The decline of the oval mask.



The abundant use of mask in early cinema is one of the formal devices that have disappeared completely through the course of stylistic evolution. It is not so much because the intention to manipulate, to direct the audience’s attention has been regarded as inappropriate, or too explicit, but that it runs against the nature of our pictorial perception. It is therefore rather surprising to see that in Gance’s La Roue, mask has an almost abusive usage. There is one shot with Norma’s face in the center of the screen where the mask follows the contour of her face, leaving everything else out. This, I assume, is to intensify our attention to the face by eliminating the rest. But first, it can be done by simply putting her face in a background that is not lit or out of focus, and thus creating the contrast. Plenty such shots in the film show that Gance is not ignorant of the method. Yet however it seems that he believes an accentuation through lighting, through composition is simply not enough. Naturally the shape of anything round can be said to have a structural significance since it is the shape of wheel. But ultimately what is intriguing is that the oval frame, by no means natural to our vision, is an established convention to evoke a certain mode of visual perception, namely, that of portrait. The curve and decorative frame seems to be able to soften the figure presented and to implant it into a sensuous past.

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We say now that since our attention is naturally directed to the center of the frame and the human expression, any attempt to reinforce this tendency is perceived only as a digression that calls too much attention to itself. But the use of mask in La Roue to a certain extent suggests that this has not always been the case. The dominant pictorial perception of the previous century, as well as centuries before it, insists on a “framed” perception.

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It is perhaps in this spirit that the use of the mask in La Roue is not limited to landscape/portrait. When Machefer comes to visit Sisif, all shots of him and his point of view (even in flashback) are in oval mask. In this case the oval mask seems to convey a sense of comedy, or an apologetic gesture of being digressive. It is in fact an alien mood given the tragedy that immediately precedes it and therefore has to be bracketed somehow.

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