Skip to: Content
Skip to: Site Navigation
Skip to: Search


Please don't say 'Cheese'!

By Melvin Maddocks / August 13, 1981



The Swedish director Ingmar Bergman was in Dallas not long ago, accepting a $ 25,000 award for "excellence in the arts" at Southern Methodist University. After promising that the money would go toward buying new gutters for his house, he got down to discussing why he now prefers working in the theater to directing films. "Making pictures," he said, "is a business for young people. But in the theater experience is important."

Skip to next paragraph

With all the special-effect, toys-and-comic-strip movies around this summer, from "Popeye" reruns to "Superman II," filmmaking might well seem to be a young person's game -- emphasis on the game. Was this what Bergman was thinking of?

Or was he thinking of all those young faces in the audience staring up at "Tarzan, the Ape Man" and so on -- three-quarters of them under the age of 25, if movie-audience analysts are to be believed.

Or could he have been referring to the youth-cult figures deployed in front of the camera by very, very patient directors in the best Hollywood tradition? Durirng a summer of closeups of Brooke Shields and Bo Derek, Bergman could certainly muster an argument here.

"Photogenic" -- the very word suggests that the camera is an instrument designed for the recording of dewy beauty.

Yet an equally convincing case could be made by Bergman, or anybody else, that the camera is drawn to whoever is visually irresistible -- and almost as often as not this may be a veteran face rather than a young face.

How regularly Henry Fonda and Laurence Olivier and Katharine Hepburn keep one camera or another dwelling on the lines and planes of their faces and, above all , on their eyes! The late Melvyn Doughlas was a handsome young leading man in the silly-suave style of his era, and the cameras of the '30s and '40s dutifully enshrined him. But it was not until he reached his sixties and seventies, in films like "Hud" and "The Seduction of Joe Tynan," that he became really interesting -- as a character actor.

Character is the operative term. The camera can only occupy itself -- and nourish its viewers -- for a certain limited time on the smooth, seamless, self-contented sometimes vacant face of a beautiful adolescent. The portrait gets reduced to a sort of still life. One longs for some significant network of lines -- a map of experience. One wants eyes with knowledge, with an attitude -- not just blue narcissistic pools.

From Mathew Brady on, the best photograhers have always been attracted to faces with history written across them. Cecil Beaton did marvelous studies of Edith Sitwell as the English poet grew more antique and became her own finest work of art. One cannot -- and would not want to -- imagine Edith Sitwell earlier. Nor the painter Georgia O'Keeffe. Nor the harpsichordist Wanda Landowska. Nor Igor Stravinsky.

The camera as youth-cult tool becomes most objectionable in the medium of television. Periodically a journalist like Philip Nobile, in a recent issue of New York magazine, will point out that network executives believe fresh, smiling , young faces are what viewers want to see when they switch on. Nubile youths in ads, dangerously pouring soft drinks down their throats as they play volleyball at the beach or leap into mountain streams. Fizz to sell fizz.

But when, was Nobile and others have noted, the adpromo law of the fresh-smiling-young-face applies to news broadcasts, we must all feel that we are collaborating in something that trivializes the news and ourselves. And when, as can be all too easily demonstrated, youth cultism is shown to cut against women more than men, we are confronted with a particularly nasty self-revelation.

Is Julia Child the only face we are to be allowed to see contemporary with Howard Cosell or Irving R. Levine?

The loss is everybody's.

The camera, like us, constantly struggles to define attractiveness. The camera, like us, is frequently mistaken -- reaching for sugar cookies when it really wants bread.