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BBC Documentary Brings Video Viewers Face to Face With John Cleese

By Holly J. Wagner | Posted: 24 Aug 2001

Comic talent John Cleese has no shortage of credits, fans or accomplishments.

At 61, his successful creative career has included not only stints as the irascible straight man of “Monty Python” and creator of “Fawlty Towers” and its crabby, self-sabotaging hotel manager, but he has cowritten two psychology books and is a professor at Cornell University. It's hard to imagine much broader appeal. So when the BBC approached Cleese to host The Human Face, the documentary project let him infuse his unique style into his first love.

“Psychology is my primary interest and The Human Face is really about psychology,” he says. “There are other things that I would like to do and this could be a kind of steppingstone to those projects.”

Sure, it's tough to imagine a face as recognizable as Cleese's needing a steppingstone. Recognition is, after all, what The Human Face is all about. The four-part series, airing on The Learning Channel Aug. 26 and 27 and available from Winstar on VHS ($24.98) and DVD (double disc set, $34.98) Aug. 28, examines the history, biology and physiology of the human face as well as its deepest role in society: silent communication.

As if to emphasize the point, Elizabeth Hurley (“The best fun was gossiping with Elizabeth Hurley,” Cleese confides), Pierce Brosnan, Candice Bergen and Joan Collins lend a little high-profile support to the series. Python fans will also recognize familiar faces like Michael Palin and Prunella Scales.

The first episode, “Face to Face,” examines the physical structure of faces and the roles of voluntary and involuntary expressions.

“I've wanted to play poker for a long time but I never have. If I was going to play poker, I would go up to San Francisco and talk to Paul Eckman,” Cleese says. “He's the one in the series who talks about the fact that there are 18 different kinds of smiles. He teaches how to tell [when people are] lying. He teaches ‘microexpressions.' He claims that he can teach you those expressions in 40 minutes.”

Eckman's ideas got a lot of attention during the Clinton investigation, when television news programs caught on to his methods and applied them to then-President Clinton's public addresses about the Monica Lewinsky scandal. News magazine programs seized on the high brow furrow that Eckman identifies as a sign of lying.

“When people are lying they are exhibiting behaviors,” Cleese says, though experts agree those behaviors mirror nervousness, not necessarily lying. The episode also looks at the role of facial expressions in communicating not only strong emotions like fear and anger, but more subtle cues like apology and empathy.

The series examines social and cultural perceptions of faces on levels as deep as human genetics and as shallow as a stranger's glance across a crowded room. Just doing the show changed Cleese.“Especially my reaction to people who have such unusual faces, we might almost say deformed,” he says.

“I realized from an evolutionary point of view it is the genes. We perceive it as a sign of disease. The first evolutionary thought is to keep away. The next thing is for mating, choosing a partner. It's a natural unconditioned response to recoil when you meet someone [unappealing].”

Episode two, “Beauty,” looks at humanity's visual prejudices and the benefits of a pleasant visage. “It's about two things,” Cleese explains. “There is a mathematical basis for what is an attractive face, the idea used to be called the ‘Golden Proportion.' This is the idea of Stephen Marquardt. He started to use it to do reconstructive surgery.”

But while Marquardt was looking for an objective standard of beauty, much of beauty is, as the clich? says, in the eye of the beholder.

“The second part of the program is that beautiful people are imbued with all kinds of qualities that they don't really have,” Cleese says. “A lot of the people who have become celebrities are not famous because they have discovered penicillin or won the Civil War. Now it's because they are number two or three in a sitcom and often those people don't have that much to talk about.”Which may account for the number of celebrities who go into politics, at least in the United States.

“We pay far too much attention to people's faces when we try to figure out what kind of a person they are,” Cleese says, citing myths like a person whose eyes are too close together being untrustworthy. “Everybody will believe this. They will look at the picture and everyone will agree on this. There is no reason to believe this person is untrustworthy.”

The remaining two segments, “Here's Looking at You” and “Fame,” delve further into expressions and perceptions.

Not everything the team examined made it to the finished product. Cleese notes with some regret that segments on a dating service and the way pets perceive human expressions landed on the cutting room floor.

A dating service is an example of how everyone searches for the Golden Proportion, a genetic and social ideal, a trophy of sorts. “When the men first come into the dating agency, they go for the best lookers,” Cleese says. “The more intelligent ones will come back in a few days and say ‘I need someone more intelligent.’

So by now, is there anyone who doesn't recognize John Cleese? Maybe.

“The stuff that got cut out of the portion on expressions is about Darwin. He was quite sure that his dog grinned on certain occasions,” Cleese says. “I was interested in this because I have a cat that they said doesn't recognize me. I didn't believe that.”


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