Wednesday, December 30, 2020

Facing History: The Human Countenance

“There are quantities of human beings, but there are even more faces, for each person has several.” – Rainer Maria Rilke

Everybody has one – or even several, according to the poet Rilke. But how often do we actually contemplate not only the handsomeness or beauty of a face, but just what having a face at all means in the first place, and how a face communicates something about us to others long before we even open our mouths? Naturally every culture has differing definitions for what makes an agreeable face stylistically, but all cultures can tell an angry face from a happy one, a serene and comfortable face from one that connotes rage or fear. A face is the most central equipment for expressing feelings and character we have access to, one usually accepted as a means of signifying intelligence and power as well as an unavoidable “window into the soul.”

In the marvelous book The Face: Our Human Story, primarily an art book from Thames and Hudson and the British Museum following a landmark exhibition of facial representations, Debra Mancoff shows us how the changing face of our face is actually also the human story writ large, not with words but with emotional expressions we all apply by using exactly the same identical ingredients: two eyes, a nose, two ears, a mouth, and the landscape in which they are all situated. As the book illustrates, with captivating illustrations and sculptures from every culture and through every historical epoch, our face is totally central to our cultural identity, which can vary drastically, but also simply to our shared human identity, which never does or can.

Monday, December 28, 2020

Sadness and Joy: A Christmas Carol

Jefferson Mays in A Christmas Carol, available for streaming until January 3. (Photo: Chris Whitaker)

There have been dozens and dozens of straight dramatizations of Charles Dickens’s 1843 tale “A Christmas Carol” – on stage, on film, on radio and television, even more if we include novelties like Mr. Magoo’s Christmas Carol (1962), The Muppet Christmas Carol (1992) and the 2017 parody A Christmas Carol Goes Wrong by the English company Mischief Theatre. Scrooged, the updated 1988 version, written by Mitch Glazer and Michael O’Donoghue and directed by Richard Donner, with Bill Murray as the avaricious president of a TV network, is a special case: an imaginative retelling of the story that captures its spirit with astonishing precision, just as Glazer’s contemporary take on Great Expectations did a decade later. It is, I think, sublime – and the best thing Murray has ever done.