Posts Tagged ‘drama’

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In The Bedroom – the one about acting

04/25/2012

Some films are about the fantastic.  The performances in them are based on the audience’s need for connection.  But in any drama there is a need for something else.  You might call it an artistic distance.  For films where the actors need to “become” the characters, there will always be something about the performance that is different, in an uncomfortable way.

Human beings have natural nuances that are less than flattering.  We don’t look, sound, or behave as “coolly” as characters on the big screen.  We snot, wince, and stutter.  Tom Cruise would never do that, would he?  After all, one of the great appeals of the cinema is that it can offer us “life with all the boring parts cut out,” as described by Martin Scorsese.  But what happens when we are thrust into the lives of those characters that share our negative qualities?

There is a certain hypnosis to empathy.  When we sense that someone like us is in a situation that seems possible to us, then we automatically project our sensibilities into their decisions, and participate with their life events.  All storytelling works on this principle.  And good actors will present their actions in a way that is conducive to this character/audience relationship.

The performances in In The Bedroom have that sort of hypnosis.  They draw you in with little subtleties.  The wandering eye-lines, stuttering dialog, and inconsistent intonations all serve to take the perception of intellect out of the action.  Real people are impulsive.  We rarely think about the little things we do.  Any heavily rehearsed action is easily discernable because of how clean and deliberate it is.

These actors have done away with any semblance of forethought.  Their instances of shock and romance have all the nuances of reality.  If you follow their eye-lines, you can see their realizations.  It is easy to participate in these characters decisions, precisely because these nuances feel so real.  The reactions they have are as close of a representation of what we might be like in that situation as I can imagine.

Posture and blocking is a big part of all this.  We follow the little head bobs and fist clenches.  These little actions represent the tracking marks for the Audience Bond.  The plot offers these characters only a handful of major choices for the audience to participate in, but the little blocking moments fill in the gaps.  You can tell a lot about these characters based on where they’re looking.

In one scene between Tom Wilkinson’s character, Doctor Fowley, and a Prosecuting Attorney, we are given very deliberate close-ups of what the doctor is looking at.  He doesn’t seem to be listening to what the lawyer says.  Instead he is distracted by the lawyer’s nonchalant mannerisms, such as the way he plays with his car keys.

Another example is when Mr. and Mrs. Fowley have their big fight in the kitchen.  She focuses her physical attention on the dishes, inputting a few harsh critiques of her husband’s apparent lack of mourning.  He starts to leave the room, but is brought back in by the insult.  As he slowly loses his patience, he investigates what she meant by her remark.  At this, she smashes her plate on the floor and runs out of the room.  The physical beat marks a change in dramatic tone and shifts action to a new location.

The motions give us a sense of subtext.  Is she leaving because she can’t stand her husband?  Or is it because she she’s hiding from something.  This particular instance in the story is probably caused by the subconscious need for revenge.  In their case, the need is unsatisfied by the courts, and they are unable to see the punishment of their enemy.  Is it possible that they replace that enemy with each other?  Perhaps the insults they throw at each other are coming from this need for vindication.  They can’t punish the real criminal, so the punish each other.

The audience is involved in all of this.  We are sympathetic to both sides, and even empathetic to them as well.  As the characters proceed through their grief, we share their search for answers.  And at the end of it all, we may not understand why we are in this place, but at least we have some satisfaction by joining in the character’s need for revenge.

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Dramatic Tone in The Searchers

04/05/2012

John Ford’s The Searchers has gone down in history as one of the most definitive dramatic westerns.  And yet, by today’s standard, parts of it feel remarkably camp and silly.  The heart of the film is rough, dark, and disturbing.  So much so that Ford resorts to broad comic relief in order to offset the depressing effects for his audience.  Movie-going audiences in the 1950’s would simply not have been ready for the thematic darkness that this film offers.

Comic relief has been a traditional means of supporting the audience’s willing projection into the character.  We escape from our world into the west with Mr. John Wayne.  Should that escapism become too disturbing, we will disconnect, and escape back into reality.

In the case of The Searchers, sequences of intense racism and bigotry are played against slapstick.  The comedy is the emotional reverse of the drama.  A modern audience will find that the broad comedy throws them out of the story, but we can tell how intense those darker scenes would have felt to the 50’s audience based on how incredibly broad the comedy is.  After only sixty years of cinema, audiences were simply not accustomed to taking in such subject matter.

For a few decades, the Hays Code was a stark censorship of film that prevented overt portrayals of violence and sexuality.  It protected audience’s sensibilities from cultural “indecencies.”  Thus, in The Searchers, director John Ford had to come up with a way to tell this darker story, subverting the traditional western heroics, without offending this code.  The most obvious way to do this was to soften the blow through comedy.

John Ford plays Ethan, a racist outlaw who seeks to find his kidnapped niece in order to kill her.  Her white purity has been soiled by a forced marriage to Comanche Chief Scar.  His only companion is Martin, a 1/8th Indian boy adopted into the family.  Ethan treats him poorly because of this small racial defect. And yet, he is never framed this way for the audience.  Instead is presented primarily as the vessel for comic relief.

When romantic drama starts to heat up, a bucket of water is poured over Martin’s head.  As the hunt goes on, Martin accidentally marries an Indian woman.  When Ethan returns home after a few years on the hunt, Martin gets into a fight with another comic relief character over the right to marry the village hot chick.  But what people really remember are the moments in between, of harsh racism and bigotry.

John Ford has described The Searchers as a “psychological epic.”  It traverses the landscape of the mind.  As Ethan’s outer journey discovers the darkness of man, so his inner journey uncovers his own darkness for the world to see.  His conflict culminates with him scalping the Comanche war chief, Scar.  From it, he is hardly redeemed.

At the end of the film, Ethan returns home with his niece.  The family opens up to her and welcomes her inside.  But Ethan himself does not enter.  He stands on the porch neither expecting an invitation, nor receiving one.  He would no more welcome himself into that household than he would be welcomed.  Instead, the door closes on him as he turns to face the sunset.  No community will last that is able to abide a bigot.

These tonal shifts represent a tremendous social commentary for the 1950’s.  Audiences were used to western heroes that they could root for.  John Wayne traditionally played the sort of hero that would defend women and children to the death.  This whole examination of racist psychology is a subversion of that heroic ideal.  A subversion that is so grading the normal viewer, that it must be contrasted with slapstick and other cheap laughs.  But a bucket of water on someone’s head is not sufficient to erase the image of John Wayne threatening to kill a young girl.

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Farewell, My Concubine

04/16/2011

The film Farewell My Concubine is one of the few intimate epics to come out of Chinese cinema.  Its primary narrative focus is on the character of Dieyi, a feminine boy who plays the role of the concubine in a famous Chinese play.  In traditional filmmaking, it is typical to tell the story in as close to real time as possible, without getting boring or overlong.  That way, the audience gets to experience close to the same thing that the character does.  But in the case of Farewell My Concubine, there are long passages of time that go on in between scenes in the film.  The character experiences these, but the audience does not, making the film feel almost more like a series of sequential short films, rather than a long, singular narrative.  As the years fly by off-screen, the audience is left with the task of mentally producing the connective tissue that binds all the scenes together.  This, combined with the very weighty subject matter, produces what can be described as an exhausting effect on many audience members.

What the film gains through this type of macro-storytelling is a grand sense of scale.  The characters are of tremendous significance to each other and their local environment, but the larger world has no need of them.  Governments rise and fall, but the Peking Opera remains.  Is this because the opera is more significant than government?  Or is it because it is less significant?  I think it is because Opera (and the arts in general) symbolizes the collective emotional identity of the culture that produced it.  It is so closely tied to personal cultural identity, that all else can be cast aside before the arts are given over to decadence.

The movie is technically non-linear, since it opens with two older performers trying to remember lines that they once epitomized.  It then flashes back to nearly seventy years prior, when they were both young boys given out of poor families into a local acting troupe.  When it cuts back, we see a noticeable absence of color in the frame.  It is slowly re-saturated throughout the course of the film, giving us a sense of how the past has merged into the present.  There is no attempt to make the scenes in the past feel “up-to-date” or contemporary.  Instead they are treated as being something distant, memorable and important maybe, but it’s the type of importance that can be understood as “narrative fossilization.”  Something preserved for study, but no longer directly applicable to the world of today.

Our chief scale through which to measure this shift in relevance comes unsurprisingly from the people’s reaction to our main characters’ play.  In the earliest scenes, their play is held in incredibly high regard, and their portrayals are considered to be among the greatest.  But as time marches on, there appears to be a growing doubt on the part of the people as to whether the opera has any true relevance to the modern life.  The opera of course outlasts these doubts and continues on, but the whole scenario begs the question, is art so closely tied to culture that it is incapable of transcending time and place?  The film certainly addresses the question, but makes no attempt to answer it.

I do think that my experience watching the film gives something close to an answer, however.  Not since my viewing of Tai Guk Gi have I felt so distant from the story I’m being told.  Much of this film is dependent upon the audience’s connection with the historical events portrayed.  But I do not know anyone who has been directly affected by the events portrayed onscreen.  To me, these are distant events that happened to others, whose experiences I cannot know.  There are certain issues that the film skirts around, assuming that the audience does not need any reminder of the events being portrayed.  Thus, the ending feels like the sum of not only the events shown onscreen, but also those implied to have happened off-screen.  When I said the character experiences things that the audience does not, I did not note that those experiences have real-world equivalents that the original Chinese audience would identify with.  But with out this sense of shared history, the film loses much of its intended punch.  And by the very fact that I am not Chinese, I felt that the dramatic closing of the film was unearned and uninteresting.  I simply did not care.

This is not the fault of the film, or even the filmmakers.  But it is merely a statement of situational viewing experience.  I cannot fully grasp what it means to view a film that is so closely tied to Chinese identity, because I cannot know what it means to be Chinese.  So how does a film like this stand against the criticism of non-experience?  Reasonably well, actually.

There is so much going on in the frame, and the opposition to the characters is always naturally positioned – rather than forced by Plot Power – so much that it can be worth it for the audience to go the extra mile and invest themselves a story that may feel very foreign.  Of this opposition to character goals, is a key relational subtlety concerning the power of romantic love, and its absence.  The character of Dieyi is in love with his friend Xiaolou, but Xiaolou is in love with a woman named Juxian.  Thus, Xiaolou’s romance is in opposition to the romantic goals of Dieyi, and vice-versa.  This creates a context in which conflict arises out of love, and from love jealousy.

The theme of the film is difficult to articulate succinctly.  If it has a single theme throughout, I’d say it is one of longing for something out of reach.  The only goal that the characters truly accomplish is that of becoming great actors. All their others goals, romantic ones included, seem hindered by various obstacles.  They seem to be never given any rest.  Their lives are lived in high stress, but their art is an alleviant to the stresses of the nation.  The world rages around them, and they seek refuge in each other’s friendship.  But ultimately, it is in their play itself that Dieyi finds the closest answer to the longings of his heart.  He ends his own life as he lived it – theatrically.