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…