Thursday, November 26, 2009

William H. Macy is a written page guy. That's good, but...

From a profile of Macy done accompanying the release of Bobbie:

Macy, like his friend, mentor and longtime collaborator David Mamet, does not believe in delving into his characters any further than the writer has already delved. He doesn't believe that creating a back-story - a cherished aspect of the Method school - does anything for the performance.

"I'm a written-page guy," he says. "The writer gives you everything you need."
And in one very important sense, I am with him. I quoted that same remark of his in a previous posting in which I take pretty much the same position. For me, acting is about touching the same impulse in yourself that prompted the writer to invent the character in the first place. The text is the alpha and the omega. When Mamet and Macy make remarks like this, their targets are approaches such as Method acting, which relies heavily on the actor's personal experience, and, to a lesser extent, Meisner, which gives primacy to the immediate connection to the partner, and the circumstances and text are built up around that.

Before proceeding, I'll point out that Mamet and Macy are not quite the textual purists they sometimes make themselves out to be. Part of their approach, as described in the Practical Handbook for the Actor, involves finding what they call an "As If", a kind of equivalence between the challenge facing the character in the scene and the actor's own life experience. They are still STRONGLY oriented towards the text, much moreso than the Strasberg "method" is, but they do advocate this kind of extra-textual reflection as part of the actor's process. I advocate something similar in the approach I teach, so I do not fault them for this. I have made my reservations about Mamet's Practical Aesthetics known elsewhere. I have something else I want to focus on here.

While I consider myself a "written page guy", as well, I think that there is a way in which Mamet and Macy make things sound deceptively simple. I had been thinking about discussing this for a while, and then, in one of those marvelous moments of serendipity that all creatives know and cherish, I came across a brilliant exposition of the difficulty with what they are saying, in quite an unlikely context. That context was a book by technology guru Clay Shirky called Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations , which, by the way, is a great read if you are interested in what's coming next in the way we live now. But here is the Shirky passage I found deeply relevant to this discussion:

There's a story in my family about my parent's first date. My father, wanting to impress my mother, decided to take her to a drive-in, however, he had to borrow his father's car. Once they were at the movie, my mother, wanting to impress my father, ordered the most sophisticated drink available, which was a root-beer float. Now my mother hates root beer, always has, and after imbibing it, she proceeded to throw up on the floor of my grandfather's car. My father had to drive her home, missing the movie he'd driven fifteen miles and paid a dollar to see. Then he had to clean the car and return it with an explanantion and an apology. (There was, fortunately for me, a second date.)

Now, what part of the story is about the internal combustion engine. None of it, in any obvious way, but all of it, in another way. No engine, no car. No cars, no using cars for dates. (The effect of automobiles on romance would be hard to overstate.) No dates in cars, no drive-in movies. And so on. Our life is so permeated with the automotive that understand immediately how my father must have felt when my grandfather let him borrow the car, and how carefully he must have cleaned it before returning it, without thinking about internal combustion at all.

Now imagine, if you will, that someone had written a script of the scene in which Shirky return the car keys to his father, explains what happens, and apologizes. Depending on what his dad was like, this scene could have gone a lot of different ways. But the important point is that the stuff that Shirky mentions about how central the automobile is to the way we date now would have gone unmentioned in such a scene. It would be understood. It does not belong to the text, strictly speaking, but to the context, in this case the historical context.

I am now going to make a categorical statement: all fiction derives its power, to some extent at least, from the rub, the friction, between the text and the context in which the actions it depicts transpires. If you take a screenwriting class, and you write a scene in which a character explicitly states everything about his or her situation, you will be told that this is too "on the nose." It is part of what is mysterious and awesome about storytelling that it engages our understanding of the world in presenting itself, without making its reliance on that understanding explicit. The story is told, and in the process aspects of the context of the story are invoked, in the way the primacy of the automobile is invoked in the above anecdote, without our even being aware of their evocation. Henry James, in the preface to his novel The Wings of the Dove, spoke of wanting his characters to

assert their fulness and roundness, their power to revolve, so that they have sides and backs, parts in the shade as true as parts in the sun

The terms in the sun are the aspects of the situation or circumstances that the writer makes explicit, in the dialogue in the case of a play, and the terms in the shade are the aspects of the situation that we grasp without knowing that we grasp them. They are alluded to or evoked on the written page, but they are not stated outright; then they would no longer be in the shade. Everything would be in the sun, and nothing would be in the shade. There would be no mystery, no enigma, nothing miraculous about the unfolding of the story. Everything would be open to view. Shirky says above that we "instantly understand" what is true about the car and its significance and value, and in one sense we do, although Shirky himself felt the need to spell it out in his discussion, so while we may grasp that importance in experiencing the story, we may also have a difficult time articulating that importance if prompted.

Uta Hagen famously remarked that "every good actor has a secret." The only meaningful way to understand that remark, in my view, given that Hagen herself was a believer in the importance of the text, is that the actor has somehow unlocked those aspects of a situation or a scene that the writer has not made explicit, but are critical to recognizing what is actually at stake in the scene. Actors continually want to believe that everything important in the scene is laid out for them in the script, and it is in the script, but it is not laid out for them. They have to unearth it. Let me be clear: I do not mean that they have to psychoanalyze the character in order to discover what is driving them, unless the writer herself has included psychoanalysis in the play itself. Wittgenstein wrote that "The aspects of things that are most important to us are hidden because of their simplicity and familiarity. We fail to be to struck by that which, once seen, is most striking and powerful." It is these aspects of the situation that are so familiar that they are hiding in plain sight that we need to discover, and then we will have earned the "secret" that Uta Hagen calls for.

It turns out that no less an eminence than Aristotle understood the importance of the relationship between text and context. (I like to read the blog of Nobel-Prize winning Princeton economist Paul Krugman, and he mostly writes for general consumption, but he'll sometimes write a post that gets deep into the economic weeds, and when he does that, he labels the post "wonkish". My post is about to become a little wonkish, but only a little, so bear with me ) In a groundbreaking new study of Aristotle's aesthetics, The Aesthetics of Mimesis, scholar Richard Halliwell writes that, in addition looking at the form and structure of a play, can also speak of the agents and actions represented by the play, and for this one relies...on the same range of concepts that are used outside the work of art [emphasis added]—concepts, for example, of purpose and choice, success and failure, prosperity and suffering, good and evil, guilt and innocence. Nor, on this model, do we speak descriptively of the work in these terms; we experience it through an understanding that depends on them, and we respond to it with evaluative judgments, hence with emotions, that presuppose and are informed by that understanding.

The concepts he speaks of are elements of the context. In Shirky's case, it was the concept of having "wheels" when romancing a woman in the mid-twentieth century. That these concepts play a role is so much a part of the process of reading or encountering a text that we are not even aware of it. We need it to be brought to light.

So it is in this sense that I take issue with what Macy says he is a "written page guy." He is right that the writer gives you everything you need, but some of it, he gives you so subtly and deftly that you don't know you are getting it. It's learning to become aware of what is essential but not explicit that is is the key to really penetrating any scene.

And how do you that? By learning to pose and answer some pretty tough questions about the character and scene, which can only be learned through lots and lots of practice. The good news is, the fact that it takes lots and lots of practice means that if you do learn to do it, you cannot help but distinguish yourself.

Thanksgiving 2009

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