I never know what to say about movies. Not that this has ever prevented me from talking about movies.
My experience of movies has been that the language used about movies doesn’t make sense of that experience.
When Edison, among others, invented the apparatus for making film, everybody – in the West - had a pretty good idea of what an actor did and what theater was. These ideas were passed onto film, as if film were merely the extension of theater. It did not occur to Edison, or to others in the first period of moviemaking, to do more than let the camera record a basically theatrical experience. It was as if one were just taking a big extended photograph of a play.
Now, the play is certainly not a spontaneous experience, but it soon became evident that the theater and the movie operate in different dimensions. The actor in a play may rehearse the part, certainly has to memorize the lines, appears in a stage setting, interacts with others who have also memorized lines, etc. – but all within the defining experience of the performance. The actor’s experience of the play and the audiences is equivalent.
This radically changed with film. It was blown to hell. The idea that the film would mimic the play – photograph it - could not long ignore the technical nature of film making, which allows one to create a performance out of an ensemble of many cuts. And that is key – at that moment, the experience of the audience is fatally and finally cut adrift from the experience of the actor. It is, of course, still possible to film a play, but movies generally are built on the ruin of the old regime, in which the actor experiences the unity of his part in something that occurs from beginning to end at one time. This rarely if ever happens in movies.
Of course, this became, very early, a trope in film. Since the silent films, movies have loved to show – to gleefully demystify – their making. They love to focus the camera on the camera focusing on the actor, they love to show the fakery of it all, they love to show the director, sitting in a director’s chair, saying cut. The cliché quickly and thoroughly penetrated the culture.
However, even as the difference made by the movie was exposed again and again, we retained old, theatrical ways of looking at what was happening. We still called the figures mouthing the lines and pretending to be detectives or kings ‘actors’. And though auteur theory wasn’t really codified until the fifties, the characteristics of it in movie appreciation appeared early on – as though the director was an author.
And so, newpaper and magazine movie critics will write about the performance of the ‘actor’ in the film as something that occurs like the performance of an actor in a play – they will ignore what they know, and what every movie abundantly references – that this is very much a synthesis, rather than a spontaneous unity. The movie references this in its camera work, its transitions, its ‘special effects’, etc., and we know after we have finished it that our experience of it as a performance was an illusion. Even the dimmest movie goer sees through the illusion. The ironic entailment of the reality affect offered by movies is that they become less ‘real’ – they reveal themselves as process the realer they are.
So what are these figures? Are they actors?
There’s a story told on the DVD of Ni Toit ni Loi (Vagabond). In one of the last scenes in the film, Sandrine Bonnaire, the actress who plays Mona – the film’s central figure – wanders into a small French village where the grapes have just been harvested. The village celebrates by allowing a sort of carnival – men dressed up like wine demons capture whoever wanders by – civilians – and dunks them in a vat of wine, or throws grapes at them. According to the interview, when Bonnaire played in this scene, she was not expecting these grape demons – and she was really terrified by them as they chased her around, and eventually into a phone booth. It is an excellent scene – but it would never work in theater. In the unity of the experience of audience and actors that makes up theatrical performance, and actor who doesn’t know what is happening destroys the code of the performance. He or she isn’t better or worse at that point, but becomes a non-actor. However, this rule simply doesn’t apply in film. This is why film actors often speak of acting a role in terms of the way they physically throw themselves into it – rather than, as theater actors do, the way they throw themselves into it psychologically. Bonnaire lets her hair go, doesn’t wash it, or herself – DeNiro pumps himself up to 250 pounds for Raging Bull – etc. Now, it isn’t the case that the film actor doesn’t try to assume psychological characteristics, or the theater actor is not concerned with the body as an instrument – it is a matter of what is subordinate to what. In a sense, the actor in movies, cut off from the entirety of the film by the process of making the film, is doing something very different than what we call acting. A movie is a riposte to methodological individualism – the fundamental level at which the movie works is not reduceable to the separate and individual contributions of the people involved in it. We understand it that way for giving prizes, and because the myth of the individual is something that, at least in America, we pay lip service to. In making movies, the West invented an art form that it did not have the conceptual structure to understand.
Which is why I am uncomfortable with saying things about movies. Because the words I have to use were killed by the camera.