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Wednesday, December 06, 2006

Contemplative Acting?

Until now, we've been trying to grasp the essence of 'contemplative cinema' in terms of narration and pace. This was the initial sparkle that drew the author of the blogothon to this kind of film and the prime definition that we accepted. However, as confused as still am, concerning narrativity and speed, I decided to approach the matter from another angle - acting.

In his book 'Homo Ludens'[The Playing Man], Johan Huizinga places the problem of play and contest and how they relate. He also talks about the play and its accepted antonym - the serious. Usually, a competition is considered to be serious, yet still in the frames of the play. On the other hand, while the definition of serious is created to exclude the game, the game can easily include the serious. Therefore, the contest and the serious are parts of the game although taken independently they are supposed to exclude it.

Now, going back a few decades, Brecht suggests something related, while on his way of reaching the notion of the "epic theatre". He says that a play is a sport event, the actors are Olympians. The acting should be rough and not-true-to-the-character. In fact, the actors should try to act falsely, irritatingly bad. The worst insult should be "He didn't act King Lear. He was King Lear." The spectator should never enter a trance-like condition, he should always be alert, objecting, subjecting, discussing - restless. Conversely, bourgeois theatre operates by the idea of the glory of the actor and his full transformation into the character. The spectator stares speech- and breathlessly. There is no personality of the actor, only the orderness of the text and delight of the spectacle.

I'm saying all this, because when it comes to cinema, things are similar. We've got the word-by-word character transformation in American, French films. We've got the truthful-to-reality reels from England, Germany. We've got the two kinds of acting - the one, bordering on overacting (thus slightly moving towards the other) and the other, bordering on losing the idea somewhere between the non-acting actors. In the second case, actors are often told to be themselves and they do act...themselves - the character is lost in transformation (there's no transformation, in fact). And by losing the character the completeness of the film's conception is broken. So, we've got the two extremes - the rough and friendly acting, which can be compared to the competition-driven and game-driven play.

And here comes another kind of acting: one that is not primitive expressively and expressive primitively. Where the actor is more of an observer, contemplator. He exists in the game of the film, but doesn't lead it. He's not himself but he's not in a character either. He's somewhere in between. Why is that?

When Huizinga says that "culture is developed in the game and as a game", he also means art - that meaningful thing that is passed through generations. Art is born in the game, but it would be wrong to equal acting to the game/play. The game in cinema is the entire filmmaking process - it's the creating and the final result. The final result is the publicly played game - the one that finds its spectators and becomes a spectacle. That is, the film itself, of course. The film and its message are more important than the acting, just as the act of playing [the game] is more important than who wins and who loses. The game expresses itself in its circumstances: in order to there be a game, we need freedom, but freedom that operates by certain voluntarily chosen rules. And those rules are compulsory for every player and spectator. Also, the game should bring joy and pleasure, it should be something outside the real world. In the game, the rules and the idea they carry are more important than the players themselves, but the game needs the players in order to exist. In film, the actor is a player who contributes to the accomplishment of the game's [film's] message. The circumstances of the film are more important than the mere acting. That's why, the actor exists in the film - because the film needs him as a player in order to achieve and herald its idea. That's why, the actor shouldn't BE the character - because it's not the character who drives the film, and shouldn't BE himself - because he's a player, a part of something beyond the real world.

Don't know if it makes any sense at all, but it might turn out stimulating to refract the point of view.

13 comments:

HarryTuttle said...

Thank you Marina to keep this blog alive. I will comment when I have more time.

johanna said...

I'm glad you posted, too, Marina, and now that I've gotten caught up on the reading for this (potentially) interactive site, I feel in a better position to comment.

I've been considering the actor vs. frame dilemma since the mid-late eighties, I guess, when I started thinking about film from the direction point of view rather than cinematography, which intrigued me first.

When I first noticed that with some movies, the actors contributed to the film's full effect rather than an emphasis on being that character and putting all this energy into evoking and convincing the audience that we're seeing this character (and not this actor) actually had this lovely, desirable dual effect:

First, by stripping the actor of this tendency toward character selling, it had the potential to make the film an awesome force that could exist well apart from the actor's distinguishing retinue -- which actually reverses the flow towards a cul-de-sac acting career because the actor becomes more disciplined towards inhabiting each film on an individual basis, rather than overlapping from film to film with an occasional plateau here and there...(I think of Bresson, these days, as the poster child for this sort of direction, his modeling effect...)

Second, it makes that character live in a way that the actor, possibly, never could. I attribute this to the way that the mind works through a scene while viewing, linking each scene that came before it...but not all minds work the same. So if an actor spends all of this energy to make this character live it can be so distracting -- and contrary -- to the life of the film. Few directors can really handle the sort of freneticism (and here I think of Kubrick's Dr. Strangelove as an example; although, sometimes I think he might have just lucked out...) and still manage to make the final film a thing that breathes on its own.

Hopefully this refraction made some sense. Cheers.

Marina said...

Ok, finally getting down to answering your wonderful response, Johanna.
These two effects you're pointing out, when addressing the actor vs. frame dilemma, are truly inspirational. I'm not sure if I grasped the essence of what you call "cul-de-sac acting", but what it suggests intrigues me (could you dwell a bit more on it, it'd be helpful): not only is the actor's career turning into a pleiad of separate performances that do not have much in common - appart from the obvious, the individuality of the actor, that is, - but it also enables him to step out of the "cul-de-sac space" that a character creates. When you recreate a fictional character, you're more or less trapped, and this "claustrophobia" is strengthened by the notion of the actor being the most important, driving force of a film. But when this burden is lifted and the character is "reduced" to a particle, in other words the whole is more crucial than the part, new horizonts can open for the actor. New paths which may seem lighter due to their lack or less responsibility, but through which a better result may be achieved.

It's interesting to think of pouring-with-energy acting as distracting. It breaks the balance, but the other way round would end up in the same position. So, as you say, the director is the balance-maker, the uniter and link between scences and actors.

But in what ways is this balance different in contemplative cinema[CC]?

Or is it in full force only here?

I mean, in CC the atmosphere is primerly cold and somehow objective. It's like we're "forbidden" to fall in love with neither the characters nor the film - we're observants. If we were emotional about the film, we wouldn't be able to truly contemplate. Is this the utmost balance?

johanna said...

'I'm not sure if I grasped the essence of what you call "cul-de-sac acting", but what it suggests intrigues me (could you dwell a bit more on it, it'd be helpful): not only is the actor's career turning into a pleiad of separate performances that do not have much in common - apart from the obvious, the individuality of the actor, that is, - but it also enables him to step out of the "cul-de-sac space" that a character creates.'

In the States, we are deluged with entertainers. And what makes them entertainers (as opposed to actors), in my mind, is that these people never age. The words "character actor" have been pronounced to death (yes, no? some would disagree...) as part and parcel of this industrial phenomenon. There's no growth, sometimes individually but more often as an artist. It seems to me that by now whole books should have been written on this, but I haven't found any.

You're right in saying that the character an actor creates often becomes the character that that actor then lives, over and over again. It was fun and interesting and new when it was the Tramp...and, for some, it's fun and innovative when it's Sasha Baren Cohen (sp?) because that personality extends off-camera so completely...but I have yet to see an actor take a character and allow that character to grow and evolve...

Reducing the actor to a particle's a good way of putting it. That the whole takes precedence over the part has become quite the minority in filmmaking, hasn't it?

'I mean, in CC the atmosphere is primarily cold and somehow objective. It's like we're "forbidden" to fall in love with neither the characters nor the film - we're observants. If we were emotional about the film, we wouldn't be able to truly contemplate. Is this the utmost balance?'

That's a very insightful observation, Marina, and it intrigues me to no end as someone who doesn't care to have her emotions manipulated during the act of film-watching...not without a good reason and a responsible filmmaker being behind that kind of force.

My first thought was that, while we are practically forced to stay behind the camera with the director, and that emotional readings have few (if any) footholds, we are however not only allowed to view the images as a reflective surface, but we are moreover invited to do so.

In this sense, the CC becomes a tool by which to sort through emotions. As I was watching Tout Une Nuit yet again the other day, I noticed that I spent much of the film comparing various moments from my own life against many of the scenes. The more I thought about it, the more sense that that sort of viewing made to me because so often in life we are in one place and thinking about being in another place and what CC does -- by not inviting us to take an immediate emotive connection to its characters and circumstances --is to make that okay...and even goes beyond making that okay because the experience of watching becomes the experience of thinking and, in this particular case, thinking about things with highly emotional connections that then get placed in a new light.

It's a much gentler approach to an audience's attention, considerably more engaging and thought-provoking and...it must also be a tremendous part of the reason why we can watch these over and over again.

Marina said...

"My first thought was that, while we are practically forced to stay behind the camera with the director, and that emotional readings have few (if any) footholds, we are however not only allowed to view the images as a reflective surface, but we are moreover invited to do so.
In this sense, the CC becomes a tool by which to sort through emotions."

That's beautifully put! And fascinating to rise the notion of the screen as a mirror. Instead of absorbing our attention and thought, it reflects it back into us. The viewer cannot be seen, he's not physical - our body is a mere shell. The actual viewing happens inside - between all the memories, associations and mind-links. And quite independently in certain moments from the screening of the film, as it turns out. However, the cinematic screen can never reflect completely - it's one of those deforming mirrors that make us look short or tall, plump or skinny, serious or funny. It catches our attention and through its narrative/stylistic/aesthetic form hurls it back into our memory - but this reference is not accidental. For example, imagine you're watching a love film: in the beginning, we see a couple walking along the beach by sunset, and that brings you back to a similar memory of yours - but it could be by the beach, or in the mountains, it could be a scene of parting; in the end of the scene, the couple separates and the image of the beach as a castle of their former love reoccurs a few times more during the film; now, the viewer already knows - the beach by sunset or sunrise, the lonely beach, that's a place of togetherness and parting, a meeting point of the past and future, the secret place that makes old feelings revive and seem as if they've never died; if the last shot is a shot of this image, the viewer will refract it in another way - the image will now have a more limited relevance. Or in other words, CC creates importance and meanings for its images and bounds them in a particular scale, so that when the viewer sees himself through these lens, he'll go back to a point of his life relevant to the entirity of the film. Or to put it yet again differently, the role of the director is to model his images-mirrors in a way that they'll evoke certain parts of the viewer's history/personality. These jumpings from the cinematic to the inner screen should not be accidental and chaotic, but productive and enriching. Because the viewer gives his emotionality to the "cold" screen and makes it "feel", but this emotionality should correlate with the rationality of the film.

"the experience of watching becomes the experience of thinking"

I love how you said it! We just shouldn't forget that, and as you mentioned, between these experiences functions the act of comparison and transference from the screen into us.

"That the whole takes precedence over the part has become quite the minority in filmmaking, hasn't it?"

I guess it has. :)

johanna said...

Marina, your praise is overwhelming -- in part because I feel that this has been said before, and many times; but, of course, it's not a part of the mainstream consciousness...hence the reason for this site, I'd gather.

Just to add one quick thought to this thread, though, I've also noticed that sometimes the film that felt reflective upon the last viewing can feel quite directed and compressed with the next, and that these impressions base themselves a lot upon my current state of mind, etc.

This could be simply attributed to being in the frame of mind to watch a certain kind of film or not; but, I think that certain direction styles in CC have a more attuned ability to draw the viewer in and that attention to that fact should be focused...I think I may have found the theme for my comparisons. Hmmm...

I'll check in again after a bit.

Marina said...

Well, I guess everything's been said at some time before [publicly or not]. But by someone else. Which makes your or my saying of it, quite a different thing [except when we restate it literaly].

For me, these ideas and discussions, in general, are like a growing progression - a thought added to the previous one, makes a new point, relevant to and dependant on those preceding it, though.

"This could be simply attributed to being in the frame of mind to watch a certain kind of film or not; but, I think that certain direction styles in CC have a more attuned ability to draw the viewer in and that attention to that fact should be focused..."

So, CC demands a special frame of mind (a nice word since it deals with a momentary state of openness or reticence), just as quite a lot of films. However, if we take a pure comedy or drama, we might sense that most times we're sucked in the mind frame of the screen, meaning, we might enter the room unhappy but reside and leave it happy. This is a very elemental example but it makes things quite clear. Then, if CC requires a particular mind adjustment, shouldn't it be doing that on its own? Bringing the viewer to the correct/helpful state of mind? Adjusting him towards openness so that a maximum effect can be taken out of the viewing?

But if CC is becoming quite public/mass and favoured too, then can we expect that everybody sees it in the appropriate state of mind? Well, that's possible but not very much, especially during festivals when most of your energy and openness have already been exhausted (and that's where these films can mainly be seen). So, does CC already adjust us without we realising it? And if yes, how?

And I come to your statement:

"I think that certain direction styles in CC have a more attuned ability to draw the viewer in"

And now we have to focus on direction styles, which is quite a vast territory. So, I'll have to postpone it for a day more, until the holiday greets me with good mood and, more importantly, enough time. :)

Just to add something that came to me, while discussing time and space in literature during a Bulgarian language class the other day: when you read a book you can read it for the time the story takes place - although rarely; for example, if the plot is in a day's period, you can read the story/novel in a day; that creates a special feeling of completeness and sympathy/commitment, but also makes the experience more intense; thus, you enter the novel's world more quickly and may stay there for long as an aftereffect; while reading, your consciousness of the fact that the literal day's happening simultaniously with your day, gets you in the right state of mind quite firmly; if the plot takes place for a month, you can read it fragmentarily for a month, etc; what happens with cinema, however - there it's much more difficult for the film to fit its plot duration in the viewing duration which is mostly standarded; in CC, that duration lasts longer, allowing the film to afford itself a more prolonged plot/or the illusion of it.

HarryTuttle said...

I'm sorry to join this great discussion so late. There has been so many things going on that I couldn't be as present as I expected. But now, I'm all focused on this blog. I see that Contemplative Cinema has already an acronym (CC), which kinda make it more official in a way, at least among us.

Marina,
your serious/play dichotomy is very interesting, there is probably something like that at work in the contemplative/conventional clash. Or is it between the "artfilm" and the "theatre"? This issue probably roots back to what Bazin called "impur cinema", and Bresson called "photographed theatre".
I don't know Brecht very well, his approach of dramaturgy seems to be more conceptual (I mean an intellectual abstraction by manipulating reality, as opposed to the caricature/stereotype of classic theatre) than the transcendental realism in Contemplative Cinema. What Artaud called "Theatre of Cruelty" was also "epic" and violent, to provoke the audience, to force a reaction, to make sure the audience cannot sit throught it untouched, apathical.
I think it's important to distinguish this active process with the rather passive process of CC.
There is a reason why CC is often called "boring", and the trance-like state it induces, numbing the senses, relaxing our visual attention defines CC. Unlike Brecht (but the ontology of theatre is very different anyway), I mean it in a positive way. Our brains will not be agitated by the stroboscopic effect of the MTV-like montage, the accumulation of overstated information, the logorhea of dialogues. On the contrary CC offers a heaven for meditation, taking the time to immerse into the film without worrying about following a plot or picking up clues. So this state of trance is positive, and can open a new dimension into cinema.

But I realize the problem is different with "contemplative acting". I usually don't pay much attention to acting, so I don't know much about it. But I agree with what you say. This is an interesting angle to develop though, and Johanna helped me understand it better.

HarryTuttle said...

Johanna,

Outstanding "refraction"! You raised an important point about typecasting (cul-de-sac acting) in conventional cinema. Although I'd see there 3 different types of acting. For instance, I can't find
Bresson's formal constraint in other contemplative films today. Contemplative acting seems to be more passive and free inside the frame, less piloted by an overall structural meaning (composition,
purity, focus, clarity). Bresson wouldn't let a group of people wander around during extended long takes. Like you say, CC is more objective in a way, and Bresson isn't, typically. So to me CC both
break with conventional and conceptual acting, toward something more nonchalent. Bresson is also contemplative, but in his own distinct way.

I definitely agree that the star-system acting is an artificial (industrial) construction that has its purpose on the stage of a theatre (because the live relationship to the public is totally different), and hampers the full accomplishment of cinema by clouding the screen with oversignificant personas that take us away from the heart of the film. CC dismiss the role of actors and turn them into objects, no more important than the landscape, the set or the weather (Marina's "particule" concept). It hurts the ego of traditional actors, which is understandable, but cinema, freed of the constraint to constantly follow and magnify the stars, can finally develop the other aspects of the cinematic language on an equal level, to produce a more balanced diegesis, thus more creadible as a proper universe (atmosphere).

Thanks a lot for this amazing discussion. A lot to think about in there.

Marina said...

Hello, Harry!

It hurts the ego of traditional actors, which is understandable, but cinema, freed of the constraint to constantly follow and magnify the stars, can finally develop the other aspects of the cinematic language on an equal level, to produce a more balanced diegesis, thus more creadible as a proper universe (atmosphere).

This reminded me of an image I had built of CC in the beginning of your announcing the blog-a-thon - as ecological cinema. Can't remember how I got there but it stuck. And now when you talk about cinema that breathes healthily again (in all aspects), that is self-sufficient and non-dependent on stars, profit considerations, etc., that has found its initial balance, I just remembered. Could cinema, in the extreme conditions of global warming, be fighting its way towards survival and at the same time showing us the necessary equilibrium? Probably not, but it's a nice thought for cinephiles: cinema as a guiding star... :)

You're comparing the viewing process to meditation and that's fascinating. But I don't think that this trance numbs the senses. When you're sucked in a film, the film deliberately forces you in trance, but when a film allows you to calm down and observe, it allows you to get in this other state of trance. In the second case, if you are fully relaxed, then you most probably won't like the film and would find it boring, because in order to meditate, you need to concentrate [on something]. But if you embrace this calmness and focus on aspects of the film, you're likely to discover something in this film on your own and enjoy it. So, I think that, in a way, no matter how passive the viewing process in CC may seem, it involves and demands great inner activity in order to achieve the peace of meditation.

HarryTuttle said...

You're right to correct me, "trance" was the wrong word, and I realized it was more appropriate for the push-button emotion-driven kind of mainstream cinema. Meditation is opposed to trance.
What I meant was a meditative "trance", reaching a level of transcendental consciousness when the senses are numbed by the absence of strong/recurring excitations. And this quiet (silence, long takes, few action) let the mind to be sensible to the smallest details/variations. It's like getting used to look in the dark, we have to look away from bright light sources, then we beguin to see the smallest stars in the sky that were not apparent in the first place. I think CC is a little like that, a new training to look at cinema differently, so it might seem "boring" at first, but when you unlearn the push-button habit, you can truly connect to another kind of cinema and discover things that classic cinema never provide.

Marina said...

Ah, now this sounds beautiful!

But what intrigues also bothers me a bit. This sensitivity that the mind achieves sharpens possible irritations, too and the viewer becomes more prone to being put off.

HarryTuttle said...

Yes probably. It is both challenging for the audience and for the filmmaker. Without the formulaic recipe it's harder to hit the right chord. This is "haute-couture".