Friday, 19 September 2014

Thoughts about acting

When I was a young boy I used to act in school. Not in plays necessarily but in comic sketches, and sometimes in what might be described as soap operas. Me and a classmate would come up with the idea and then ask a couple of other classmates if they wanted to participate, under our direction, such as it was. We put up a little show every Friday, or at least every second Friday, for years. The other year I was in a Swedish film, Ego (Lisa James-Larsson 2013) and I had two lines, as a travel agent, in a scene with the leading actress. It certainly was not method acting but I was pretending to be something I was not, or somebody other than myself. My question is this: was I acting then? Or does acting involve more, must for example emotions also be involved? There were emotions in my scene. I was laughing and my "character" took an interest in the well-being of the customer. I was pretending not only to be a travel agent but also a fictive person who cared about another fictive person. Is that want acting is all about? I often wonder about that, although rarely with reference to myself. But here are some other thoughts regarding acting which does not involve me.


Sometimes after I have seen what I think is a marvellous performance I will see the actor again in an interview, or occasionally even on the tube, and being startled by the fact that they are exactly like they were in the film. What I thought was a great performance was only them being more or less themselves. This happens more frequently with local actors but one more famous example is Dennis Hopper in Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola 1979). This is part of what makes acting and actors so intriguing. We might assume that a particular thing the actor is doing adds nuance and depth to a part and congratulate the actor for it, not knowing that this is not part of the act but a natural habit that the actor does all the time, whether on set or alone in the car. They might not even be aware of it. So it is something that is always there, and not unique for this particular performance for this particular part. But if what they do is something that is part of their natural behaviour it feels peculiar to regard it as great acting.

It is different with people like Kevin Costner for example. When I have seen interviews with him he comes across as rather stiff and dull. But in films he is not like that at all, he can be very likeable, or very scary, even an action hero, which is very far from how he appears in those interviews. Whereas Clint Eastwood, who directed Costner, and acted against him, in what might be their finest achievement, A Perfect World (1993), does not differ all that much from how he appears to be in private from how he appears in films. That would suggest that Costner is a much better actor, because he can believably transform himself into somebody whom is very different from who Costner is in person.

But there is more to it than that, because you must also come across as alive, present, believable, even if you are not a great actor you have to blend in with the film. In Crossroads (Tamra Davis 2002) three young women go on a road trip and they are played by Britney Spears, Zoë Saldana and Taryn Manning. Neither of them do their parts well, they all stumbled on their lines and come across as uncertain and unfocused. Whereas Eastwood come across as natural in his films Spears, even though she is playing a person close to herself, does not. It might be a question of being comfortable in front of the camera, which none of the three women succeed in being.

Here is when direction becomes vital. A recent article by Peter Bradshaw in the Guardian about Lauren Bacall and her performance in To Have and Have Not (Howard Hawks 1944) did not once mention the name of the director. Bradshaw mentioned the studio, the writers and other actors but it was as if he thought that directors are irrelevant as for as actors and performances are concerned. This is not unique for Bradshaw but a more general tendency, to talk about direction and acting as distinct from each other. But they are of course the opposite of that; directing to a large extent specifically means working with the actors. In creating a good atmosphere, in getting the right performance and getting a good performance. If an actor performs badly the director is partly to blame. (I have seen episodes of Next Top Model where the young would-be models are criticised by the jury for their performance on a photo shot, but that is unfair because the models do not know anything, they only do exactly what the photographer tells them to, so if they do badly it is not their fault but the photographers.)

Another job for the director is to see to it that there is harmony between the various actors, that they do not go off in different directions. Some directors care more than others about such things. Some are content with letting the actors do their thing, others control and modulate them, just as they do with the design, the editing and the imagery. Ernst Lubitsch played all the parts himself beforehand to show his actors how they should do it. Two directors closely associated with MGM, George Cukor and Vincente Minnelli, had very different ideas of what kind of acting they wanted. For example, in Minnelli's films the energy of the actors is directed outwards whereas in Cukor's films it is directed inwards. Likewise, Akira Kurosawa's preferred style of acting is different from Yasujiro Ozu's and Hasse Ekman's is different from Ingmar Bergman's. This is an important aspect when considering the director as auteur, and it brings nuance to the often simplistic idea of a "studio style".

Hepburn and Holliday in Adam's Rib (George Cukor 1949)

Then there are different kinds of actors. There are those just playing a type and there are character actors, a term often misunderstood or at least used in different ways. A character actor sometimes refers to somebody who does not play a particular type, but varies from film to film. Sometimes it refers to an actor who plays eccentric characters, distinct or flamboyant. Walter Brennan was a character actor. Takashi Shimura played a tough samurai, a natural leader, in Seven Samurai (Akira Kurosawa 1954) but in his previous film for Kurosawa, Ikiru (1952), he played a meek old man, sick with cancer, and almost the antithesis of his part in Seven Samurai. But often it is not that easy to distinguish. Look at Toshiro Mifune or Al Pacino for example. They are often stylised and eccentric, but not always. They can be subdued too. Sometimes they play more generic roles, other times they create deep and rounded characters. But none of this necessarily mean that one is better than the other. Meryl Streep changes a lot from part to part, Judi Dench less so, but that does not mean Streep is automatically a better actress.

Al Pacino is by some regarded as the greatest actor for the last 40 years or so, other finds him too flamboyant and loud. Although there is no contradiction between the two of course, being loud and flamboyant does not mean that you are not a good actor. With Pacino, his low-key performances such as in Donnie Brasco (Mike Newell 1997) or Insomnia (Christopher Nolan 2002) are all the more impressive. And in Heat (Michael Mann 1995) where he alternates between low-key and overly expressive, depending upon the situation and what it requires (I mean what it requires of his character Vincent Hanna), he might have given his best performance. But it is hard to say what good acting is, other than perhaps to say "I know it when I see it." Sometimes when people say that they disliked a performance what they mean is that they dislike the actor, which is not the same thing. It is sometimes a question of what kind of acting style a person prefers. Some like extravagant actors like Jack Nicholson, others prefer the more low-key acting style of someone like Daniel Auteuil. But one might require as much skill and effort as the other. Acting is not just showing up, there is a lot of work and technique involved, regardless of acting style. There are of course also those who dislike actors and think that amateurs are much better, in some quest for as much realism as possible. But to consider realism as the main goal and purpose is to have a limited view of cinema, and art,

When I was growing up in Sweden, British TV was all the rage and people were saying "And the actors are so good!" It was an axiom that British TV series had the best actors. But it was rather peculiar because what was it actually based on? How were they better than actors in series from other countries? It was just something one said, rather than something one had actually experienced. And I feel that is often the case when the quality of acting and actors are discussed. It is hardly ever based on a real study and evaluation of the acting in question.

Two of my favourite performances happen to be British, Celia Johnson in Brief Encounter (David Lean 1945) and Michael Redgrave in The Browning Version (Anthony Asquith 1951), but I would have a hard time explaining why. Why in the sense "What makes them different from other performances, by themselves and by others". One reason though is the conflict between the reserve (and the stiff upper lip that is required) and their, Laura's in Brief Encounter and Andrew's in The Browning Version, struggle with it, and ultimate inability to adhere to it (they both have breakdowns, crying uncontrollably), It is great acting, but part of the power comes not from the actual acting but the societal context, which is not part of the performances but help make the performances what they are. Another favourite performance is Clu Gulager in The Killers (Don Siegel 1964). Siegel often encouraged his actors to be quirky and odd, or cool, and none succeeded more than Gulager. It is a rather mannered performance, and he is always fussing around with something, at one point doing push-ups during a scene. It is a great performance. But whether it is great acting is another question all together.

Friday, 12 September 2014

J. Lee Thompson

This year is the centenary of the birth of John Lee Thompson, the British director who appeared in-between the golden years of British cinema in the 1940s and the kitchen sink movement in the 1960s. This means that he, like others such as Basil Dearden, has been somewhat neglected when British cinema is discussed. He peaked commercially in 1961 when he made The Guns of Navarone and after that he went to the US to make his most famous film, Cape Fear (1962). But his subsequent American career, despite the occasional film of interest such as the dark comedy What a Way to Go! (1964), is not when he was at his best. It was in the 1950s, home in Britain, that he thrived and his British films are as good, and often better, than the later, more famous films made by Karel Reisz, John Schlesinger, Lindsay Anderson and Tony Richardson in the 1960s.

There are three things that distinguish his work: the razor sharp images (he often worked with cinematographer Gilbert Taylor), the socially conscious themes, often involving a violent crime and its repercussions, and the acting. Yield to the Night (1956) is an unsettling drama about a woman, played by Diana Dors, who is sentenced to death. It was inspired by the case of Ruth Ellis, the last woman to be executed in Britain.

Woman in a Dressing Gown (1957) is about the implosion of a family and centred around the desperation of the mother and wife (played by Yvonne Mitchell) to keep both herself and her family together. 

An earlier film, The Yellow Balloon (1952), is about poor kids in the bombed-out parts of London. One I have not seen yet is another prison drama, The Weak and the Wicked (1954), also with Diana Dors.

The two films I like best are Ice Cold in Alex (1958) and Tiger Bay (1959). The first one is set in the Sahara desert and is about two British soldiers and two nurses trying to make it to Alexandria during World War 2. They pick up a South African solider on the way, who might be a German spy. It is an incredibly tense film and filled with astonishing images of the desert, both in the piercing sunlight and the cold darkness of the night. It is also one of those films where the pain and suffering is so palpable that watching it is an ordeal, where every drop of sweat or any broken ribs are as vivid as if they were your own. The main actors, John Mills, Sylvia Syms, Harry Andrews and Anthony Quayle, must have been exhausted after a day's shooting. The close-ups of their anguished faces and the stark compositions of cars, humans, mines, the sand and the sun are unforgettable.

Tiger Bay is set in Britain, and is about the unexpected bond between a Polish man, played by Horst Buchholz, and the little girl, played by Hayley Mills, he takes with him when he escapes from the police. The film cross-cuts between them and the police in pursuit and combines vivid characterisations with excellent cinematography. This time though it is not Gilbert Taylor but Eric Cross who is the cinematographer. It is possible that he got the job because he had previously shot the similar, and equally excellent, Hunted (Charles Crichton 1952). 

Although he also made a few comedies, Thompson was at his best when observing ordinary people, men as well as women, under extreme pressure and with a reluctance to judge their behaviour. He got great performances out of his actors and his visuals are almost always excellent, using depth and blocking to create tension while also capturing the beauty of the setting, regardless of where it is. It is a shame that he seemed to have lost his way after Cape Fear but he deserves retrospectives at any ambitious cinematheque. 

Irene Papas in the fine The Guns of Navarone

Friday, 5 September 2014

The Grapes of Wrath (1940)

John Ford is one of those filmmakers that I write about repeatedly, since I consider him to be one of the great artists of the 20th century. There are many aspects that make up his artistry, such as his themes and his conception of time, his work with the actors, his creation of distinctly Fordian characters. But it is perhaps above all else the poetic images, with many typical compositions recurring all the way through his career. Some of his films must be regarded as the most beautiful, visually, that has ever been made. The Grapes of Wrath (1940) is one of them. It is not Ford's best but it is still very impressive, and quite wonderful. Here are some stills:


In his correspondence with Lindsay Anderson for Anderson's book About John Ford, the scriptwriter for The Grapes of Wrath, Nunnally Johnson, boldly claimed that whatever quality is to be found in Ford's films came from the scripts Johnson had written, and the films Ford had made with other writers were just bad. As claims go it is depressingly weak. These images alone contradict Johnson because the images are Ford's, not Johnson's (nor John Steinbeck's). The cinematographer on the film was Gregg Toland, famous for his work with William Wyler and especially with Orson Welles on Citizen Kane (1941), but there is nothing in either Wyler's or Welles's films that are like the images to be found in the films of Ford for the obvious reason that their films were not directed by Ford. Of course, Toland was important for the look of the film, and producer Darryl F. Zanuck took a great, and close, interest in the production (Ford was more independent on other films), but the look and feel of the film is still Ford's. "Let's take a chance and do something different." he said to Toland when they were preparing it, and he later added "It worked out all right."

Friday, 29 August 2014

Die Hard (1988)

When I was a film student at Stockholm University back in the 1990s David Bordwell paid us a visit and he also gave some lectures. The one I attended was about Die Hard (John McTiernan 1988) and Three Colours: Blue (Krzysztof Kieslowski 1993), and Bordwell presented them as prime examples of a typical American film and a typical European film. I do not remember what he said but it was the first time I had heard anybody discuss a mainstream Hollywood film in a serious manner, analysing camera angles, editing, narrative, and pointing out that there is a lot of skill involved, as well as artistic decisions to be made, even in such a film. Sometimes you were led to believe (and some still seems to think so) that whereas European films are made by conscious people, American films more or less assemble themselves, without human agency. One way to appreciate the importance of the skills and ideas of the people involved is to compare films that are similar in style and genre, rather than comparing Die Hard with Blue you might compare it to the abysmal Money Train (Joseph Ruben 1995). But it is not important to compare Die Hard to anything in order to enjoy it, or to be dazzled by the skill with which it is made. It is a great film, which is perhaps why Bordwell chose it.

At the beginning of the film there is a shot from the arrivals hall at an airport (LAX I imagine), with the camera close to the floor and with the baggage carousel taking up most of the visual interest in the film. But in the far back is a staircase connecting the floor below with this floor, and suddenly John McClane, the hero played by Bruce Willis (his first appearance as an action hero rather than as a romantic comedian), appears there, not necessarily even noticeable if you watch the film on a small screen, although the screen is sharply divided into two parts, as you can see in the image below.

This is one of the best things about Die Hard, the fine, inventive and often quite beautiful cinematography (the DP was Jan de Bont). There is occasionally a Michael Mann-ish feel to it, but it is also a good example of McTiernan's interest in texture and reflections. (Among his films The Hunt for Red October (1990) and The Thomas Crown Affair (1999) are also great.) The spatial awareness in the film is another fine thing. McClane and the thieves/terrorists run around offices, staircases, ventilation shafts and so on, and a lot of care has been taken to make these spaces coherent and the layout comprehensible. If you pay attention there are a lot of signs and tell-tales to show the characters were they are and how and where people are in relation to each other. There is for example a little business with a photo collage of naked women that some workers has put up on a wall that is seen in several scenes, to help with the navigation and show that we have been here before, and the filmmakers probably did a calculated guess that the audience would primarily consist of young men and using photographs of naked women was something that they would notice and perhaps also remember where they were.

The script, which is both witty and clever, is also important, written by Jeb Stuart and Steven E. de Souza (based on a book by Roderick Thorp I have not read). It is not just the many one-liners but the way things are introduced, or delayed, or explained. Take McClane's bare feet. During the most part of the film he is without shoes or socks, the intention being that he shall come across as vulnerable and human. He bleeds a lot, and the bare feet are essential. But why would he run around with bare feet? Because he is afraid of flying. The first scene in the film, before the credits, sees him grabbing his chair as his plane is about to land. The man sitting next to him notice that he is afraid of flying and gives him the advice to put his feet on a soft carpet and "make a fist with your toes" when he is home. So when McClane has safely arrived at his destination, the skyscraper in which most of the film is set, he does just that. It makes him feel good, for a few seconds, and then the armed men strike and he has to run and hide, without the shoes.

In the film everybody takes it for granted that the bad guys are terrorists. But there is some confusion. "What kind of terrorists are you?" Mr. Takagi asks, accusingly, after they have taken charge of his building. "Who said we are terrorists?" answers their leader Hans Gruber. This is one of the things I like best about the script. These men are thieves masquerading as terrorists, and when people think they are terrorists they treat them with some level of respect. Then those who thought they were terrorists become disappointed when it turns out they do not have a noble goal, they just want to get rich. There is a funny scene in which Gruber demands the release of imprisoned members of Asian Dawn and his partner looks at him quizzically. "Asian Dawn?" he says. "I read an article about them in Time magazine." Gruber replies with a shrug. In today's climate it is unlikely that somebody who calls himself a terrorist would be regarded with an element of respect in a Hollywood film but here even a terrorist is seen as preferable to the money-obsessed men. This is a film about duplicity, fakery and greed, and there is a post-modern aspect to the film and these men; pretend-terrorists not bothered with ideals but only with money and a setting which is all glass and transparency yet hardly anything is what it seems to be, nothing refers to anything solid. The men are not terrorists, Ellis pretends to be McClane's friend yet is not, Holly pretends to be Ms. Gennero but is Mrs. McClane, the Japanese Mr. Takagi has lived in the US all his life. The only thing real is McClane's bleeding feet. (A difference from 1988 and today is that back then it was the rise of Japan that was on peoples' minds in the US, today it is the rise of China. Had Die Hard been made today it would perhaps have taken place in a building called Huang instead of Nakatomi.)

Having a vulnerable hero like McClane was in line with the times, coming as it did right after the first Lethal Weapon (Richard Donner 1987) with Mel Gibson and Danny Glover as troubled cops who also bleed and suffer, Gibson's in particular. That film and many others before it, including 48 Hrs. (Walter Hill 1982) but going back further than that, had at its centre a mismatched duo, often a white and a black man. This would not work in Die Hard with its premise about one lonely man, but in a nod to that tradition there is still a buddy element. Sergeant Al Powell as the (black) policeman who first arrives at the scene of the crime and then develops an emotional bond with McClane over the radio. Their scenes together are also very well-written, and surprisingly moving.

But the one thing in particular that makes Die Hard such a great film is Hans Gruber, played to perfection by Alan Rickman. He is a ruthless thief but also clever, funny, good-looking and able to show compassion; the filmmakers clearly likes him, as do many who have seen the film (there are plenty of celebrations online). He has several of the best lines. Part of the appeal is also that unlike most other characters in the film he is neither stupid nor a weasel. Compared to Holly's co-worker Ellis, Hans is not such a bad guy and the police, the FBI and the media are all portrayed in a very unflattering light. But all the same Hans too is a fraud and a killer, and in the end he must die. He might be, as he says, "an exceptional thief" but he is not better than the rest. He is not even a terrorist.

The reason why Hans and his men attack the Nakatomi building is that its vault contains stocks worth over 600 billion dollars. That is what he is after. The vault has seven different locks or security measures which they have to work their way through, one by one. In the end the doors finally open and Hans and two others watch in awe as the interior of the vault gradually appears before them, while the music playing is the last part of Beethoven's Ninth symphony, called An Die Freude. It is like a religious scene, of these men seeing the light. But it is only money and that scene might be the apotheosis of the entire film, and capturing the greed and emptiness of the 1980s. The whole film is a battle between a working-class guy and both the system (such as FBI) and high capitalism. Bordwell does not approve of talks about films capturing the Zeitgeist, but I would like to suggest that Die Hard is a strong contender for being such a film.

The opening of the vault.

In Japan, Beethoven's Ninth is traditionally played at New Year celebrations but whether that influenced the filmmakers I do not know.

Friday, 22 August 2014

The Guest Writer #2: Sofia Åkerberg on The Petrified Forest and Revolutionary Road

The blog has a new feature, the occasional guest writer, somebody who is given complete freedom to write about whatever he or she wants, and in whatever way they choose, with my job only to proofread it (and perhaps add an image, or a fact or a figure for clarity). The previous guest was Barry Putterman. This time it is Sofia Åkerberg.

Sofia, who lives in Arboga, Sweden, writes one of Sweden's best film blogs, Rörliga bilder och tryckta ord, which covers not only film but also literature, with a particular emphasis on fantasy and science fiction writing. The blog is in Swedish only but here she of course writes in English.


The Petrifying Suburbia by Sofia Åkerberg

What does Bette Davis and Kate Winslet have in common, apart from the fact that they were both born on a Sunday, both on the fifth (April and October) and are both two degrees removed from Kevin Bacon (via Mary Steenburgen and Eli Wallach, respectively)?

Quite a lot as it turns out. To be specific, these two fine actresses have both played the character Gabrielle Maple in The Petrified Forest. The American playwright Robert E. Sherwood wrote this piece in 1935 and only a year later it was made into a movie, directed by Archie Mayo. Here, Davis was flanked by not only Leslie Howard but also a swarthy and intense actor in the beginning of his career by the name of Humphrey Bogart (both of Howard and Bogart were repeating their performances from the stage).

At the beginning of Revolutionary Road, both the book from 1961 by Richard Yates and the movie from 2008 by Sam Mendes, Kate Winslet's April Wheeler is also playing Gabrielle in a production of The Petrified Forest staged by the community theatre group the Laurel Players. But the connections between The Petrified Forest and Revolutionary Road run deeper than a mere enactment of the same play.

Gabrielle Maple is the daughter of a dirt poor owner of a service station in the middle of nowhere, i.e. the Arizona desert. Despite the uplifting sign announcing “Last Chance!” this place offers absolutely no chances for Gabrielle. While the college football player and hired hand Boze tries to pick her up (to no avail), Gabrielle reads François Villon and dreams about a real life, an exciting life, in France (where her war-bride mother is residing).

Enter hitchhiker Alan Squires, a penniless and failed writer whose only goal at the moment seems to be to traverse the North American continent. It turns out that he and Gabrielle have a lot in common, or at least that Gabrielle wants them to have a lot in common. He talks about ambitions, life and death in a way that the young woman has never heard before. His eloquent self-hatred, cultural refinement (nice going with that T.S. Eliot quote, Alan) and lugubrious disposition represents an irresistible appeal to her.

 When Revolutionary Road premiered there was a lot of talk about how Frank and April Wheeler were the sad continuation of the characters played by Winslet and Leonardo DiCaprio in Titanic. What if, instead of one of them drowning in icy waters, Rose DeWitt Bukater and Jack Dawson had had the opportunity to survive together in suburban Connecticut? I would like to think that a more apt question that Revolutionary Road tries to answer is: what if Alan and Gabrielle had managed to create a life together?

After an enchanting romance in New York, Frank and April Wheeler does everything by the book when it turns out that a baby is on the way. They buy that adorable house in western Connecticut which naturally is close enough to the big Apple so that Frank can commute each day to the same company that employed his father.

Frank and April might do everything by the book but the important thing to them is that they do not live by the book. They see suburbia for the sham that it is, its hopeless emptiness, and Frank acquired his boring job at Knox Business Machines as a joke more than anything else. In order to maintain his identity he does not want to have a job that might be even remotely interesting while he figures out what he really wants to do with his life.

But four years on the same page and the joke is wearing pretty thin. Frank still tries to maintain that he and April are different, more aware, better, that their neighbours while April has realised that they are exactly like them. And unlike her husband, she decides to take action.

Like Alan and Gabrielle, Frank manages to woo April with self-deprecating wit and beautiful words, making her think that he is “the most interesting person I've ever met”. But unlike Gabrielle, April gets an opportunity to realise that there is nothing behind the sarcastic façade. Alan and Frank are two men lost in a rational world, without a definite purpose apart from a vague desire to do something that will make their mark.

Since Yates (and, thereby, Mendes) gives Frank more time to unveil his character than Sherwood gives Alan, we are able to realise that the man is somewhat of a smug jerk. As soon as he is opposed, be it by his wife, a temporary guest or the roommate of his mistress, he lashes out. The fights between him and April are truly vitriolic and we even understand that he is no stranger to throw a punch or two. April tries to secure Frank’s humanity by offering him an opportunity to find out what he wants to do with his life, but in reality, her determination emasculates him. He is no more fit to be a kept man by a capable woman than was Alan (who was supported by his publisher's wife for a while).

The Petrified Forest starts with a discussion on the miserable state of the republic (the great depression and dust bowl doing their bit) while a sign behind the bar claims that “Tipping is un-American”. However, this is not the kind of revolution that goes on inside the house at Revolutionary Road. A revolution is in its essence a fundamental change of power and during the time we get to follow Frank and April the power surges from Frank to April, back to Frank, only to pass over to his wife yet again. But regardless where the power lies, Frank is never truly satisfied.

When April has control he tries to take it back. But as soon as he has got his trophy he does not know what to do with it. The same goes for his wooing of April – winning her was a great achievement but he does not know how to handle the prize once he got it. In this way, Frank's mistress Maureen becomes a new Gabrielle who is as easily impressed as April was the first time they met. She makes him feel like a man again, enabling him to conjure up images of lions and eagles.

Despite how the story turns out, The Petrified Forest ends on a more positive note. Perhaps some would call it delusional. But we are still left with the impression that Alan does more good for Gabrielle when dead than alive, although she might not see it right there and then. She is alive and still able to pursue her dreams which is more than can be said for either April or Frank when we take leave of them. Maybe the complacent 1950s in reality was more demoralising than the great depression.