Film, News & Commentary

Rundle: if words could describe acting, it would not be art

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There’s a weird thing about acting. It should be the most shaded and amorphous of the arts, and assessment of its quality among the most subjective of judgements. But the opposite is the case. Art, plays and especially films and novels can be assessed as worthless or genius even within a narrow set of agreed values — great acting is a small miracle, but bad acting is bad acting; a competent performance, well, you can just feel it clicking into place. At the higher mid-level reaches that becomes dependent on the approach you prefer: Kenneth Branagh in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein is either masterful or, well, unlikely to gain a halal certificate.

And then there are the performances that break the frame altogether, reach into a different register of being, and show most acting to be contained within a set of conventional gestures. The most recent of these, to have a wide audience, was Daniel Day-Lewis’ portrayal of Abraham Lincoln, which, well, it’s very hard to describe. That’s the thing about acting; it is only striking to the degree it slips away from language, evades characterisation, in anything other than the most descriptive fashion. Try to read theatre criticism from a half-century ago, say, and try and reassemble a picture of the performance. “Thalyssia Kischmitz gave us a brittle, wide-ranging Medea, with an underlying air of menace.” What does that mean? It could mean anyone of half a dozen performances, all contradicting one another, and reassembling some reliable picture of it is impossible. It means nothing, or next to it, and a vast amount of performance-oriented theatre criticism is bogus, filler, like a sports writing.

So what can you say about Day-Lewis’ performance as Lincoln? The voice is the first thing, the jumpiness the second. Avoiding any attempt to project nobility of spirit, greatness of purpose, etc, in an attribute, Day-Lewis gave Lincoln a voice like a rusty, unoiled waterpump, creaking up and down, combined with a tendency to jump round the room, to leap out of the statue he has become to memory. One crucial scene takes place in the White House telegraph room, where press and staff are waiting for a communique vital to the war, and someone wheels round on a swivel chair, and launches into some hoary old anecdote. It’s Lincoln in shirtsleeves, waiting there for the telegram too, the voice just short of the comic relief “old codger” type of old Westerns, the anecdote clearly having been told before. It is Lincoln as … annoying, the respected man who can become a bit of a pain, the bloke who’s been too long out of the swim to joke and josh easily. It is a man in full, the decades of him in thirty seconds, as if he were jumping out of the screen.

How did he do it? Well he’s Daniel Day-Lewis and he’s not telling. His preparation is spoken of in hushed tones, much parodied, understood in the cliched idea of the tortured actor, living off the land for six months to become a Mohican and the like. But it seems that as much is done in breaking down the idea of the character than in composing and constituting them — and to refuting the supposition that a character might have some essence to which access is easy. Day-Lewis entirely splits the president from the man, gives us the 50-something exhausted left-wing Illinois state politician that Lincoln was. Not only does he not add up to the great man, soon to be preserved in marble, he does not cohere to the lesser man he is at any given point. He is, like us, a grab bag of behaviours, some of which get used more than others, unified only in that they belong to the one body, answer to the one name. One day, CGI technology will be sufficient to remove entirely from around this performance the shit movie it was, wrapped in by its clueless man-child director.

Day-Lewis’ Lincoln only works by working against the dominant idea of realist acting of the era, however modified it has been over the decades: that a real performance comes from finding internal psychological truths about the character, and letting them shape their outward behaviour. Taken initially from Stanislavski, and reshaped by psychoanalytic-dominated post-war schools such as the Method, these approaches take a specific and limited idea of the self: as stable over time, to the degree that even its instability is stable, (i.e. predictable, and the standard-issue hysteria of a thousand overpraised Hedda Gablers, moody hipster Hamlets, etc) —  and make it the general form of all human being. The style has become so general that we barely notice it, or the degree to which it departs from the way in which real people comport in space and time, oriented to each other, scattered across a fragmented reality. While the approach remains constant, the particular form of it changes, which is why versions of it 20 or 30 years old, start to look immediately dated. Dustin Hoffman’s performance in Marathon Man, remains magnificent, but more in the manner of a stately home preserved for the public than a living building. Laurence Olivier’s Nazi dentist — done, one suspects, with the same energy the old hoofer might have put into a Cardiff matinee of Hay Fever back in the rep years, retains its sinister and mysterious edge.

Olivier, being Olivier, could get away with that at the height of the Method madness, and there were a few others who had that dispensation. Robert Mitchum’s one of them, a man who is, by the standard of a full stage repertoire, a terrible actor, but whose approach — “stand where they tell you and say the words” — is pitch-perfect for the ’40s and ’50s films that were his glory, when he was, by and large, playing a man grappling with social and political forces beyond his comprehension and control, dealt with by a cold detachment and scepticism (and back in the trailer, quite a lot of dope). There are others who’ve been able to do that, many of them so-called character actors, from whom a lo-fi performance was required: J.T.Walsh, William H. Macy. Law and Order lived and died with Jerry Orbach’s version of it, a New York homicide cop who couldn’t think of anything less impressive than being a New York homicide cop.

As the “inner-dynamic” approach became more deadened and corrupted — star performances by actors for actors, especially those on awards juries — the contrary approach began to gather adherents, and a theory of sorts, in David Mamet’s theory of “practical performance”. Mamet argued that much current performance was based on a philosophical error, not only of stable subjectivity over time, but of social role dictating essential qualities. Kings acted kingly, regal and assured; police informers cringing and wormy, grandmas gathered children to their ample bosom and uncles were avuncular. Role had become self, but was then expressed as some sort of inner embodiment. Mass culture performance had become a vast gallery of cliches. Against this, Mamet pointed out that attributes were ideals of roles, and roles were assigned. The literal fact of being a King is that you become it by virtue of whose son you are. Inner quality has nothing to do with it, can have nothing to do with it. There is no right way to be a king, as an act of comportment in the world, because whatever the King does is being kingly. There is no route to a fresh or arresting performance by trying to be kingly. This is an oversimplification, of course — a future king may well get raised to be regal, in a certain manner — in need of a more complex approach.

Mamet being Mamet, it was oversimplified further from degree-zero acting, to absolute-zero performance, in which actors simply “spoke the words”, performance broken down until all psychologistic attitudinising had been driven out. You can see this working well, as an ensemble practice, with some concessions to received taste, in season one of The Unit, Mamet’s series about an elite special forces unit, largely around their home life. And you can see how weird it gets when it is wholly applied in a movie likeRedbelt, that strange, strange tale of a martial arts gym, exciting by being devoid of the psychologistic challenges — the hero’s journey — that anyone else would have laid on it. One suspicion is that this sort of anti-acting doesn’t work if everyone is doing it. It has to have a background of more conventional performance for its stark practice to cut through.

That suspicion is reinforced by the TV series Wolf Hall, based on the historical novel by Hilary Mantel, and the performance as Thomas Cromwell of Mark Rylance (pictured above). Rylance having done little film or TV, is largely unknown to Australian audiences, but in the UK he’s seen as, arggghh, “the finest Shakespearean actor of his generation”, which misrepresents the manner in which he pulls apart a role, polishes and turns every moment to a distinct finish, and then puts it all back together (which, yes, I know, could mean several things. But not anything). But in Wolf Hall he has completely revised his practice, for screen, playing Cromwell as a man undefined by office, or his ambitions, or the dangerous struggles of the time, a man who is simply the man he is, and who happens to have become Chancellor to Henry VIII at a time when the modern English state, to a degree the state is modern, is being created.

Anyone hesitating over it, fearing a vaguely dutiful rendering of history has absolutely the wrong idea. It is gripping because, at the centre of a well-staged representation of the milieu within which Henry became Henry VIII, Rylance plays Cromwell as a man who goes to work — running the country — and then comes home again, plays with his children, is interested but cautious about the new protestantism coming out of Germany, sceptical but not stagily wry about the obsessiveness of those around him. Such a projection suggests certain skills that might have aided him on the way to power, but not as if they were aspects of a deep self; they are the acquisitions of a middle-aged man who has seen and done a lot on the way to where he is now. He knows what he’s doing, but is never cartoonishly masterful; when things come apart, he briefly panics, then recovers. It is … well, as I say, if words described a performance, acting wouldn’t be an art. It’s like very little you’ve ever seen on TV, a fluid hammer in the middle of the screen.

What’s really interesting about that is that it’s not just a study in the characteristics of human nature, but of representation itself. Hilary Mantel’s story is really written as a giant riposte to the artistic beatification of Thomas More in A Man For All Seasons, and Robert Bolt’s creation of an anachronistic individual liberal conscience in More, who was opposing the very historical movements — the break up of monasteries and church power, the emergence of new classes, of printing and freer exchange of ideas — that would create the sort of selfhood that Robert Bolt gave him.

Mantel’s politics are conservative — don’t confuse politics with ethics, be wary of big ideas and movements, life is to be preferred to martyrdom — but her depiction of the forces bringing the new world into being is more impersonal and a touch Marxist. Wolf Hall is full of personal and sexual intrigue, one should add, but it is also a depiction of the nation state coming into being, a product of multiple forces, and itself transformative of the people within it, of changed consciousness, not the battle of consciences. With Damian Lewis giving a brilliantly mercurial Henry — the role is always hard to humanise when you have to spend half your on-screen time swaddled up to the size of a grand piano — and Claire Foy doing Anne Boleyn as the chaos-bringing nightmare-girlfriend becoming wife, Beauty to Henry’s Beast, Rylance has a backdrop against which new ides of sameness and difference can be brought to bear.

In most historical drama (compare the thoroughly entertaining Poldark remake, also playing) the world is too sameish, the people too different. Wolf Hall and Rylance’s Cromwell is the reverse: we understand that the world moves on very different lines, but we feel a plausible commonality with a man making his way in it. And since it is Cromwell ushering in the era of commonality — becoming chancellor after the death of his mentor Wolsey, he is de facto, the first prime minister — content and form meet. What the hell would TV look like if more actors, more directors could hit that note, the Mitcham/Day-Lewis/Rylance measure? To imagine it likely would be to really lose your head. For this is not merely anti-acting, but a demythologisation of such, and the mystique of acting genius is central to the enforcement of a new elitism. If they’re halfway good, they acquire a quasi-divine air; if they’re average with good cheekbones, they start to lecture us about refugees or climate change, and eventually, simply do the whole of politics for us. Realistically speaking, it will be a long time until such acting breaks through into the real, which makes its occasional appearance all the more worth celebrating as a miracle, small though it be.


15 responses to “Rundle: if words could describe acting, it would not be art

  1. I have to say, that I was deeply sorry when I reached the end of Wolf Hall.
    I just didn’t want it to stop.
    Such a brilliant piece of TV.

    1. Rupert has deemed us worthy from next week, but only if we fork over chunks of cash to Foxtel.

      Of course it would be a civil wrong (not a crime) to have downloaded it and watched it all already.

  2. It begins with great writing, doesn’t it? Day Lewis could embody Lincoln because he understood the bones of the character that Tony Kushner created.

  3. I’m so glad we have an expert on everything artistic that ever was and ever will be, someone to cast judgement on the quality of our popular culture whom no-one would ever dare challenge. Guy Rundle should be (t)rundled out at every award ceremony in every field of artistic endeavour there is, so we all might kiss his feet. Who cares if he glosses over a lifetime of research by Stanislavski as if the greatest acting theorist there ever was equated emotional recall with Marlon Brando’s method acting, using the Rundle-ization “inner-dynamic”?: the masses don’t know nor care. And notice how Rundle doesn’t complicate things for said masses by mentioning late-stage Stanislavski’s Method of Physical Actions, in which he rejected emotional recall entirely, but instead Crikey’s guru of the thespian arts re-labels it David Mamet’s “Practical Performance”. Rather, Guy Rundle knows exactly what NOT to write (especially if he’s never studied what he’s purporting to be an expert at … and that’s a helluva lotta courses he never took). Yep, he’s great at “mean[ing] several things. But not anything.”

    Yeah, my mate, your mate, GUY RUNDLE IS REALLY, REALLY SMART!

    He is, isn’t he?

  4. In the 1940s I watched absurd faux ‘psychoanalytical’ movies which were so corny it seemed unlikely we could ever do worse. Similar odd movies of Cocteau were fashionable in the early 60s. Between the two the method ‘acting’ mania left me confident it couldn’t get much worse.
    Today’s fads have produced some movies & T.V. programmes which proved my 1960s assessment to be overoptimistic; other movies and T.V. shows which are brilliant. The Awards systems unfortunately are often influenced strongly by agendas which sre not primarily about acting abilities or theatre per se.

    1. Hey Norman,
      Can you give some examples of both? I’m very interested in this idea of different acting styles/techniques that Guy says are evident today and I’d love further examples.

  5. Bruno

    ‘whom no one would ever challenge?’

    Um, mate, you just challenged me on the comments string provided for that purpose.

    You haven’t read the article carefully. I said:

    ” Taken initially from Stanislavski, and reshaped by psychoanalytic-dominated post-war schools such as the Method…”

    Pretty explicitly not blaming Stanislavski for what mainstream US acting became.

    Physical Action etc as a doctrine isn’t anything like Mamet’s approach, though i agree theyre both anti-psychologistic. Anf i dont think it will would charatcerise Rylance’s performance in Wolf Hall very accurately

  6. I’m not familiar with Rylance’s stage work, but I loved his performances in two films—Patrice Chereau’s Intimacy, in which he has a lot of explicit sex and apparently hates every second of it, and the Brothers Quay’s delightfully weird (and excellently titled) Institute Benjamenta, or This Dream People Call Human Life. I’ve watched the second one twice and still can’t remember what it’s about. But I love Rylance’s mournful reaction to all of the surreal happenings, as if he were a clinically depressed Alice in Wonderland.

  7. Great article Guy as usual but beg to differ about Sir Thomas More who was a closet humanist who let it all hang out with his masterpiece Utopia

  8. Guy, where are your female examples? Is it only men that you identify as brilliant, in whatever criteria you’re outlining here? I couldn’t quite figure out whether you meant un-cliched acting, non-psychological acting, or some other criteria known only to you seeing as you put Mitchum in the same basket as Day-Lewis.

    I did love the article btw, despite my mild confusion and grievances about the lack of women.

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