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The Human Face (2001) – DVD Review

human face dvd cover


Written by: John Cleese
Directed by: James Erskine
Starring: John Cleese, Elizabeth Hurley, Prunella Scales, Michael Palin, Pierce Brosnan


  • Photo gallery
  • Never-before-seen interviews from the series
  • Biographies
  • Fact File

Released by: BBC
Region: 1
Rating: NR
Anamorphic: No.

My Advice: Own It.

Do you ever wonder why your face looks the way it does, or how you are able to recognize the many faces of other people? John Cleese apparently wondered these things and many more as well. In this enthusiastic four-part series, he and a host of intrepid explorers delve into the mysteries of the human face: how it works, why it works, and many other issues all dealing with that particular portion of our anatomy.

[ad#longpost]The first part of the series deals with communication. How do we use our faces to communicate with other people? What happens to these communication skills if we can’t make facial expressions or if we can’t read other people’s facial expressions? Can you tell if a person is lying? This segment, incidentally, uses former President Clinton as an example, which I found quite amusing. Next, the series deals with identity. How do we identify people by their faces? The brain processes involved in facial identity are examined, as well as what happens when something goes wrong with them. Beauty is the third topic of the series. What makes someone beautiful? Scientists examine how beauty can be quantified and what its role has been in human evolution. Lastly, the series examines fame, and how someone’s face can aid them in gaining that fame. This includes interviews with Pierce Brosnan and Candice Bergen, as well as a trip to a casting director’s office to analyze head shots. The flow of the information in the four parts was very smooth, and as the series progressed, information built on what you had already learned from the previous parts, which was nice.

In dealing with the face, the series not only looks at the way that our faces and brains work, but it also examines what happens when things are abnormal. Cleese talks with people who have different types of disorders. They can range from strictly physical ones, such as a little girl who can’t make facial expressions, to mental ones, such as a man whose brain damage makes it impossible for him to recognize his own family members’ faces. In addition, various scientists and doctors give their opinions and expertise on various subjects concerning the face.

Human Face: John Cleese
John Cleese on Elizabeth Hurley's nose

While the bits of hard science are presented in very interesting ways, they are interspersed with comedic bits from John Cleese and others, such as a miniaturized version of the actor walking across Elizabeth Hurley’s face while discussing beauty. The comedy and interesting methods of presentation make the series very accessible to everyone. It would be an invaluable tool to liven up a sociology class.

The interviews appear in pieces in the actual series, but the more complete interviews are provided in the special features section of the set, and they make for a great extra. Everyday people who are featured mostly just visually in the series are interviewed as well, in front of a mirror. They are asked questions like ‘What do you think your face says about you?’ It was really neat to hear a stereotypical biker dude talk about how he’s a really nice guy who fixes things for the neighborhood children and looks the way he does to get movie roles. Some of the scientists and celebrities were interviewed as well, and one of my favorites was with Dr. Vilaynur Ramachandran. He takes Cleese and his audience on a tour of a real brain, explaining how the image of someone’s face gets processed to the point of recognition and how the brain prepares the body for a response to the person it’s seeing. The fact pages are also really spiffy, as they cover some information that is not mentioned in the series.

Human Face: John Cleese explores the brain
John Cleese, poking at a brain

The expert mixture of interesting scientific material and laugh-inducing presentation makes this series really fun to watch. And the information you’re learning while watching it sticks with you. I could sit down right now and explain many of the scientific concepts outlined in the series to anyone, and science was certainly not my field of study in college.

If you’re interested in science or sociology at all, you may to seriously consider owning this series. For everyone else, it’s at worth at least a rental, as it is truly a wonderful experience.

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