Sunday, December 07, 2008

Acting and the Creative Act

A contrapuntal essay

In "The Existential Clown" in The Atlantic, James Parker writes about actor Jim Carrey as an artist, whose films show a consistency of vision:

"Jim Carrey will loom large in our shattered posterity, I believe, because his filmography amounts to a uniquely sustained engagement with the problem of the self."

I might take this in a few different directions. In emails with my friend Rob (a writer and proponent of Auteur Theory) we have discussed whether an actor can really be an auteur, who really controls the vision of a film or films, who should, differences in stage and film, that sort of thing. But there are other directions, including artistic intent. If Carrey did not play roles in these films as part of a larger artistic vision, if indeed his primary goal is to make people laugh and he doesn't bother with anything remotely approaching "a uniquely sustained engagement with the problem of the self," then can his filmography really amount to this? Can we the viewers (or just Parker) examine the ouevre for its results, without bothering with the intentions of the comic actor? Or maybe we could look about and find other actors who, in their acting alone separate from writing or directing, show a consistency of character, theme, explorative subject (John Wayne comes to mind). Or we could be more subjective: are there certain actors you follow in the same way you might follow a writer, a director, a musician? Does having a "favorite actor" mean quite the same thing as having a "favorite writer"? And how is it different?

I like all these lines of inquiry, but I'm interested in reflecting on acting as a creative act. When I speak of a Shakespearean production, I would tend to refer to "Actor A's Character" rather than "Director B's Play" (for example, to me this is "Gibson's Hamlet," not "Zeffirelli's Hamlet"). It is the actor who interprets and creates the character. If I see a film or stage version, it is not the choices of the director I will relish, but the choices of the actor. Of course the actor is not independent: he/she relies on the initial creation of character and words by Shakespeare, as well as the vision and support of a director. But what artist can work in isolation with total freedom from interference or influence? A writer does not invent the language he/she works in, even if he/she invents his/her own version of it.

But let's move to television. David Chase created The Sopranos, but I think it was really Tony Gandolfini who created Tony Soprano. Certainly Chase invented him, but it was Gandolfini who gave him life, who gave him shape, who thrusts Tony Soprano into my consciousness. Gandolfini is a creative agent. Gandolfini is the artist who passed a character from the realm of imagination into...well, my imagination (when I started watching the DVDs I did have dreams about him). Could another actor have done so? Maybe. Maybe not. But I want to credit the actor for making the character what he is, and I do believe it is the actor as creative agent that reached me.

That's not to say that's always the case. Larry David is probably more responsible than Jason Alexander for the genius of George Costanza, but Michael Richards is largely the creator of Kramer.

And maybe we get back to the old problem of Jack Nicholson's Randle Patrick McMurphy against Ken Kesey's Randle Patrick McMurphy. They're not quite the same McMurphy, are they? I don't think Milos Forman made a different McMurphy. And while I can have serious discussion about the differences between the film and novel One Flew Over the Cuckoo's Nest, I cannot really articulate why Nicholson's portrayal of McMurphy is not quite the McMurphy of the book. I can only say that Nicholson is a great actor, an artist, a dominant presence that makes a character his own. Simply by having Nicholas play McMurphy, McMurphy becomes something other than what he was in the text (of course, right? He's an aesthetic creation, and so that aesthetic in words on a page is different than an actor on a screen. That's not what I want to address here; I'm still asserting that Nicholson created a character).

So maybe I'm only thinking of the brilliant actors here (but, in the same way proponents of Auteur Theory mainly think of the brilliant directors). What of the average actors? What of the lousy actors?

But let me raise a problem (and suggest this whole line of inquiry is either pointless or impossible). I love the film The Aviator for its portrayal of character; I thought Leonardo DiCaprio was brilliant (I'm rather interested in OCD). One scene in particular lingers with me: Hughes is in a restroom, and he doesn't want to touch the door to get out, so he quietly waits until somebody else enters the restroom so that he can leave without touching the door.

The scene is wonderful: I recall the quiet and the focus. But whom do I really credit for the scene? Actor Leonardo DiCaprio, director Martin Scorcese, or writer John Logan? And this may also get at why I can't quite accept Auteur Theory. I think it likely the scene worked so well because actor, director, writer, and even a host of others contributing to the creation of the scene made it work. A singular, controlling vision? That doesn't matter; what matters is the resulting scene, a scene with many contributors to its brilliance (though perhaps Auteur Theory is a way to understand an ouevre, not a particular film or a particular scene).

I'm interested in the ways that an actor creates. I'm interested in the way an actor can be an artist. I'm interested in why different people watch things and what they're looking for when they watch. And I'm interested in how we talk about these things.

Let me finish by noting that in some ways, the subject of acting and the theater haunts my dreams. I have recurring dreams (nightmares, I suppose) about somehow making a mistake and ruining a stage show. In particular, I sometimes dream that I'm in a play, and perhaps I don't know my lines, perhaps I don't know the blocking, or often it's more serious: I don't know what character I'm playing, or I don't even know what play I'm in. In my dreams, I often find myself on stage in front of people with other performers, not knowing what I'm supposed to be doing and aware that I'm ruining everything. Please, try that on Freud.

(These contrapuntal essays are taking a distinct shape toward a) rambling directionlessly and b) asking a bunch of questions I'm not bothering to answer (I really hate the latter trend in my writing and will work toward toning it down). What I'm finding in these essays, however, is that it is not the result that makes it contrapuntal, but my mindset whiile writing. I'm willing to ramble and raise questions and lose focus. It's a method, a way of thinking, and thus the writing and thinking goes where I don't expect when I begin)

1 comment:

  1. I often think of a production (film, t.v. or stage) as a football team. I like to simplify things that way, but anyways...

    It always seems like the same argument about who was most responsible for, say, the '80's '49's teams. Was it Montana or was it Walsh. Maybe it was Rice. I'm not sure if any one person was the most responsible for the brilliant football they played. Would Joe Theismann have been as successful if he had played for them? Would Rice be who he was on another team.

    I think you hit the truth with, "what matters is the resulting scene, a scene with many contributors to its brilliance" Film t.v. and stage are team art.