This week, the first pictures of Naomi Watts as Princess Diana were made public. As with the first pictures of Anthony Hopkins as Alfred Hitchcock, or Lindsay Lohan as Elizabeth Taylor, or Toby Jones as a different Alfred Hitchcock and Sienna Miller as Tippi Hedren, or Malin Akerman as Linda Lovelace, or Amanda Seyfried as another Linda Lovelace, we’re invited to marvel at the close physical resemblance between actor and subject, to infer that the casting has been validated, and thus to begin anticipating the arrival of the movie, safe in the knowledge that it is being well-handled; the validating resemblance is designed to prove that the film is respectfully attuned to the legacy concerns of the beloved subject. Continue reading
In David Cronenberg’s most recent films, there is an eerie deliberation over dialogue. It might well be that this is just stilted direction, cutting by rote between speakers and holding the camera on a face for the duration of a line reading. But it creates an undeniable tension that the careful placement of shot next to shot, action followed by action will be interrupted by something terrible. It’s the montage equivalent of a game of Jenga – it’s intriguing to watch the build-up, but it can’t go on indefinitely. This is most obvious in the languid, quiet opening of A History of Violence, where the aftermath of a massacre is played out like a lazy Sunday afternoon. The same eggshell-treading editing characterises Eastern Promises, Cronenberg’s nasty leer inside the Russian mafia in London. Continue reading
You’ve probably forgotten Tank Girl, buried it beneath the subsequent deluge of increasingly tiresome and tired comic book adaptations that followed. It was an early attempt to incorporate a “cartoony” style (inserts of colourful artwork, hyperbolic dialogue, big gestures) into an adaptation – i.e. to adapt with minimum loss of medium specificity – but it illustrates some of the enduring problems Hollywood has in this area, acquiring a hot property and then ironing out the outrageousness (not to mention the Britishness) that made Jamie Hewlett and ALan Martin’s comic books special in the first place. I wish I could say that, now that some time has passed, Tank Girl deserves reappraisal, but I’m afraid it’s still a damp mess of half-measures, compromises, its tiresome ebullience made even more slovenly by the traces of studio interference at every level. The best I can say is that, because it’s shot by Gale Tattersall, who worked with Bill Douglas on the supreme Comrades, it looks great, perhaps better, more polished, than it needs to, or that it represents the look of a big budget blockbuster before the effects of CGI had really taken hold in Hollywood, meaning that it relies almost entirely on vehicular stunts, miniatures and pyrotechnics (the Mad Max echoes can’t be coincidental) that must already have given it a pleasingly old-fashioned feel.
Charlie Chaplin refused to take the talkie bait while preparing his masterpiece City Lights for its release in 1931. While the world waiting to hear his voice, he was determined to prove that his art could persist in its original form with physical gestures conveying character and emotion without needing words to clarify their meaning. This podcast talks about how Chaplin constructs the film around a series of jokes that play on his attempts to uphold a facade of dignity in the face of destitution, drunkenness and conflict. It features extracts from the score, and a few of the sound effects that Chaplin added for the film’s release.
DOWNLOAD: Spectacular Attractions Podcast #10
This is the tenth weekly podcast I’ve made. I’ve learned a few editing techniques and improved my recording methods. Now it’s time to take stock and sort out the iTunes feed and iron out a few difficulties in organising this material online. I’ll be back with more podcasts in a few weeks, but in the meantime you can still find more Spectacular Attractions podcasts here, or subscribe via iTunes here. And you can read the original article on Pantomiming Chaplin’s City Lights, with all the links and images here.
How does the dialectic of stillness and movement impact upon the representation of the human body? Let us consider ‘posing’ and ‘acting’ as two distinct modes of bodily performance. We might associate acting with unfolding or ‘time-based’ media like cinema or theatre. Posing may suggest the stillness of photography or painting. Of course, plenty of examples complicate this. Think of scenes of arrest such as the tableau vivant in theatre, cinema’s close-ups of faces in stilled contemplation, blurred gestures caught but escaping a long exposure, or narrative scenes acted out for the still photograph. Such things are too common to be exceptions.In Alfred Hitchcock’s North By Northwest (1959), Cary Grant’s entire performance is a series of balletic swoops and pirouettes strung between archly frozen poses. He is on screen almost the whole time and his inter- mittent halts provide the suspense in the hurtling story of mistaken identity. Early in the film he stoops to aid a man who has been knifed in the back. Stunned, Grant puts his hand on the weapon and becomes easy prey for the incriminating flash of a press photographer. We see the resulting image on the cover of a newspaper: his indecision has framed him decisively. He flees in panic, setting the plot in motion.Grant’s performance is a slick and knowing commentary on the very nature of screen presence. Each pose is a wink to the audience that he is toying with his own identity and celebrity. Fans knew Grant began life as plain Archibald Leach, a circus tumbler from Bristol. In the film he plays Roger Thornhill, an advertising executive mistaken for the non-existent spy George Caplan. Grant holds his poses for longer than is strictly necessary, long enough for the story to fall away momentarily and allow the audience to stare at a man with four names. At one point Grant breaks in through a hospital window. A woman in bed yells ‘Stop!’, first in shock, then with a comic swoon. What if your movie heart-throb really did spring to life from a frame on your bedroom wall? Grant’s technique, much like Hitchcock’s, is extravagant but it differs from convention only by degree. Hollywood performances, especially in thrillers and dramas, criss-cross between filmic character and the excesses of star persona, between acting and posing.
Recently, my blog has been enjoying increased traffic thanks to a short, elderly post I made about Naomi Watts, who had been identified as the best value-for-money of all Hollywood actresses. It was just a brief mark of my appreciation, but garnered a lot of hits, probably in no small part due to the inclusion of large, glamourous publicity photographs. Now I feel that I should pay Naomi some proper attention, since I noticed that she enjoys very little critical analysis of her work, and because I’ve never really written about movie stars (or performers) very much around here, and it would be a good opportunity to try out something different, inspired at least in part by the recent Screen Studies conference in Glasgow, which focused on performance. So, here begins a series of occasional posts (and these may be very far apart) about performances by Naomi Watts, in no particular order, starting with Ellie Parker from 2005.
(No directing of actors).
(No learning of parts).
But the use of working models, taken from life.
BEING(models) instead of SEEMING(actors).
Movement from the exterior to the interior. (Actors: movement from the interior to the exterior.)
The thing that matters is not what they show me
but what they hide from me and, above all, what
they do not suspect is in them.
Between them and me: telepathic exchanges, divination.
On the choice of models.His voice draws for me his mouth, his eyes, his face, makes for me his complete portrait, out er and inner, better than if he were in front of me. The best deciphering got by the ear alone.ON LOOKSWho said: “A single look lets loose a passion, a murder, a war”?
On two deaths and three births.
My movie is born first in my head, dies on paper; is resuscitated by the living persons and real objects I use, which are killed on film but, placed in a certain order and projected onto a screen, come to life again like flowers in water.
A model. Enclosed in his mysterious appearance. He has brought home to him all of him that was outside. He is there, behind that forehead, those cheeks.
Radically suppress intentions in your models.
To your models: “Don’t think what you’re say ing, don’t think what you’re doing.” And also: “Don’t think about what you say, don’t think about what you do.”
You will guide your models according to your rules, with them letting you act in them, and you letting them act in you.
Model. Questioned (by the gestures you make him make, the words you make him say). Respond (even when it’s only a refusal to respond) to something which often you do not perceive but your camera records. Submitted later to study by you.
Nine-tenths of our movements obey habit and automatism. It is anti-nature to subordinate them to will and to thought.
Models who have become automatic (everything weighed, measured, timed, repeated ten, twenty times) and are then dropped in the middle of the events of your film – their relations with the ob jects and persons around them will be right, because they will not be thought.
Actor. The to-and-fro of the character in front of his nature forces the public to look for talent on his face, instead of the enigma peculiar to each living creature.
No intellectual or cerebral mechanism. Simply a mechanism.
If, on the screen, the mechanism disappears and the phrases you have made them say, the gestures you have made them make, have become one with your models, with your film, with you – then a miracle.
As the time for my own turn on the Fourth Plinth in Trafalgar Square approaches, I’ll add the occasional post on the subject here. You can catch up with all of my updates with this link.
Announcing the first day of the Antony Gormley’s One & Other, which, for the unaware, puts members of the public atop the Fourth Plinth for an hour each, 24 hours a day for 100 days, Sky News asked the headline question: “Is it art, or just a highbrow Big Brother?” It’s a tired refrain by now. The question of whether or not something is art is such a blind alley: what it really seems to ask is “what is art?” or worse, “why isn’t it speaking directly to me?” That there is disagreement over whether something is a worthwhile piece of art should never be a surprise. It should probably be a requirement.
I don’t know if Sky News ever communicates with Sky Arts, but if One & Other is a “highbrow Big Brother” (i.e. highbrow because none of the participants have been manouevred into positions where there’s an increased chance that they’ll punch or shag each other), then Sky must bear some of the responsibility. What started out as a intervention by the ordinary into the ceremonial, dragging and dropping people from their habitual environment into the most public of spaces, has been turned into rolling news to be examined from every angle, tweeted about and photographed. Their weekly round-up of the “best of the plinth” suggests an attempt to turn it into a competition, with each plinther compelled to be more entertaining or eye-catching than the last.
Although I’ve dipped into the live feed from the Plinth and found it occasionally compelling, even when “nothing” (slang term for moments where people stop dancing or shouting through a megaphone) is happening, it has raised the question for me of where the “space” of the plinth is. Is it a spontaneous relationship between the material reality of the plinth and the people passing by, an ephemeral, unrepeatable performance or a hypermediated spectacle that can be paused, rewound, re-examined and catalogued? I can’t help feeling that the physical space of the plinth is affected by its parallel existence in multiple “virtual” spaces around the world, though this doesn’t have to be a negative effect. This morning I enjoyed Michelle, who took a very contemplative approach. To many observers, I suppose she “did nothing” or “just stood there”, for the hour, but she seemed to be having a serene, private moment in front of all those cameras. And surely that’s fascination enough, right?
Having said all that, the sight of Gerald dressed in a Godzilla suit playing swingball and stomping on a cardboard Houses of Parliament at 8am made me smile for almost a full hour. I think it was the mixture of personal, self-absorbed enjoyment and focus on the chance to play around, and the awareness of a very public spectacle that made it completely charming. If you have to ask whether or not its art, then please adjust your definition of art.
You probably don’t need me to tell you how fabulous Charlie Chaplin‘s City Lights is. Even those complaints that it’s a sickly, sentimental and simplistic piece of fluff fade away when you watch it again and realise how carefully he works towards the heart-aching conclusion, how skilfully he earns that sentiment before positioning himself as a tragically noble figure. (If you’re a truly hardened misanthrope with no interest in Chaplin, you might be better off here.) I’ve always been fascinated by the mechanics of certain kinds of performance, particularly the intricacies of the best kung fu films, or a well-worked slapstick routine, so I thought I’d have another look at some of the motifs that structure Chaplin’s physical action in City Lights. I’ll assume you’re not already an expert on Chaplin, and start somewhere simple…
By 1931, when City Lights was ready for release, the rest of Hollywood had converted to talkies. The transition had been swift and dramatic in its implications. For a great collection of online articles on the early history of film sound, you can’t do much better than the collections at Filmsound.org or The American Widescreen Museum. The conversion of theatres and studios to sound recording and playback equipment had been near-universal; for the sake of synchronised sound and music, sacrifices were made in terms of camera movement (microphones and cables tethered the action on set, and noisy cameras had to be boxed in to stop them interfering with the sound recording), and until 1931, when three-way speaker arrays to spread the sound signals were introduced, the playback was murky and sometimes indistinct. Chaplin had honed the art of silent pantomime in his films, and there was massive anticipation about how this star, whose act was so perfectly matched to wordless gesture, would adapt to the changes. As David Robinson writes:
His Tramp character was universal. His mime was understood in every part of the world. But if the Tramp now began to speak in English, that world-wide audience would instantly shrink. Moreover there was the problem of how he should talk. Everyone, across the world, had formed his or her own fantasy of the Tramp’s voice. How could he now impose a single, monolingual voice?
As it turned out, Chaplin didn’t attempt to make the transition to talkies, preferring to keep his silent craft intact. He waves away the expectation with an opening title that introduces the film as “A comedy romance in pantomime”. Time‘s 1931 review of the film quoted Chaplin’s own slightly tangential explanation:
Chaplin does not reject the sound-device because he does not think his voice will register. His objection is that cinema is essentially a pantomimic art. Says he: “Action is more generally understood than words. Like the Chinese symbolism it will mean different things according to its scenic connotation. Listen to a description of some unfamiliar object—an African wart hog, for example. Then look at a picture of the animal and see how surprised you are.”
There are a few sounds in City Lights, but they are isolated, not part of a broad fabric of ambient diegetic sound. In the opening shots, local dignitaries address an assembled crowd for the unveiling of a new statue. The PA system transforms their voices into an indecipherable, tinny squawk (a joke later echoed at the beginning of Jacques Tati‘s Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot), which one can’t help reading as a riposte to the fad for dialogue. These electrically mediated voices end up making everybody sound the same. And everybody sounds like Sweep.
Other sounds are similarly troublesome. See for instance the lovely sequence where, drunk at a party, Chaplin swallows a whistle. A fit of hiccups makes him tweet involuntarily, dismaying a singer who is trying to perform, and attracting cabs and dogs when he rushes outside. It’s a beautifully worked joke, stretched just far enough to avoid becoming tiresome, and only partially reliant on the post-synched sound effect, which appropriately disrupts the musical soundtrack, stressing the sudden, stared-at embarrassment Charlie suffers. During the boxing scene, Charlie’s neck gets caught in the bell-rope. As he falls or struggles, the bell rings, and his opponent returns to or rushes out of his corner, probably salivating like a Pavlovian pup at the same time.
Elsewhere, Chaplin is again caught out by objects that behave like other objects, as when he eats party-streamers that have dropped in his spaghetti, or tries to take a spoonful from a man’s bald head mistaken for a party snack:
These recurrent, repetitive types of action add up to a mode of performance that sees Chaplin’s body in constant tension between composure and error. His body is challenged at every turn by threats to his dignity. It all begins from a logical starting point: he begins the film asleep on a statue, an unwelcome pest on an image of static decorum. For much of the rest of the film, he will struggle to stay still or posed against the tide of unpredictable movements that characterise his experience of the city.
Much of the comedy of Chaplin’s performance style derives from his attempts to maintain his dignity, as if to deny his derelict status. He tries to behave in a manner befitting his increasingly dishevelled suit (notice how the tipping of his hit becomes like a nervous tic), while all around him see through the disguise (e.g. the paper boys who taunt him, tearing fingers from his gloves or a patch from his trousers; the butler who repeatedly ejects him from the millionaire’s mansion). His careful, fussy comportment is messed up by a series of involuntary responses to things that startle, trip or baffle him, or which taste funny.
This may be why Chaplin loves to play drunk. What else is drunkenness (relax – it’s a rhetorical question) but a battle with one’s motor skills to prove that one is not actually drunk at all? Chaplin tries to keep an upright posture when sozzled, resisting those slips-of-the-limbs that might give the game away; when driven to distraction by watching a floor full of frenetic dancers, he leaps automatically to his feet and twirls anyone in his path to within an inch of their life, his face staying grimly fixed as if his head is a motion-sick passenger on a runaway trunk.
Arthur Rankin has a wonderful take on Chaplin’s performance in City Lights. Using Sigmund Freud’s theory that there were two types of joke, the tendentious and innocent, Rankin argues that Chaplin incorporates both modes of humour in order to make barbed social critiques, and then to make them palatable (or veiled) by developing his central character into an innocent, noble figure. Chaplin’s tramp avatar was lent some credibility through extratextual appeals to his early years of poverty in London, but there would always be an irony that the highest-paid, most famous film star in the world was still drawing upon the iconography of destitution in making his anti-authoritarian satires. City Lights sees him appealing for total audience sympathy: the tramp in this version is not only brought into conflict with the law when pushed into an unjust corner, and in a final bid to get enough money to pay for the blind flowergirl’s eye operation.
Cynthia Baron and Sharon Marie Carnicke’s analysis of City Lights is also well-worth seeking out. Building on Jan Mukarovský’s 1931 analysis, they stress the importance of gestures and “ostensive signs”, those which, as I understand it, show things as they are or seem to be:
The unique operation of ostensive signs becomes apparent when one considers something like the cane that belongs to Chaplin’s costume as the Tramp. The cane itself could be represented through iconic signs. However, a picture of the cane alone would convey little information about the Tramp, whereas a single image of Chaplin striking a pose with the cane could convey a particular attitude or mental state. For example, imagine a painting or photograph of Chaplin with his left palm resting on the top of his cane. However, if one then imagines a framed picture of this pose in a scene that features Chaplin moving into position to rest his hand on the cane, the existential difference between the two types of signs comes into view.
In this model of performance analysis, we have to consider how Chaplin moves into the poses that he strikes, the facial expressions that he produces for the spectator. Movement and gesture, actions carried out with hat or cane, rather than iconic or symbolic signs presented by the presence of those costume items, become the primary source of meanings and inferences emerging from a performance. Chaplin (or at least his character) produces a series of gestures and actions which can be understood as socially legible marks of dignified etiquette:
The perceptible elements of Chaplin’s performance can be seen as a series of interferences or disparities between Chaplin’s facial expressions, gestures and poses. The disparities among these elements make the performance visually and intellectually intriguing. They have the potential to engage audience attention because they confound expectations established by daily life; Chaplin’s gesture of tipping his bowler in apology might be followed immediately by a twirl of his canethat indicates defiance. These moments of gestural contradiction display Chaplin’s skill as a performer and can imaginatively express meanings bound into familiar axioms, quips and witticisms.
Chaplin’s anti-authoritarian physical quips arise from a rapid-fire mixture of respectable gestures of conciliation (tipping the hat, a respectful nod here and there) with more subversive behaviours (sleeping on the statue, drunkenness), best evidenced by the scene where he checks out a nude statue while miming the pretence of appreciating the sculpture next to it. Therein lies the beautifully complex performance of a man embodying socially conventionally bodily postures while revealing the basic instincts behind the hypocrisies of polite, “proper” behaviour. To a certain extent, it’s a performance about performance.
It’s probably compulsory at this point to refer to Henri Bergson‘s oft-cited mantra that “the attitudes, gestures and movements of the human body are laughable in exact proportion as that body reminds us of a mere machine.” By this he might mean that a comic body is one that is forced into automatic responses which throw it out of spontaneity and into involuntary activity that pits the organic being against environmental factors that would transpose it into “a certain mechanical inelasticity, just where one would expect to find the wide-awake adaptability and living pliableness of a human being.” (You can read the full text of Bergson’s essay here.) This would become a key part of Chaplin’s schtick, especially in Modern Times, where the automatisation of his body as part of a factory machine would make him a site of a contest between modernity and humanity, without ever losing sight of its grounding in the comic.
If this battle for decorum is a familiar trait of the Little Tramp character across a number of films, in which he refuses to assume the slovenly posture expected from him by those in whose company he is not permitted to belong (his performance of “their” gestures is an affront to their demarcations of class and privilege), in City Lights it is a major plot point, as he has to keep up the persona for the blind flower girl who has mistaken him for a wealthy gentleman. Thus, the performance of a silent pantomime, one in which gesture trumps dialogue in establishing or confirming (mistaken) identities is made to make sense of Chaplin’s decision to keep his film quiet.
P.S. You should check out the BFI’s collection of documents about Chaplin, specifically the ones relating to City Lights; a really valuable resource, my only complaint being that some of the print on the scans of the press books is too small to read. I love the exhibitors’ guides, where cinemas are given tips on how to promote the film with a series of publicity stunts, mostly involving people dressing up as the Little Tramp: the character, with its instantly recognisable agglomeration of hat, cane, moustache and eyebrows is supremely marketable.
Also see the holdings of the Bill Douglas Centre at the University of Exeter. The online catalogue has many images of Chaplinalia, some of which you can see in this virtual exhibition compiled by one of the students.