Face Value 1981

Face Value (1981)

A cursory reading of the 1979 song, “Head Games,” by the rock band Foreigner, reveals vague relationship troubles between its narrator and a lover, expressed through the sort of tedious lyrics favored by the commercial rock radio of the era. The “answer” to these problems, the song states, is “nowhere in sight,” and the narrator’s daydreams are “haunting” and possibly “warning” him. Perhaps these specific allusions convinced director Fred Carpenter to use the song as a musical refrain in his 1981 moral behavior short, FACE VALUE, but it’s an odd fit for a film that attempts to lecture teenagers about the futility of unscrupulous social behaviors. Did Carpenter have any idea about how many teenagers in the 1970s and 80s made out (and more!) while ballads by Foreigner played in the background?

The featured character, an unnamed teenage boy, is tossing and turning during the night, unable to shake a terrifying dream in which he’s attending a house party where peers are smoking pot, drinking booze, playing video games, and making out in random bedrooms (e.g., what some teenagers would recognize as, you know, having fun). Throughout all of this, the teens are wearing transparent plastic masks. Almost all scenes are filmed from a hazy first-person perspective with blurred focus at the edges of the frame. (It’s a dream sequence, after all).

As he (and we) move from one room to the next, we learn of the underlying motivations for why these characters behave as they do. Select characters unmask and begin talking directly to the camera — confessing! — about their deepest social anxieties before resuming interactions with their masked peers. One gawky male watches other guys play a video game because he doesn’t know “how to talk to girls.” A young woman in a cheerleader’s uniform constantly feels under pressure to impress everyone around her, while another admits that she just wants to find a boy who really likes her. Outside, a roughneck in a cowboy hat bullies his male peers because his parents don’t care about him and he feels unable to lower his guard.

Similar to 1963’s ONE GOT FAT, which used ape masks to delineate the boundaries of safe bicycle behavior, FACE VALUE uses masks to symbolize behavioral barriers that its characters employ due to their insecurities and fears. And similar to the aforementioned film, the masks in Carpenter’s film are used to rather terrifying effect, helping to transform a simple story with stiff dialogue into an otherworldly and unsettling nine minutes of moralistic terror. Horror films such as ALICE, SWEET ALICE (1973) and V/H/S (2012) have used similarly transparent masks to frighten audiences, and while we can’t say for sure that this was Carpenter’s intention here, the effect is not much different.

This surreal scare tactic is no more apparent than in the final scene of the dream sequence, in which the central character follows the steady drone of his peers’ voices to the center of a graveyard, where a flock of creepy faces awaits. They motion towards him to join and as he approaches, a new figure among them is revealed: a middle-aged, mustachioed man in a cape and a ruffled shirt. Who is this guy? No idea! Is it Death? God? A birthday party magician? Who knows. Regardless of his identity and purpose, this sight is what snaps the protagonist out of his dream and into reality. After getting dressed and ready for the day ahead, he examines himself in the bathroom mirror before turning to the camera to reveal his own creepy transparent mask (*shudder*).

The only library in the world that still holds a copy of FACE VALUE in its original 16mm film format is Regent University, a private Christian research university and the alma mater of Tony Hale (known to most as Buster Bluth of ARRESTED DEVELOPMENT fame).

-This content was originally posted at The Archival Eye

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