Bigger Than Life: The Close-Up and Scale in the Cinema


In Bigger Than Life Mary Ann Doane examines how the scalar operations of cinema, especially those of the close-up, disturb and reconfigure the spectator’s sense of place, space, and orientation. Doane traces the history of scalar transformations from early cinema to the contemporary use of digital technology. In the early years of cinema, audiences regarded the monumental close-up, particularly of the face, as grotesque and often horrifying, even as it sought to expose a character’s interiority through its magnification of detail and expression. Today, large-scale technologies such as IMAX and surround sound strive to dissolve the cinematic frame and invade the spectator’s space, “immersing” them in image and sound. The notion of immersion, Doane contends, is symptomatic of a crisis of location in technologically mediated space and a reconceptualization of position, scale, and distance. In this way, cinematic scale and its modes of spatialization and despatialization have shaped the modern subject, interpolating them into the incessant expansion of commodification.

“Matching her earlier, masterful treatment of cinematic time, Mary Ann Doane here offers a brilliant probing of cinematic space. She explores cinema’s dynamic use of scale, from the magnification of the face in close-up to new screen technologies ranging from the iPhone to IMAX. Drawing on a range of film styles and practices, including early cinema, avant-garde experiments, and Shanghai cinema of the 1930s, Doane reveals how cinema has shaped a modern abstract and even dematerialized world.” — Tom Gunning, Professor Emeritus, University of Chicago

“Mary Ann Doane’s highly innovative, theoretically brilliant, and eloquently incisive consideration of the history of the filmic close-up and its relation to scale will undoubtedly make Bigger Than Life a field-changing work.” — Maggie Hennefeld, author of Specters of Slapstick and Silent Film Comediennes

Mary Anne Doanne
Publication date: 
October 18, 2021
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