Thursday, July 12, 2012

Stripping down: Magic Mike

Steven Soderbergh has worked with George Clooney, Michael Douglas, Benicio Del Toro, Brad Pitt, Julia Roberts, and a host of other stars, but lately he seems more intrigued by the non-actor. The Girlfriend Experience and Haywire are anchored by the awkward, wooden performances of, respectively, porn star Sasha Grey and fighter Gina Carano; and while the professional acting in Magic Mike includes Michael McConaughey's justly celebrated turn as the impresario of a strip joint, it's also full of scenes with supporting actors that feel more like line readings than glimpses into the lives of fully embodied characters. All of this can be explained away with just a dash of auteurism and a bit of Brecht, seeing Soderbergh's films as a daring balancing act between Sidney Lumet and Jean-Luc Godard. Of course he's interested in characters, but he wants to reveal the workings of cinema too. So in some way Magic Mike is not only about a bunch of Tampa-area strippers: it's also "about" the idea of performance itself. Bad acting becomes film theory.

Channing Tatum is good, actually, but I wonder how much Soderbergh had to do with this: Tatum used to be a stripper. I assume the moves he puts on display in this film are some of his golden oldies, staged for the camera with a few new inflections. (McConaughey is more impressive because you can imagine him and the director having long conversations about the exact number of gyrations necessary in a given scene: there is actually some new work being done there). I am not sure anyone else in the movie is very good, though. Cody Horn is a good sport, but her main achievement is to disprove the Kuleshov effect when she watches her little brother strip: What are we supposed to be reading into her face, exactly?

Soderbergh does attain a deft mixture of immersion and distance in the beefcake scenes. At once plunging us into the sweat and swelter of a male revue circa midnight (or into the middle of a stripper's sex romp with one of his clients a few hours later), he also comes up with just the right composition to remind us that we are watching a movie.  Of course, no one is going to see this for the film theory, and it's not a tract against consumer capitalism in any event: the closest Magic Mike gets to the critical edge of New Hollywood cinema circa the 1970s is when Soderbergh uses the old-school, Saul Bass-designed Warners logo at the beginning of the film, which is without question the coolest thing I have seen in any studio release this year. (More auteurs should pay tribute to old-school intros like that: I remember getting chills when David Gordon Green brought out the great United Artists logo from the 1980s at the beginning of Undertow). There is, however, a very nicely achieved feeling of economic desperation coursing throughout this movie, an attention to the simple everyday necessity of dollars and cents which is more acute than anything in American cinema since Take Shelter. The major plot point in this film turns not on Channing Tatum's abs, but on his character's flaccid credit score.

Monday, July 2, 2012

David Thomson on actors

When David Thomson writes about directors in his Biographical Dictionary of Film, he sometimes gets into trouble. I've never met a cinephile who takes seriously Thomson's remark that Abbas Kiarostami's work is "funerary art," for example. That is just late-90s death-of-cinema stuff. Nevertheless, Thomson is great with actors. Or, he achieves a certain kind of critical greatness: in just one sentence, one turn of the phrase, he can (sometimes, almost cruelly) come up with words that put a performer's entire career into perspective.

He's really good on Gary Oldman:

After a dozen or so films, did the public have a better idea of Gary Oldman's own personality than before he began? That is not ingratitude, merely a way of observing that Oldman seems like a blank, anonymous passerby (like someone in Dallas on November 22, 1963, running interference for a real Lee Harvey Oswald), who waits to be occupied by demons. He is a suit hanging in a closet, waiting to be possessed, which means that he brings an uncommon, self-effacing service to his roles. Part of that attitude is his complete and easy readiness not to be liked. So he is both vacant and ingratiating: it will be intriguing to see how long such a career can last (721).

One look at an early scene in Bram Stoker's Dracula supports some of Thomson's impressions. Oldman's Count is shrouded in Coppola's dense, atmospheric soundtrack; the visible bats, spiders, and armadillos of Tod Browning's classically creepy 1931 film starring Bela Lugosi are replaced in Coppola's version with sonic shrieks and howls. At one moment, Oldman's Dracula lashes out with melodramatic venom (and a sword) at Keanu Reeves' Harker. But the overall effect is not so much of Oldman actively occupying this role. Instead, Coppola's atmospheric aesthetic takes the actor over, almost like Dracula himself will infect those he bites. Example: one of the most striking aspects of the mise en scene, Dracula's autonomously moving shadow in the background, is not a contribution of the actor. It is the product of a special effect, and of Coppola's own cinephilic reference to a similar effect in Dreyer's Vampyr:

Perhaps this is what led to the well-documented conflict between Oldman and Coppola on the set: Oldman's agency as actor was stifled as Coppola's visionary aesthetics took charge.

Of course, further analysis of this scene would pinpoint those little details that Oldman does contribute; but I think Thomson is accurate in his impressionistic description of the overall feeling one gets regarding the collaboration. In this film, and despite accusations of over-acting that have dogged his career, Oldman became a self-effacing figure "waiting to be possessed." And this idea winds its way through Thomson's musings on Oldman's other performances. Although a lot of cinephiles seem to dismiss any pretense of taking Thomson seriously as a critic, I would offer that this is what he is so good at: delineating a key idea about a single role in his critical appreciation of an actor that serves, in turn, as an explanatory device for understanding that actor's entire body of work. And, arguably, he was on-target with Oldman, who often seemed a passive presence in his endless villain roles and perfunctory appearances in franchise films as the decade wore on. A more charitable reading of Oldman (one I'm partial to) would view him as one of the cinema's skillful chameleons, able to sink into various roles without a star persona ever taking over. But Thomson, I think, articulates a fair counterpoint to this argument, seeing an empty vessel where others see a shape-shifting artist.

Thomson's writing on Oldman contains several of his hallmarks in his writing on actors. Descriptions of the actor often blend with descriptions of the roles. For example, in the paragraph above, Thomson uses Oldman's performance as Oswald in JFK as a shortcut to a description of the actor himself. And there is a sharp incisiveness that always cuts the star down to size (Oldman is like a "blank"), followed (or sometimes preceded) by a retreat, almost an apology, perhaps out of fear that he has been too cruel: he still likes these stars, after all, and so much of his writing is centered on the idea that they are even more important than auteurs to our film experience. But the fact that Thomson even brings Greta Garbo down to earth ("...there was plentiful evidence of how ordinary and how dull the real woman had been...", pg. 366) proves his interest in critically deflating star power while at the same time trying to articulate the content of that power. 

Thomson's limitation, however, is that he does not say much about what actors actually do. It is difficult to recall sustained passages where he pays attention to gesture, movement, and expression. Even in his 2008 book Nicole Kidman these details are often missing. He is quite good at describing the impact of their appearances, of course. (Not surprisingly, these descriptions are often about his favorite actresses). But even in these pieces there is a push-and-pull in his prose: at once taking the shape of a fawning mash note, his prose then makes a dialectical turn with a distanced, objective, cutting rejoinder to his own affection. On Juliette Binoche...

Watching Blue ... you begin to wonder if there has ever been a more beautiful woman in movies than Juliette Binoche. You fancy that Kieslowski has succumbed to this thought, too. How many ways are there of watching her grave face? Are the cheeks carved by love's gaze? Did that hair fall on her head like night? And the eyes ... are they part of her life, or their own living creatures? And yet ... if only this magnificent, melancholy, and nearly stunned woman had just a touch of ... Debbie Reynolds?  (94)
Most of the "analysis" here is actually not on the page: Thomson almost seems interested in the relationship between Kieslowski's style and what Binoche is actually doing. He almost actually describes her narrative presence, although his fixation for particular details in her appearance, and his interest in translating those details into literary metaphors, short-circuits a potentially more detailed description. His writing is closer to the confession of a besotted cinephile. 

A better title for Thomson's book might be The Autobiographical Dictionary of Film, since this is largely a text about what these stars mean to Thomson, and not what the actors themselves have actually done or how their visible, moment-by-moment achievements on the screen contribute to film narration. If he cuts the actors down to size (sometimes with remarkable invention - who else would find fault in Binoche for not being Debbie Reynolds?), it's not so much to celebrate their work, but to see what their work, described in self-consciously literary prose, has meant to him. This strategy, of course, contains a crucial element that is present in all good criticism: the desire to report what one has experienced in watching film, and what this experience has meant to that individual. Perhaps at once celebrating and then deflating the star's power is one way of establishing critical agency and individual voice. 


Thomson's method is one of a number of different approaches to writing about film performance that are currently salient:

1) the impressionistic method. The way of most mainstream film criticism, of which Thomson is a master. Little is said about what is actually achieved. The performance is 'translated' into literary affects. This kind of writing bridges the gap, I think, between "star studies" and "performance studies" (of course, not in a strictly academic vein).

2) the descriptive method. Andrew Klevan, in his admirable book Film Performance: From Achievement to Appreciation, is the most skilled practitioner of this method. This approach uses the viewer's experience of the film as a key ingredient in descriptions of the moment-by-moment, gesture-by-gesture role that actors play in the narration of films. Klevan's work takes Stanley Cavell and classical cinema as points of departure, but he also generously quotes Thomson at the beginning of his book, suggesting a complementarity with the impressionistic method.

3) the historical-theoretical method. Situates the actor in a larger historical context of practice and usually develops a key set of terms, proceeding from a clearly stated theoretical approach, to analyzing the actor's work. The masterpiece in this tradition is James Naremore's Acting in Cinema, and recent anthologies such as More Than a Method and Reframing Screen Performance are also really good. David Bordwell's Figures Traced in Light is not really about acting, but it is complementary to these kinds of works and similar in its sober, nearly scientific approach. (Elena del Rio's thought-provoking Deleuze and the Cinemas of Performance is a "high theory" example of this kind of work).

The best writing in each of these categories, of course, contains elements of the other two: for example, Thomson knows his history and has a method (even if it is unstated and even if most 'serious' academics don't take it seriously) that generates rhetorical tropes and recurring ideas in his writing; Klevan's work is situated in the classical era (a clear historical context) and his love for cinema emerges in his work as sharply as does Thomson's, even if it is qualitatively very different; and Naremore is certainly very good at describing key moments in performances even as his eye remains on larger methodological concerns and terms. All of this work suggests that we are at a point where a once-neglected area of film scholarship has become quite developed, full of conceptual options and points of departure for engaging with different kinds of actors in a range of films.

Source: David Thomson, The New Biographical Dictionary of Film: Fifth Edition (Knopf, 2010).