Today, the website Fandor published a terrific video essay by Kevin B. Lee called “The Spielberg Face,” about Spielberg’s use of close-ups throughout his career. Inspired in part by an earlier piece by Matt Patches, Lee makes the case that Spielberg has deployed the venerable cinematic technique as skillfully, and as thoughtfully, as anyone before or since, using it to depict everything from “sudden shock or creeping dread” to “the trauma of remembering the past, or of confronting the future, discovering humanity in another person, or discovering humanity in oneself.”
The close-up, Lee argues, is the definitive Spielberg shot: “If Spielberg deserves to be called the master of audience manipulation,” Lee says, “then this is his signature stroke.”
You can read a complete transcript of Lee’s narration here. His basic argument is that Spielberg has used the close-up as a stand-in for the audience’s reaction to the movies—and that, through his close-ups, Spielberg has interrogated that reaction, and its meaning, in film after film, starting with Close Encounters of the Third Kind. Lee sees that movie as the “breakthrough” for the director, a movie that is less about aliens than it is “about Spielberg discovering the full power of the face,” and exploring “the perpetual wonder of seeing things new.”
This video itself will help even the most veteran Spielberg fan see the director’s work anew. For one thing, it ends with a rousing defense of the occasionally maligned A.I.: Artificial Intelligence, which Lee calls Spielberg’s “most profound” reflection on the face and what it reveals. (Video essayists seem unusually fond of that film.) He also makes a persuasive argument that Spielberg’s close-ups have changed since 9/11.
If nothing else, you will at least come away with a more nuanced take on Laura Dern’s famous “Holy Shit, it’s a dinosaur!” face.