Thursday, December 31, 2009

Up in the Air, or, The trouble with "watchable"

For New Year's Eve, I went with my best friend to see Up in the Air.

The film is worth seeing, firstly because it is a good script, and it is executed well. But as a connoisseur of performances, and a teacher of acting, it was valuable on an entirely different plane.

George Clooney is a (mostly) watchable actor. If you look closely you can detect the occasional false move, a slight hyperactivity in the face, around the eyes. But it's very slight, and not intrusive enough to be noisome. With a little good will, it can be easily overlooked.

What he is not, however, is a passionate actor. He is the consummate charmer, supplying a steady stream of wryness and happy-go-lucky ease, which, as it happens, is called by the role he plays in this film. However, this is a movie about a playboy who wakes up, and is supposed to have a Wile E. Coyote moment of vertiginous horror when he realizes that the ground beneath his feet is no longer there, in fact was never there to begin with. It's clearly supposed to be painful. That pain? We can infer it, but we don't get it. Clooney quite simply lacks the depth, the investment, the deep empathy for the man he is portraying and his dilemma. So while the story is told skillfully enough that we understand what is happening to him, and can even sympathize, we don't get to feel what he feels.

We do get to feel something, though. And that is mostly due to the radiant work of his co-star, Vera Farmiga. She manifests a genuine fondness for Clooney's character that is the steady undercurrent of the movie. It is a fondness that knows its limits, to be sure, but it is undeniably there. She manages to offer him empathy, compassion even; she is generously willing to overlook his limitations, which she is quite clear about. The passion and care that she brings to her role make the movie a satisfying experience, regardless of the other assets and liabilities of the film as a whole.

The difference between Farmiga's performance and Clooney's provides a perfect opportunity to talk about the trouble with "watchable". As I stated previously, Clooney is a watchable actor. What does this mean? He refrains from doing anything patently false. He is not overwrought. He does not visibly strain. In his manner of relating to his fellow actors, he does no violence to our sense of truth. We will not wince watching George Clooney.

However, he lacks killer instinct. He does not go for the jugular. He does not play to win. He is not bold. Now, an excess of boldness in the absence of the "truthiness" that he provides, in the absence of the ease, the grace, the savoir faire, the letting-the-action-fit-the-word-and-the-word-the-action would grate. We would recoil from it as "bad" acting, as overacting, as a big pile of fail. One thing we all know about acting is that overacting is bad. Visible strain, exaggeration, and theatrically magnified behavior are to be avoided at all costs. But the naturalness that Clooney delivers, while it may put as at ease and make us feel safe in watching what happens, does nothing to challenge us, to unsettle us, to be Kafka's axe that breaks up the frozen sea within. It is, in short, underwhelming.

Ms. Farmiga, on the other hand, walks the tightrope of providing BOTH boldness and truth. She can make herself vulnerable without losing her balance, her poise, her responsiveness. She demonstrates what Artaud termed "an affective athleticism".

One of the many challenges of teaching acting is to induce students to develop in both registers at once. They need to be real and truthful, but they also need to be bold and CARE a lot, as much as they possibly can. Allowing them to develop one of these capacities without simultaneously cultivating the other one is like teaching a piano student to play only with her right hand. When she finally starts to use her left hand, it will be WAY behind the curve.

Boldness and truthfulness need not be opposing variables; in a well-developed talent, they complement and support each other. A sense of what is at stake reinforces the need to respond in a truthful way, and careful attention to the reality of the character's situation should promote greater care for, and investment in, the character's reality. However, it is not a given that the two values exist in a synergistic equilibrium; such a dynamic balance is an ideal which must be attained anew, again and again, in every role the actor takes up.


Joan-Carrol said...

I forced to agree with you, even though I enjoy watching George Clooney. "Up In the Air" was so forgettable that even though I only saw the movie last week, I had to strain to remember details. And that, to me, is where the problem is - Clooney's admirable gloss and charm is substituted for real attention to specific emotional detail. I hadn't realized it until I read your article.
However, would you make the same argument for his performance in "O Brother Where Art Thou?" ? That performance had some pretty bold choices.
What is difficult is that so often in film, an actor's performance rests entirely in the director/editor's choice. If he plays it safe, it could be out of sheer survival as a commercial commodity.
thanks for a great article!

Mother of Invention Acting School said...

Hi Joan-Carrol,

Thanks for commenting.

Interesting that you bring up "O Brother Where Art Thou?". I thought Clooney was again outshined by a female costar in that movie, in that case Holly Hunter. But in that case, he was trying to play a bumbler, and couldn't rely on his natural savior-faire. I actually found him to be a bit lacking in the "watchable" department in that. I found his performance to be a bit broad. Perhaps that is what you are talking about when you say he made bold choices. When I talk about boldness, I mean something very specific, which perhaps I should have made clearer: by boldness I mean first and foremost that the actor invests boldly in the relationships, that he finds it in himself to care deeply about them. I'm afraid I haven't yet seen Clooney do that in anything. I didn't see Michael Clayton, perhaps there it happens.

Anonymous said...

Pretty good movie, but I see what you mean about Clooney. Thanks for the insight.


Mother of Invention Acting School said...

Hi Jim, Glad you enjoyed, thanks for reading. Andrew

zoo1207 said...

Utter hits a Home Run.

Or, Good vs Great Acting. Walking the tightrope between Boldness and Truth. And us acting students.

A Utter's observations about G Clooney vs V Farmiga in "Up in the Air" is one of the best descriptions/definitions of the difference between good acting and great acting I have ever seen.

OR, Brando, DeNiro and us acting students: In Andrew's class last night he talked about plot objectives and vulnerability (and how it must expressed in a positive light but that's a subject for another

For me, Brando in Waterfront and Streetcar, and, DeNiro in Taxi Driver and Raging Bull, and, Sam Jackson in Pulp, are examples of great actors walking the tightrope between Boldness and Truth. It seems to me that a bold choice necessarily means the actor is making himself vulnerable. Open.

Paraphrasing points Andrew makes in his acting class, they made bold choices that include a vulnerability that invites us in to experience something beyond the watchable. They are bad motherfuckers who we care about. In my examples
Brando and DeNiro make every scene about his relationship with the other person in the scene not himself - even in, "You talking to me," DeNiro is making the scene about us, the audience. The very fact that they need something from someone means they are making themselves vulnerable. Boldly Vulnerable.

So, as an acting student working on a scene, every now and then, I am able to make the scene about the other person. What I need from my scene partner. I am vulnerable.

So for a few brief moments I am not playing a type, a result or a state of being. My performance is in some small way true and I am vulnerable. I am actually acting. Not well. But acting. The acting student's first baby step in trying to walk the tightrope between Boldness and Truth.

So V Farmiga is blodly vulnerable. G Clooney is just vulnerable. And an acting student has an inkling of the bulls eye at the center of the concentric rings of the target.

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