Friday, September 14, 2012

Teaching performance

This semester I've had my first crack at teaching Film Performance and Stardom as an upper-level undergraduate class. This subject brings the empirical and the theoretical closer together than anything I've taught before: students learn how to closely follow and interpret the moment-by-moment work of an actor, but they also learn to mediate that emotional/intellectual attachment through theories of star-image construction and a larger understanding of historical trends in acting.

It's been a class of good conversations. By far the best conversation we've had so far was about the luminous ending of Charlie Chaplin's City Lights - no surprise, since there's so much to talk about in that final scene. A six-page reading of the film in Andrew Klevan's Film Performance: From Achievement to Interpretation (London: Wallflower, 2005) guided our thoughts. Klevan is very good on placing the performance in the context of the whole film. For most of its running time, as Klevan shows, City Lights places Charlie in various states of obliviousness, and our relation to his character as an audience is often one of superior knowledge. Two things change in the final sequence: the close-up "closes off," in Klevan's words, Charlie from the surrounding context, prompting us to deal with the subtle details of his facial expression, at the exclusion of his bodily gestures, for the first time. We are no longer in a position of superior knowledge, since we, like Charlie, have no idea how the girl will react to him now that she can see:

Klevan's approach is big on the idea of the "moment-by-moment" interpretation of what an actor is doing. This has its virtues: it implicates our subjectivity in the performance's meaning and pays close attention to the larger aesthetic contexts that frame what actors do. If the approach has a drawback, it's that Klevan's "viewer" is not informed by theories of spectatorship. But that's OK, I think; many of the other readings we're tackling this semester will fill in that gap.

Here's the full slate of films I'm teaching this semester, along with a brief note of the readings we're tackling for each:

North by Northwest (Klevan's introduction; James Naremore's Acting in Cinema)
Far From Heaven (a chapter from Cynthia Baron and Sharon Carnicke's Reframing Screen Performance)
City Lights (Klevan)
Eyes Wide Shut (Pam Cook's work on Nicole Kidman)
Training Day (material on Denzel Washington from SUNY's Stars series, as well as a chapter from Reframing Screen Performance on Laban's acting theories)
The Artist (David Denby's article on silent acting; Janet Staiger on acting in early cinema)
Holiday (Naremore on Katharine Hepburn)
On the Waterfront (Naremore on Brando)
Some Like it Hot (a portion of Dyer's Heavenly Bodies)
Raging Bull (director-actor collaborations; Sharon Carnicke, "Screen Performance and Directors' Visions," in More Than A Method: Trends and Traditions in Contemporary Film Performance)
Avatar (performance and CGI: articles from Matthew Solomon's recent edited dossier in the Winter 2012 Cinema Journal )

Monday, September 10, 2012

Films recently seen

During an early conversation scene in Killer Joe, there is a clear eyeline mismatch in a shot/reaction shot, a choice I took to be artistic until I realized that it never happened again during the film and that it served no motivated purpose during its single appearance. This kind of aesthetic shagginess is arguably suited to a story that hovers around crooked trailer park denizens in Texas cooking up a murder scheme for insurance money; but for a film that seems to want to insist on the flavor of its location (the backwaters of Dallas), no sense of place or milieu is ever really developed. The film’s political allegory is either incoherent or painfully obvious - I can't decide which - and, in any event, it is at least five years out of date. And while Matthew McConaughey’s desire to distance himself from Zellwegerian romantic comedies is commendable, I want to gently suggest that performing an orgasm with a fried chicken leg inserted into the mouth of one of your co-stars while keeping your pants on is perhaps going too far in the other direction. Killer Joe is a strange, discordant footnote in the actor's recent, and otherwise mostly entertaining, career re-direction. 


The Proposition is about the procedures of emasculated civilization attempting to claim frontiers previously governed by the mysterious laws of hyper-masculine violence. And this is what makes John Hillcoat interesting as a director; most filmmakers intrigued by masculinity push it to the forefront, as if mere bloodshed is an insight into the gruff male’s condition. Hillcoat, by contrast, keeps violent maleness brooding in the shadows, emerging into light only in quick, startling, blood-curdling flashes that are over as soon as they begin: a shovel over the head, a knife across the throat. Lawless is, setting aside, about pretty much the same thing as The Proposition, the earlier film’s themes distilled into a simpler scenario and more economical scenes. Now civilization comes in the form of a flamboyant Chicago fed played by Guy Pearce, and the mysterious, brooding hyper-masculinity is embodied by Southern-fried bootlegging brothers Tom Hardy and Jason Clarke. Shia LaBeouf, playing the youngest moonshining brother, is caught in the middle, lacking both Hardy’s brooding physicality and Clarke’s traumatic Great War experience. LaBeouf tries his hand at outwitting Pearce and wooing a local church girl, two incommensurable tasks that give the movie fleeting tension; his scenes with Mia Wasikowska are the best in the film and give it a momentum it sometimes lacks. Nick Cave’s script develops a perspective for its violence about halfway through, when an intriguing ellipsis and, later, a possibly unreliable voice-over suggest that all of this brooding alpha-male posturing is little more than American mythology without content. 

Gary Oldman’s presence falls somewhere between a cameo and a rumor. He disappears after about an hour. I do not have the space or time to adequately transcribe the glow of Jessica Chastain’s gestures, so I will settle for an appreciative inventory of the objects in Lawless that come alive only after she touches them: several cigarettes, a misplaced hat, a potato peeler, a coffee pot, a bed railing, a shawl, Tom Hardy. 

Spike Lee’s passion was never in doubt. In his best films, this passion finds vibrant aesthetic correlatives that impact the audience. In Do the Right Thing, it’s the hot reds of a set design meant to indicate the hottest of hot New York summer days and the percolating tensions in a racially divided community; in Malcolm X it is how the intensity of his camera movements meet Denzel Washington’s stirring turn in an enlightening historical groove; and in 25th Hour it is his unflinching look at the wounds of 9/11 at a time when most Hollywood movies were erasing all reference to the twin towers. Red Hook Summer is full of passion but, unlike these earlier films, I do not think it ever finds ways to consistently convey the feeling to the audience. Its main motifs suggest that it is a transitional work in Lee’s career, looking back at his origins in independent film but at the same time wondering where this return to indie filmmaking might go. Red Hook follows a young character named Flik (Jules Brown), who arrives in Brooklyn to spend the summer with his grandfather, a preacher named Deacon Zee (Thomas Jefferson Byrd). The generational gap between the two of them is evident from the beginning: Flik frames the world through his iPad 2, documenting the world around him through visual means, while the preacher insists on the Word, using his sermons as a means to draw young Flik into the religious fold. The preacher’s work makes for an entertaining spectacle, but Flik is the real story, and his sweet friendship with a teenager named Chazz (Toni Lysaith) provides Red Hook with most if its grace notes. 

Lee is interested in exploring the contours of this community circa 2011, and it clearly is in tatters: where Do the Right Thing saw divisions in a community through race, in this semi-sequel the divisions are primarily economic, intra-communal, and religious. A strange and unexpected plot development, about 90 minutes through, reveals that these communal seams might have their origins in deep-seeded psychological traumas. However, this narrative turn never quite settles into the larger narrative context surrounding it, and Lee’s performers, who are mostly non-professionals, are not quite able to convey the gravity of the situation.