The Intricacies of Smiling

When it comes to political and emotional opposites, you can’t do much better than the Mike Pence and Nancy Pelosi sideshow as they sat behind Donald Trump during the recent State of the Union speech. Pence has long ago mastered a look of supposed discernment as he takes in the wonders of Trump’s rhetoric. There are head-nods, yes, and smiles. But most of all there’s how a vertical crease forms between the Vice President’s eyebrows as he lowers and pinches them together as if trying to scoop up every pearl of wisdom. In contrast, the Speaker of the House looked like she was sucking on a lemon anytime she wasn’t instead rifling through the pages of the speech. Here, she’s giving the President a mock burst of applause.

021219-01 Pelosi Clapback

Did Pelosi do her level best to distract TV viewers from Trump’s words by handling the speech’s text as she did? Maybe she was just bored (the speech and Trump’s Mussolini-like thrusts of his defiant chin went on seemingly forever).  Trump’s almost never happy. At least he made some of the female Democrats in attendance pleased by mentioning the new jobs he’s created, namely, like theirs!

021219-02 White Coats State of the Union

As you can tell from the President’s displeased smiles, he wasn’t so happy to be upstaged. Happiness no longer seems to be what it once was. You can’t seemingly count on anything anymore.

Or maybe things were always like that. The two newly unearthed instances of Virginia politicians having gone the route of blackface should remind us that happiness isn’t always what it’s cracked up to be. Here is Al Jolson in the move Mammy (1930), inhabiting a fabled land where black folks are supposedly too dumb to be anything but happy all the time.

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While Jeff Bezos was busy pushing back against an apparent blackmail attempt by The National Inquirer, what else went on this past week? Well, for one thing we had Amy Klobuchar managing to do a great job imitating somebody happy to be declaring her candidacy for president amid a snow storm.

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Meanwhile, off in Europe her fellow Minnesotan, Lindsey Vonn, was managing to win the bronze medal in the world championship downhill in her final race ever. How remarkable was her success after a fabled career? Five days earlier she had fallen in another race, ending up with a bruised rib and a black eye. And three months earlier she had torn a ligament in her left knee, the one operated on something like a gazillion times.

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At least every now and again, a smile is still really a smile: the embracing of life!

On a Mission or Simply Under Duress

Let’s start with the good news, especially for those who live in New England or have become admirers of the Belichick-Brady dynasty. Akin to getting a smile out of Chuck Norris in a movie role, it’s downright odd—almost creepy—to see a smile from Belichick. There were some afterwards, but much more in character is Belichick here gripping the victory trophy, eyebrow cocked in wary appraisal of the world around him while his eyes and mouth are tightly gripped in a look of determination. Maybe when Brady turns 50, Belichick will tire of winning. Meanwhile, . . . the victories and trophies accumulate.

Who also won this soporific Super Bowl? Many think it was the Bud Light / Game of Throne mash-up. What’s the Bud Light Knight’s facial expression? In his everyman role, beer-drinker as knight saving himself from sobriety, Budweiser doesn’t want us to know. We should be projecting ourselves into the role. Is he happily soused and sporting a smile, or brandishing the equivalent of Belichick’s scowl? The great mystery lingers.

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If there are winners, there must be losers, too, and there were this past Sunday. One was the Rams’ coach, Sean McVay, who admitted to having been “outcoached” by Belichick.  Both coaches have their chins pulled up in a sign of anger, disgust and sadness. The difference between them: notice also how the corners of McVay’s mouth are turned downwards, tilting the emotions displayed more in the direction of sadness for the moment. (Don’t worry, Rams’ fans: there’s determination being expressed as well, a determination to win again and often.) Besides the Rams, I think Burger King lost the Super Bowl. I’m sure some clever ad agency guy thought pulling out the old footage of Andy Warhol eating a hamburger showed his artiness, but mostly it revealed a lack of emotional intelligence. Time and again while eating the burger, Andy smirks—a sign of disrespect (for the product). It’s hard for the company’s offer to be the hero when it’s actually the goat (and I don’t mean GOAT as in Roger Federer being the Greatest Of All Time).

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Meanwhile, everyone’s running for president, inspired by Donald Trump’s example. If blatant incompetency and dishonesty can get you to the White House, why not give it a shot? Cory Booker has joined the Democratic field (looking delighted but not at ease), and maybe Howard Schultz is going to run an independent campaign. Fiscally conservative, socially liberal is Schultz’s promise. Whether a tepid smile and a lip turned down in disgust, as shown here, is an emotional formula for winning I doubt it.

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Who’s definitely going to lose? That’s easier to say. Playing a losing hand is an apt description of the ultimate fate of both Virginia governor Ralph Northam (looking mighty uneasy given the raised inner eyebrow, a sign of sadness and fear) and Venezuela’s leader Nicholas Maduro (trying his best to imitate Belichick, but the eyebrows pinched together give away Maduro’s existential fear of being shot by rebels within his own military). In Northam’s case, he held the most insane of press conferences last Saturday. Among the highlights, denying he was one of the men dressed up as a Klansman or in blackface in a medical school yearbook picture (after admitting the night before that, in fact, yes, that was him in the photo). A safe prediction: he won’t join the others running for the Democratic presidential nomination. In Maduro’s case, inflation is running at something like 10 million percent and there’s no food left . . . except at his residence. When people are literally starving to death en masse, rubber bullets won’t matter. Next stop, Moscow, Mr. Maduro, if only you’re so lucky.

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From Incompetent Officials to Something’s Great (But It’s Not Trump)

Welcome to a very different version of “Faces of the Week.” Focusing on a single story per posting is, frankly, too limiting. There’s always so much of interest going on. So while the occasional posting may focus on a single specific story, by and large I’m going to move to a potpourri of stories, going with whatever catches my eye (and engages my heart).

Let’s start with incompetency and Brexit.

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Pity the British prime minister, Teresa May, as she struggles with plans B-Z now that Plan A was sounded defeated in Parliament. All the while, where, oh where is Boris Johnson, the man who helped lead the charge in favor of leaving the E.U. because the world would be coming up roses if England went its own way? As usual, he’s lost somewhere in his own mix of bluster and bafflement as to what it was he actually was thinking. “I said what?” seems to be the caption to many a moment of lip curling, mouth ajar Johnson caught on camera.

As pointed out in Pankaj Mishra’s article for The New York Times, however, a mediocre “chumocracy” has often ruled England. Case in point is Lord Mountbatten, whose hurried declaration of independence for India led to an estimated one million deaths as the country unraveled. The article came complete with this photo:

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From left seated at the table, Jawaharlal Nehru, vice president of India’s interim government; Earl Mountbatten, viceroy of India; and Muhammad Ali Jinnah, president of the Muslim League, discuss Britain’s plan for India, June 2, 1947. 

As a facial coder, what struck me immediately was the anger on Jinnah’s face. Could anybody have imagined independence was going to be a cake-walk? More specifically, did Mountbatten even really notice the emotions roiling around him? He himself admitted the transfer of power he chose was a “ludicrously early date.” Then he gave the task of drawing the new boundaries to a British lawyer who had never visited India. Like Brexit, a mess was certain and that’s putting it mildly.

Speaking of incompetent officials, the stakes were a wee bit lower when the NFL official failed to call pass interference on this play late in the NFC championship game. Would you say that New Orleans Saints’ coach Sean Peyton was stunned by the no-call?

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Seeking to move from U.S. Senator (D-CA) to the White House, Kamela Harris joined the ranks of contenders for the Democratic nomination this past week. With Elizabeth Warren (D-MA) and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY) already declared, how can Harris distinguish herself? For starters, she has the best smile of the three women. But a wide-eyed, on alert look is her other signature expression. Warmth and concern: it’s a great combination. My hunch is that of the three, she might prove the most effective on the campaign trail (time and the voters and the money raised will tell; remember what a 20th century Republican party boss said: Only two things matter in politics . . . money and I can’t remember the other thing.” Well, actually emotion is the other currency!)

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What was great in the past few days was this man, the rising Greek tennis star Stefanos Tsitsipas, managing to beat his idol, Roger Federer, in a thrilling match at the Australian Open. “I’m the happiest man on earth” Tsitsipas said afterwards and it wasn’t hard to believe him. Just look at the elation on his face.

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Maybe the question of the week, however, was what was on the face (and in the heart) of the student from Covington Catholic High School in Washington, D.C. to join an anti-abortion protest. Nick Sandmann said he stood this close to a Native American activist trying to step in between two opposing groups. No disrespect was intended, Sandmann said. But in wearing a Make America Great Again (MAGA) red hat, linked to Donald Trump and his disparaging reference to senator Warren as “Pocahontas” (among many other racist or all but racist remarks, over time), one is left wondering.

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The Native American shown here to the right, Nathan Phillips, sure felt uneasy about Sandmann being so in his face. There’s a slight smirk to the right on Sandmann’s face, and an upper lip curled in disgust. Despite the accompanying smile, it’s hard to reconcile Sandmann’s expression with the notion that no disrespect was intended.

What’s easier to judge for sure than Sandmann’s expression? That would be the look on the face of the Confederate soldier emblazoned on the digital sign outside his school back in Kentucky. Note the eyes tight with anger, and for that matter the street on which the school sits. I rest my case, even if Sandmann is still protesting his innocence.

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The Empire Strikes Back: When Harry Weds Meghan

“Royals can marry chorus girls and sometimes even Americans” Prince Harry apparently said before the wedding, giving me hope that this wasn’t just a paint-by-numbers “fairy tale” marriage. Nevertheless, let me first give credit where credit’s due. I’m not exactly the biggest fan of royal wedding hoopla, but this was truly a stunning spectacle that the newly-minted Duke and Duchess of Sussex pulled off. The ceremony itself was innovative instead of a rote exercise. The genuine affection on display between the couple was something Lady Diana and Prince Charles could have only dreamed of. And afterwards, the majestic carriage procession through the narrow streets of Windsor was about as intimate an affair as possible considering the scale of the event.

Naturally, as a facial coder I couldn’t resist assessing Prince Harry’s and Meghan Markle’s feelings on their big day, starting with the groom’s wait for his bride. Was Harry a little nervous? Not outside the church, but once he and his brother, William, stepped indoors the (relaxed) smiles previously evident began to flicker on and off like a lighthouse beam. The latest smile would go on, only to be replaced by either a mouth-pulled wide expression of stage fright or else a sigh accompanied by lips pressed together in apparent annoyance at having to stand-on-ceremony, not a natural occurrence, especially given Harry’s mischievous, cheeky nature.

For most of the ceremony that followed, your eyes weren’t deceiving you if you saw a radiant bride and a more solemn groom. Harry’s been on stage all his life, as a royal, but now his eyes were blinking or else downcast, his eyebows often furrowed in a look of pained concentration, and it wasn’t until Harry lifted Meghan’s veil that the couple—in unison—managed a joyous, true smile. Until then, Meghan, the professional actress, was the one best holding it together with an almost seamless series of modest, equal-to-the-moment smiles. The lifting of the bride’s veil qualifies as an expected “highlight.” That’s not so true of the impassioned sermon that followed.

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Now things got interesting. The choice of Michael Bruce Curry, the first African-American to serve as the bishop of the Episcopal Church, to deliver the sermon was already notable in itself.  But it was the performance he gave that almost stole the show. Leaning in, Curry wasn’t doing so to recall whatever text appeared on the high-tech tablet lying in front of him. No, Curry clearly knew his message by heart, and I do mean by heart.

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Curry let loose with references to Martin Luther King, Jr., to slavery, to reminding the assembled audience that “love is the way.” Prince Harry mostly smiled along, with a few smirks. By contrast, Meghan’s eyes shot wide open with surprise and anxiety at times—like she was getting even more for “her money” than she could have imagined. It’s an expression that also shows some anger, as Curry went on at some length, while Camilla looked on, mouth agape, seemingly bewildered, and other members of the English royal family arched their eyebrows and allowed themselves faint, pert ironic smiles. No passion, please; we’re British, was all but the signal being given.

You could say the entire wedding event was a case of the Empire Strikes Back. Who but the British royal family could stage a resplendent spectacle like this one? Then again, saying The Empire Strikes Back could also apply to former subjects as equals: a thoroughly integrated wedding ceremony—starting with Meghan, a biracial American bride, and extending to elements like a black gospel choir singing “Stand By Me.”

When the British Empire was at its zenith, a century ago, the English firmly held sway over nearly one-fourth of the world’s population and land mass. Today the “empire” is mostly a collection of island outposts. The royals have held onto their many privileges, but even that may change someday.  Nothing is forever. Perhaps you noticed how Harry’s right eyebrow shot up in surprise and anxiety when asked to repeat two parts of the wedding vows? The first was “til death do we part.” The second? Well, that would be the promise that “All I have I share with you.”

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