Wednesday, January 31, 2007

ON ACTING: Beware the Constant Smile

There are many young actors who smile their way through scenes. No matter the situation, no matter what its potential gravity or import of what they are involved in, they face the scene, and their conflictual scene opponents with a smile. At first glance, one could argue they are very brave, refusing to give in to the tragedy or sadness of their character's scripted task.

I argue that this compulsive habit of 'smiling' under conflict/duress, the obsessive mannerism of smiling through the majority of all moments of any acted scenes, is not bravery, but the very opposite: it is a refusal by the actor to get involved with the scene. It is an unconscious way of saying (and behaving): "I can handle this. This isn't that filled with import. Watch me smile at what your saying and doing." The 'smiley' reaction is the coward's mask of retreat. It sends a signal the other character--and to the audience--and, most counter-productively, to the actor himself/herself--that the scene is not important enough to the actor to feel.

In life...think of when we smile at someone with whom we are involved in a conflictual situation, we do so as a tactical convince an opponent that they are not winning; conversely, we are so sure of victory, of the propriety of our position (along with the stupidity and light fragile nature of theirs) that we are forced to smile, to dismiss them and their position/argument. We issue a benign, superior upturn of the lips and a toothy grin.. Not a bad tactic, that; it often works on insecure opponents.

But it is is an unproductive habit/tactic/choice for an actor to overly embrace in a scene, because it often leads to emotionally distancing the 'smiley' actor from the scene (which is probably why the actor makes that behavioral choice in the first place! They don't want to take the scene too seriously because he/she doesn't want to feel!) When the action of 'smiling' in a scene becomes a compulsive reactive manner (which is a good definition of the pejorative term 'mannerism', by the way), I would advise the actor to toss the 'smiley mask' away for a rehearsal or two; to toss the upturned lips aside, far out of their reactive arsenal. In doing so they may be forced to confront a scene's conflictual challenge head on, seriously, and be forced to use, experience and display other emotional weapons in their human system's arsenal...and be more varied and interesting in their tactics--and performance--as a result!

Sunday, January 28, 2007

FILM REVIEW: "The Painted Veil"

I finally saw "The Painted Veil", starring Edward Norton and Naomi Watts. I didn't think I would enjoy it as much as I did. I did. I'm glad I saw it. It was exquisitely filmed, with breathtaking scenic views of China.

It is set in the mid 1920's, as China is trying to break from its warlord past and establish a national identity under the appropriately named "Nationalist" regime.

A cholera epidemic breaks out in China; doctors are needed. Enter an English 'lab' doctor with no clinical experience--Edward Norton--who signs on to work for a brief time in the Chinese city. There his also emigrated new wife has an affair with a married socialite, and the doctor decides to go to the hinterlands, where the cholera epidemic is more rife and spreading. The wife joins him--after being rejected by the lover in any long term arrangement, and as a revengeful part of a deal with the angry husband: off to the hinterlands or divorce.

The doctor, Edward Norton, is a very fine actor, and his acting of the role is appropriately withdrawn, 'Victorian' in his personal and sexual affairs, and monomaniacal focus on his work; he creates a vivid portrait. The wife, Naomi Watts, an equally fine actor, easily captures the pent-up, frustrated, yet-always-ready-to-be-made-to-come-alive wife.

The film is very slow unfolding, however. It starts with the by-now cool-to-each-other husband-and-wife traversing from the city into the beautiful Chinese hinterlands. During the trip it uses flashback (a half hour of it!) to establish who they are and why they are not happy with each other: their initial semi-arranged marriage (Naomi was getting long-in-the-tooth back in England, still single and being supported by Daddy; and Edward was falling in love with her 'at first sight' at a party arranged by Dad. The family presses her to marry him; Naomi concedes) and the subsequent urban China affair.

It takes the next hour for them to find acceptance with (and love for) one another in the hinterlands among the cholera and the dead: she gains respect for him as a crusading doctor; he finds forgiveness and re-activated love for her when she starts to work with children and the nuns as the local convent. If all this seems is! In fact I said to my wife during the viewing: "its going to take an hour for them to fall in love"; and it did; almost to the minute. I'm not that bright; but the plot up to this point is formulaic.

It is only after that first hour and a half that the story becomes interesting; as the plot twists, and the characters become complex and truly involving. I won't tell you what happens next...I don't want to ruin any one's pleasure when they see it...but the rest of the film is quite wonderful.

The film script, adapted by Ron Nyswaner from a novel by W. Somerset Maugham, is okay. Norton and Watts are a little more than fine. They do seemed constrained by the material; even more than their Victorian/Edwardian characters dictate. Their performances (measured against their usual standards) are plodding; their characterizations appear planned, presented.

Toby Jones and Liev Schreiber, another pair of very fine actors, give solid supporting roles. It's hard not to think of Truman Capote when one watches Jones (he recently played Capote in "Infamous"; he was cast not in small measure because he looks so much like the departed author), and watching Liev Schreiber kept reminding me of watching a cutout of Alex the puffy-cheeked handsomeness and self-serving, narrow-eyed characterization.

The film is directed handsomely (but not profoundly) by John Curran. See it...but see it on a big screen if at all possible.

Saturday, January 27, 2007

ON ACTING: Emotional Classes and Exercising

In emotional classes and exercises, often teachers encourage students to experience (re-experience?) their emotional past; to stimulate their present potential for emotion by activating (remembering, in tangible sensory detail) the facts of their historical past. Why ? (The great America proponent of that emotional teaching methodology was Lee Strasberg, among many others.)

Human emotions are caused/created early on in life by the tangible events of life's experiences. These emotional affects, once aroused (in truth, 'aroused' emotions are nothing more than new events forming new neural patterns in our brains), are soon stored as emotional memories, to be most often buried in our sub- or unconscious, to be stimulated later in life by similar, or analogous, life events.

However, sometimes, when the originating events are too telling, and the resultant emotions too profoundly system-rattling, our survival system decides the associated emotional memories--too overwhelming, too negatively impacting on our continuing emotional well-being and functioning to be stored too close to the memory surface--are stored deeply away; in fact, we not only store them away, we lock them away; in fact, we sometimes lock them so far away that we often even forget we have them!

Enter the acting teacher. And the requirements of good acting.

The events of an acting scene (acting life's analogous experience, if you will) leaves a particular acting student unmoved; during the scene he/she exhibits no feeling. Nothing. The actor is a good actor, but s/he is unable to make the scene emotionally exciting. Often that willing actor admits that that particular emotion or set of emotions are difficult to access not only in acting, but also in their everyday life. What to do?

The teacher/director may encourage the student to safely re-visit past events in an emotional class (yes; this is very much like going to a psychiatrist!) to allow the student to unlock the barriers to these emotional memories, to discover their logical emotional/and/behavioral lessons learned by past no longer necessarily apply to the stage or set; they can be unlocked for the length of the scene, and, more importantly, the lock can be placed once again on the door once the scene is over.

Sounds simple, no? No. It is difficult to unlearn the patterns of a lifetime; to establish to separate venues of life's experiences: to create a set of operating modalities for everyday life, and another for life onstage.

But good acting onstage (and sane living off) requires it. So the acting student is encouraged to study and learn acting exercises and techniques, in the safety of a properly run class, to enable them to find flexible control in their emotional lives, to apply on-again, off-again emotional locks to their emotional doors, to learn how to make deep feelings a matter of personal choice and not a captive to unconscious and ancient fear.

Friday, January 26, 2007

ON ACTING: Good Scenes and Bad Scenes...and what to do about it...

After taping a scene last night in class (which the the actors performed very well...interestingly and movingly) another student asked me where that scene was from. I said: " was from a mediocre soap opera." The student, who had liked the scene and the actors very, very much, was a bit surprised. His face read: "From a soap opera?" I tried to assuage his confusion. I said: "Acting is like dressing up and going out. It's not the dress or suit that's necessarily exciting but who's wearing it; often, in acting, it's not the scene but who's doing it. Actors like Meryl Streep and Anthony Hopkins can make the phone book interesting."

The chore of the good actor is to make the mundane interesting, the commonplace exceptional, and the everyday significant. An exceptional script is a rare occurrence.

Thursday, January 25, 2007

Seeking Comments

I asked a generally forthcoming and inquiring student of mine why he in particular didn't comment on items in this blog. He said (and he was forthcoming): "Your blogs sound like they are coming from the mountaintop! They don't invite comment." Well...I am inviting more comments than the ones I do occasionally receive! You...the reader...Let me know what you think of the blog(s), how it can be of more service to you (and I know you come from around the world, from many different cultures); for example, what specific acting topics are of unique interest to you; do you have any comments about my acting statements, film reviews, and other random 'thinkings' on acting, etc. Write, respond, interact. Mountaintops are fun. The air is fresh, the view very encompassing...but sometimes, visitors are a welcome joy! :)


ON ACTING: Why Actors Get Bored with Certain Roles

To act is to self-discover. So when an actor accepts a role, s/he is offering to experience (re-experience) a certain aspect of him/herself in front of others.

To experience the same aspects of ourselves over and over again may be profitable, safe, and certain...but it can also become very monotonous, especially to a creative mind. Think of being a cartographer (mapmaker) and have to chart a well known river over and over again.

The search for new and challenging roles is really the search and explore little known and rarely traversed rivers of our own inner emotions. "I want to try and play that character" means I would like to experience that emotional essence of the killer in me, the rapist in me, the lover in me, the Mom/Dad in me. It is that search for the freshness of inner experience, the thrill of exploring uncharted waters, that drives a Johnny Depp, a Sean Penn, a Kevin Spacey, a Judy Dench, a Meryl Streep and a Cate Blanchette to try their hand at so many divergent and character-dissimilar roles.

Friday, January 19, 2007

ON ACTING: 'Note to Liz'

In reviewing her performance during the seminar, the student said:

"Looking at my tape, I see that it lacked energy in the beginning, and was heavy the entire way through. Instead of playing the problem, we should have just been kids hanging out during the summer talking about our parents. What do you think?"

My reply:

"What do I think? I think you are very bright and right-on in your analysis. Another way of looking at it: when we want to experience deep emotion in a scene, we don't play the emotion or the problem in the scene. Instead--and this activity happens before the scene--we create as the actor the possibility of feeling deeply in ourselves (called 'preparation'), and then, once the scene begins, we deal (as the character) with the other character logically in a manner that will KEEP US from those feelings being felt too the scene progresses and IN SPITE OF OUR BEST INTENTIONS (as the character) the other person makes us feel those deep feelings!!!" We could call it: "Drama in spite of ourselves."

Thursday, January 18, 2007

ON ACTING: Poetry and Logic

A student did a monologue from Shakespeare. It was filled with poetic feeling. It became long, tedious. It all blurred together. It was a mass of feeling without form.

I asked the actor 'why' the character was saying what he said. What was the purpose? What was the logic behind the poetry?

The actor did the monologue again, incorporating basic acting elements into his performance: logic and purpose, above all. The poetic language became understandable, the character's/actor's feelings arose naturally, and they were varied and differentiated. The monologue became perfectly clear, and much shorter. (After all, what is all language but a conscious or unconscious attempt to maneuver the human landscape to our needful design. Verbal sounds without logic and purpose are pre-human, mere grunts and groans.)

I offer this general rule to all actors: When given poetry, find the logic in the language. When given logic, find the poetry. Or...find the plot drive in the character; and the character richness in the plot. It's all the same thing.

Thursday, January 04, 2007

ON ACTING: The 'Right' Choice

Actors often ask when confronting a moment in the scene: "What is the 'right' choice? The answer: once a performance is real (that is, honestly felt by the actor, within the logic of human nature and within the logic of the character's possibilities) it is right. Now the question becomes: Can it be ‘righter’? Can the choice be more interesting and exciting? "Ay, there's the rub...that makes cowards [or heroes] of us all..."

Wednesday, January 03, 2007

The Storyteller's Art

All storytellers are the sons and daughters of Aesop. In every tale there is a moral, a lesson to be learned. No matter how dark the proceedings, no matter how filled the story's actions are with angst, pain and suffering, or whether its hero lives or dies, or even whether his or her held position in the piece was is right or wrong, knowledge and a clearer path to life if offered to the rest of us. That is the function of storytelling, That is the unavoidable goal of its narrative art.

ON ACTING...A Nice Quote RE 'moment-to-moment'

"It has been said that the essence of good acting, as well as good living, is the discovery of the next moment in all its fullness."
--Milton E. Polsky

Tuesday, January 02, 2007

Film Review: "United 93"

"United 93" is a careful, faithful, well-conceived and well-executed documentation of a horrible moment in our nation's history, 9/11 (2001). It tells the story of the tragic ending of the only commercial airliner that did not hit its target that day (three others succeeded-World Trade Centers I and II, the Pentagon)) but was foiled in the attempt by the bravery of its passengers. It crashed into a field in rural Pennsylvania instead, killing all aboard.

It is, for me, a strangely dispassionate film. Its weakness lies in its strength: it avoids all cheap theatrics...and as such becomes strangely devoid of emotional resonance. It becomes a case study more than a film, a piece of social anthropology rather than art.

I feel like a dramatic Hollywood whore to say this but: you never get to know any of the passengers on the plane so you never get to feel for them...except as a sad, tragic collective, without any poignant individuality. That for me is a major failing in any film.

The music by Philip Glass in the film is emotionally jarring. I applaud the music, but I was aware of it as a musical-score-qua-musical-score. (Philip Glass is a brilliant composer. His unique musical approach to scoring, while unintegrated here, succeeds much more brilliantly in "Notes on a Scandal", the Judi Dench/Cate Blanchett film).

Paul Greenglass, the writer and director of "United 93" is to be commended for his integrity and good taste throughout the film. But his aesthetic 'distancing' point of view--perhaps believing that only a distanced, documentary approach could both honor the dead and get the audience to watch--brings the film up short. I left my viewing with a shrug, rather than a sense of loss, revenge and anger. Which is the reaction I desired.

ON ACTING: 'Interdependence'

'Interdependence' in acting is like participating in a tennis match: the force, quality, quantity of a returned tennis shot (or an actor's reaction) is dependent on the specific size, weight and speed of the ball coming at you over the net. Or, as Mel Brooks states it: "Listen to your broccoli, and you broccoli will tell you how to eat it."