Rational Actors

The comments to my superhero post got me thinking about acting and corporate cinema (if anyone cares to complement my idle musings with references to respectable criticism on the subject, I’d appreciate it). I’m going to hypothesize that there is a new style of acting dominant in ‘mainstream’ corporate entertainment, of the type constructed ‘as if’ intended solely for teenage boys, though versions of it also exist in certain art films of the new absurdist/surrealist variety, i.e. Davids Lynch and Cronenberg.

This style is characterized by an impersonal, flattened affect of the type usually associated with advertisements, bad amateur theatre, and low-level anchorpeople. That is, there is almost no difference between performance, character, and archetype. We can consider George Lucas’s The Phantom Menace as a sort of flagship vehicle, an interesting example because of how vehemently it was criticized, especially for its “wooden” acting. It’s also interesting because of its status as a kind of corporate auteurist project — Lucasfilm is a privately owned corporation, and Lucas wrote and directed the last three movies himself. TPM is also an attempt to repeat the success of a franchise, and though the initial decision may have had more to do with personal vanity than market demand, the production was under the same rigid constraints as it would have been under a less autocratic regime. Almost every major character is a ‘purer’ structural double of a character from the older trilogy. Liam Neeson’s mentor figure is simply a less distinctive version of Alec Guinness’s mentor figure, Natalie Portman is a personality-less Carrie Fisher, Hayden Christensen’s Anakin Skywalker disappointed everyone by being an even more boring Luke Skywalker. The only engaging characters are literally nostalgic repetitions of characters from the old trilogy, often played by the same actor (notably, there is no Han Solo analogue).

I challenge anyone to hold its performances up to those of the critically acclaimed The Dark Knight, and, excluding Heath Ledger for the moment, say what the difference is. There’s the same vacuity, the same open invitation to allegory. One has to assume they’re told to act this way, since both films are full of actors with proven talent. All that’s purchased are their names and faces (I wonder if that’s in the contract). They inhabit their parts with all the smoothness of an automaton, a styleless mode of performance apparently designed for easy exchange with animated versions, comic book images, videogame avatars, concepts.

Almost no one praises this ‘bad’ acting and dialogue; the consensus seems to be that it’s just not worth commenting on, that these are the film’s ‘givens.’

The exception, of course, is the Joker. All the Nicholson-bashing praise given to Ledger’s version aside, the two actors fill the same structural role in both TDK and Tim Burton’s Batman. Where Nicholson was the only actor in Batman given free reign to go completely over the top, giving a hyper-individualistic, Nicholson-esque performance that verged on self-parody, Ledger is the only actor in TDK permitted to act at all. As k-punk writes, he “plays the make-up,” disappearing so completely into the image of the Joker he approaches the impossible trick of performing a surface from the inside out. Compared with the Method ethos that Nicholson was trained in, that of embodying every character with personal autobiography, the channelling of positive excess that overflows the boundaries of the written role, Ledger delivers a negative counterpoint. Neither imaginative nor personal identification, but something more like possession.

Both Jokers, however, are positioned as the product of everyone else’s work, the sole redemptive upshot of their relative dullness. Nicholson and Ledger’s costars come off as failures in a struggle to follow their example. The cast of Batman is allowed to play their limited parts; Michael Keaton and Kim Basinger especially carry off witty, if minor, performances, but next to Jack they look like manniqins. In TDK, where the actors really are used as manniqins, they appear to mindlessly follow the bad script (you can almost see the slavedriver with the whip: “WILL YOU…STOP…EMOTING!”) while Ledger allows himself to be consumed by it, becoming the film’s faux-anarchic king-for-a-day.

In the later work of David Lynch, maybe the features from Fire Walk With Me on, a similarly exceptional performance is given by a woman, and is the product of her intense, irrational suffering. Everyone else is flat, but weirdly, threateningly flat; they are her tormentors, or her gypsy fortune tellers. The dialogue is all ‘bad.’ Some of Cronenberg draws something similar out of its actors — History of Violence, Eastern Promises, and Crash all have these zombielike performances of intensely generic scripts — though closer to mainstream studio output than Lynch in that the only additional importance attached to the actors’ apparent blankness is given by the graphic violence and sexual perversity.

The style or style family I’m trying to pin down is something like the affectation of camp delivered to an audience that doesn’t seem interested in reading the films that way, who instead take their old-fashioned, unreflective ethical injunctions and ‘philosophical’ kernels (“with great power comes great responsibility”), their telegraphed attempts at emotional manipulation,  completely seriously. Or do they? Reading reviews and academic analyses it can be difficult to tell if the critic, immersed in his or her role as cultural commentator of a specific genre, is oblivious to the demands of communicating something of importance outside narrow discursive conventions, this being the basic foundation of seriousness. Maybe the actors share something with the critics: a professional response to the intolerable, one thus infatuated with its (imaginary) opposite.

Some of the differences between, say, Batman and The Dark Knight or Star Wars and The Phantom Menace can be understood if we conclude that the cost of producing what was at one time simply a charismatic, flawed, rebel hero, one among others, and is now this crazy, anarchic rebel (anti)hero and prophet, has, at least in certain genres, been steadily increasing.

More to come…

15 Responses to “Rational Actors”

  1. some of this, the woodenness, is technical don’t you think? the conditions for these actors in these kinds of things, the constraints, and if the muscles in their faces move it looks bizarre. So the jokers – both – have this makeup that means they can move their faces a little, thus “act” to a point, and the bad effect is masked, but the other actors have to worry about keeping their faces as still as possible. some actors have an advantage – like michele pfeiffer is in one of these pictures (stardust), but she has an immobile face and expressive eyes, so she looks good even when “emoting”, there’s very little facial contorting. But most faces aren’t so much like that, and when the mouth is moving, or when you’re just thinking or moving around, muscles in the face move, and it doesn’t look good, and these kinds of movies, with this style of lighting and the priorities, creates problems for these performers and they end up just sort of like props, posing and delivering these risible lines as best they can.

  2. notice the lead in “V” was praised unusually for his acting; he could “emote” because of the mask (not despite it).

  3. traxus4420 Says:

    “some of this, the woodenness, is technical don’t you think?”

    i’m sure that’s right, and there’s also the blue/green screen shooting where the actors don’t know what they’re acting to. ending up like props is a good way of putting it.

    but then even in scenes where they aren’t wearing costumes, in batman and increasingly in spider-man it’s the same way. a couple exceptions with actors who are allowed to hint at personalities but in general, the leads are just extremely neutral and the supporting characters play pure types (mentor, soothsayer, henchman, what-have-you).

    it’s just say your line and on to the next CGI effect.

    oh yeah, the matrix movies do this too, more noticeably in the sequels.

    i think i’m just noticing it now because batman doesn’t have the excuse of being family-friendly, it’s praised for being “adult.” suggesting people have gotten used to this.

  4. “versions of it also exist in certain art films of the new absurdist/surrealist variety, i.e. Davids Lynch and Cronenberg. This style is characterized by an impersonal, flattened affect of the type usually associated with advertisements”

    I think there’s a difference in intent between these two styles. For Lynch and Cronenberg the flatness conveys a gnostic effect: the characters are channels for immanent and transcendent forces that possess them, that are the true agents which animate the people (see e.g. your post on Plainview & Chigurh). This gnostic flatness also fits your archetypal examples. For Jarmusch it’s something else, like the characters are part of the drab scenery, or that the flatness of the contemporary world makes people flat. The more traditional Hollywood entertainments have more to do with advertising.

    “there’s also the blue/green screen shooting where the actors don’t know what they’re acting to.”

    The flat actors serve as blue/green screens onto which the viewers can project themselves. So too with advertising.

  5. i think traxus this woodenness (you mention noir somewhere) and why and what it accomplishes, is maybe exposed by its absence in a hitchcock – because normally hitchcock movies have this also, the wooden actors, the blank style, not as extreme as the comix movies, but carey grant and eva marie saint can do this certain barbie doll thing; but there is a not so celebrated hitchcock called Torn Curtain, with Paul Newman and Julie Andrews. And neither of them can do the blank thing – they’re actors, they act. Especially method newman. And it is really weird and disconcerting in this hitchcock movie, written and shot like the others, for archetyes, but there is paul newman acting, trying to create a character, powerful like in the theatre. It just basically makes the film terrible, unintelligible, its ordinary hitchcock gimmicks seems ludicrous, a catastrophe of absurdity, the whole thing is made prfectly ridiculous by this central presence of this character that newman makes out of the written type (and andrews is acting too). And the movie is considered a distaster, but its not any dumber and hokier than other hitchcocks, its just the acting style exposes how dumb it is. It’s kind of funny to watch it.

  6. ah and there is a fight/murder scene in it, now sort of famous because there’s no music. bernard herman had written some music but they couldn’t use it, because just the whole hitcock apparatus of manipulation and fabulous ideological production kind of fell apart around this performance, this actor, acting. it ruined everything.

  7. traxus4420 Says:

    i’m just going to put these here because they seem relevant:

    john steppling Says:
    August 17, 2008 at 8:25 pm e

    ah, well………….yeah, interesting. I mean, first, compare the acting in a Bresson film. And then compare it to a hal hartley film.

    Brando for example — and what he was doing was actually nothing at all like what most *method* actors do. The question is the form — is film form, in some sense anyway.

    I agree that the new loss of affect (and here one should sample Songs From the Second Floor, by swedish director Roy Anderson)….is pure marketing, but then an Anderson was trained in TV commercials….and Chiatt Day perfected this style. When it reaches a Hartley (and more than a few others) we have a slightly different intent. Its simply now just a blankness…..meant to not fill anything. Buster Keaton’s blankness was melancholy……..but the new blankness (as it were) is about non-intention. Its not reaction, its nothing. Its loss of affect I guess, literally.

    Again however, if you go back a ways and look at good film actors, Spencer Tracy for example. He *does* very little…..and in a sense Brando does very little too….but in a much more romantic and theatrical way. Tracey, or Robert Ryan, these guys were pure film actors. They didnt look to dissapear into their roles……(which Ledger does by the way) but they were playing themselves somehow. What happened though was the rise of a techological chauvenism — robo cop or terminator — but even dirty harry……where the intent was to be less than human, the loss of affect was loss of compassion.

    Im rambling here……and I need to think on this…..

    traxus4420 Says:
    August 18, 2008 at 12:02 am e

    good adorno quote — where’s it from?

    what you say here makes me think of noir and its nouvelle vague antecedents, where there is what one might call a dramatization of blankness, sometimes played with in manipulative ways with nonprofessionals (like antonioni in zabriskie point). maybe the contemporary inheritor of this is ‘hipster’ stuff like wes anderson, or mumblecore, where the tone is self-conscious, light absurdity meant to be suggestive of the earlier types but ‘without making a big deal about it.’

    but in the movies i’m talking about here the loss of compassion or loss of affect isn’t even an issue, the actors are just tools, props as chabert puts it in the comments to my last post.

    john steppling Says:
    August 18, 2008 at 6:13 pm e

    Well, yeah, they are props…..but i wonder if all actors at all times might not be seen this way.

    I dont know — it raises the question of what a “performance” actually does….what is it? The audience knows its not watching *real life*, so you arent really trying to duplicate reality, but rather an actor is performing and doing so in a very particular context….theatre or film….and they are different I think.

    So this brings up back to narrative. The sense in which they are props is the result, partly, of a truncated narrative…..and of a highly reductive created world.

    Ok, ii guess i gotta go look at that previous post 🙂

    Oh, and the adorno is form Aesthetic Theory.

  8. traxus4420 Says:

    i’ll have to check out that hitchcock, thanks.

    “The flat actors serve as blue/green screens onto which the viewers can project themselves. So too with advertising.”

    i don’t know about this, i think it’s difficult to project oneself onto a live human face regardless of what it’s doing. projecting oneself onto a character is a different story.

    i remember there was a minor controversy in the video game world when graphics technology became good enough that avatar faces could become more realistic than the old 8-bit pink blotches — gamers complained they could no longer project themselves onto the characters, and so backstory and characterization had to become more detailed to compensate for the loss.

  9. Interesting observation about gaming. So I’m wondering whether the flat-affect actors are so pretty they can’t be allowed to move their faces (per Chabert’s point I think), or whether they need to be so bland they can still serve as projection avatars. There are those psychology studies in which subjects tend to find most attractive those faces which are the most average relative to the societies they live in. So I wonder if the moviemakers expect the young male viewers to identify with Christian Bale’s flat Batman image, as in a mirror, or to be attracted to it, as in a photo. (Side note: magpies can recognize themselves in mirrors, per a study released today.)

    Here’s an excerpt from David Bordwell’s post on superhero movies, where he refers to “the hambone factor” — contemporary acting as impersonation:

    In the studio era, star acting ruled. A star carried her or his persona (literally, mask) from project to project. Parker Tyler once compared Hollywood star acting to a charade; we always recognized the person underneath the mime.

    This is not to say that the stars were mannequins or dead meat. Rather, like a sculptor who reshapes a piece of wood, a star remolded the persona to the project. Cary Grant was always Cary Grant, with that implausible accent, but the Cary Grant of Only Angels Have Wings is not that of His Girl Friday or Suspicion or Notorious or Arsenic and Old Lace. Or compare Barbara Stanwyck in The Lady Eve, Double Indemnity, and Meet John Doe. Young Mr. Lincoln is not the same character as Mr. Roberts, but both are recognizably Henry Fonda.

    Dress them up as you like, but their bearing and especially their voices would always betray them. As Mr. Kralik in The Shop around the Corner, James Stewart talks like Mr. Smith on his way to Washington. In The Little Foxes, Herbert Marshall and Bette Davis sound about as southern as I do.

    Star acting persisted into the 1960s, with Fonda, Stewart, Wayne, Crawford, and other granitic survivors of the studio era finishing out their careers. Star acting continues in what scholar Steve Seidman has called “comedian comedy,” from Jerry Lewis to Adam Sandler and Jack Black. Their characters are usually the same guy, again. Arguably some women, like Sandra Bullock and Ashlee Judd, also continued the tradition.

    On the whole, though, the most highly regarded acting has moved closer to impersonation. Today your serious actors shape-shift for every project—acquiring accents, burying their faces in makeup, gaining or losing weight. We might be inclined to blame the Method, but classical actors went through the same discipline. Olivier, with his false noses and endless vocal range, might be the impersonators’ patron saint. His followers include Streep, Our Lady of Accents, and the self-flagellating young De Niro. Ironically, although today’s performance-as-impersonation aims at greater naturalness, it projects a flamboyance that advertises its mechanics. It can even look hammy. Thus, as so often, does realism breed artifice.

    Horror and comic-book movies offer ripe opportunities for this sort of masquerade. In a straight drama, confined by realism, you usually can’t go over the top, but given the role of Hannibal Lector, there is no top. The awesome villain is a playground for the virtuoso, or the virtuoso in training. You can overplay, underplay, or over-underplay. You can also shift registers with no warning, as when hambone supreme Orson Welles would switch from a whisper to a bellow. More often now we get the flip from menace to gargoylish humor. Jack Nicholson’s “Heeere’s Johnny” in The Shining is iconic in this respect. In classic Hollywood, humor was used to strengthen sentiment, but now it’s used to dilute violence.

    Such is the range we find in The Dark Knight. True, some players turn in fairly low-key work. Morgan Freeman plays Morgan Freeman, Michael Caine does his usual punctilious job, (7) and Gary Oldman seems to have stumbled in from an ordinary crime film. Maggie Gylenhaal and Aaron Eckhart provide a degree of normality by only slightly overplaying; even after Harvey Dent’s fiery makeover Eckhart treats the role as no occasion for theatrics.

    All else is Guignol. The Joker’s darting eyes, waggling brows, chortles, and restless licking of his lips send every bit of dialogue Special Delivery. Ledger’s performance has been much praised, but what would count as a bad line reading here? The part seems designed for scenery-chewing. By contrast, poor Bale has little to work with. As Bruce Wayne, he must be stiff as a plank, kissing Rachel while keeping one hand suavely tucked in his pocket, GQ style. In his Bat-cowl, he’s missing as much acreage of his face as Dent is, so all Bale has is the voice, over-underplayed as a hoarse bark.

    In sum, our principals are sweating through their scenes. You get no strokes for making it look easy, but if you work really hard you might get an Oscar.

  10. On my run I found myself thinking about this attraction v. identification issue. As a kid reading the comic books it was clear: Bruce Wayne wasn’t interesting. His whole fussy lifestyle, with the mansion and fancy clothes and butler, was kind of effeminate, kind of gay. His name was Bruce after all, and among my Chicagoland cronies this was the prototypical fruity name (I don’t know how universal that was, or if that’s true any more). His “ward” was Dick (that one’s universal for sure). His Batman persona was tough, violent, manly: the guy to identify with. In these metrosexual times it’s no longer as clear that Bruce Wayne is limp. However in watching Batman Begins the other day, Alfred confronts Bruce after one of his escapades: you’ve got unexplained bruises, you have no social life — people will catch on to your true identity. In the very next scene Bruce is seen walking with a hot babe on each arm, clearly intended as a heterosexual “beard.” It might be inferred that both his effete Bruce persona and his leather Batman persona are equally gay.

    Returning to your gaming avatar idea, Traxus: the mask occludes the actor’s features, making him more of a blank slate for purposes of identification. This is explicitly true in V for Vendetta. At the beginning of Dark Knight there are vigilantes wearing Batman masks trying to be crimefighters. The featureless Batman can be a gnostic archetype, a role anyone can step into. The whitefaced Joker is archetypal as well. Bruce, with his face showing, is more of an individual subjective agent in the ordinary sense, but he’s still bland, as if his personal agency is a disguise. But Batman tries to stop the masked vigilantes, as if he regards himself as unique, THE Batman.

  11. As I mentioned a few times before Clysmatics, in this day and age character performance migrated to animation ( Wall-E, for example, is a tremendous character performance – nothing like it can be seen from any living celebrity actor of the moment) and in these Lucas spectacles Traxus mentions actors have to mingle with animated figures that are far more interesting than their live counterparts (e.g. Jabba the Hut).

    It’s been a given of the fashion industry that only bland uninteresting faces are good for modelling because with makeup you can turn them into anything you want. A face full of character, as a model, would ruin the very purpose of advertising fashion. (But there’s a Commie antidote to this: a middle aged virgin wench with no makeup and a moustache would put people off to fashion forever)

    On the other hand hasn’t the ”emptying” or ”flattening” of ”characters” always been the landmark of good acting; when one thinks of a good actor one thinks of someone whose ”identity” is so fluid it can assume any shape. Those types of actors were always morei nteresting than those following the Method-emoting school.

    Of all the adumbrations Colonel ever concocted the one about Julie Andrews being an ACTRESS is the finest!!!

  12. Dejan I’m curious about the relationship between identification and attraction in Lacan’s Imaginary. And at some point rivalry kicks in too, no? Identity and difference, alienation and desire, love and rivalry — all interrelated in the subject’s relationship to the image of the other.

  13. Both the Wicked Humanitarian Witch of the Orient and her young Prodigy here are ignoring me. This will be noted, and responded to in kind.

    You can read about rivalries in the Imaginary in Bruce Fink. As for megabucks movies, there the premise is that you always identify with the underdog, therefore most famous cartoon characters are masochists (notice the way Wall-E cleans up the mess that he makes; the same can be said of Roger Rabbit and Lucas robots).

    I am mentioning all this not because it is illegitimate to analyze these things but because most analyzers have no talents in the arts themselves and then often end up investing their interpretation with meaning that isn’t here or that comes from technicalities (of animation or acting).

  14. …” Dismissively he spat the words into my face even as his gaze remained fixed at a point just outside my left shoulder where, if I had turned at that moment, I would have seen receding toward the vanishing point the backs of those two figures whose respect he most wanted to earn.

    If Bruce Wayne and the Joker had been a little creepier they might have made the list in Ch. 41 of Moby Dick.

  15. […] American Stranger, in the post ‘Rational Actors’, fingers George Lucas’ ‘The Phantom Menace’ as a prime example of the new botox-face-and-monotone-delivery school of synthespianism and contends that it can be seen in more and more movies. He observes that it’s not the actors themselves who are responsible for this absenteeism:‘I challenge anyone to hold its performances up to those of the critically acclaimed The Dark Knight, and, excluding Heath Ledger for the moment, say what the difference is. There’s the same vacuity, the same open invitation to allegory. One has to assume they’re told to act this way, since both films are full of actors with proven talent. All that’s purchased are their names and faces (I wonder if that’s in the contract). They inhabit their parts with all the smoothness of an automaton, a styleless mode of performance apparently designed for easy exchange with animated versions, comic book images, videogame avatars, concepts.’ […]

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