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No one is ready for close-ups on television. (Words & Images).

WHEN TELEVISION FIRST BEGAN, everything was live or on film. Live television was fairly primitive, with cameras that did not define the visuals very well. But film, shot mostly by battle-scarred newsreel cameramen, could offer stunning images. It became clear to writers, producers, and technicians that the close-up was very effective for the small screen, so close-ups and extreme close-ups became commonplace.

Happily, film was a very forgiving medium. Even without good lighting, the emulsion seemed to gloss over wrinkles and skin defects, emphasizing the revealing look of an eye, the joy of a smile, or the sadness of a tear. It made the close-up and even the extreme close-up--from the forehead to just below the mouth--powerful tools for early television, especially the TV documentary and news segment.

Then videotape began replacing film. Videotape as well as today's live TV offer the illusion of reality. It seems sharper and truer to life. But it's a deception. Its reality is a sham, a wicked impersonation of real life. Unless a face is perfectly lit, videotape or live TV can be harsh and unbearably cruel and distracting--wrinkles become deep facial caverns, a minor blemish becomes an angry eruption, and a hardly noticeable mole becomes mountainous. The result is that an extreme close-up is so filled with off-putting physical defects that it is almost impossible to concentrate on what the person is saying. The wrinkle, the blemish, the mole all claim our attention, overwhelming the riveting eyes, the delightful smile, and the falling tear. What used to be powerful and moving on film has become a dermatologist's final examination on videotape.

You would think that writers, producers, and technicians would notice this and revise their videotaping and live TV shots accordingly. But old habits die hard. The extreme close-up is alive and well, especially in the coverage of sporting events. Along with soaring music that gives treacle a bad name, sports producers and directors insist on an overly large close-up that fills our now-gigantic home screens with foreheads, noses, mouths, chins, and cheeks that are dermatological disasters. No one, not even our most perfect celebrities, looks all that good in an extreme live or tape close-up, even with the benefit of make-up. Put them into the harsh sunlight, and their skin would look as corrupt as the rest of us, especially the faces of athletes shown in glorious color.

Can anyone rationalize the need to see a baseball player spit in tight close-up? Or a shot of a football player picking his nose? Or a cut over a hockey player's bleeding eye oozing blood all over the screen? Or a tennis player's sweat rolling down a tight close-up of a sun-drenched face?

The ultimate crime against beauty and aesthetics came during the coverage of the 2002 Winter Olympics Games. The main reason for watching the ice skaters would seem to be watching humans performing poetry in motion as they glide over the ice. Just before the event and once the skating routine is over, the camera goes in for an extreme close-up showing every naked pore. For what purpose? Any chance of catching an unrehearsed moment of fear or surprise or sadness or happiness is obliterated by the ugliness of the shot. Visual aesthetics have been banished and replaced by an unsympathetic, wholly unnecessary look that all the digital magic now available can't erase from our memories.

There is no reason why a medium shot or a loose close-up--the full face and a bit of the shoulders--can't replace these oppressing videotape and live close-ups. No ego is immune from the damage of this kind of video ravishment. Let the actors be subjected to this kind of microscopic inspection. They have hairdressers and makeup artists and lighting experts to protect them. But for the rest of us, let us retain just a piece of our dignity and not have the unrelenting live camera lens probe our most secret and sensitive physical defects, not noticed in the give-and-take of daily life--but magnified beyond endurance, especially in the large-screen video close-up.

For those in the business, videotape may simply be a new technology replacing the old. But for anyone who cares about the way we view our fellow human beings, or worries about the fragile feelings of those in the spotlight, it is a problem that should be addressed immediately. Loosen up the shot. Remember you're not using film, but videotape. Save the extreme close-ups for faces that can stand them. And give us a respite from a probing camera that moves in so close that it sees nothing that is accurate or fair or relevant.

This is not a trivial matter. It has to do with aesthetics, a sense and love for beauty and all that is fine in the human condition. The difference between close-ups on film and videotape and live TV is the difference between romance and pornography. Film presented close-ups of the human face that renewed the spirit, that gave us insight and understanding of the human condition in all of its different facets. Unadorned videotape presents close-ups of the human face that are crude and offensive, that cause derisive laughter, sympathetic concern, or a feeling of degradation. The extreme close-up images are raw and vulgar, naked and without redeeming value. They demean the human spirit. Let's eliminate those unnecessary images.

Joe Saltzman, Associate Mass Media Editor of USA Today, associate dean and professor of journalism, University of Southern California Annenberg School for Communication, Los Angeles, and director of the Image of the Journalist in Popular Culture, a profect of the Norman Lear Center, is the author of Frank Capra and the Image of the Journalist in American Film.
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Author:Saltzman, Joe
Publication:USA Today (Magazine)
Article Type:Brief Article
Geographic Code:1USA
Date:May 1, 2002
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