The most useful book I've read for opening up these questions for students is Andrew Klevan's masterful Film Performance: From Achievement to Appreciation, which for this reader is the best and most accessibly challenging volume I've encountered so far in the Wallflower Short Cuts series. (Klevan is also the author of Disclosure of the Everyday: Undramatic Achievement in Narrative Film, an unjustly out-of-print book from 1999 that, for me, has been key to understanding the subtleties of acting in cinema; and a forthcoming book that looks at the links between screen acting and philosophy). Klevan is marvelous at showing how actors work to coalesce with the film world and how they develop meaningful bonds with the objects in their world. He discusses the famous scene in Queen Christina in which Garbo delicately glides her hands over the objects in a bedroom she shares with John Gilbert. Building on the ideas of Charles Affron, Klevan states:
Affron responds to Garbo's placement and relationship with the room and furniture around her, and to their texture ... He responds to the unfolding of posture and gesture and its changing relationship to the camera as the 'unnatural turn of the body ... leads into the increased focus of face upon pillow.' In addition, he responds to the rhyming of gesture that allows patterning across the sequence, so that the 'wooden bedpost' coming after wool and pillow, can now take on a 'pillowlike tenderness' ... Most importantly, however, Affron is alive to the 'processes of reappraisal and reinterpretation' (my italics) that Garbo's configurations engender. (Klevan, Film Performacne, 11; the Charles Affron book he's quoting is Star Acting: Gish, Garbo, Davis, from 1977).
Here's the scene:
I tell my students to think of the actor as a guide into the film world, as another narrator. Each gesture reveals more about character, has the potential to vibrantly call our attention to the details of objects in the film world (perfectly exemplified by the clip above, and in any film where actor and mise en scene develop fascinating relationships), and to draw us into the story in complex ways. I think watching actors work in relation to the stylistic contexts their directors create for them is one of the joys of moviegoing.
Joaquin Phoenix shits on all of these ideas in I'm Still Here, a pseudo-documentary "expose" of his recent "retirement" from performance. I'm choosing my word "shit" carefully here, and in precise relation to the object I'm talking about: at one moment in the movie, we see Joaquin's friend, Anton, drop his pants as if to take a shit on him (only Phoenix waking up prevents this from happening). Perhaps Anton doesn't shit because it's Phoenix that's got the expulsion of body fluids covered: in a later scene, we watch Phoenix curled over a toilet bowl, after his debut as a rapper in Las Vegas. The use of scatological "humor" draws our attention closer to Phoenix, his body, and the bodies of those around him, but suffice to say, everything in Klevan's book has been thrown out the window in I'm Still Here. Phoenix engages in an act of self-destruction that, while fake, manages nevertheless to destroy, at least while the move is running, the profession Phoenix is seeking to distance himself from.
Simply put, although Phoenix's body - unshaven, unkempt, and unhealthy - is in nearly every frame of I'm Still Here (and is in our minds firmly even when he is not on the screen), he tells us nothing of the film world he has created, narrates nothing, develops no interesting relationship with other objects or "performers." Needless to say, the other performers are, in part, us - the ones who consumed (or didn't) Phoenix's antics on Late Night with David Letterman a couple of years ago, the ones who donned Phoenix's now-trademark shaggy beard and sunglasses (recall Ben Stiller's riff on this persona at the 2009 Oscars) to either celebrate or poke fun at the actor's "transition," and the ones who are buying tickets to this movie. But Phoenix's film is narcissistic (and intentionally so, it would appear) not because we are all clamoring to buy tickets to see him but precisely because we aren't: the film's apparent status as a financial flop seems built-in to the logic of Phoenix's anti-performance. Far from Garboesque, Phoenix refuses to draw us into the objects on the screen, fails (again, an intentional failure) to draw our attention to the textures of a world that he has, by all appearances, decided to discard. (It's telling that no mention of the war in Afghanistan occurs in any of this movie, and that Barack Obama's inauguration, the backdrop for Phoenix's trip to Washington to meet Sean "Puff Daddy" Combs in the middle of the movie, is barely registered on-screen).
I don't necessarily mean these words to be negative: evaluating I'm Still Here is about the least interesting thing you can do with it, and the fact that I mostly did not enjoy watching it is merely sucked into the discursive world that the movie generates automatically, by means of its existence. Every movie generates discourse, of course, but in this case the actor has abdicated his role as collaborator with and in relation to that discourse: Phoenix's gestures, movements, and expressions guide us into nothing, they disavow any relationship with a larger film world (variations on "what the fuck am I doing here?" are a common motif of Phoenix's dialogue). And this is precisely the point: just as Phoenix sinks into the water in the final shot, so too does he sink any notion of his role as collaborator with the viewer from the opening frames.
So, we're left with only ourselves to make sense of this, but again, the evaluations don't ultimately matter: this is precisely because performance art (the only category I'm comfortable slotting this undeniably singular "documentary" into) is a criticism-eater. No matter what you say about it, what you've said immediately becomes part of the object. And because the object has given up all claims to intrinsic meaning, what you say about it is the only thing it's got. All this dates back to at least Marcel Duchamp's Fountain (1917), a radically displacing "sculpture" which relies totally on the viewer's response (to a urinal turned upside down in a museum) rather than any idea of intrinsic meaning. In throwing up/shitting out any sense of interior value, Phoenix is not doing anything new here, of course, although this is a fairly new move in the context of modern performance, which tends to operate with the assumption that actors manipulate media to craft persona, but rarely shows us that manipulation in such frank, naked action. (And I mean naked: Phoenix spends a good deal of the movie shirtless, and his friend Anton drops his pants at least three times).
But I'm Still Here also reminds me how difficult the fields of performance art and film studies are to reconcile. Performance art is conceptual art: it exists to give rise to response, not to develop intrinsic form. A lot of media scholars do away, in theory, with the idea of intrinsic form, preferring instead methods that focus on context, discourse, history. That's all well and good, but few film scholars I know would do away entirely with the idea that gestures matter, expressions matter, movements matter, and that these are the concrete, particular, intrinsic things that act, in the bodies of actors, as collaborators in our meaning-making experiences of films. (Perhaps this is another way of saying that I find this idea of collaboration a much more interesting way to conceive the relationship between viewer and object than the view that levels everything into a world of textual play). In other words, I don't know many scholars who would really want to watch I'm Still Here, no matter how tidily its ideas about acting and meaning fit into their theories.
I think I'll just go watch We Own the Night again.