Wednesday, April 15, 2009

Reflections: Make Me Believe It

Misconception #4: Silent actors overact.

This one’s not so much a misconception as an over-generalization.

I’ll start with a short rant here. I have an issue (albeit a minor one) with ‘perfect little movies’—Juno, for example—and the lauds they receive for sounding so real. By no means is Juno a bad film, nor, I expect, was it easy to write. I simply wonder if some people overrate the value of writing (and speaking) dialogue ‘realistically.’ I rarely go to the movies seeking a slice of life. I digest enough reality as it is, thanks.

Happy Go Lucky is a more extreme case. This movie wasn’t scripted in a traditional sense—it was ad-libbed by the actors and rehearsed over the course of many weeks until the scenes came together. Again, I don’t criticize the method—movies don’t, and shouldn’t, play by set rules—but to applaud this movie for sounding ‘real’ is akin to praising a documentary for the same thing.

Realistic dialogue in film is equivalent to photorealism in painting. Both require virtuosity; both can be powerful. Neither represents the pinnacle of its medium. Of course, no other style does, either. That’s why it’s art.

I think, when it comes to movies, a good acting performance is one which best suits the movie it’s in. Experts can debate the relative merits of the Method, etc. (quickly leaving me behind, I might add, as I’m a total layperson). However, the open-minded will likely admit that an outsized performance has its place in an outsized movie.

Now, imagine having to act for a medium that has just been created. A medium for which all the rules you’ve been taught must be questioned.
A stage actor must account for an audience that cannot be close to him or her. Nuance cannot be subtle. A gesture must be huge just to seem normal to those in the back row. Film is different, as the camera lens can be as close to the actor as a human companion, or even closer. The first generation of film actors simply portrayed scenes as they always had—as though before crowded rooms of onlookers—and often produced silly results.

This makes some silent actors' performances seem overdramatic or even histrionic, especially to today's audiences. The problem occurs as much in silent comedy as in melodrama, though comedy, overall, is more forgiving. Once you’ve watched enough of these films, however, you’ll notice that most of the bugged-out eyes, wailing and hands outstretched to God show up before 1920. By that point, the challenges of film acting—particularly the close-up—were well understood and actors trained on the stage knew how to adapt.

But still, ‘real’ was an acquired taste. The end of the silent era brought a flood of talkies, none of which, I’d suggest, sounded remotely realistic to anyone, even in the early-1930s. Many of those movies remain effective today. The lesson, I guess, is that a good movie makes you believe in its characters and what they're saying or doing, no matter how they say it or do it. Or to put it another way, Juno would've sung differently in a Casablanca gin joint.

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