As is often the case, I find a number of unrelated, or semi-unrelated topics, somehow converging …at least in my brain.
Acting is complex discussion, and it is so mediated by the same economic forces driving studio film and TV, a rather obvious observation I grant you, that any analysis is going to run up against factors of commodification and marketing.
That all said, one of the things I’ve noticed is that the criteria for “good” has shifted. It may or may not be useful to trace back the cross pollinating of Actor’s Studio, RADA, The Group Theatre, The Mercury Theatre, and on to the increasingly influential Drama Center of London. However, I do think it’s useful to look at some of what might be taking place via the almost hegemonic domination of corporate film — and the ways in which the culture industry has shaped the perceptions of “quality”… in fact rather invented the category itself.
“Prestige” film products, of which most studios devote at least a part of their budgets, has created certain signifiers, and shaped taste in increasingly conservative ways. For the US audience, at least the mostly white audience demographic for “prestige” product, there is a seemless merging of content in performative style: the hallmark of both being self congratulation.. As the narratives for “Kings Speech” or Speilberg, or Sam Mendes or Daldry films all trend toward a flattering of the status quo and a flattering and validation of jingoism, sentimentality, and authority, so too has the acting come to reflect a certain passivity of charaterization, a certain self importance, a lack of surprise and an absence of tension with the narrative and with the camera.
Now, I find that as soon as one writes about film, people get very energized in defending their favorite products. Any posting on film is going to be met with argumentative tone and defensive comments with long laundry lists of that person’s favorite films and actors. However, it’s unavoidable to write about this without using at least a few examples. Now, I will try to limit this as much as possible though, because what is more interesting and no doubt more important, are the mechanisms by which this happens….assuming I’m right that it does happen.
If one examines film acting, and television, I might posit Brando, Spencer Tracey and Bogart…and say, Robert Mitchum, and Monroe, Hayworth, and Bacall on one side, and then look at very recent performances such as (on TV) Bryan Cranston, Rachel Griffiths, and in film Tom Hanks, and Brad Pitt and Michael Fassbender. This is with the obvious exclusion of Arnold or Stallone or Cruise and the like. If you take DeNiro and Pacino as somehow transitional figures in this — I only want to suggest one thing, and not launch into a huge debate about everyone’s favorite film and favorite film performance. I only want to look at what I see as a tension between actor and narrative.
Now, if we look at Bad Day at Black Rock, an exercise in genre directed by John Sturgis in the mid fifties, with Spencer Tracey. Putting aside a reading of this film narrative, and just looking at Tracey, I would argue that Tracey (who is actually about twenty five years too old for this part, and who was also very sick at the time of the filming) is doing a version of what he always did. And what he did was to withhold. He is the central character, the narrative revolves around what he is searching for, and eventually finds. He is a WW2 veteran who lost an arm in the war. The reason this film still resonates as it does has a great deal to do with Tracey’s minimalist performance. What he is doing is hiding in plain sight. The performance asks the viewer to re-write the narrative, the mimetic function, in other words, is emphasized. It is elliptical acting in a sense. And I would argue, it’s central tenant is not naturalistic. Tracey, given the choice, turns inward. The mystery of the narrative itself is emphasized and not the feelings of the character….so in a sense, it’s not a very subjective performance at all. It is behavioral. If we imagine Tom Hanks in this role, the “feelings” of the character would likely be foregrounded. The feelings, the emphasis on the subjective state of the character would come first. Now, this is also an invitation to sentimentality. But it would also shift the way in which the narrative itself is read by the viewer. This shift to the feelings of the character, as the actor interprets them anyway, minimizes the mystery. It does this by focusing attention on only one aspect of the story’s mystery. It reduces the mystery to what it does, to the effect it does at all, to this character.
What happens with a Tracey, and with Bogart and Mitchum, is that because of what is witheld, the viewer must determine based on his or her own experience, the value of individual scenes and moments. The audience never knew, really, if Tracey was going to do what was expected. One of the things I’m convinced Bogart (at his best, for he made some truly bad films and gave some truly bad performances) sensed that he had an enormous power in not giving away his feelings. One always understood, instinctively, that Bogart knew something more. More than the audience. Even if it wasn’t directly related to the narrative. In the case of Mitchum, the inherent distrust the actor felt for what he was doing AS an actor provided an unsettling dimension to every performance. In certain roles…Angel Face, or Night of the Hunter or Cape Fear, the sadism, an open aspect of the character to varying degrees, became almost unbearable. In a sense, this secondary bio of the actor accompanied Marilyn Monroe throughout her career. It was destabilizing.
Now, this leads us to larger questions of art interpretation. I will gloss over a lot of this for the sake of my small and limited point here. The double, in art and literature, has at its core a consolidation of the ego. The uncanny, or at least a part of it, has to do with the return from repression of this figure of personal integrity as messenger from the dead.
For Lacan, the very existence of a double, the need to invent this double, suggests the basic instability of the subject.
I might argue that artworks, as they are read, and in relation to dreams, oscillate between the unifying or condensation of elements in the narrative, and the deconstructing of these temporary unifications. The uncanny are our rejected and repressed thoughts come back to us. I think one of the subtle and yet indelible aspects of Hitchcock’s films has to do the charge he manages to give to the ordinary and banal. If we push this to the actor, one can see in Monroe and Brando and Tracey the sense, in duration, in the processural dimension that is performance, the conjuring of destabilizing experience. In each case the means by which this occurs are different, but in each case the destination is the same.
The change in culture, the predominance of kitsch formula has been accompanied, not surprisingly, by a shift in performance. And in prestige product, the branded “serious” film, this shift has taken the form of a well defined “naturalism”. This naturalism serves to prop up the idea of the kitsch reality within which corporate marketing and western governments insist we live. It is inherently reactionary in that sense. It’s artistic strategy is to reinforce the status quo. This is reality. So, its to be expected that a Hanks or Cranston (on TV) are applauded in their well observed “naturalism”. It’s guiding principle is to duplicate the false reality of the spectacle. It is TO stabilize. TO unify.
It is to give the banal validation in its banality. It is to erase the uncanny. A by-product of this strategy is the celebration of the conscious, of ego — of adjustment. To luxuriate in the ordinary observed reality of naturalism. The rewarding of a studied banality is now described as intelligence. As the actual elliptical mysteries are erased in the service of revealing what is already revealed.
It is the implication of sub-text where actually, the sub-text has been erased. What is left with a Tom Hanks is only the literal surface, a false surface at that. A consensus marketed surface.
The photographs I’ve posted here, throughout the text, are from Greg Girard. I used them because they embody something of this uncanny expelled material. Like Hitchcock and Hopper, they imply the ‘off stage’ The unconscious, Freud said the uncanny was “fateful and inescapable”. This is material that resists symbolization, the phantoms and transgressive impulses, fugitive and furtive, that haunt existence. This material is never ‘naturalistic’.