Of how many faces can you say, I’m glad I won’t be leaving this place without having seen that face? I don’t mean the faces, necessarily, of loved ones. I mean instead those relatively few faces one is glad, truly glad, not to have missed.
They will differ, of course, for different people. Given the plethora of media in our times, we see many more faces than most people would have seen in earlier times, and we’re influenced by editorial and curatorial ideas about beauty.
Some of the faces I’ve found to be memorable belong to actors, but mostly they’re the faces I’ve encountered in the course of troubling moments, of making trouble in the course of losing my way, and in the course of savoring the privilege of being alive.
There are faces without whom I can’t imagine the world, as if they were both axis and linchpin. I wouldn’t trust objects to hold shape without them, or orbits to hold their planets. Everything depends on them, even the next poem. To say, then, that films have changed the way societies operate, the way people think, is a pathetic understatement. Never before in our evolution have we been subject to so many faces, and never before have we been seen by so many. This is alchemy of a kind not even the great Muhyiddin ibn al Arabi could have imagined. For example, in a certain sense, a baby takes its chances from the start with its parents, who may or may not like or relate to its face. And all of us find life chancier—and richer—in the milieu of so many faces. For the first time in history we are seeing all the races of man and are even on the alert for extraterrestrials, changing all the equations by which we live. This milieu is a deal-breaker and a deal-maker, and all bets are off, all received ideas suspect.
I don’t know when I began contemplating the indispensable face, that face without which the world cannot be imagined. It may have been when I watched Vivien Leigh in Gone With the Wind. My first movie was Bambi. Then my grandma thought perhaps Captains Courageous might not corrupt me. Then came Beau Geste, which I’ve seen many times, and then Gone With the Wind.
Spencer Tracy’s face in Captains Courageous failed to enter my memory bank and lodge in some secret room. But the sea did. And I became a sailor. Gary Cooper’s face in Beau Geste was admitted to the adytum as the face of one who would at all cost keep on trying to do the right thing even if he didn’t know what it was. But Beau Geste taught me something else. Again and again the Bedouin attacked that French fort. Again and again they suffered terrible losses. An Arab turned in his saddle and shot a bugler through the throat, silencing what had seemed an incessant call to the right side, and it occurred to my young and innocent mind that perhaps the Foreign Legionnaires in the fort, famously propping up their dead to seem alive, were not the right side. I left the movie house in epiphanic exultation—the right side wasn’t always going to be the side being portrayed as the right side. Thank you, Gary Cooper. Thank you, Bedouin sharpshooter.
And then there was the face of a certain girl in boarding school in whose immemorial light all other women’s faces would pale. We drank air tea in tin cups in a dilapidated gazebo. Could I have registered, could I have endured the fact that I would spend most of my life in the absence of its light?
My stepfather Dominick’s face struck me as the touchstone of honesty, the face I had to know in order to know what sort of person I wanted to be. And when I think of Dominick I often think of Willem Dafoe and the French actor Tchéky Karyo. Time added nuance and strength to their faces, as if some sculpting god favored them and was loath to let them go.
Then there are the faces that arise from the mists of memory when certain connections are made, certain epiphanies come, certain thoughts take shape about actors’ faces, faces in paintings, memorable passersby. They disappear, sometimes to visit again, unbidden. Or are they bidden by some part of the mind, summoned to perform certain rites?
For example, I can’t count the times in crisis, when I’ve had to gather my wits and confront a menace, that I’ve seen the face of Alexander the Great heading straight at Darius in a mosaic. On other such occasions the vision has been of Verrocchio’s Lorenzo de’ Medici.
And how many times when swamped by disreputable ideas handed down as if they were givens have I seen Houdon’s bust of Voltaire?
When it comes to the feral and elemental there is the unforgettable actress Gunnel Lindblom.
Each death takes with it a treasure of these faces, collected over a lifetime of witness and wonder. That said—it seems so convincing that it has to be said—I’m not sure of this loss. I harbor a deep suspicion in old age that each of us is an alchemical alembic, and the fumes of what we have thought and felt and observed is a djinni out of its bottle and on the loose.
Recently the face of the British actor and boxer Gary Stretch in Oliver Stone’s Alexander the Great comes to me as the brooding Cleitus, representative of one who takes part in a project warily, resentfully, as I sometimes did when younger. He comes to me as a figure torn in his loyalties, as I often was between family and what I knew to be right, between my own witness and what was being pitched to me.
I think the faces we collect are as crucial to us as the books we have read and the accomplishments we have achieved and the friends we’ve made. I think we can’t operate without them. They join the elements we are always stirring within us, and often enough they’re the elixirs required to ennoble those elements.