Sunday, September 28, 2008

ON ACTING: Must Acting Always Be Conflict?

Some modern theorists--many feminists in particular--disagree with the contention that drama must inevitably be conflict. They say drama can be cooperation. They argue that the absolute requirement of conflict in a drama is a male, and/or a Western/European, imposition.

In rebuttal: if, as acting theory since Aristotle has argued, drama’s social and creative goal is the release of group/audience tension (Aristotelian pity and fear) through the identification of life’s deepest stories as enacted by actors, logic dictates that in order for drama’s raison d’etre, catharsis, to be realized, dramatic conflict—tension--must be first be engaged. There can be no release of tension without the initial establishment of it.

Therefore, co-operation may be appropriate as a tactic in a drama during conflict--or appropriate to the end of drama; perhaps as a resolution--but it is not and cannot be the fundamental definition of drama.

Dialogue, storytelling without conflict is not drama; it is something else: essays, poetry, lectures or propaganda; an illustration of life, but never a true dramatization of life.

Saturday, September 27, 2008

ON ACTING: Conflict and Tactics

An alien comes to earth. S/he drops into a football stadium. S/he sits among the cheering people.

On the ground below are overly dressed-up humans running around in all directions; bodies are slamming into other bodies. S/he is bewildered and confused by the mish-mash of unexplainable activity. A brown object seems to be the focus of attention. The brown object is thrown forward, backward and sideways, kicked and carried. People get up, fall down, knock each other down, and gather in groups around the brown object.

S/he asks the man next to her: “What is going on?” The man answers: “Conflict and tactics.” The alien blinks. The man adds: “All that activity, all the humans on the playing field, including the handling of the semi-round brown thing called a football and the whistle blowing men in black and white stripes organizing the activity, is all in the service of goal-seeking: one group of individuals is trying to carry the brown ball across the other teams goal more times than the other team carries it across theirs. It’s really a very simple game.

That night s/he is invited to the theater. S/he asks the same question. S/he gets the same answer: all written and performed elements in a dramatic scene—including emotions--are tactics aimed toward achieving simply defned, oppositional goals.

Friday, September 19, 2008

ON ACTING: Left-Brain versus Right-Brain

Characters in drama are left-brain challenged. That is, at the time of performance the character's (and hence, the actor's) right brain is holding holds sway. Reacting to an unsettling event, it dominates their character-lives. Their creative, emotional, intuitive self, formerly in balance with their left-brain logical self, is overwhelmed by a surge flow of right-brain neurons (in other terms: emotions); and it leads them into their present tragic or comic predicament. They desperately try to shift their behavior, re-organize and redirect that flow of emotions/neurons back into a left brain strengthened balance (all this through the achievement of their character's goal) to achieve a renewed and peaceful logical balance.

Thus a character performance becomes a teeter-totter, initially thrown into chemical/emotional disequilibrium by a prior unbalancing event or events (sometimes the character's whole life!!); and the character's performed story becomes how can the character achieve balance again, to right the teeter-totter, to seek a new equilibrium through the achievement of an importantly desired goal.

ON ACTING: " a Fool"

The student said to me that her problem in doing comedy is her distaste and fear of the audience laughing at her. I told her the audience doesn't laugh at her. They laugh at themselves. She is a mirror. She is reflecting back the audiences own everyday living predicaments. That's why audiences love comedians...through the mirror-image of themselves, by means of courageous, well-acted foolishness on stage, they can learn to love--and accept--their own foolishness. "It takes one to know one" is a positive dynamic in comic acting.

Sunday, September 14, 2008


I saw my second truly worthwhile film this year; the first was "The Edge of Heaven". The second was the French film, "Tell No One", which still playing in some theaters. Both were foreign films.

The last few years I mostly touted foreign films in this blog: "Dirty Pretty Things", "Talk to Her", "Lives of Others", etc. Am I a snob? No. Most American films are beneath average; so it's relatively easy for good foreign films to transcend them.

If I may, let me recount to you the American history of distributing "Tell No One". It is instructive RE American versus foreign films.

"Tell No One" was made in France a few years ago, and did very, very well in Europe; in both critical and commercial terms. (Remember, a French film is a foreign film for most of Europe.) However, when the film was offered to major American distributors to market and put out to the US public, they declined. The response was, in so many words: Put out a plot-complicated thriller WITH NO DISCERNIBLE NAMES as drawing power? Forget it. No Penelope Cruz, Ben Kingsley, Peter O'Toole? The salient fact in the distributor decision making here was: good films are not held to be marketable in the US unless there is a NAME attached. (This year, a small Midwestern American distributor took a chance. My seeing the film was the result.)

Now I'm not knocking the US audiences desire to see well known actors in their films. Actors get to be well known because they're good (and fun to watch). But shouldn't there be room in the marketplace for film excellence WITHOUT NAMES? Have the distributors (and the producers) of film so fully decided that the cult of celebrity has so washed over the American mentality that excellence in and of itself has no allure?

Has that been the final result of the 'dumbing down' of America? Paris Hilton reigns supreme because she is a celebrity even though she is not a very attractive woman (notoriety trumps physical excellence)?

Have we Americans so lost our taste for excellence that that the sellers of films can decide that the US audiences can't appreciate excellence even when it presents itself? Have they rightly analyzed that the taste buds of our film appetite been so numbed/transformed by a steady diet of Amercan 'junk food' films that we can no longer be expected to appreciate a non-celebrity cast film?

"Tell No One" is brilliantly written, shot, edited, acted and musically scored film. See it if you can. Prove the majority of American distributors wrong; and the small Midwest distributor right? Prove that we Americans still have some appreciation for good things. Prove Paris Hilton is only a part of your life (the trashy part), but not all of it.

Friday, September 12, 2008

ON ACTING: Avoiding Distractions and Maintaining Focus

"Just me and you, pal/gal..."

I was driving along Pacific Coast Highway yesterday. There was a movie location set up in one of the parking lots off the side of the highway, replete with honey wagons, trucks, tents, sets and a large crew. I thought of the actors working in those conditions. How do they maintain focus? How do they avoid being distracted (from their reality-creating task) by all that traffic whizzing by, a crowded crew, bathing-suited lookers gawking, the sound and smell of waves beating against the shore?

As I watched the two actors shooting a scene, I thought of an interior monologue, an inner, private, focus-inducing mantra that each actor (or both) could use when standing or sitting across each other waiting for the scene to start: "Just you and me, pal (or gal)!" the actor(s) says to himself concerning the other. "Forget where we are. We've got something to settle, just you and me; and our conversation is much more important than our surroundings. I don't give a shit about the sets, the lights, the traffic. That's all extraneous bullshit; an external context totally irrelevant to me. All I care about is you. Listening to you; talking to you, probing you, trying to convince you with everything at my command, my words, my looks and my deeds to see things my way. You see, pal/gal, I need emotional satisfaction in this scene. Because we are no longer actors. The actors are dead. Just you and me, pal/gal, two (or more) human beings...with something to my favor."


Monday, September 08, 2008

ON ACTING: On Climbing A Mountain Without a Safety Net

Alec Baldwin, as quoted Ian Parker in a The New Yorker magazine article:

"I don't think I really have a talent for movie acting. I'm not bad at it, but I don't think I really have a talent for it." He [Baldwin] described the film actor's need to project strength and weakness simultaneously. "Nicholson's my idol this way. Pacino. There's a mix you have to have were the character is vulnerable, the character is up against it, but there is still a glimmer of resourcefulness in his eye--you look at him and the actor is telegraphing to you this is not going to last very long. 'I'm down--Randle McMurphy, Serpico, whatever it is--'but it's not going to last. I'm still going to find my way out of this."

Commitment and vulnerability, text and sub-text, excellent, cogent and brave honest acting analysis by Mr. Baldwin.

Saturday, September 06, 2008

MOVIE REVIEW: "I Served the King of England"

"I Served the King of England" is a Czechoslovakian film, sub-titled, a whimsical cautionary tale about greed. It focuses its attention on the excessive (primarily male) voluptuary life of money, food, drink and sex, seen through the eyes of a small man, both literally (short) and figuratively (a lackey-like waiter) whose one desire in life is to be a millionaire. It is set in pre- and post-World War II Czechoslovakia, amongst the historic realities of Hitler's rise to power and dominance, his acquisition of the Czech Sudetenland, Jewish Holocaust-ism, Czech acquiescence, collaboration, and the nation's economic and political demise into eventual Communism.

I admit these are potent historical backdrops to develop a whimsical and charming comedic and instructive tale of greed. How does one maintain a sufficient aesthetic detachment to comment without passion and righteous judgement on the presented story and characters, to have both fun and learning occur hand-in-hand? But the film beautifully accomplishes its charter with stylistic ease, elegance, intelligence and wit.

The performances are dead-on; flowingly yet restrained mock-heroic and dead-pan; the food is delicious, the women are extravagantly beautiful and voluptuous, and men are fools in the ways that rich, gluttonous and powerful men (all men?) often are.

I highly recommend this film; afternoon or night. In either case, suspend usual judgement, and bring your brains.