelma and Louise's close-ups seem natural. Thelma and Louise's close-ups' lack of traditional editing grammar and narrative field may situate them within what Stephen Heath terms "the luminous sense of [their]   film presence, [their]   cinema," a detachment that substitutes image as image, as a value in itself, for the potential restoration of unity. This would suggest, then, that close-ups of Thelma and Louise function as fetish images in the sense that their lack of field invites an "investment in . . . fragment for its own sake, as the end of the accomplishment of desire."24 And in this way a metonymical logic is cemented to gender in a narrative that portrays that gender's discipline.

[35]   But the close-up's inscription of the fetish as conceived by classical film theory is also contradicted by its hyperbolic closeness. If, as Mary Ann Doane suggests, proximity disenables the ambivalent operation of fetishism, then these close-up images might simultaneously work as fetishes and disallow the fetish function, inscribing and contradicting the possibility of any metaphorical operation.25 In Thelma and Louise, close-ups eliminate the background; their faces do not work as fetishes, nor do the characters since they, too, are separated from their context. The close-up's contradictions–it is emphatic, privatized, and individuating while also generalized, imagistic and potentially fetishistic–serve and subvert the naturalized gender ideologies around the woman's image. And as in Aliens, the close-up provides a concomitant claustrophobia as fearsome as the image is full. In fact the close-up image is not full, but so full it is empty, empty like the desert landscape, so empty that its emptiness refers back to the patriarchal "fullness" the women have left.

[36]   The close-up thus represents a tangible anxiety; it is the locus of a menacing order–the same order represented by the alien–rather than the "menacing" women whom it images, though it also comforts by displacing this threat onto the woman imaged. Thelma and Louise's actions may be outlaw, but they are not out of order. Killing, stealing, and suicide belong to a metaphorized patriarchy; Louise's act of murder is a metaphorical (even symbolic) act, one that shuts up Thelma's disrespectful assailant. Thelma's hold-ups are not only imitations of J.D.'s (Brad Pitt) performance, they are full of verbal metaphors. And the women's suicide, imaged as an endless floating over a vast empty space, is an over-invested metaphor that simultaneously represents their relation to patriarchy and the relation of a metonymical image to its excised field.

[37]   Like the alien who stands in for the invasion of patriarchy by a fearsome other order, Thelma and Louise's close-ups bear the burden of patriarchy's symbolic confusions. By so fulsomely, joyfully, and gratifyingly serving as the locus for displacement of threats to patriarchal order, Thelma and Louise's world and its destruction contain the threat of this invading order. But Thelma and Louise isn't a simple matter of preserving a threatened patriarchal symbolic. Rather, it makes safe patriarchy's own shift from relational metaphors to a commodified metonymy. By sacrificing the women who are imaged primarily in close-up series (metonymy), the metonymical appears to be retrieved–taken back–by the patriarchy it threatens. This is finally the film's recuperative gesture. While we might read the women's suicide as a continued resistance, the film's narrative of a battle against a counter-order is actually the narrative of a shift to that order. Pursued, anticipated, cornered, the women's deviance is conquered, not by an old-order patriarchy that depended on metaphors of duty and place to keep women in line, but by a new technological patriarchy that traces the contiguous map and telephone lines of the women's escape attempt. Compassionate Hal Slocum anticipates Thelma and Louise's metonymical logic, while cleverly deploying the more metaphorical forces of persuasion and sympathy.

[38]   Detection counters Thelma and Louise's coherent map geography as one road leads to another. Their problem is that the end confronts them with a giant gap–no further contiguity to jump to, a barrier they cannot surmount except metaphorically. Patriarchy's helicopter-filled pursuit wins as Thelma and Louise go over the edge. Whether that going is resistant, triumphant, lesbian, tragic, or predictable, it is a metaphor that aligns patriarchal discipline with the colonization and transformation of an emerging symbolic order. By making the women's faces a saturated field of significance, the film hides the more significant symbolic shift its close-ups enact. This film isn't about a return to status quo, but represents a process of symbolic restructuring. Paternalism, as the example of the kind detective illustrates, no longer suffices to salvage order or meaning; the paternal must appropriate the digital, wield technology, and the syntagmatic counter-logic incarnated by the close-up. The film's original ending–one where Thelma and Louise would continue to drive away at the bottom of the Grand Canyon–might have supplied the much more systemically threatening resonance of the literalized metaphor, the one operated by women in a world that has become a Nintendo game. But test audiences proved that such an ending was unrealistic. Bare-faced metonymy doesn't win on its own; it must be refigured as an order willing to absorb the metaphorical tragedy of order's demise and resurrection.

[39]   Close-ups are a lure that distract us from the conditions that produce their pre-eminence. Satisfaction and claustrophobia signal neither a more fulsome nor smaller world, but rather an elision produced by the representational tactics that make us ignore the loss of the field. Rather than be seduced by the close-up's delusions of knowledge and power, we must constantly regain the field to work against the erasures and ideological sleights of hand that perpetuate the status quo and control the terms of change.


  1. Aliens, 1986, dir. James Cameron, starring Sigourney Weaver and Michael Biehn; Thelma and Louise, 1991, dir. Ridley Scott, starring Susan Sarandon, Geena Davis, Harvey Keitel, and Brad Pitt. back
  2. This would include all of the notions of Truth included among Jean-Francois Lyotard's "legitimating meta-narratives" in The Postmodern Condition: A Report on Knowledge, trans. Geoff Bennington and Brian Massumi (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1989). back
  3. For a fuller account of these compensatory images, see myReproductions of Reproduction: Imaging Symbolic Change (New York: Routledge, 1996). back
  4. This notion of metaphor is connected to Jacques Lacan's notion of the Law-of-the-Name-of-the-Father. For more on this concept see Francois Regnault, "The Name-of-the-Father," in Reading Seminar XI: Lacan's "Four Fundamental Concepts of Psychoanalysis," ed. Richard Feldstein, et al (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1995), 65-74. back
  5. Quincy, a late-70s television show starring Jack Klugman, often deployed images viewed through the microscope as uncontestable evidence that solves the mystery of the death of the week. PBS occasionally airs documentaries about gestation and fertilization that employ the microvideographic camera. Blade Runner (1982), directed by Ridley Scott and starring Harrison Ford and Rutger Hauer and The Terminator(1984), directed by James Cameron and starring Arnold Schwarzenegger and Linda Hamilton both employ micro- and digital technologies to shift the scale of fields of identification and identity. back
  6. Garry Whannel, Fields in Vision: Television Sport and Cultural Transformation (London and New York: Routledge, 1992), 35-36. back
  7. The commodification of players on the one hand, and the owners' coinciding understanding of players as properties led to the 1994 baseball strike which essentially cancelled the season. In 1998, the home run derby battle between Mark McGwire and Sammy Sosa rekindled interest in baseball, but only in relation to the race to break the home run record. back
  8. Hugo Münsterberg, The Film: A Psychological Study (New York: Dover, 1970), 38-39. back
  9. Sergei Eisenstein, "Dickens, Griffith, and the Film Today" Film Form, trans. Jay Leyda (New York: Meridian Books, 1968), 238. back
  10. Lev Kuleshov, Kuleshov on Film, trans. Ronald Levaco (Berkeley: University of California Press, 1974), 50. back
  11. Jacques Aumont, Alain Bergala, Michel Marie, Marc Vernet,Aesthetics of Film, trans. Richard Neupert (Austin: University of Texas Press, 1992), 28. 6. Jacques Aumont, Montage Eisenstein, trans. Lee Hildreth, Constance Penley, and Andrew Ross (Bloomington, Indiana University Press, 1987), 188. back
  12. Gilles Deleuze, Cinema I, trans. Hugh Tomlinson and Barbara Habberjam (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1986), 97. back
  13. This is a summary of Deleuze's reading of the close-up fromCinema I, pages 87-101. back
  14. Baseball statistics, contract stories, comparisons with other players, mention of records–all provide the substance of a larger, more abstract narrative of baseball within which any player's actions are meaningful. This larger narrative, which tends to focus on individuals in relation to the history of the game rather than on the game itself, supplies a different paradigm as a substitute field. back
  15. Star Trek (both the original and The Next Generation) occasionally air episodes in which the space ship becomes a gamete in space or encounters a large single-cell organism in space, suggesting that space is finally really the scale of the infinitesimal. back
  16. Alien, directed by Ridley Scott, starred Tom Skerrit, Sigourney Weaver and The Thing, directed by Howard Hawkes was remade in 1982 by John Carpenter, starring Kurt Russell. back
  17. Susan Jeffords, "`The Battle of the Big Mamas': Feminism and the Alienation of Women" Journal of American Culture 10.2 (Fall 1987): 73-84 at 73. back
  18. Various critics remark on Ripley's suitability for her role, whether that role is feminist avenger or patriarchal apologist. See for example, Thomas B. Byers, "Commodity Futures" Alien Zone, ed. Annette Kuhn (London: Verso, 1990), 39-50; Judith Newton, "Feminism and Anxiety in Alien" Alien Zone, 82-87; Jeffords' essay cited, supra. back
  19. Anthony Ambrogio describes the alien as a "penis dentata" in "Alien: In Space No One Can Hear Your Primal Scream," in Donald Palumbo, ed. Eros in the Mind's Eye" Sexuality and the Fantastic in Art and Film(New York: Greenwood, 1986), 169-179 at 174. back
  20. Both Carol Stabile and Giuliana Bruno discuss the politics of microimaging reproduction. See Carol Stabile, "Shooting the Mother: Feral Photography and the Politics of Disappearance,"Camera Obscura 28 (1992), 179-206; and Giuliana Bruno, "Spectatorial Embodiments: Anatomies of the Visible and the Female Bodyscape," Camera Obscura 28 (1992), 239-262. back
  21. "The Miracle of Life" (1982), broadcast through the auspices of photographed by Lennart Nilsson. back
  22. For spirited discussions of this, see "Should We Go Along for the Ride: A Critical Symposium on Thelma and Louise," Cineaste18.4 (1992), 28-36 (the material cited is from page 28) and "The Many Faces ofThelma and Louise," Film Quarterly, 45.2 (Winter 1991-92), 20-31. back
  23. Lynda Hart, "'Til Death Do Us Part: Impossible Spaces inThelma and Louise," Journal of the History of Sexuality 4.3 (1994), 430-446 at 437. back
  24. Stephen Heath, Questions of Cinema (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1981), 183. back
  25. Mary Ann Doane, "Femmes Fatales: Feminism, Film Theory, Psychoanalysis (New York and London: Routledge, 1991), 23-24. For a different reading of the fetish, see E. L. McCallum, Object Lessons: How to Do Things With Fetishism (Albany: State University of New York Press, 1998). back