Film as a medium for portraiture has barely been explored.
Painting evolved a method of portraiture that by the sixteenth century had obtained a supreme profundity, combining the portrait as a record of appearance, at least of the powerful, and putting that person outside time and sometimes outside context, in its work of memorializing a celebration both of the particular person and of humanity in general, and the possibilities for humanity in general.
Photography then revives the art of portraiture, not to replace painting but to renew it. In renewing it, it democratises portraiture, taking it out of the ambit of an élite group with the proficiency and the painterly means to create good likenesses and the compelling presences that painted portraits can have. Now everyone’s likeness can be recorded, so that we all have a passport photo, or an identity card photo waiting to be used. Such images can appear in art photography emulating painting, or in the family snap, or in the prison mugshot, or – especially powerfully – in the grouped images of those sent to the Nazi death camps, or to the Gulag in the USSR.
What film can do is take this idea of documenting likeness and reinvent expressiveness. Renaissance painting did not freeze a face in time but, as I say, put it beyond time. Photography, with its split-second facility can freeze a face, a moment, and expression. But film can amplify these things immeasurably, giving us expression, whether settled or animated, and existing in time, not the split-second of the photograph but the face observed in time, the face in duration. Hence the radical brilliance of Andy Warhol’s film portraits (so much more compelling than his silk-screen ones which are exercises in decorating a face) because the face is directly under the scrutiny of the camera running for several minutes with no words spoken. Warhol puts his subject on the spot, as it were: what character will he or she reveal under his gaze?
Even the conventional television interview can take steps towards creating a film portrait of the person interviewed. This line of thought is prompted by coming across an interview with David Jones on YouTube. There was particular pleasure in finding this, since I have been a David Jones aficionado since coming across his poetry in the 1970s (first ‘The Sleeping Lord’ published in 1974, the next ‘In Parenthesis’ published in 1937, and then ‘The Anathemata’ published in 1952). In 1981 I saw the David Jones exhibition at the Tate Gallery which opened my eyes more fully not just to his pictures but to his lettering. Having got started then, I have regularly engaged with his work ever since, notably with the production of the ‘In Parenthesis’ opera by Ian Bell in 2016, done for the centenary of the Battle of the Somme.
Then earlier this year, I read the biography of Jones by Thomas Dilworth. I was under the impression that Jones had lived a life out of the spotlight, but the book rather dispelled that, doing so in various ways including by publishing a number of photographs taken throughout his life, some of which (see Google Images) are expressive and valuable in their own right.
But I wanted to see some film of him and thought this had eluded his contemporaries until I read that the BBC had done an interview with him in 1963, produced by Melvyn Bragg and made by Tristram Powell for the programme ‘Writer’s World’). What is more, I quickly found it on YouTube (search ‘David Jones Tristram Powell’).
It is twenty-three minutes long. In it Jones sits in an armchair answering questions posed by his friend Saunders Lewis, who is mostly offscreen, although we do get one or two shots of the two men in the setting of Jones’s room. (Latterly he lived in a single room that doubled both as living space and as his studio.) The camera largely chooses to go in close on Jones’s face while he speaks, either in medium close-up or full close-up, with occasional zooms between the two.
Jones’s face, it turns out, was eye-catching for being tousled, melancholic and lined with experience, and at the same time marvellously expressive as if waiting for the moment to come to life. Largely in the film it is cast down, as if we were being made privy to his inward musing, without the camera wishing to intrude too much. Here is a close-up of him listening to Lewis who is asking about his joining up in 1914.
What Jones has to say is always interesting, at least to me, especially as he talks about art and sacrament,
and ‘civilisational challenge’ as he calls it,
with a serious expression for these serious subjects. But the virtue of the film is its visual quality as much as for the words he speaks. Both Jones’s pictures and his words were the product of much thought and it feels appropriate on two occasions that he should adopt the pose of Rodin’s ‘Thinker’, as if on command from the film-maker.
On one occasion he covers his left eye with his hand as he wrestles with finding the words to say what he wants to say.
Gesture is an important part of capturing someone’s likeness, and the film manages to find a characteristic pose of Jones’s, holding an unlit cigarette while he thought and spoke.
The most regrettable omission is not allowing us to see more of his room. There is a two-shot of Lewis and Jones,
which gives us some idea of the ordered clutter in which Jones lived, but I wanted some travelling shots over his studio table or round the walls, even just along his bookshelves, or sight of some personal possession that illuminated his personality. By the sixteenth century artists had become ready to include in their painted portraits some significant piece of information about the sitter as well as their likeness. The photograph can do the same, but then neither can do anything like as much as a film.
Film as a medium for portraiture has barely been explored.