Tuesday, December 20, 2011

ON ACTING: Ruminations on Art and Amusement

Amusement seeks to distract the viewer from her everyday life, to give them restful pause. It detaches the auditor from meaningful  life, at least in any long-term, or deeply felt, way. It quiets the audience without pain; it heals by numbing.

Art on the other hand stirs passion up; it hurts before it heals. That is why art endures and amusement vanishes quickly. The latter, amusement, is a topical salve; the former, art, is eternal healing.

Art engages the audience; it forces them to consider their depth and breadth of their own inner and outer lives. It seeks to make the viewer ruminate inwardly on the relevance of the work of art to the fullness and follies of themselves.

It does so by first stirring (whether consciously or unconsciously...it doesn't matter) the audience's deepest emotions, by forcing them to confront in the work of art their self-image (once again, either consciously or unconsciously...the value accrues in either circumstance), to see closely who and what they are, what are the benefits and costs of their most personal beliefs, values and inner structure (sense of aesthetics).

In art, when the deepest passions have been thus stirred, thereby ratcheting up the viewer's inner demons and conflicts to almost unbearable and imbalanced portions, only then does the work allow the viewer to rest; and most often exhausted; or, as in John Milton's famous image (at the close of his dramatic poem, "Samson Agonistes"): "...with calm of mind, all passion spent."

Great art takes courage to behold; it is fully and tumultuously participatory. It fractures the viewer's certainty before putting it together again...and generally in a new way.

Amusement on the other hand can be...it is designed to be...held at arm's (and heart's and soul's) length. In amusement, when Humpty falls, he never fractures. He just gets a bump in the head.
In art, however: "...and all the King's horses and all the King's Men could never put Humpty-Dumpty together again"...except in the subliminal--and eternal-- ensuing political and personal lesson learned (even in a nursery rhyme!) by the audience young and old : when you fall from too high a (moral, ethical) wall, you may never recover your wholeness again.

Art reveals the complexities of life. Amusement renders them (purposely; too) simple.

Sunday, December 18, 2011

ON ACTING: Job Requirements

To act well, you have to learn to like your fundamental real self. (Because the real fundamental you is your acting instrument. No fakery allowed in good acting; it is boring.)

Then, to act well, you have to learn to like your fundamental self in front of other people.

Then you have to learn--as your real, fundamental self--to say the dialogue (Which some writer has asked you to say and move in the manner as some director has asked you to move...don't get inhibited by having some limitations/restrictions on your real verbal and physical behavior--make the words and actions "yours," as they say in acting), 

Next, you have to learn how to be different aspects of yourself according to the script--that's what being a scripted "character" means: being your angry self, your sad self, your happy self--according to your and your director's interpretation of the dialogue in the offered script.)

And then, and penultimately, you have to learn to be deeply and complexly and varied and elegantly those different sides of yourself--within the limitations of the script and in front of the audience, so that you can be exciting and deeply interesting to watch...and legitimately be paid for your efforts lots of money (that is, of course, if you are more interesting to watch as that selected side of yourself than your acting competition is interesting to watch as that selected side of themselves).

Simple no? It is...if you, as a person, have courage, personal insight, developed self esteem and knowledge of human behavior and script analysis necessary for the job.

A professional actor is someone who is willing and able (and courageous enough) to live out certain selected emotional sides of themselves--fully and deeply and excitingly, on demand, within the limitations called for by the dialogue and actions in a script, in front of perhaps millions of people.


Monday, December 12, 2011

MOVIE REVIEW: "Young Adult"

The recently released "Young Adults" is not a film. It is a psychiatric case study written in film. It is a portrait of a woman who moved from a small town to the big city (Minneapolis) in her Young Adult-hood. She went to the big city wanting it all--and found nothing...except ghostwriting for a now growing-less-popular-by-the-day young adult book series and a vacuous life of semi-hooked-up men.

Nothing really develops dramatically in the ensuing 1:28 minutes; she ends the film as she began; her story just "is," plot wise and character-wise.

Charlize Theron plays Mavis Gary, the central/character/'patient' under film analysis: a beautiful, neurotic, shallow, somewhat successful ghost writer of young adult books, who senses her sterile, urban lonely life is passing her by. She seeks a solution by fixating on returning to her small town and re-uniting with her high school boy friend (Patrick Wilson).

So progesses the story. She returns home, and begins her obsessive hunt. So what if he is married; so what if he and his wife have a seeming loving relationship; so what if he is a loving father of a tiny child? Old love (especially hot love that was aborted by a miscarriage with the child of the hot lover when she was twenty) conquers all, right?

Of course not. It certainly doesn't conquer audience (my) interest.

Not being 'old fashioned drama,' but rather a slice-of-life 'reality' film, no one learns any life-altering lessons during their travails; no redemption occurs at the end of the film. No one changes. Everyone remains as they were at the beginning...the characters remaining static symbols echoing off the film's thematic analysis of thwarted maturity. The most interesting story line (albeit a bit cliched--a re-run of beauty and the beast) is the secondary 'love story': upon retruning, Mavis meets in a bar scene an old crippled high school barely-remembered-upon-return acquaintance--crippled emotionally years ago by false high-school accusations of homosexuality, and a 'hate crime' that has left him cane-ridden for life--and he and the beautiful Charlize/Mavis create a new close-bound friendship during her visit.

His wise-cracking Horatio perfectly matches her tortured Hamlet, and they finally sleep together near the end of the film, when she is ultimately and finally rejected by her old lover in a bathetic (supposedly poignant) final night before she leaves town. (The beauty 'finally lets/asks the beast to mount her' scene is unfortunately richer in artistic concept than it is in filmed execution. 'Nuff said.)

The acting is fine throughout the film.

Charlize Theron is a fine, fine actress. Patrick Wilson is a fine, fine actor. Jason Reitman is a fine, fine  director.

Diablo Cody is a fine writer...at least she was in "Juno." She is not, however, a fine writer in "Young Adult." The central static problem in the film is all hers...or whoever got her swept up with making the story a psychiatric case-study rather than a film, and thought it would be interesting to present a neurotic, shallow, self-centered, delusional narcissistic bitch for what she really is: a neurotic, shallow, self-centered and narcissistic delusional bitch. Unfortunately, constantly and consistently being all those things throughout the film, she also remains unsympathetic and not worth our tears...or even concern (except in the above-stated analytically descriptive way)...throughout.

Especially noteworthy in the film, however, is the performance/character of the cripple (physically challenged, I know...but crippled seems more appropriate to this film than physically challenged) played by Patton Oswalt. (Full disclosure: Mr. Oswalt was once an acting student of mine. I fight off any prejudice.) His performance is wonderfully in tune with the character's demands. He is properly wry and ironical as her imperfect physically but perfectly balanced foil/friend. Without his presence the thud sound the film made in my aesthetic consciousness would have been much louder.

Kudos to him. I hope he gets nominated for Best Supporting Actor in this year's Academy Awards.

Sunday, December 11, 2011

MOVIE(S) REVIEW: Thoughts on "Margin Call" and "Ides of March"

I saw two films the other day: "Ides of March," and "Margin Call." Both are well made; both star excellent actors: George Clooney in "Ides of March" and Kevin Spacey in "Margin Call." "Ides" bored me; "Margin Call" kept my interest throughout. Why?

"Ides" predigested its theme for me. The theme: 'All-politicians-and-their-political-operatives-are-corrupt." That's it. Over and out. Two hours of presenting it's theme. To illustrate the point (a bad thing for a filmmaker to do: I was taught by Billy Wilder--and still believe--that films should dramatize their theme, not illustrate) "Ides" showed a series of corrupt characters operating corruptly over and over again. It was a totally one-sided and cynical view of the American system, without any countervailing argument from the other (non-corrupt side) of the argument.

I know: that was the film's point of view: there is no other side. Perhaps so, but a good work of art should demonstrate its point-of-view by the functioning of the drama, not tell it to me as in a bad essay. "Ides"  preached to the choir, and maybe...I'm not a member of the church. Or maybe, but I am... but that's not the point. I went to see a movie, not to attend a political rally and hear two-hours of propaganda.

"Margin Call," on the other hand, showed otherwise decent people in the drama of being corrupted. The characters in that film (Kevin Spacey character as a prime example) faced moral quandaries. I remained interested in the story to see which way they would fall: by the end of the film: would they "do the right thing" or be brought to their knees by their greed and need, and do the wrong thing: sell out their customers with financial chicanery to protect their own (and the company's) ass.

The characters contained both possibilities; so there was a resolution to be awaited. In "Margin Call," the characters ultimately did the cynical thing, true. They cynically 'sold out.' Faust finally made his pact with the devil. But when the film was finished, I also understood why he had sold out, and why their is a cynical perspective today on the financial world (the world of the film). I saw throughout--and learned from--the three-dimensioned human struggle between right versus wrong, and how easy it is for all of us--in the film and in the audience--to be tempted, and to fall to ultimately to temptation:"There but for the grace of God--and intestinal fortitude--go I."

Good, interesting characters, and good, interesting performances, do not decide in advance a character's rightness or wrongness, morality of immorality, corruptness or non-corruptness. That's why we watch the story unfold; to see what will happen. Good and evil, right versus wrong, war within them throughout the story. That is the audience-arresting internal character conflict that is caused in them by the external conflict of the plot. We watch to see which way they will fall...and can only do so because throughout the story they contain the possibility of falling either way: they are, being human, a combination of good versus evil, right versus wrong, corruption and moral rectitude. So: "will he or won't he, will she or won't she, will they or won't they?"

See "Margin Call," and refine your attitudes on the world at large (and the financial world in particular); avoid "Ides of March," unless you are only interested in confirming your prejudice...or only in knowing your political opposition.

Saturday, December 03, 2011

ON ACTING: On Preparation

Every good actor-as-character prepares for the emotional demands of the scene as anticipated by his reading of the script.

If he expects (or the director asks him) to cry (more precisely, to be made to cry) at a particular point in the scene in the scene, he activates in himself, before the scene, in rehearsal, his deep personal potential for sadness, so that when--during the performance--other characters in his play or film say the cruel dialogue or do the cruel actions things to him written in the script, he will honestly and excitingly be made sad...and cry.

This process of pre-performance character emotional activation is often called emotional preparation. It can be seen as the pre-performance unbalancing of the actor's own emotional nature consistent with the feelings anticipated in the actor's interpretation of the script; a form of targeted and self-inflicted emotional torture, as one of my students so labelled the process.

One of the most celebrated forms of the self-torture, or emotional preparation for a scene, is recalling the past events in one's own everyday life, the past events which have made one feel in our prior everyday real life the anticipated scripted emotion(s)/requirement(s) of interpreted character.       

In this process, or technique, or actor-exercise of emotional preparation, the actor seeks to chip away at the scars of his won past experience, thereby tenderizing the wounds of that own past experience, making old, healed over (or in another image, buried) emotional residue of the past highly sensitive again, barely contained by a new immediate healing, seeking in himself by this present preparation a present heightened potential for pain (and pleasure) that mirrors his interpreted emotional identification with the soon-to-be-performed character.

A warning on the label of this process, however: while the actor seeks to bring  his own emotional nature applicable to character closer to the surface of his actual 'being,' the actor-as-character seeks to keep it in check during the reality of the scene. It is only because the conflictual events of the scene keep bumping into the now barely healed wounds of these past experiences that the emotion tumbles out in the dialogue and other actions of the character-in-performance, revealing the deep emotional nature of the actor-who-is-now-character.

Friday, December 02, 2011

Advice to actors: Feel deeply, express it economically and elegantly. Be an atomic bomb in the size of a pea.

Since all good acting is life itself, all good acting obeys the laws of physics. That's what makes a performance logical to human emotional reality, and hence identifiable to the audience.