Thursday, January 18, 2007

Feeling Films: An Actor's Perspective

A friend of mine over at the Arts & Faith film conversation posted some interesting thoughts that tied in with my own movie-going experience. And as the conversation eventually meandered over to some thoughts on film criticism and the responsibility (one might even say "talent"?) one might ask of a film viewer, i thought I'd post it here. (And hey, who's gonna stop me?)

Christian writes;

Three recent films have snuck up on me, and I wanted to get the thoughts of A&Fers about this phenomenon.

Specifically, while watching “Letters From Iwo Jima,” “Children of Men,” and “The Queen,” I’ve found myself detached from the proceedings for as much as half of each film’s running time. Then, during the final third, or final quarter of these films, they tap into some reservoir of emotion, and I find myself overwhelmed.

“COM” created the least intense reaction, but its final moments were nonetheless quite powerful emotionally. I watched “Letters” with a somewhat jaded, “seen this sort of thing” mentality for much of the film, but the grim horror of the soldiers’ situation slowly settled in during hour number 2. Most recently, flying home this past weekend, I watched “The Queen” on the airplane. A curious film with very good performance, but all that Royal Family stoicism resulted in a cold film (appropriately, given the subject matter and how the queen’s reaction is depicted) – until that scene where the Queen asks if she can lay a young girl’s flowers among the other markers of Diana’s passing. The girl’s response undid me.

That must have been an interesting sight—some guy in the window seat, wiping tears.

But the crying isn’t the point—I’ve been doing too much of that at movies lately. Rather, it’s the way these films elicit an emotional response, grabbing me at a point when I’d pretty much decided they weren’t as good as I’d heard. It bothers me to think that an exhibit of a little emotion—which can be so easily manipulated—would tip my opinion in favor of all three films, but that’s a large part of my overall assessment of these movies. I do wonder, however, how these films will hold up when the element of surprise is gone.

My reply;

Oh, very good thread, Christian. I've noticed the same in my reaction to some films recently.

THE QUEEN, definitely. Just like you, I observed all the regal and prime ministerial goings on with interested detachment. Until the scene where Elizabeth visits the tribute to Diana, when suddenly I was ambushed by great upheavals of feeling. (And to be clear, I'm as cynical as Chattaway about Lady Di-olatry. No manipulative buttons were being pushed for me, connecting up with images that evoked sorrow back in the day: I was pretty much on the Queen's side with respect to that!) I've come to think this is the film's greatest accomplishment: over the course of the first hour and a half, it recalibrates our emotions and observations to such a subdued, repressed, understated scale that we are prepared to respond in a large way to a scene which in most other films would be a non-event. Frears teaches us how to view his movie, familiarizes us with how to "read" his character, and then with the subtlest of adjustments conveys immense significance and evokes tremendous feeling. Therein lies the great artistry of that film, in my opinion. It's on the strength of that accomplishment it's enthroned so high on my list of films for 2006.

PAN'S LABYRINTH is a diametrically opposite film with regard to emotion, but I had a similar "release" late in the film: where THE QUEEN is introspective, understated, withheld, "northern," LABYRINTH is extroverted, it expresses, it finds outsize imagery to illustrate inner states, it's "latin." Yet something similar happened for me on the latter film : I was absolutely caught up in the flow of events, crises, character development, dread, excitement, fear, all that. But it wasn't until the final moments that the film sunk into much deeper and more personal emotions - indeed, that it took me to what I would call a "spiritual" place. That's when the tears came, even the quiet sobs - and not just at tragedy, but at triumph mixed with loss. At something that is very akin to elements of the gospel, as Jeffrey has noted.

CHILDREN OF MEN actually faded in personal impact, for me, as it progressed. I pulled away as it involved more and more sustained "action sequences." I didn't hate it, or lose interest, but the immense emotional charge it had built up in me early on simply dissipated with all the running and hair's-breadth escapes and explosions and stuff.

JOYEUX NOEL was probably the strongest demonstration of this "emotion explosion" that I've experienced lately. For half the running time, I was really not finding myself able to engage with the film. I was detached enough to be thinking "Okay, now we meet the Scottish soldiers. Now we meet the French, and now the Germans. They all get humanized. Now they're at the front. Bad front. Then they'll all have Christmas together, and love will overcome hatred. Until the next morning, when they resume chopping each other up into beefsteak tartar." Now that's another overstatment: I wasn't hating the film. Just sitting outside it, wondering what the fuss might be about. So I turned it off, planning to return to the film when I was in a better state of mind. (I was certainly tired, and fighting a tendency to drift off, so that's a definite contributing factor in this instance. But still, some movies cut right through that, others cannot.)

It was several days later that I got back to the film, almost dutifully, to finish it off so I could check it off my list and get it back to the shop before accumulating further late fees. Popped it in the player, jumped to the scene where I'd left off (the piano / voice recital / duet bit for the German officer). Within minutes the German soldiers started putting their Christmas trees on the edge of the trenches, the singer wandered out into No Man's Land (as if under a spell, mystically, or in a dream), and the tears were pouring. It seemed so surreal, so death-defying, so dream-like, such folly. Testimony to catching up on one's rest? Or something in the film itself? Perhaps all that lead-up had a chance to work on me in my subconscious over those days: certainly as an artist, I absolutely know the need to let things lie fallow, to allow the unconscious to work them over at certain phases. Perhaps that kicked in for me as a viewer?

Anyhow, I know what you mean. I don't actually believe the element of surprise was the key factor in any of these films: I think it was more a matter of the stories "gathering to a greatness" (Hopkins) - that they needed time to build the foundation for what was to come.

On a more personal note, you say you've been doing "too much" crying at movies lately. I find that hard to believe. If you're crying, for whatever reasons, I'm guessing you're crying just the right amount. Whatever might be going on in your heart, in your life, in your spirit, is finding egress in these films. Or maybe there's nothing outside the films that contributes: maybe you're just responding to the films themselves: you've entered into them powerfully enough that they are forming a powerful connection with your soul, whether you see it coming or not. In either case, I say, good on you! Not enough is made of our aptitude as viewers to enter into a film, but you know, we are partners in that creative event. Believe me, as an actor, I know the difference in my performance between the times when I'm fully engaged in a scene, bringing to bear all my imagination and concentration, and those other times when I'm still only finding my way - and, speaking frankly, the difference in other actors' performances depending on how powerfully they are able to enter into the world of the play, the skin of the character. I see similar things coming to bear on my movie-viewing: sometimes I'm just not on my game, and can't blame the film for my lack of engagement as a viewer any more than I would blame the script for my lack of engagement as an actor.

Too many film critics have atrophied powers of empathy: their wonder and imagination and willingness to suspend judment and disbelief have worn away by too much criticism, too long standing in judgment, and they lose the ability to authentically engage with the material. Just as a jaded actor begins to simply go through the motions, rely on old tricks, "say the lines and don't bump into the furniture" in order to collect that paycheck every Thursday. it's the death of theatre, and the death of virile film criticism.

(Anyone want to borrow my soap box? I'm done with it for now.)

By the way, not exactly on the topic you've raised, but related. I was given a nifty film book for my birthday (thanks Jason!), a TimeOut publication called "1000 Films To Change Your Life: The Movies That Move Us," in which the chapters are organized not by genre or era or theme, but by the emotions they trigger; Joy, Anger, Food for thought, Desire, Fear, Sadness, Exhilaration, Regret, Contempt and Wonder. "It's about the ways - even ways their makers may not have foreseen - that films go to work on us." I like it a lot.


PS For all the feeling that we actors do onstage, emotions are NOT the goal. A good actor - at least, according to my training - puts the whole focus on the dramatic action of the play, what I need from the person in the scene with me here and now, what I do to them to get what I crave, how I respond to their responses: emotion is an inevitably result of immersing yourself in the scene and fighting for what you fight for, but intentionally "playing" the emotion is a deadly trap that leads to false, self-indulgent, dramatically weak performance. Sentimentality. Similarly, the success of a film (or our success in viewing it) isn't particularly to be measured by how much emotion it caused us to feel: that's just not healthy, or human, to go searching after emotion just for its own sake. Just like marriage: you simply can't feel head-over-heels infatuated all the time, the emotion of "in-loveness" is no measure of the love in a relationship, and yet... A marriage where such feelings never occur is in trouble. Same for the actor. Same for the film-goer. Even the professional.

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