Faces

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by Emilio DeGrazia • There are moments when my father’s face, twisting itself into a smile or smirk or surrender, is mine. As I watch him I feel I am watching myself––but not, as some would think, merely imagining how much I resemble him. No, in those moments I am him, not a chip off the old block but the same carved surface on the identical block.

Emilio DeGrazia has authored four books of fiction, including Seventeen Grams of Soul, winner of a Minnesota Book Award, and Enemy Country, winner of a Writer’s Choice Award. A founding editor of Great River Review, he has co-edited (with his wife Monica) 26 Minnesota Writers and 33 Minnesota Poets. His most recent book is a collection of essays entitled Burying the Tree. He lives downstream in Winona.All Downstream blog entries ©2008 Emilio DeGrazia.

To think this way is, of course, insane, or the function of an alien, perhaps Hindu, metaphysics I’ve never wholly understood. But feeling, subject only to its illogical positivism, has its own promiscuous way of confirming the reality of things.

In what sense am I present in my father’s face? I don’t need to look closely to see that his lines are mine––that his eyes retreat when he disapproves, or that his lips curl into a smile, or that his beliefs, often unlike mine, harden behind his brows. Together we go way back, my face in his and his in his father’s and mine in my grandfather’s face in a regression that allows me to see that I indeed am some ancient Adam’s child. It’s as if the genetic plasma from which I was begot could not entirely tear itself away from a field of force that keeps pulling me back so that now and then I find myself there again, in my father’s face.

I remember the folk advice my father offered when I brought home the first girl I seriously intended to marry: “Before you decide,” he said, “look closely at the mother.”

So when a tempting lovely face passes by I have it more than one way: What does her mother look like, I ask, and what would the young lovely look like if she were her own mother?

*

If there are thirteen ways of looking at a blackbird, imagine the four and twenty baked in a pie. With mathematical certainty we potentially have at least 312 views of those poor fowls. For too long I’ve had the habit of staring at sidewalks even when I’m on the laziest stroll, so I occasionally revisit the Wallace Stevens poem to bring myself to my senses again. The poem has a way of unscrewing my eyes from those deep sockets buried in The Self. With renewed eyes a blackbird becomes more than just a black bird standing in a tree that is just a big green thing standing in the way.

I see, for example, that blackbirds are variably black, especially when sunlight displays the rainbows shimmering on their wings. Now I want to see blackbirds up close, every which way. I wonder about their faces, especially the four and twenty in that pie. Do birds have faces by which they can tell each other apart, express longing, calm, desire, anger, fear and despair? How dull is our intelligence, that it reduces a bird’s face to beak and eyes?

Mona Lisa, also a black bird of sorts, comes to mind, along with at least four and twenty hundred million other women behind veils. And here I am, with only 311 views currently available to me.

*

In his book Theory of Film the astute Hungarian critic Bela Balazs lamented that books (like his) “gradually rendered illegible the faces of men.” He had high hopes that film, the new exciting technology of his time, would give people “new faces” by renewing interest in visual culture. “What appears on the face and in facial expression,” Balazs wrote, “is a spiritual experience which is rendered immediately visible without the intermediary of words.”

I try to conjure what the expression on Balazs’ face might be whenever I see a couple of thirty-foot Hollywood heads filling the screen with the spiritual experience of a Hollywood kiss. The facial landscapes are lovely and large indeed, the woman’s as smooth and sun-tanned as desert sands, the hero’s rugged enough to remind us that he’s hard underneath. I wonder too: Who’s holding the camera, and how far away from the lips? Who’s got a grip on the key grip? Is the woman in charge of sound playing solitaire somewhere on the set? Who’s running the lights, and how many more takes will it take to get the kiss take right?

Faces matter in film. They’re maybe the main bottom line factor. In the small privacy I enjoy in cinema’s dark factory of dreams I want a face to connect to, one I can hate or love, call mine for the long fantasy moments I gaze at the screen. And films give us faces worth gazing at, many we’ve never seen before, some telling us their wonderful stories, often silently. We even have two films, Bergman’s “Face to Face” and Cassavetes “Faces,” both worthy of making a prophet of Belazs.

But the machinery of film is also a complex screen, a form of make-up poured on by a host of players paid to get in on the face’s act. Actors are not hired because of their ability to have spiritual experiences. What matters most is whether a face will do its part to sell a film, and how well an actor can turn the semblance of genuine emotion on as soon as the cameras roll. Behind the face are the make-up crew, script, focal length, filter, director’s instructions, etc. Except in documentary moments it is naïve to believe that a face on screen is not as calculated as one painted in oils on a canvas.

There’s perhaps more to be said on behalf of the authenticity of the painted face. For hundreds of years painters, especially of portraits, made long and slow careers of representing faces by way of nuanced brushstrokes calculated to unmask salient marks of character; and still photography also had the power to give us pause, fix our studied gaze on an image long enough for it to stir imagination from its sleep. But while the machinery of movies stands invisibly to one side making an artifice of the face we see on screen, film directors eager to sustain their moving pictures within the content curves of five second shots cut faces away, so we see them as we more naturally see strangers in real life—on the move, mainly away from us. A face in a movie rarely gives us sufficient pause to consider, reflect, read its textures as texts in the same way we conjure intimate narratives lurking in the lips and eyes of a Mona Lisa who sits silent and still, reading us, at a table across the room in a coffee shop.

*

Our language undermines our efforts to put proper faces on faces. When I’m told to “face facts” I’m expected to reduce experience to static cartoon with bold outlines that obscure the backsides and nuances of complex realities. “Face it,” we are told whenever someone wants to whisk us away from what’s hidden away, the ambiguities lurking in dim histories mainly dark. Facts faced harden into belief behind brows suddenly determined to put a good face on things, especially on those most common convictions rooted in superstitions that require us to ignore the obvious. Thus does Jesus Christ, in all his versions, continue to walk on water in so many lands, and thus do tyrants, democratic and otherwise, get away with getting us to think they’re working for Justice, Freedom, and Peace. And thus does much of Western Civilization’s monumental art, secular and religious, serve as a façade for its nations’ horrific incivilities.

*

The made-up face turns heads. Rouge, mascara, eyeliner, lipstick—the stuff of billion dollar alchemies rooted in ancient village practices from Ur to the outback of Australia. Here, in the civilized West, women faithfully observe their makeup rituals. Since the boring is bad business and busi-ness is change, makeup landscapes are works in progress endlessly reshaped. Carefully, at times lovingly and artfully, faces are retouched, as if self-love––an experiment, quest, and discipline played out on the canvas of the face––is at stake. Each face put on is an advertisement for an assumed self in which there lurks scorn, playfulness, longing, anger, hunger or desire. On busy sidewalks the id is a streetwalker showing off her masks, especially proud to sally into church to display herself while vulnerability and innocence, confined indoors, keep watch.

If a woman’s face in New York is a colorful mask, her veil in Saudi Arabia is a dark curtain that is at once window and closet door. In these closets women’s eyes, barred from advertising their minds, enjoy the freedom conferred on imprisoned privacy. Desire, disapproval, the sneer of cold command have no place on the veil, but all is permitted in the small space behind. There the veiled woman has a room of her own, dark as her eyes. From there she can spy on public traffic from the safety of her miserable indoor haunt. In her world the super-ego lives a blank public life while the resentful id stays indoors, playing its dramas as shadows on the walls of her cave.

*

My friend Richard’s teenage daughter once photocopied her face. It’s an awkward picture—the girl placing her head down on the photocopier flatbed, then closing the lid gently over her self as she twists her hand toward the “Print” button to start up this new form of vanity press. Though she doubtless had no fear of burying herself alive this way, her self-publication had eerie results, particularly since the machine only expressed itself in black and white. When the sheet finally came out of the machine the poor girl, quite beside herself, gave a small shriek before she balled herself up and threw herself away in the wastebasket.

Naturally she has lovely colors in her face, but the machine didn’t have eyes for them. What she saw was neither X-ray, hologram, nor line drawing. Rather it made a ghost of her.

*

The shaved head, unadorned, conjures my worst chemotherapy fears. Skin isn’t thick enough, even when elaborately adorned, to shield me from the bone-white nudity of a skull. A brow may wrinkle and flesh sag from cheeks in peculiar ways, but these variations don’t detract us from a skull’s basic theme. A face on a shaved skull is a Halloween mask pulled tight enough to show the meltdown of flesh and line. Except for the eyes, two bloated feelers alone in their small caves, pallor dominates, its yellow hue fading to gray as we conjure the brain crammed into its casing of bone. Within that casing the mind devolves into brain mass heaped like a ball of intestines, the same mass that has evolved into the inscrutable sensing device feeling its way through the eyes.

If we dare to crack the skull like the two halves of a walnut shell, our eyes would be taken by the two eyes mired in brain mass and bulging with wonder at the weirdness of life. Imagine hundreds and millions of us walking around skull-less. Perhaps we like to save face because it keeps us from conjuring the skull. Too basic, and as blank as the terrifying whiteness of Melville’s whale, the skull democratizes death.

*

We sense a sameness in the faces of children with Down’s Syndrome, the distinct roundeur, bulging sad eyes, full cheeks and parted lips dulling to uniformity the rich swirl of emotions, impressions, pleasures and pains that define this gentle brand of humanity. It’s hard not to believe that nature has a prejudice to replicate identities, with close replications proof of success. Cloning comes to mind.

And cloning especially gives me the creeps. In a mirror I see another me. Imagine two dozen more of the same me walking around—how this would trouble my lovely wife Monica and diminish this Jack into an even duller boy. See all twenty-four of me as we gather in the same room and peer in the same mirror, our heads bobbing around without wondering if we’re about to be baked in a pie.

Give me faces and variations on faces, pained or not with all the colors under the sun. And give me hair on heads, even a woman sporting a beard.

*

My mutt Samantha, or “Sam,” is an elderly mutt who insists on taking me on her walk every night, preferring to snooze the bright afternoons away. She’s hairy and smart enough to stay out of the noonday sun, but nights have a special allure for her, as if in the darkness she can savor what’s otherwise tasteless in the purifying light of day. Every tug on the leash pulls me off the beaten track toward some debris or tuft of grass into which she can bury her nose and drink odors deeply in. What she sees in these odors I can’t fathom. I’m convinced her eyes are really in her nose.

A dog’s face––unless it’s one of those pug varieties evolved from head-on collisions with Mack trucks––seems specially engineered to feature the snout. From terriers and collies to beagles and black labs the dog face seems mainly nose, the cold wet nub on the end serving as subtle sensor-valve to the snout’s vast chamber and its swirl of fragrances threading their way from there into the brain. Except when its ears are erect with alarm requiring a long intense view, a dog seems content to lead a chthonic life that makes vision an afterthought. For a dog the nose leads the way, the eyes serving as background brokers, lacking final enforcement authority, between nose and brain.

No wonder then that when dogs get a certain whiff of things they lose their minds and go entirely blind. When they’re seriously keeping their nose to the ground their sniffers have erections strong enough to tear any hand away from any leash.

Seeing-eye dogs, therefore, are misnamed. They lead us mainly by the nose, usually intelligently away from trouble. Politicians should all have at least one. Maybe the main difference between dogs and people is that when the blind of any political or religious breed lead the blind, we all fall into the ditch.

*

When the loveliest ones happen by, the faces that qualify for the covers of glamour magazines, my insect eyes poise themselves on the ends of long feelers that begin nosing the air. Wherever I am––café, crowd, and church––my antennae are up and about sniffing for a glimpse of the loveliest face in the place. Always the sneaky search for the loveliest one, the standard version featured in Hollywood pictures and TV ads. These faces have an inexorable allure, put us under arrest or make us run for cover, just to get a better look. Our prejudice for what’s odd or striking is trumped by the spell of the beautiful, as if our predilection to select experience, sort it out and thereby make sense of it, is driven by a primal instinct that favors the conventionally well-formed and beautiful.

When my feelers find her, or her closest approximation, they pull back, still erect and especially sensitive to any glance coming my way before circumstances beyond my control require me to tuck my tail between my legs and move on.

This quest for the stereotype is standard operating procedure for me––even during blizzards and rain too thick to justify keeping the sunglasses on.

I wonder if I’m guilty of Natural Selection, or unnatural acts. I watch other red-blooded males in a crowd, young and old going about their business as usual, and note that only a few have antennae as persistent as mine. Or, perhaps, the majority are more subtle and sly than I. In a stadium they seem taken by the ballgame; I scan the faces in the crowd, looking for her. I have a genuinely lovely wife, but still for me the loveliest stranger in the crowd is the only game in town.

It’s odd, by the way, how faces in a packed sports stadium dwarf the bodies they represent. Row after row of faces squat Humpty-Dumpty-like on their seats, the bulk of their bodies pedestals as invisible as their motives for paying good money to spend a few hours cheering out their brains.

I want to ask my Italian biologist friend if my yen for the beautiful face is the sneaky work of Natural Selection, its invisible hand doing the ruthless work of biological necessity, its doctrine of election favoring an aristocracy of the beautiful. Am I helplessly under the spell of a primal instinct encrypted in some non-relativistic strand of DNA deceptively resolving itself into the solipsism, “Beauty is in the eye of the beholder.” Do we have genes coaxing us to behave as if beauty is ruthlessly power-hungry?

Made you look,
Made you look,
Made you buy
A penny book.

I prefer to believe that I’m guilty of unnatural acts. Ugly ducklings, and the mass of ordinary faces I normally ignore, should take little aid and comfort from the way Natural Selection makes a sub-species of them. Every one of them, deserving of enfranchisement too, can only hope that Evolution fails.

It begins to fail when we nod toward the ordinarily invisible and search there for the lines that enable us to revise the codes locked into the beauty beheld by the eye of beholders. We might begin by seeing that the problem with glamour girls is that they are beautiful. Their beauty haunts me as much as it curses them to living up to their own standard of beauty all their lives, perhaps dooming them to squander years in front of mirrors that tempt them to let their beauty do all their work and thinking for them. We wonder how they will survive middle age, let alone help the human species survive. But we can’t blame them for turning our fool heads. They can’t help it as much as I can help myself.

I’m in training right now. I’ve noticed that I pay virtually no attention to nine out of ten faces (of either sex) that come and go. These faces, glimpsed in the same way scanning devices pass over the bar codes of canned fruit at the checkout counter of the supermarket, I identify only long enough to dismiss as too plain, or unremarkable, or strange, or ugly. In the plain light of day I am blind to most faces in front of my nose. I need to change my ways.

*

It takes self-discipline and courage to dwell on a face. A dwelling is a specific place where we take a good space of time to live. But try gazing long and hard at a face. A gaze caught in the act becomes a leer, and a leer invades privacy. When we gaze too long and hard we’re normally repaid with a glare warning us to stay on our own turf and with our own tribe. If glaring eyes had bullets in them we’d all be dead.

The harder problem is that most faces, unlike a book whose pages we can leaf through in a leisurely way, are in motion, challenging us to speedread them on their way. For the study of faces portraits and photos at least stand still, usually long enough for us to turn our attention to the way artists have applied the makeup of brushstrokes, color, light, lenses and other technical gimmickry to prejudice our view. But faces in real life don’t sit still even in chairs. The seats in an auditorium, schoolroom or church offer us hindsight at best, the backs of heads, and in the living rooms, barrooms, and coffeehouses where people mill about the faces are as fluid as streams of consciousness.

What can we really know about any static thing studied in isolation, divorced from contexts that include us as observers and objectified as an invariable operating outside its histories, and ours? The face is no butterfly or insect pinned down on black velvet felt.

So is there a science of faces? My discipline is simply poetic. What matters is that in the blur of experience I find a tell-tale detail to seize upon as a significant sign. I must learn to arrest myself in the act of dismissing the ordinary face, and in that moment stir up the concentrated curiosity normally visible in the eyes of well-fed small children perpetually reinventing their worlds. I need to train my gaze on the smile twisted by a cross-eyed curl of the lips, the tilt of the jawbone high and away saying hit me again if you dare, the birthmark afloat on the peach surface of a cheek, the spackled brown island just under the left eye, the yellow shine of the fully felt smile, the mole on the nostril, and, of course, mainly the eyes, the eyes, what they say to us truthfully, deceptively, silently. These are the facts of life of the real faces that come and go speaking of the Beatles and Michaelangelo, as they prepare faces to meet the faces that they meet.

The ancient philosopher Philo of Alexandria advised, “Be kind to everyone you meet, for everyone is fighting a great battle.” We know where to look. The face falls like bead curtains over the heart, veils it behind goggles and shades, fits over it like a tight rubber Halloween mask, the one that hurts when we peel it off. Faces, therefore, impose a heroic requirement on my poetic discipline, an extraordinary challenge to my very humanity. Can I take that mask from somebody else’s face, peel it down over mine, and see through its eyes?