A Short Exegesis on Performance and The Uncanny

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’.


  1. First, bravo…and you’ve struck at a critical crossing point of politics and culture. Given the centrality of celebrity to the current state of Marketing Domination, the iconography of celebrity actors plays a more critical role to the dominant themes (perhaps ever more than before)…which you’ve gone into in previous posts at great length. These actors and actresses expressed/reflected the dominant gender styles and archetypes of the times. As I look closer at the McCarthy era and hear more and more stories about the real fear and anxiety of that time within the culture industry, I can see how concealment was deep in the zeitgeist…just as now, The Big Lie, and Satisfaction(read complacency/anxiety), are “deep”

  2. Stephen Birch says:

    I think this shift is also reflected in so many other areas of American social life; the relatively recent phenomena, the obsession with the “Sanitary” and the “Safe”. Just as acting and narrative have become clean and safe, we how have hand sanitizers and safety helmets to keep us clean and safe. Your second paragraph does touch on this of course.
    Just as commodification and marketing are forms of control, it would follow that in a world seemingly out of control for the U.S.A., the narrative and acting, out of necessity, must increasingly become forms of control .

  3. Jack Littman says:

    I think this piece brings up why Brando, Monroe, Tracy…. I can’t imagine any of them being called back for an audition nowadays…. I can see Brando being laughed out of a casting session now. It’s almost as if the legend of his celebrity is safer than his work….. Do you know what I mean?

  4. Vocalis Spiritum says:

    I’ve witnessed hundreds of auditions in just the last year alone and seen perhaps 50 productions. I am bored to tears with actors’ attempts at verisimilitude. The degradation of our language coupled with the modern playwrights’ inability to grasp either metaphor or SCOPE has led to an acting style that has flat lined since the 1960’s. We now have sitcom writers writing for the stage and a theatre that has for too long acted like film and television’s little bastard step-brother. This is a large subject, and perhaps John will return to it at some point, but most of the actors I’ve seen in the last few years, especially coming out of university programs, are grotesquely ill equipped to handle period pieces and, thus, have nothing new to contribute to contemporary ones. As far as Brando, he was merely the first of his kind. He took Marlon Brando and created “Marlon Brando The Actor” who then went on to play “Stanly Kowalski.” When he went to dinner, it was always “Marlon Brando The Actor” and not merely Marlon Brando. I suspect this is why “Jack Nicholson” has always been able to live such a flamboyant lifestyle- he is allowed to indulge in behavior that Jack Nicholson would never have gotten away with. Eventually, we (and perhaps they) lose the identity of Jack Nicholson all together and all that is left is “Jack Nicholson.” Lacan can better elaborate on this, I’m sure…who is it that these people see in the mirror? Bottom line, the Brits are kicking our collective asses when it comes to actor training. No mysticism, no method BS, just a laser-like focus on language and text.

  5. It is Ironic John,that your Primary Example,Brando is seen as the Preeminent Naturalistic Actor (wrongly,I would say)considering that the Actors he looked to as Icons were Muni (hardly naturalistic) Grant,and Tracy. Brando’s Acting is Iconic,it has Size,and it is Dangerous. It is REAL,but not pass the peas naturalism. It is BRAVURA. A quality that American Acting has lacked for a Long Time. I think you have laid out the reasons for that pretty succinctly,it messes with the promotion of product. I think you are mistaken about Cranston,however.Walter White (and the whole Show) are more Surreal than Naturalistic,and Walter White’s Descent into Pure Evil,is the most interesting thing on Television. What we lack today is Acting that makes the Audience Uncomfortable. That could be said about All Art. You can’t make Series Episodic out of “The Pawnbroker”.

  6. john steppling says:

    Cranston is the ultimate example actually, TOm. Im not wrong at all. He is insufferable in his narcissism. But you know, i get that people like the show… There is a lot to say about that show, actually…which eventually I will get around to. But I wanted to add vis a vis Spiritus…….you raised several topics worth considering in “acting” as it evolves under an increasingly mediated society — one cant seperate marketing, and how TV commericals were filmed (The Chait Day syndome one sees in a hal hartley film….or in a more substantive way, in Roy Anderssons Songs From the 2nd Floor….a swedish film, but Andersson made his living doing TV adverts….which Im pretty sure Chiat day stole from)….but the way close ups changed, and also the way codes are built…..in commercials the wide open mouth signifies delight…..*lifestyle*….and this sort of had its own influence. As i said at the top, you know people have their favorite shows and actors etc……Breaking Bad has its loyal following………and i dont want to digress into that…but Cranston’s *versimilitude* (great word spiritus) is part of this *keenly observed* detail. Its duplication, and its not, for example, what brando did. In theatre, there was always less a question of versimilitude……..we know we are not watching reality….but films blur that bit, and with the plethora of TV news footage and reality shows, the distinction blurs even more (and fans wrote Richard Chamberlin, Dear doctor Kildare, my foot hurts and i was wondering…..)……..so actors internalized those cues. The idea became in fact TO duplicate reality —except reality is, obviously a very sketchy definition. The question of period is huge….and I should write about it because its not to be seperated from questions of nostalgia etc. In theatre we know we are watching a performance…and the audience is there to engage and enter this space….ritual or whatever you want to call it….and it demands focused attention in way that film and TV dont. In film, the idea of a *star* evolved along with celebrity in general. So those kitsch bios of actors were part of what was going to get unpacked everytime you watched a film narrative. Today I think its hugely convoluted by the knowledge audiences have of box office, neilson ratings, etc. Audiences routinely read into narrative the business details of the project.
    I know a lot of left political types who simply suspend critical awareness about mass culture. I think it usually speaks to problems in their politics, in fact. There has been a growth of this idea that we know what our favorite celebrity is thinking…….and now we treat politicians like that. Oh, he didnt like doing that, but he had to. I know he’s a good person, etc etc etc. Magical thinking. And all of this is expressed in this sort of domesticated performance style. Even in music you see this….corporate made performers…..who create TO sell. Actors act to help sell the product. I think spiritius is right that Brando would likely not get a call back….and im sure tracey wouldnt either. MOnroe is someone I cant really see working on a TV series…….again, its too destabilizing.

    We could reach back to artaud to start to really dissect performance and text and voice. The actors of the 40s, often came via radio and had these amazing voices. People listened more. In shakespeare’s time people would say, lets go listen to the new shakes play. Not lets go see it. We dont as a culture listen that way anymore. But the privilieged classes that watch this stuff also, as a rule, dont focus attention very often either. So there is a lot to talk about. Period pieces i do want to talk about because it raises issues of revisionist historicizing. And that isnt simple to tweeze apart at all.

  7. Vocalis Spiritum says:

    I’m glad you mentioned the fact that Shakespeare’s audience listened to plays, John. In fact, one would go to listen to a play right up until the 20th century. There is so much noise surrounding us now, be it visual noise or auditory noise. The single greatest casualty of modern actor training in the US has been the voice, both speaking and listening. I was at a workshop in NYC many years ago and I had finished saying my line to another actor. He didn’t pick up his cue, so I repeated the line. Again, nothing. Finally, the other actor “shushed” me and told me he could not respond because he had not finished his “inner monologue” yet. And this is what passed for training in the 90’s. The human voice is full of nuance and yet most actors will get the vapors trying to screw themselves into an emotional pretzel, hoping that the audience will ignore the fact that they have no idea what they are saying but instead marvel at their narcissistic ability to conjure up a smell from 1975 that reminds them of when their dog died, or something, and then fumble out some lines that some guy wrote.
    Nobody listens anymore and most, sorry to say, American, actors live in perpetual fear of “overacting”, preferring instead to be received as insufferably boring and instantly forgettable. Again this is a product of training, of hearing teachers say, “You are unique, stutter and all, so that’s what you should market” or, “You don’t need vocal training, it’s just going to get in the way of you ‘real voice.'” It’s absurd.
    To address one of Tom’s comments, I don’t think an actor making the audience uncomfortable is what’s missing. In fact, I see way too many actors trying to do just that and failing, or at best doing what I saw another actor do last year. Shai LaBouffant (or whoever) wants to do real sex scenes on screen. That’s fine: I’ve seen it. It’s called porn and they have professionals who do it a lot better. “More real” isn’t going to make it better; it’s simply going to make it more marketable for a weekend until the novelty wears off. They tried this before with some movie called Brown Bunny- remember that one? Yeah, neither do I. Personally, I’m bored to tears with actors trying to be all gritty. Given the choice between seeing a Greek tragedy done by actors with exceptional voices and yet another production of True West, Salesman, Pillowman or Top Dog/Underdog, performed by actors who are going to show me how raw and real they can be, there is no choice. I’ll take the Greek play any day and twice on Sunday. I seldom respect an actor’s ability to wear his heart on his sleeve; but I stand in awe of an actor that has virtuoso command of his voice and lets me, the audience member, impart my own interpretation on what he is feeling. In this way, the actor respects the audience by not telling them what they should feel. It’s what John Barton calls “Passion vs. Reason”.
    Yes, there are a lot of subjects her to explore. I’ll await your post on period pieces, John.

  8. First JOhn, I Didn’t say you were Wrong,I said you Might be Mistaken. Contesting you to That extreme on Film and Theatre,would be like contesting our Mutual Friend, Homes On KAPITAL! Second Vocalis: Yes I am a Strasberg Trained Actor. I am also Adler Trained (By Stella ,in her Script Interp Class) Hagen Trained,and in College,Michael Chekov Trained by a Man Named Ron Bennett who was in The Chekov Players at Dartington. The Point of all this? I HAVE a trained Vocal Instrument. Max Steiner Developed Vocal Exercises which Chekovs Players used. Mumblers like Beatrice Straight,Hurd Hatfield,and Edmond O’Brien LOL! I Too Lament that young American actors ,have no Scansion,Can’t Walk,Can’t Move,Can’t Fence,and Can’t Do De Ghelderode or Christopher Fry. (Where oh Where is ACT) . But I’m Not Ready to throw Stanislavski out with the Bathwater! Do you Know what Lee would have done to that Amateur who wouldn’t Pick up your Cue! HE WOULD HAVE KICKED HIS ASS! And So Would Kazan. Lee used to say of the Exercises. “If you aren’t sick,you don’t take Medicine. He also said Ideally an Actor just plays Actions. Strasberg said that. But mainly I want to address what you were saying about Raw and Real. When I said that we need acting that Makes the Audience Uncomfortable,I was Talking about Dangerous Acting Brando,Steiger,Scott,Olivier,Kinski,Brandauer,Waltz,Walbrook! I don’t give a SHIT about Namby Pamby Naturalism. I’m talking O’toole in Night of the Generals. I’m talking the night I saw Arthur Hill and Colleen Deewhurst at the Ahmanson in More Stately Mansions by Oneil,almost Rape Each other with Passion(not Porn) on that Stage. Acting is Not just Beautifully Spoken Oratory,or Great Plays read with understanding of the Text. Neither is it Blood Realism,and Raw Emotion. Hopefully it is ALL of THESE plus what Shaw called Truth Raised to (or seen through) the Optique of Theatre. What I WANT is Bravura Acting,Outsized but TRUE and DANGEROUS,that isn’t there to Sell Soap!

  9. A short Addendum; BTW Vocalis,I’d be interested in your POV on Sandy Meisner. Meisner is where I ended up and where I’m at after over 40 years in this Game. Sandy is ALL ABOUT Listening and Responding to the other Actor,and Serving the Play,not yourself. The vocal teacher who was affiliated with Neighborhood Playhouse was Evangeline Machlin,who is one of the Best. And John,no disrespect meant about Cranston,we just disagree. Glad you”like” the show.

  10. Another great piece, John. I’m glad to see the clip from Fugitive Kind – love that film. And I’m glad to see Mitchum mentioned too. I watched The Friends of Eddie Coyle recently and was moved by his performance. I think he’s best when he plays these dangerous brutes. I never understood him as a romantic actor, but as a villain, he has the id-quality full of sex and malice and violence.

    I don’t think that Fassbender should be lumped in the same category as Hanks/Pitt/Cranston. At least not yet. I know what you mean about his narcissism but I find there’s anger behind it, which I think pushes him to extreme lengths. He’s aware of his sex appeal and he uses it as a way to alienate the audience. Perhaps this excessive sexuality is what makes him revolting at times, I can see that. There’s something broken about him which he taps into (as Rochester in “Jane Eyre”) which will keep him from getting the kinds of roles that Clooney, Pitt, or even Matt Damon (that piece of wet cardboard) will be offered.

    I’m not 100% sold on Tom Hardy, but I find him interesting with his slightly effeminate lips and eyes. I think he confuses “intensity” for “acting.” He was awful in Warrior but captivating in Tinker Tailor Soldier Spy. So maybe under the right director, Fassbender and Hardy can get to the next level. But until then, they don’t come to the knees of Brando or Newman or Clift. However, I’ll take them over most other actors in Hollywood.

    How do you feel about Michelle Williams? I used to really dislike her work but now I’m completely in love with her. Her performance as Marilyn Monroe in the TERRIBLE TERRIBLE film “My Week with Marilyn” was frighteningly good. She played the role like a drunk/preposterous/hideous snake-child and it was at once incredible and difficult to watch, like a train about to derail at any moment…

  11. semi-sequitur Question: do you think method acting training, which facilitates the ability of the actor to produce exaggerated physiological responses without stimuli, only imagining the stimuli, breaks down the self control and body management of normal socialisation and actually makes actors a little psychotic? Good actors anyway?

  12. And this would affect their acting and mean cinema had to adapt around them, because physically they are now unable to do anything else, they’ve undone some training and built up something else (needing to immobilize their faces with botox) but also affect their non-acting, their quotidian behaviour, and thus actual social mileux permeated by such people, where so many of them have so much influence (Hollywood) would actually begin to develop conceptions of psychology that are significantly different from the rest of humanity’s ideas about how it feels to be in a body, to experince grief or arousal or love or fear e- the big ones – and also puzzlement, curiosity, attention – the little ones. You talk about how actor’s listen. The training around this can be really intense, breaking down normal comportment, building up something else, then there are realms so influential on our worldviews (television and cinema) where all these influential people have been physically trained in a kind of appearance of listening, looking, attention that is only a fake, that conceals an itnense self-obsession (watching onesels watch), that this could have to do with this alarming inability of even the freest sectors of the core citizenry to take in and analyse and synthesize at once – to think and do coherently, to be adult.

  13. Have you seen Letter to Jane? Godard? Though it’s a very problematic (sexist, orientalist) piece, it’s also very observant about some things related to this question.

  14. Because theatrical/cinematic acting is not just theatrical/cinematic acting or concerned with theatrical/cinematic acting; it informs – especially significant in our society of the spectacle – our ideas of acting per se, and thinking and being. Especially post Butler we have collapsed this distinction in many ways, with out notions of all social behaviour as performance in a social theatre and for a social screen spectacle just as it is productive labour in a social factory. (the production of the social screen spectacle as the constant result of performing in the social theatre as we labour in the social factory). The “naturalism” you don’t like is linked I think to this newmedia digital age suggestion that people think of themselves as protagonists in certain formlula stories – play themselves as these charismatic protagonists – and suppress their roles in crowds and as extras and tantagonists in other people’s stories. The walkman solipsism where suddenly your morning run was scored like Rocky was noticed by the walkman generation but the ipod generation just doesn’t even have access to a conception of being in social arrangements that predated this scoring and hero-fantasy. But this naturalism is gritty and expressive so to ostentatiously discard certain ceremonial civility that went with a existential posture acknowledging the multiplicity of perspectives. The opacity that you discuss that is discarded by the naturalism stages what off-stage and noncinematised is the customary social deportment of people who do not imagine themselves to be the stars of movies.

  15. Last thought an illustration – when Scorsese abandoned Keitel (who in Who’s that knocking at my door? gave a performance with a version of that b-moviie opacity) for DeNiro, he made this crucial shift from the actor who comports himself as an actor in a working class way, this conscious fusion of protagonist and member of crowd, for an actor who (though associated with toughs, streetwise figures- and that’s an indirection) who exudes an upper class (bohemian, egoist) self conception in his demeanor – who acts like “a star” in the roles, fusing the planes of the spectacle. DeNiro was an extreme of this when Taxi Driver became such a hit and shifting cinema around in some ways ( it was reactionary film taking up a position once occupied by a long progressive tradition of American cinema), but then it simply became the norm.

  16. really last – so I guess what I am trying to do here is unearth the working class reality beneath your idea of the “the uncanny” – that is, I'”m suggesting this uncanny is the aesthetic product producing into artstuff this working class way of being that involves a consciousness of the balance of individual and social being, and that this is whyt the tendency in bourgeois drama is against it, to erase the social being and its staging and to enlarge the individual (this gruesome fetishising of characterisation has become Streep’s Julia Childe and Thatcher, Blanchett’s hideous Hepburn, Penn’s ofious Milk, Mirren’s slightly less horrible Queen and the guy doing Blair too, and Berry’s even a little less horrible Dandridge…)

  17. really really last. COuple weeks ago a yacht parked in the harbor where i am, the most immense yacht i ever saw, very space age, very luxe, crawling with butlers in white dinner jackets and bowties. The owner of this yacht fell asleep on an alborate divan at the dock end of the yacht, visible to all the people in the harbor side cafes, the kids and tourists and waiters. And people walked by to stare. And most people were disconcerted by how little cared about being watched drooolingly asleep on his divan. But I think he probably didn’t feel it anymiore than we might feel sleeping in front of insects. It was tryly aristo.

    The exhibitionism of the naturalistic movie star acting has a bit of this to it, this shameless indifference to being seen by us or by the cameraman or the extras. And it coinbcided with the elevation of these stars to a superrich level, at a distance from the norm that is like the old Polish counts of the 17th c from the serfs – that even hollywood royalty of the age of the studio system didn’t enjoy.

  18. john steppling says:

    this is a great discussion. @ Tom…hey, contest away, please. Im a big fan of your work….so know that.

    But “: do you think method acting training, which facilitates the ability of the actor to produce exaggerated physiological responses without stimuli, only imagining the stimuli, breaks down the self control and body management of normal socialisation and actually makes actors a little psychotic? Good actors anyway?””

    not enough.

    I think this is a great question/obeservation. But I will track back a bit here. First off……there are method schools and there are method schools. Brando was a product more of Stella than Strasberg. And then of Kazan. That first generation of actors’ studio was special……and then as these things do, it began to change a lot. That said, personally, Id rather work with good method actors….for a variety of reasons.

    But let me add one other thing. Its hard to divorce ourselves from an entrenched vocabulary about this stuff. But its essential that we do. And here i wil get back to Molly’s thoughts. The idea of our performing the role of ourselves is something Ive mentioned before. And you just expanded on it here. And I think you’re exactly right. The mirroring goes on and on and on. People see themselves often as part of their own reality show. And partly they ARE….since CCTV is everywhere. But they also see their lives as scripted. Sometimes they are the author, but often, more often, not. And they have taken their “training” as it were, from TV and film, AND from reality shows. Its this idea of being watched……..which eventually becomes indifference to being watched. And where does the film end? And where does it begin? The rise of the ironic is connected to this. And “ironic” mustache becomes part of my wardrobe. My ironic wing tips become part of my building a character. Now all adolescents do this……..but now, it goes on and on and on. And there is a psychosis to this, because at some point everyone needs the director to yell CUT. This is what is eerie in film……..its not recreated, it just repeats. So, the expectation of a kind of endless loop of a life becomes anticipated. Now……….there are other aspects to this. The process in theatre (and in directors like Ozu and Dreyer and quite a few others) is to rehearse. And repeat and repeat and repeat. There is an echo here of the natural repetition compulsion in people — especially of a particular sort under Capital. The residue of that repetition in theatre process is to finally allow the actor a certain freedom. He can stop remembering his lines. But………Artaud is important in this discussion, because in his madness he was circling some big truths…..and when he said the actor needs to be naked and absent everything, all memory…….only then can he be himself……….nobody understood him. OF course its true. But its impossible. To stand there as the lights come up, in terror, is the whole point. But…what does that mean exactly? Well…….its actually intimately connected to listening. I think what molly says about the working class/social is important here. For that is the origin in a real sense of theatre. The civic. Thats what got lost……..the elevation of this ideal individuation……the being seen and not caring…….or the being seen, and expecting it, and performing for it. Its a fetishizing. The best actors I believe are never comfortable on stage. Its an ordeal. They suffer……they suffer the gaze of the ‘other’. Now, ive said before that I dont believe a play really starts until one actor LOOKS at another actor. Its why I dont believe one character plays are really theatre. They are sermons.

  19. john steppling says:

    So in theatre, you have this transference going on with the audience. And I think it bounces back and forth….analyst and analysand…..who is who`? Well, both are both. But……..this sense of performance…..of being in this ritual space, includes a text. And this is where it gets very complicated. I think that saying the text is something very hard to do without commenting on it (as they like to say in acting classes). Dont comment. Coltrane once said the hardest thing to do was to play a melody through once perfectly. Man, thats it. To just say the text. Just say it. Recite it. Say it without pyschologizing it is near impossible. The truth is, when that happens, the REAL psychology of the play occurs. Now…..an actor like Brando, one might think, wasnt doing that………but I would argue, in a bigger sense, he was doing that. He just knew, instinctively, that you CANT do it by standing there and doing it. It connects to listening — to say the text, to say it so it can be heard…the right way…….means deflecting a good deal of stuff. ITs the same in pictorial art. Same in dance. That moment arrives where you dont have to think about it……..and it happens, and you have forgotten you are doing it………..and …there…it…..is.

    There are a ton of dialectical issues involved. The working class sense of crowds…..of people….of community….meant a certain humiltiy in presentation of self. On stage, that body, the actual listening body, has specific muscles and postures involved. Ask an actor to *listen* to someone off stage……as they read. And he will almost always INDICATE listening. its very rare when one can get around this. We know the text…..we have decided on a meaning. We are furthering *our* idea of this meaning. The generation of Tracey and then Mitchum, came from a crowd mentality far more. Paul Muni, who tom mentioned….a great example. I think people, and critics, have come to badly confuse theatrical with artifical. With over acting. Or whatever. In truth, the worst form of over acting is now this enacting of a known famous person. The Queen….ugh. Tony Blair, or Muhammed Ali or ray charles or Virginia Wolf etc etc etc. Grotesque. But its true too with the new generation of film actors. For mostly they havent had to live on stage……….and feel the terror and often they come from the Mousketeers or from privileged backgrounds, and if not, they usually come to film very early in their lives. They went to acting school or theatre departments. They ARE actors. They forgot to be people. And film is insidious…….because you dont rehearse……….you are in a relationship with the camera. And in terms of voices……….someone like Scarlett Johanson CANT TALK. I mean she cant talk. Its astounding. But it doesnt matter….because of this shift in appreciation and critical perspective. IF the ‘camera likes you’, then thats all that matters. And actors perform the role of a celebrity acting in a film. Thats who they play.

    Taxi Driver is fascinating. First off, Schrader’s script is amazingly accomplished. Of course he stole most of it from Arthur Bremer’s diaries….but never mind. And DeNiro invested it with a genuine energy……….but I think your observations, Molly, are astute here. DeNiro was doing his idea of street. It was a good sort of high end parody. But thats what it was. Now….people get all upset when one says this stuff about films they LOVE. But…..its true. And i think as time goes on, one sees this. If you watch George C Scott in The Hustler……….man, thats something utterly different. His relationship is NOT with the camera. YOU OWE ME MONEY!!!!!!!!!! is chilling. Far more chilling than YOU TALKING TO ME?!

  20. john steppling says:

    So the method, at its origin, with strasberg, channelling stanislavski…..it was a corrective and a reaction. But it was in the service of that naked terror. What happened was that it became confused with FEELINGS. But it was happening in a very narcissistic culture……so that was to be expected. And it became fetishized………and self involved.

    Here is where a discussion of text becomes very important….and it is why i have so little interest in directors like robert wilson. I know why people like him, but I find it reactionary…….its spectacle and its almost onanistic. Its this prolonging of me……..keep watching me……..FOREVER.

    So i think its very important to get away from this idea of what is artificial and what is real. Obviously naturalism means nothing. Its a meaningless term….but its been highjacked to justify a sort of cult of the individual subjectivity.

    So the uncanny…………this is a huge topic. I mean, i think molly has hit on something, and i hadnt thought of it that way……but it s probably true. But its probably more than that. But…….one way to look at it has to do with the awareness of history. Our own, and by extension, of everyone. The ruins of history, those traces left……….in this case, the play. The text of the play…….spoken today. The repressed and destabilizing material returns……..its that sense of our own childhood trauma. Its also a sense we have forgotten — I got into this a lot in my notes on theatre. In theatre, that history is alive off stage. Its why i say theatre is about death. Not life. It moves toward primordial silence. It is chasing the moment of the split……..but its also, and here is the major paradox, its also a social history. For history is social. Today, in a film culture there is a tendency to accept a performance is that a portrayal of myself. But not of myself, but a portrayal of my invented character of myself. And it makes sense then, that saying lines clearly, to be heard would be that much harder.

  21. john steppling says:

    when i say that being able to say lines CLEARLY without psycholozing requires a connection to listening, its because the actor must LISTEN until he hears something…….not just anything. Its a waiting on one level. Paradox paradox.

    and also its being able to hear oneself….and not to sound too portentious or whatever…but its medidative…its hearing one’s own pain. Its a serious business.

    and as for people performing themselves…and sometimes its scripted…..by whom? Well, by mass media. Thats what the master narrative is really about.

  22. “The best actors I believe are never comfortable on stage. Its an ordeal”

    Yeah, they are shy. It’s true. When I was young and pa, I noticed the sound department always had the problems with the really good actors doing the serious work because their hearts were too loud. Regardless of fame level.

  23. john steppling says:

    from my notes on theatre:

    Text is the vehicle for the creation of space not generalized. It
    cannot know, it can only be. The appearance of technology, from
    photography to film to computers has pushed the experience
    further away. It pushes further and faster. So what are the
    historical material forces that allowed and insisted on the
    appearance of this technology? (One might look at the paradoxical
    reactions to this. Minimalism…especially in sculpture, suggest an
    obdurant thing in itself. But the problem is that ‘object’ has
    returned from nowhere. It only brings attention to the fact that
    facsimile artworks are there to reinforce a sense of the ‘real’).The real, naturalism, realism, are all exactly NOT those things.
    They are the end product of that movement that learned from
    painting the wheel in motion. There is no animal vision in
    humans. There is no apriori “seeing”.
    We’ve moved from method to principles

  24. john steppling says:


    “The concrete. The concrete is not surface, its an existential fact.
    Kitsch is based on surface.
    The unconscious is historically mediated, it IS historical, and
    under late capitalism it is doing the work of capital. Leisure time
    is the continuation of work (Adorno). Critical judgment cannot
    accomodate individual works of art that having nothing individual
    about them (Mira Schorr). Kitsch is hegemonic.
    Picasso’s clowns become John Wayne Gacy’s clowns. Both are
    symbols of the powerlessness of artists, as someone said. There
    are no arguments in kitsch.
    Painting after David is a continuous reimagining of the conditions
    of painting. (Thomas Elkins)
    Cinema is the orchestration of the unconscious and the
    unconscious is a scene of production. (Jonathan Beller)”

    “What happens when a play begins? The flat reflects nothing. It
    can only hide. The empty stage is akin to the cave painting. Today
    the argument for the playwright to have is with an audience
    whose sense of narrative is so truncated (as a collective) that it
    has stopped listening. The attention of the figures in the
    Rembrandt is an attention pushed aside today by technological
    (and ideological) reproduction of social reality. In Dutch group
    portraits the gesture is toward what is invisible. To gesture
    behind the flat is not to gesture toward the invisible. To gesture
    off stage is.”

  25. john steppling says:


    “Dialogue as discovered speech: the thinking through in the
    moment. The text, the dialogue, must subtract those layers of
    identification with bourgeois identity. But the bourgeois identity
    is now all that is left, in its petrified shell like form. Dead
    language is the coffin of the illusion of the ideal. The actor
    speaking lines has to be allow the speech to stay alive by staying
    ahead of himself, by sustaining that active margin of space linked
    to the dream. The actor has to forget his own dream life as he
    remembers the playwrights forgetting. The collective audience has
    to be made aware, as the individual exists in the collective, its
    social function in the larger social process. Everything in the
    theatre is in the process of self-dissolution.”

  26. John,Thanks for the Kind Words. I agree with you about Scott in The Hustler. De Niro is Brilliant in Taxi Driver,but “You Talkin to Me ” does not have One Scintilla of the Terrifying Power of Scott’s “You Owe Me Money” I’ll give you another one (my point will be clear in a minute) Scott as Patton inspecting the Barracks,comes across a pin up,regards it with a look of approval that says Not Bad,and then takes his Riding Crop and Rips it from the Wall! Then in a Sotto Voce Tone he says “This is a Barracks,not a Brothel”. And Mitchum’s Performance in Cape Fear (where I think he is Far More Frightening than Night of the Hunter) has a quite a Few Moments of Mitchum Wielding a Terrifying Power. De Niro’s Cady is a Brutal Cracker Evangelical,using sex to Achieve his End. Mitchum’s Cady is Pure Slithering Degenerate Evil. Just Crossing the Street in his White Hat ,stalking Barry Chase,you are chilled to the bone. When he slips into the water with the Knife in his Teeth,swimming after Peck’s Houseboat,he’s like a cross between a Python and a Seminole Warrior. Smearing the Egg on Polly Bergen,(in her best performance) and his Coup de Grace,slowly strangling and drowning Peck with a look of Smiling Rapture on his face as if he’s having sex,not committing Murder! My point is this. None of these moments are Naturalistic! They are Larger than Life,They are Theatrical,Bravura,and Dangerous.

    Naturalism didn’t Start with Stanislavski and Strasberg,Molly,Vocalis. It started with George the second Duke of Saxe Meiningen and William Gillette! Stanislavski and the Actors Studio Followed Suit.

    What the Group Theatre Sought to Achieve was a Workers Theatre of Size. Some of its Staged Moments had an almost Brechtian Power. The most famous would be the Cab Drivers running through the theater at the start of Waiting for Lefty as one of the actors ran on Stage Shouting Strike Strike Strike!

    The Knee Jerk Anti-Method thing to me,among Some in the Arts is like the Knee Jerk Tea Party thing about Government Programs,Illogical,pat,and with very little understanding of history’

    Also there is the Very Large difference between Naturalism and Realism. Strindberg,Ibsen,Chekov,Williams,O’Neil are from the Tradition of Realism in the Theater,Not Naturalism

    Bad Acting is Bad Acting,whether it comes from British RADA Technique or Strasberg Method Sensory Work. Great Acting comes from Truth and has Size and Speaks of the Human Condition,whether its Marlon in The Fugitive Kind or Olivier in Carrie.

  27. john steppling says:

    @joe…..per michelle williams. See, the thing is, Brando had Kazan…..an intellectual to sort of guide him, and there was a climate of radical thought for those actors. I think if you look at Angelina Jolie’s first role of meaning, in Gia. A bio pic, michael Cristopher I think wrote it. Its junk, but she is truly amazing. And what happened? Plastic surgery and Laura Croft and whateverthefuckever. Who is talking to her? Forty years ago, fifty, the climate was there, an oppositional intellectual current. Today its either academia….specialized towers of incestuous *theory*….or there is corporate built faux populism. In both cases, I think its hard to imagine michelle williams suddenly knowing that she should work with serious people as opposed to what her agent tell hers to do. When movie stars decide to do theatre these days, they are guided by CAA and william morris……and they say, oh, here is the new LaBute play or the new john patrick shanley and Sir Tom Stoppard’s new west end show….etc. Its all marketing. So that milieu of intellectual opposition….modernism….is gone. The new opposition is likely going to take a form we’re not quite aware of yet. If i look at my work, or mednick, or guy zimmerman et al………people who SHOULD be far better known…..i mean I feel like a weird footnote to something. You cannot work in absolute isolation forever. Its madness or slavery. I picked madness I guess.

  28. To the point about the repetitive…This would be for another entry I think, but it’s why sports has something that many artists or intellectuals often don’t pay attention to or don’t understand.

    I also think theatre is completely broken. In part because of kids going to performing arts schools that are dominated by industry sensibilities and thus leave out the youth who are probably the real artists. But also because of way the word artist is used. It’s why when we originally founded Gunfighter Nation I didn’t want to use the word “artists” anywhere in it because I wanted people to find their way into the critical space long before they (we) we talking about making art etc….

  29. john steppling says:

    @ lex — Yes…….yes, the professionalization is a big issue. I saw this in poland….rich kids got into the film school by and large. And performing arts schools….its like conservatory jazz programs. Its killed the entire thrust of the inherent critique that is going on……….the sense of community, of the social molly mentioned, of the sense of what you come from, your class, your history — and you have time to develop as an artist…..and mature and this notion of career isnt placed front & center for one’s life.

  30. john steppling says:

    Meaning, if you are able to exists outside those systems….the structural demands can be escaped. But if you DO go to performing arts programs, and post grad MFA writing and directing programs….I think what that has done is to TAKE you out of the community. Of course the community itself is compromised, that is the goal of the authority structure….its the cunning of domination.

  31. “I think what that has done is to TAKE you out of the community”

    Exactly….It’s part of why so often the best music comes out of local scenes that develop out of community and shared experience, usually prior to being branded etc….

    It’s also why I trust Efe and fam when they say “fuck the Fela musical”…..because of course….

  32. Just a short note about Michelle Williams,John. Check out Blue Valentine with her and Gosling,and a film where shes homeless with a dog,that has Will Patton in it. She really is THE SHIT (like Gosling),and she does seek out good work,more than Mainstream Hollywood Bullshit.

  33. john steppling says:

    that IS mainstream hollywood bullshit. But please…a moritorium on people’s favorite movies. This is what happens. Im as guilty as anyone.

  34. john steppling says:

    Its not important if we *like* something. We enjoy it. But if we really want to see how modern subjectivity is reproduced, in terms of the performative…..then we have to examine it carefully. Here is a small scene from The Hustler. George C Scott’s relationship is not with the camera. ITs with Newman, and with the TEXT. Newman is good…..but Scott is ‘other’….and it is not naturalistic, nor realistic, or any of that. Its uncanny……http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9GLB3sg_OXo&feature=related

  35. I love the Histler so much and GCScott (when I was a wee tot really Patton just seemed amusing …make the other sonofabitch die for his country…now it’s impportnat and useful I think for kids to have mass culture like that to frame their understanding of adult world and political world before entering it. Now they have Batman. But Scott – Day of the Dolphin scarred me! Pa doesn’t love fa. Oy! My dad brought these films home on 3/4 inch tapes.)

    Anyway I love this stuff…but as ytou say who cares.? Still it makes me really want to understand what you mean here about his uncanny performance. So can you take mle through it – its more than just you impression. It’s something he’s doing that you can explain in smaller units? Now to me I noticed now watching with attention that there is a kind of…what is the term for it…Comedy of MAnners style acting going on? a kind of cmodified version of the way Sheridan’s Rivals would be played? The line spoke as he is flicking ash then, then, when the line is finished, he looks up. It’s theatrical. It’s not as sharp as you’d see from (my beloved!) Fabrice Luchini at Comedie Francaise, but the foundation, with a kind of upper layer of naturalism. That’s in contrast to what Newman is doing.

    And this comedy of manners thing creates the doubling of chatracyter as individual and character as type…of interpretation and reference, of inhabiting/possessing and inhabiting/vanishing.

    Would that be what you mean? Or close?

  36. sorry for typos

    modified version that should say (not commodified.)

  37. john steppling says:

    I just wrote a whole answer that got lost…..shit. Ok, let me try again.
    here is something i wrote….

    “The rise of the bourgeois individual eliminated tragedy as
    Sophocles knew it. In the theatre of Beckett, Pinter and Kane the
    expelled is forefront, and the narrative cannot coalesce into a
    picture of the real. Its uncanny. In Genet or Muller and Bernhard,
    the social awareness of tragedy’s death is always present, as a
    toxic affliction. The social as a disease. In the audience of today
    the infantile ego cannot really experience the uncanny. ”

    The actor is forming projections of the audience…..(and within that lies the start of paranoia….but thats another topic, really)……and for example, Scott, is not doing that,. He is opaque. He reflects nothing back and therefore he is destabilizing. For all the comedia formality, and stylization of his gestures, he is SUBTRACTING more than he is adding. He is not doing….in the sense Newman is. Newman is very method, and he’s good in this…..but Scott is not giving us a narrative kitsch bio of this character. Opaque. And within that lack, lies the spring or font of desire. He gives back to us, in a sense, our own desire.

  38. john steppling says:

    a bad actor would play MANIPULATION in this scene. And Scott doesnt. He is so attentive to the text. He is unfamiliar within his familiarity. The stylization allows the deeper unfamiliar. Within well observed naturalism one finds only well observed naturalism. Now i think your points about the body social., the laborers body is absolutely true……but that body then contains social history, too. Here…..this scene, with Scott….is a film……….its not theatre…….but we still can tweeze apart certain things. Who looks when and at whom? The text is also not kistch. But again, thats another topic. So here Scott is avoiding the narcissitic celebrity….he is avoiding those projections, he is not selling you anything. When that happens……….compare to say, Harrison Ford, in anything….indiana jones….whatever……he is selling you the film. ANd himself as a movie star….full of coolness and sex appeal and whatever. Scott…and really newman, too, are not selling. Eddie Felson is selling within the narrative, thats his character. Scott is far more unsettling. For he pulls back the info we want. That we want to make sure the picture of the real is still in place.

  39. john steppling says:

    Mass culture, film and TV, almost second by second, provide cues. Emotional cues…..of recognition. The uncanny performance never allows us to recognize ourselves in it. Its the anti identification. We may desire…..indeed we do……Brando is desired, but we arent quite sure in what way. Brando was a great gestural actor. And much imitated. Usually badly.

    So the articial is there, in some coded form or other. I m trying to think of a version without that, but I cant offhand. Peter O Toole…..in Lawrence of Arabia…..is a very unsettling performance in a totally other sense. But its also anti identification I think.

    The un-kitsch narrative de unifies space. It extends limitleslly in a dream space. And something of a forgotten quality returns. I think the un-kitsch actor, the uncanny performance, is somehow linked to this sense of expelled material…..we recognize something in Scott…in that scene….but its not familiar………its disturbing because we *remember* it….but we have forgotten from where. To achieve that, I think means a very active subtracting of self…..of sales and pandering and attention. Scott does not ask you to look at him.

  40. john steppling says:

    now, how to really frame by frame, analyse this…..Im not sure. The moment where Scott says “thats your problem”. See, its thrown away. Everything…every pointed moment in the text, every bit of dialogue is given away. Thrown away. The very first time Scott says “character”….he laughs. Its a weird quiet small short laugh. Or when he finally steps to the bar……yes there is all the shooting of cuffs, adjusting the tie, etc…all that business…..but its de-centered. Its not quite where you expect it. Truthfully, Newman seems a tad predictable by the end of the scene. And when Newman asks Scott…how much? He tells him and then Newman says, “for who?”…..”For me”. Its beautiful. Given away……..let go of……….and suddenly a tiny fracture occurs in the picture of the real.

  41. “he is SUBTRACTING more than he is adding. ”

    Okay yes but this IS what they do in that style isn’t it? It’s subtracting.? Although the mannerism are so important, they’re not to be piled up; it’s spare and everything else is erased while they are deployed. There are only a few, carefully chosen, and played so distinctly; The way a good Mrs. Millimant will make a fan gesture in the RSC style, sharp as a razor, and the same every night as I have many times verified. Presumably Scott could be exactly the same – exactly, down to where he breathed and blinked – in every take, and Newman could not.

  42. okay read the rest, thanks I’m thinking.

    Okay to be stupid maybe, some other opaque performances

    Cary Grant in Notorious

  43. A I right to think this opacity is somethng Christopher Walked is often consciously parodying and simultaneously attempting?

    Women – Faye Dunaway in her best roles maybe? Audrey Hepburn? Dominique Sanda in The Conformist? Monica Vitti in L’avventura?

  44. john steppling says:

    Im thinking, too. But a quick note……….ok, 2 quick notes. Yes, per Walken. Its funny though, or interesting, why he so quicky became a parody.

    second………Mrs Millimant….in a sense its the same, but its operating in an entirely different textual arena…..and for another strategy. I mean Noh, and Kabucki are minimalist, too. I saw a Noh drama once, and after two minutes the character finally moved his arm……..and the guy next to me said “ah, the plot thickens”.

    I mean it was hysterical. And true. But again, those are coded………the dance theatres of india too, involve coded gestures…..but within this very formal vocabulary. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=E1c37mFAKG0&feature=related

    and here is a peter hall version of pinter…..which is really quite bad…..its very much a selling……..http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=nv4-XI1hD9o

    but here……an earlier verion —clive donner directed…with robert shaw. To me, shaw is a much less self conscious actor. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kRi7AVCAKKc&feature=related

  45. John Steppling says:

    The Ian Holm version is very much what you see today. Its a kind of making a museum piece of Pinter. Its domesticating. Shaw just said the monologue. Its quite nice.

    thats the thing though….text.

    Scott in Schrader’s Hardcore. Not a good film, really, except for scott. http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=fm1osJ9Lgm0

    now thats a scene where not much happens. I would argue its amazingly engrossing however. Why`?

    or this……http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=2Mr4mjeZ2ko&feature=related

    the comparison is startling…………

  46. John Steppling says:

    Speaking the lines……clearly…………..take away psychologizing, and in a sense you take away the sales pitch. The performance of “art”. Because art is a commodity, I suppose…..so you perform a commodity dance . And I think today, that sort of production of a Pinter for example, is standard in the UK…………its very much a diva sort of acting, too. Virtuosity……..which is an important facet of all this, of the entire topic. Aesthetics….and this relation of the cult of genius of the virtuoso.

  47. john steppling says:

    and monica Vitti , i would say yes. The rest im less sure about. In fact, Hepburn, no — but must think on this a bit.

    the opaque is not blankness………i mean, its absolutely not a loss of affect. That reflects everything back…to push that metaphor.

  48. Vocalis Spiritum says:

    John, I think the word that comes to mind in all this in resonance. Scott allows certain words to ring. We don’t have that opportunity anymore because we are always surrounded by noise, be it visual or auditory. The theatre space could give us that opportunity IF actors could harness the power of the voice, but I seldom if ever hear actors that can do that.
    This resonance is a gift to the audience and completely selfless because the echoes of the words are not tainted by the ego of the actor. I think the great Cicely Berry said that one should not impose one’s ego on the text before the text had a chance to express itself. Sage advise.
    Tom- I never said that Stanislavski was the beginning of Naturalism. I merely stated that most of what is considered naturalistic acting bores the crap out of me, no matter who or what the originator is/was. Bottom line, I’m very libertarian on acting approaches. If it works for you, that’s peach. Doesn’t mean it’s exciting, entertaining or even mildly amusing to me, nor most of anyone else if Broadway’s stagnating numbers are to be believed.
    This IS a great conversation, by the way.

  49. Chris Bell says:

    The comparison of Scott’s “You owe me money” & DeNiro’s “You talkin’ to me” is not, in my view, a good one. (And I think both performances are enormously effective.) I’ve never thought Travis B is supposed to be frightening ala the Saturday Night Live impressions; he’s an uncomfortable dolt who can barely communicate to anyone- including himself- and is overwhelmed & frightened by his environs (“you talkin’ to me” is by himself while trying to puff himself up against these feelings). Scott is the opposite– at least outwardly– and in threatening Newman he, of course, has the pool room mob to back him up. That combo, plus Scott’s general brilliance, makes him terrifying in that scene.

    Cheers for Bogie & Spencer. And glad Bad Day At Black Rock is not forgotten.

  50. John Steppling says:

    Chris — the comparison was only because both had been mentioned. But I still would argue for it. ITs not about the character they play. But this is a useful point to discuss. I think again, what is unsettling in Scott for example, is hard to define. But its what we’ve been trying to do. I find very little unsettling in De Niro in that role…or ever, actually. I mean if we really look at DeNiro’s body of work….what is there exactly? Taxi Driver and Godfather I guess. I see both he and Pacino (who i find more intriguing somehow) as sort of transitional figures. They came up in a new hollywood era, economically…..the studio dynamics had changed. And they became sort of short hand for “serious”. They were branded serious. Im not sure the film work of either of them is going to stand up over time. I could be wrong.

    but the bigger question has to do with reading the performance. I mean, now we are talking characterization. And thats interesing. Ive always been a bit stumped to find the short answer for students when they ask, what is character? But my argument was more about an inherent gravitas in Scott…..or not really even that, but this uncanny sort of destabilizing effect. And clearly we have to try to figure out more exactly what that is. I mean i do hear your point……

  51. Chris Bell says:

    John, I’d suggest that George Scott, in addition to being one hell of an actor, also had- for lack of a better phrase- movie star charisma. That sounds like somewhat of a dodge, but maybe it also hits a bit on your thoughts on “uncanny”? How to define it? And it’s awfully subjective. (we may agree about Scott, but Brando never did anything for me, for example.) And I’ve only seen Scott on film, how was he on stage? I’ve read that James Mason didn’t translate terribly well on stage, and he also is very good in my view (even if one starts & stops at his reaction in seeing Lolita for the first time).

    As for DeNiro, i find his Travis so UN-DeNiro, so underplayed that it works disturbingly well for me. There’s also Mean Streets, which really established the DeNiro we’ve become accustomed to– for better & worse. And that is quite at odds with what he did in Taxi Driver. A narrow range, I concede, but some depth.

  52. I’ve always felt DeNiro’s best work was Godfather part 2, but after reading Chris Bell’s comment on movie star charisma it got me thinking…DeNiro got by in that film in part because of his beauty, and the general beauty of the film. The best scenes by far are the ones with Bruno Kirby, and you realize that DeNiro only holds his own in those scenes because of his beauty and charisma while Kirby does something that invoked an immediate return to being 8 years old and having another boy challenge you to a race, or try and bully you, or force you to play a game of one on one on the playground while the older boys watch. It’s a vulnerable and dangerous place because there is no nurturing presence anywhere nearby….That to me is what Bruno Kirby does in those scenes, and DeNiro has never done anything like that.

  53. Chris Bell says:

    Lex, that’s a great point about beauty. DeNiro, Newman, Clift, et al were ridiculously gorgeous when young, and that’s part of their acting & charisma- a blessing & curse. Kirby & GC Scott- or Tracy and Bogie- are necessarily different. They lack the pretty mug but have at least as much magnetism & attractiveness. And perhaps they’re just forced to become better actors. What John wrote earlier about withholding & the uncanny is particularly relevant, I think, with the non beauties. (And there’s a certain irony that Newman started off as a histrionic Brando imitator & morphed into a latter day Spencer Tracy.)

  54. john steppling says:

    The topic of *beauty* is not insignificant. I am doing a new posting, up in a day or maybe two…..as an extension of this posting. Its been a great discussion and I want to expand on it. Its tricky in all this to keep seperating content from form….in a sense……and indeed they overlap. I watched a 1977 film, Rolling Thunder, a minor but very good post viet nam noir……..with bill devane and tommie lee jones. What was remarkable was the sensibility of this film, the manner in which the characters expressed the emptiness and moral deadness of soldiers returning, and of the cultural emptiness of the country — and it did so, partly, via Devane’s very restrained minimalist performance. Script was Schrader….an early one of his. Anyway……it made me think a lot about this thread. And the shift from Rolling Thunder and Who’ll Stop The Rain, and Cutter’s Way…….to Dark Knight. Or TV cop shows. It was really still possible in ’77 to find producers like Arkoff, who wanted to make intelligent genre work and left the talent alone to do that. In hindsight, those post viet nam noirs were almost the end of a certain sort of studio product.

  55. I find a lot of the vietnam films very troubling and think that although we tend to seea division between the critical/lefty ones and, then, eventually, with Deer Hunter the apologies, that the critical/left ones are leading there…they are all about castration of the white American male by the defeat. They look at first anti-war, critical of empire, but really they are lamenting the empire’s failure and insinuating connections between this failure and castration and feminism and the social movements. I don’t think Rollinjg Thunder is at all an exception.

  56. Which is not to say these films are shit or anything. They are just a very mixed bag.

  57. john steppling says:

    Yeah, I disagree with that. I mean its a very facile sort of take…..and I think its an element in a lot of these films…..well, its in Rolling Thunder for sure. But its not at all in Cutter’s Way……….and its not really at all much of how I would talk about Who’ll Stop the Rain. But see….rolling thunder is interesting because that IS part of what the landscape showed circa 77. That was part of it. Art isnt what you think it SHOULD show….but RT is certainly in its basic outline, pretty reactionary. Cutter’s Way is not. Ivan Passer….a friend of milos foreman’s, and a czech, was really doing a pretty interesting re-think of a pulp book…..which I think was called Cutter and Bone (the original title of the film, actually)……and UA Classics rebranded it….trying for an audience. Anyway…….Passer was a very interesting guy and the film remains one of the stranger films of the period (made in 1982). My friend worked as editor on , ….and they really had no ending. They just sort of spliced shit together, and said, here…..it’s an art film. Anyway…………….Nightmoves also…..and that whole window was NOT about white male castration. I mean junk like Deer Hunter (which might be THEE most overrated film of all time), and a number of other things that had the war foregrounded. And RT is sort of between. But cutters way and ‘Rain (robert stone screenplay) were not at all. Now………….Nightmoves…..a film i really sort of always pimp for a bit because it was written by my favorite screenwriter, alan sharp. Arthur Penn directed, 1975………and man, its a film that never mentions the war at all. And really, its against this weird take on genre…on detective narratives…..with Hackman as an ex NFL player spying on his wife. So…………one can take this to include white male anxiety, but its sort of wrong headed and reductive to look at a film like NIGhtmoves or Cutters Way as simply about that. It misses much larger meanings.

  58. john steppling says:

    but then there are a whole ton of bad sort of overtly VIET NAM films…liberal stuff like Coming Home….and later Platoon….which was 86. And see, the revionist history was already in place by 86….so Stone was just reflecting the industry standard….and the sort of established trope of *american defeat* and the crisis in masculinity, blah blah blah.

    I dont think those films from the late 70s were doing that so much. They were more deeply anxious. Certainly the sense of militarism and that idea of defeat sort of osicillated around the edges. But I think with Cutters Way, you had a euro dirctor who just had this strange sense of what war did, and what california culture was expressing post viet nam. Stone of course is a very male writer…..which i guess is perfectly fine with me. I think he’s a great writer in fact….but who’ll stop the rain is a mixed experience…….Reisz directed……was a sort arty brit product……..(born in Czechslovakia……now might be slovakia…where he’s from …but i digress) but he was an director of british new wave stuff……….along with schlesinger and richardson et al. ANd losey. BUt he made a few quite good films….really, better in the end I think than his rep.

    So this was a literary project. But the original title was too genre…Dog Soldiers….so they made up this absurd meaningless titlle…which isnt in the book……but whatever. So these films are nothing like Coming Home or some of the more commercial successes…..Urban Cowboy…now THAT was about male castration……..just was 1980 already…….and it was being expressed in other genre codes. Apocolypse Now was 79 I think.

    so……I could dig into the lists…Saint Jack, a great film by Bogdanovich….was 79 or 78……..and boys in company c…..a not good film, but an early revisionist viet name one…was 79. So i think the formalized Viet Nam theme was not until at least 1983. But the 75-80window had these fascinating small B films…..(Nightmoves a tiny bit later)………and most only indirectly dealt with the war. Or if they did, they hadn’t time to formalize a psychology………..and the anxiety was refracted through indirect thematic material and other established codes.

  59. john steppling says:

    I do want to talk more about this subject of beauty….of physical beauty. I hope to include that some in the next posting.

    There are a lot of gradations — and in terms of performance, the uncanny, and all this its quite relevant to look at how a master discourse shapes not just the aesthetic terms by which we talk about it, but also its importance in within a system of domination. Listening today to a youtube molly sent………that included a thumbnail on gramsci……and his notion of hegemony. This can be looked at in terms of the beautiful……….the commodifying of desire….etc. etc.

  60. Cutter’s way was to me the first real POST post-Vietnam noir. Not sure, aside from John Heard as a crippled vet does it express much about ‘nam as much as, like you said, about what was going on in the California of Ronald Reagan. Jeff Bridges being the walking embodiment (not the right word but I can’t think of another one.)

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