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.

your task, should you choose to accept it

is to write an About Me page for your (possibly not yet existing) personal website, on a par with this one, belonging to my old, old OLD friend Kevin Free (luv ya, Kevin! ;)).

This blog post will self-destruct in ten seconds. (Not really, just trying to rock the Mission Impossible thing for all it's worth.)

(If you do write an About Me page, please post it in the comments!)

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