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 )


Jason Roberts said...

Sounds great!

Do you like "Training Day"? Denzel is almost always great, of course, but I found that one unappealing. Better than "Man on Fire," though, in which Dakota Fanning is the only thing worth watching.

Steven Rybin said...

"Training Day" is the only film I'm teaching this semester that I have actually not yet seen. I came across a really good chapter on the film, and I knew I wanted to include Denzel on the syllabus, so that's why it's there. (I wish I could teach "Malcolm X," because I really want to watch that again, but it's just too long).