Faces in Reel Time

written by Garrett Rowlan

This happened to me years ago. I live near Pasadena, and went by bus, as I often do, to the Westside. I was heading toward the J. Paul Getty Museum. It was a sunny day (duh, I live in LA), cloudless, with gusts blowing off the ocean. They whipped through the steel-and-glass canyons of Westwood as I stepped off the bus. I walked past the L.A. Fitness where I saw faces contort in agony and ecstasy as they worked the Stairmaster, their eyes rolled upward toward bracketed televisions like a modern take on Bernini’s statue of Saint Theresa. The shuttle bus took me up a hill overlooking Bel Air to the Getty Museum.

I ascended travertine steps, crossed a pavilion shaped like a large glass dome, and then climbed a second set of marble stairs. I entered “The Passions,” an exhibit designed by the video artist Bill Viola. For weeks, banners for the show had been flung up like enormous kites over the streets of Los Angeles, and so I decided to see what it was.

Removing my sunglasses, I entered a series of connected galleries, each having a series of liquid crystal panels hanging from white walls. Suspended in those darken frames were motionless faces that changed almost imperceptibly. A blink, the eruption of a tear, lips parted slightly as if to release a sigh…each occurred with a glacial slowness. In one diptych, called “Silent Mountain,” photographic stills from which had been used in the promotional banners, a woman and man both moved at a faster, though still sub-normal speed as they writhed in slow-slow motion under the wrath of some private agony. In another screen, done at a pace just under real time, a tableaux of people reacted in different ways to some unknown, doleful sight.

I’ve always been susceptible to slow motion, ever since the violent ending of Bonnie and Clyde made a visceral impression on me. A few years ago, at the Geffen Museum in downtown Los Angeles, I saw “24 Hour Psycho” by the Scottish video artist Gordon Douglas in which Hitchcock’s horror film was run in silent and extreme slow-motion. The effect was instructive. Douglas’s “take” on Hitchcock showed me how film time and language and narration depend upon an established temporality.

But I’d never experienced anything like my reaction to the Viola exhibit. In the free pamphlet that accompanied the exhibition, I had read that Viola’s portraits were shot on high-speed film that was slowed upon playback in order to capture “in-between states, transitions and ambiguous or mixed emotions.” He succeeded, at least with me, and maybe too well. After a few minutes, slowed rhythms crept into my perceptions as I watched people walking through the darkened galleries.

Unspoken complications filled their faces, lit by the light from the video screens. I saw visages that were like the video screen of their thoughts, almost flickering, riddled by their own reflections. In the gallery and later, standing on a patio outside the exhibition with a clear view all the way to the Pacific Ocean, they streamed past me, faces complex, unreadable. The atoms that composed them were in constant flux. The human face is nothing more than an infinite regress, or progress, made flesh. Any expression is only a shading of its antecedent. No emotion is pure. Slow motion shows that what we see on another face is only a palimpsest’s topmost layer. I slipped on mirrored sunglasses against the multiple exposures I saw.

Eventually, as I sat, my vision was restored. The world, no doubt aided by the cup of black coffee I had purchased, sped up to normal. Each face lost its nuance, became subsumed by the Gestalt of one dominant emotion. Still for a time there I could believe in the possibility of a parallel universe, just one tic or frown or nod away. As Joni Mitchell once wrote, “Only a river of changing faces/ Looking for an ocean.”


Garrett Rowlan is a retired sub teacher from Los Angeles. His website is garrettrowlan.com

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