Tuesday, April 15, 2014
Wednesday, April 02, 2014
Acting and performing―used interchangeably in the world of film and theatre―are not the same thing and shouldn't be seen as such. Acting is only performing in the most general definition―doing something in front of an audience―and performing in a film is only acting in the sense that one is playing a role. Clearer distinctions should be made between the words in order to define two similar sounding things that are actually quite different. Let the hair splitting begin!
The best performance I saw last year was
Toni Servillo in The Great Beauty.
The best acting I saw was done by
Adèle Exarchopoulos in Blue Is the Warmest Color.
Whether or not you agree with these particular choices is of no consequence. I'm only interested in what makes them different―a difference which is distinct enough to get some sense of from Exarchopoulos and Servillo's respective expressions. Servillo's is unambiguous, forceful, confident, and projecting an essence. Exarchopoulos expresses more ambiguity: shyness, slight embarrassment, mild awkwardness―yet she's also amused.
But let's not read too much into this.
* * *
James Cagney and Henry Fonda. Who's the actor and who the performer? Assuming you've seen at least a couple of films starring each, this question seems easy. Why? Because we notice a difference in what each does. One could boil it down to differing styles of acting, yes, but I think a more concrete distinction―one involving completely separate categories―is more beneficial since many of those who excel in one "type" of acting are incapable of greatness in the other. The skills required are as different as their intended effects. (Just to make sure we're on the same page: Cagney was the performer, Fonda the actor.)
Performing is more about energy, presence and physicality. Acting is more about realism, subtlety, ambiguity, layers and understatedness. A great performance is usually archetypal. Rather than playing a human being, the performer plays certain emotions or feelings or attitudes made flesh. This doesn't mean that a performance can't be multidimensional, only that it's the kind of complexity that would be more at home in a Greek comedy or tragedy than in a play by Eugene O'Neil. Or in a film by Roy Andersson rather than in one by a young Rossellini.
Performing is breakdancing, acting is ballet.
However it might sound, I am not equating extroverted characters with performing and introverted characters with acting. Gene Hackman's character in Night Moves is outgoing (however misanthropic) whereas Marie Falconetti's Joan of Arc is deeply introverted. Yet both are examples of great acting. Introverted characters can also be performed (e.g: Buster Keaton, Jacques Tati's Hulot). The difference between acting and performing is not in the role or personality of the character but in how it's played.
And just to be clear, I'm not making any qualitative comparison between acting and performing. They're simply different. Different enough that, when "acting" awards are given, there should be two separate categories: one for Best Actor and one for Best Performer.
Examples will provide a more fruitful, concrete and (hopefully) fun exploration.
Daniel Day Lewis gives a performance in There Will Be Blood and acts in The Ballad of Jack and Rose.
Tom Hardy is performing in Bronson and acting in Lawless.
The young Al Pacino was a great actor. Old Al Pacino is a mediocre performer.
(Did I say mediocre? I meant awful.)
The Marx Brother's were strictly performers. (Great ones.)
Humphrey Bogart was an actor who tried to perform.
Jack Nicholson gives a great performance in One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest and shows himself to be capable of great acting in Five Easy Pieces. But primarily he's the opposite of Bogart: a born performer who tries to act.
Carey Grant was a great performer.
Michelle Williams is one of the great living actors.
Martin Donovan and Chris Eigeman are performers.
In the film Nebraska, June Squibb is performing while Bruce Dern is acting.
Sometimes the character being played is a performer in some sense but the person playing that character is still acting:
R. Lee Ermey (Sgt. Hartman) is giving a performance in Full Metal Jacket.
Ivan Dixon is acting in Nothing But a Man.
Great performances: Jack Lemmon and Tony Curtis in Some Like It Hot.
Great acting: Humphrey Bogart in The Treasure of the Sierra Madre.
Nicole Kidman in Dogville? Great acting.
A performance: Bob Odenkirk as Saul Goodman in Breaking Bad.
Orson Welles was a performer, Montgomery Clift, an actor.
Anthony Hopkins' Hannibal Lector is a performance.
One of the things that distinguishes Fellini's early work from his later work: his characters go from acting to performing.
Finally, an example of each at their very highest incarnations.
A Great Performer:
A Great Actor:
I tried to compare various styles and periods of "acting"―old Hollywood, theatrical, method, etc.―to show that acting and performing are not actually stylistic differences at all but rather differences in type. Yes, it's all "acting" so one can say that any distinction being made is pointless or unnecessary. But I think the distinction is clear enough to merit drawing a line, however faint.
It's also fun to discuss this with friends after viewing certain films, or just to compare examples. For instance, what exactly is the great Timothy Carey doing in the clip below? I can't decide. He seems to vacillate seamlessly between acting and performing. Maybe it's better just to call it Lightning in a Bottle.
Wednesday, March 26, 2014
While reading, one of the things I like to collect are definitions―alternate, non-literal, or poetic.
Sometimes an author's words are a few steps removed from what I've fashioned out of their provisions, sometimes not. (For more on this, see my first selection of alternate definitions.)
Credits can be found at the end.
"Why do we call all our generous ideas illusions, and the mean ones truths? Isn't it a sufficient condemnation of society to find one's self accepting such phraseology? ...I know how names can alter the colour of beliefs." ―Lawrence Selden in Edith Wharton's The House of Mirth (1905)
Cool: a posture which indicates that one has made all the judgments that matter in life and made them correctly; irony that has been frozen over time
Funeral: the final buttress against chaos
Grandeur: height directly proportional to how far one can fall
History: a special genre of story-telling that uses narrative to give form to ideals
Humans: technological devices invented by ancient bacterial communities as means of genetic survival
Liberal: someone who leaves the room when an argument is about to turn into a fight
Love: the byproduct of trust and joy
Mass murder: one of the inevitable side effects of technological progress
Multiculturalism: the psychopathic version of cultural pluralism
Playpen: euphemism for cage
Satisfaction: a horse people should not mount if they want to do some galloping
School: a factory for the manufacturing of credentials
Stock market: a device for measuring optimism
Television: a mindless creation that has run amok since the moment a network executive with the soul of a ribbon clerk discovered there were enormous profits to be made by paying heed to Henry Ford's old adage that "No one ever lost money underestimating the taste of the American people."
War: the form nostalgia takes when men are hard-pressed to say something good about their country
Mark Edmundson (Why Teach?); Don DeLillo (White Noise); David Graeber (Debt: The First 5000 Years); Neil Postman (The End of Education); John Gray (Straw Dogs); Garret Keizer paraphrasing Saul Alinsky in "Loaded"; Eric Kandel (The Age of Insight); John Gray (Straw Dogs); Neil Postman (The End of Education); Gore Vidal (Palimpsest); Robert Walser (Jakob von Gunten); Mark Edmundson (Why Teach?); Richard Rodriguez, "Disappointment"; Harlan Ellison (The Glass Teat); Don DeLillo (White Noise)
Thursday, March 20, 2014
Once upon a time, an asteroid large enough to make all life extinct was headed in Earth's direction. The size of Texas, they said, if you were from North America. Or the size of France, Ukraine, Botswana or Afghanistan, depending on where else you were from. Perhaps this was an exaggeration, some said, but it was Coming Right For Us!, everyone said, with an uncharacteristically communal air. A direct hit.
People were scared. If such a thing could wipe out the dinosaurs, they thought, just think what it could do to us! A summit was called, and soon it was decided that there was a reasonable chance for survival if some missiles were shot up into space. Not to blow up the asteroid―it was much too large―but to deflect it. Nuclear missiles, they said. The only kind strong enough. With something like this, they said, you don't want to take any chances.
The United States decided to launch three missiles, each from a different location. Better odds, they said. China made their own calculations and decided to launch three of their own. Better odds, they said. Russia joined in too. Hearing this, the United States added six more for good measure. Even better odds, they said.
To help conceal the dread, the event was marketed as a sporting event. The commercials buzzed. Who was going to make contact? Who was going to land their bomb in the end zone? Who was going to save us all? Bumper stickers were printed, pressed, and stuck. Meteoric dance moves were invented for the upcoming celebration. When not frozen with fear, people were in a generally positive mood.
The Nights of Nights, as it was marketed, finally came. A satellite with a special camera was sent up just for the event. (The money spent wasn't argued over because secretly no one thought it would matter in the end.) People in the dark half of the world peered up at what promised to be a spectacular sight, while people in the light half kept their fingers crossed and tuned in to the live stream brought to them by innumerable sponsors. A select few others who had not heard of the event lived the Night of Nights just like any other.
On 15 channels there was nothing to be seen but the blackness of space and the dim shimmering stars. Experts and pundits chattered, made predictions, and kept things moving. The remaining channels continued on with their usual programming.
Onscreen, a blazing light could be seen growing larger and larger inside the frame of the television set. The increase in size of the asteroid was frightening, the pundits said, as it approached with tremendous speed. The experts gave a few relevant figures.
Soon the asteroid passed the calculated point of no return, the pundits noted. The missiles, which were pre-programmed to launch, lifted from the Earth. Three from the United States, three from Russia, and three from China. A moment later the United States launched six more, each a few seconds apart.
Sitting in front of their television sets, people watched silently. The missiles soon entered the frame, shooting up from the bottom of the screen. Following them were large tufts of smoke. Better than any Hollywood movie, a few pundits remarked.
The asteroid moved closer. The picture was pristine. In the coarse, churning surface of the ominous rock, malevolent faces appeared for a instant, then vanished, only to appear again in a somewhat altered form as the asteroid slowly rotated. (Had there been a psychologist present, he could have explained what all of this meant.)
The asteroid and the missiles blazed toward each other as if magnetized.
Then: a flash. And another. Then another.
Some of the missiles―whether through malfunction or miscalculation―detonated just before hitting their target. White smoke slowly filled the black space while various people argued over what was happening and who was to blame for whatever it was that was happening.
The rest of the missiles, the world saw, had missed their target. The asteroid emerged forcefully from the icy smoke.
People gasped. Others wept. Some screamed. A few committed suicide.
But a few moments later people noticed that the asteroid had missed its target, as well. Dipping near Earth, it somehow escaped the planet's pull.
People cheered. Others kissed. Some wept. A few committed suicide.
Meanwhile, the radioactivity from the detonated missiles created a dark cloud that blocked out the sun and slowly rained poison down over the planet. Within a decade, all Intelligent Life on Earth was extinct.
Friday, March 14, 2014
A dog struggles against a retractable leash while a man―pressing the retract button―waits patiently for his pet's inevitable return. The small dog braces itself against the road as it's pulled; children watch, laughing gleefully as Jep, the main character, watches them watch.
Life as amusing spectacle, man as lazy, spoiled observer―or flâneur. Paolo Sorrentino's The Great Beauty (2013)
Accompanied by music, an old man walks slowly across the frame as his struggling dog―which might as well be a small boulder―is pulled along behind him. The audience watches in a state of amused horror; the dog, yelping, is tangled in the leash, and probably not very recently. The man is too old to hear or notice, and too feeble to do anything about it even if he did.
Life as tragicomic opera, man as sisyphean protagonist. Roy Andersson's You, the Living (2007)
Thursday, March 06, 2014
"All that is said by any of us can only be imitation and representation." ―Plato (Critias, 360 BCE)
"What has been will be again, what has been done will be done again; there is nothing new under the sun." ―Ecclesiastes 1:9 (between c. 330–180 BC)
"That which comes after ever conforms to that which has gone before." ―Marcus Aurelius, Meditations (c. 161–180 CE)
|Ancient graffiti from Wadi Rum in southwest Jordan [via]|
|West Bank wall graffiti [via]|
|Ancient ad for a brothel in Ephesus. The ad includes a heart, a cross, a woman’s head, a foot and cash. It has been translated as "turn left at the cross roads where you can buy a woman's love." [via]|
|Ancient graffiti from Pompeii [via]|
|Robert Cornelius’ self-portrait: The First Ever “Selfie” (1839) [via]|
|Victorian graffiti on one of the statues at the Abu Simbel temple complex built by Rameses II [via]|
|Pyramid of El [via]|
|Cat GIF [via]|
|Proto-GIF. Zoetrope disc, England, 1870. [via]|
|1917 letter from Lord Fisher to Winston Churchill [via]|
|Marcel Duchamp, 1921 [via]|
|Ezra Pound, from a letter to Sarah Perkins Cope, April 22, 1934|
|Eleanor Roosevelt telegram, 1945|
|Fuck the Draft poster / meme (1968) [via]|
|Rene Magritte, The Human Condition (1935)|
Thursday, February 27, 2014
On a whim you decide to read Steinbeck's final novel The Winter of Our Discontent (1961). Inside you take no notice of this:
But you remember it when, for no particular reason, you pick up Alison Bechdel's Fun Home: A Family Tragicomic (2006) to read next, and inside you come across this:
Now, feeling confident that you serendipitously selected the correct book to read next, you give yourself a pat on the back and smile twinkle-eyed at the Heavens.
Then this morning you find yourself randomly thinking about Ethan Hawley, the main character in Steinbeck's novel, and while doing so you double click the Chrome icon on your desktop knowing that your old computer will still provide you with the opportunity for several more minutes of thinking-filled lull. Finally, your browser opens and you see that Google is celebrating something today. Unsure of what it is, you hover your mouse over the image, and instantly you feel like the Universe is smiling on you.
For a brief moment you think that perhaps you broke through to the secret workings of life, revealing it to be little more than the powerful projection of your imagination. Which is why you have no qualms about posting something that's so meaningless to everyone else. In more ways than one, your readers simply do not exist.