Tuesday, December 16, 2008

Going Rogue: Acting and Cinematic Authorship

A couple of weeks ago I watched a film called The Whole Wide World, about Conan the Barbarian and Red Sonya writer Bob Howard's contentious relationship with Novalyne Price. The movie itself is kind of terrible: adapted from the latter's autobiography, the film's screenplay is basically two hours of overly-obvious exposition through stilted dialogue and rendered even more obvious by some painfully literal cinematic analogues for some of the ideas expressed through the words. Thus, we get long meditations over the process of writing and falling in love, visualized on screen by a constant barrage of sunset imagery, all against one of the most syrupy, saccharine scores I can remember....

All of which makes Vincent D'Onofrio's performance as Howard that much more surprising and amazing. Seriously, this is a bad movie, but I would recommend it to most people because his utterly weird performance is truly something to behold. I had never really been able to gauge whether acting can be good in a bad movie before, and originally this blog post was going to address that very topic. But then I realized that it's not that his performance is that amazing in of itself: I mean, it is amazing, but this is actually partially because the rest of the film is bad... This is less about a good performance in a bad movie than it is about some even more potent questions about the relationship of acting to auteur-ship of films themselves. D'Onofrio is great here not because his performance is so great in spite of the film: he doesn't transcend the words written on the page for his character to speak, adding a depth to them that wasn't there before. Rather, he utterly hijacks the picture every time he's on screen and authors it in a manner that ironically undercuts where the rest of the film is heading at any given moment.

For the moment, I'll think of this phenomenon as an actor "going rogue," to echo the ways people write about how Sarah Palin consistently performed against the script given to her by the Republican Party in a way that essentially re-authored what the Party stood for for a large portion of the voting public. I could obviously be wrong about this, but I can't recall any critical writing that systematically examines how this works in film with actors, although I often read popular critics who write about a "wholly unique performance" (or something along those lines), a performance that seems to go against script. Jason has recently tried to re-think the ways that auteur theory can be integrated in with star theory, suggesting that P.T. Anderson essentially amps up a star's standard persona to point out how the star performance itself is a sales pitch to sell the auteur's work. But the above case presents something different: this is hardly an auteur film, and it seems instead as though the not-quite-star has instead authored the film (or, at least those parts he's in).

Nevertheless, it seems to be a fairly common thing. I haven't fully theorized how this all works yet, but perhaps a few more examples now might help me to consider in future how this all works. D'Onofrio had a huge role in the film (if not exactly the lead), but this frequently happens with smaller parts as well, in which a singly strange performance brings the film to a screeching halt for a scene or two and sends it in a different (oftentimes better) direction. So, for instance, Brad Dourif (who's just brilliant in everything anyway, from One Flew over the Cuckoo's Nest to Deadwood to the voice of Chucky in the Child's Play movies) in the crappy American remake of Kiyoshi Kurosawa's Pulse (I feel that remakes should be the subject of a future post actually, since I've always been something of a defender of them, but it's just getting out of hand lately!). He has a single scene as a "Thin Bookish Guy" in a diner about midway through the film, giving exposition that explains all the nonsense that's been killing those poor kids from CW shows. The performance, however, is indescribable:

I imagine Dourif getting the script and getting the part. Since it's a walk-on role that only takes a day to film, Dourif is unaware that the film is meant to be a serious horror flick, and quite reasonably reads the laughably bad script as a comedy. Bizarre hilarity ensues, and the crew just leaves it in the movie because they can't afford to shoot it again with another actor since they're trying to get this done as quickly and cheaply as possible to get it out for the winter doldrums.

Oh, and then there's Jeffrey Combs in The Frighteners. Combs has built his career on weirding up various movies, most notably the Re-Animator series, which would be nothing but some seriously great gore effects without him. But here he takes a small role in Peter Jackson's first major Stateside release and transforms an already brilliantly self-conscious horror film into high camp:

[Note to YouTube posters: please don't add anything to the beginning of clips that you post. Please please please just let us watch the clip!]

Or, my favorite example in recent years. When Jim Carrey received the screenplay for The Number 23, he probably noticed that the first line of the pivotal "thriller" novel that he reads throughout is "You can call me Fingerling," remembered that Joel Schumacher was the guy who put nipples on the batsuit in the movie in which he had encouraged Jim to strut around in a Kermit-green leotard, and did the math: this is supposed to be a comedy...

The film would not be the same without Carrey as the protagonist. Not merely because of his star power, and not only because we as an audience are inclined to expect Carrey to be funny (as would be typical of a reading of the film through star persona), but because his performance itself has somehow re-written what this movie is meant to be. It is not supposed to be a comedy, or even a campy thriller. (And this would be a possible reading, since Joel Schumacher is something like a schlock auteur, making wonderful campy thrillers like The Lost Boys or Flatliners or Phone Booth pretty consistently throughout his career.) Rather, Carrey himself has become the auteur of this film, transforming it through performance in a manner not possible merely through writing, or editing, or art direction, or sound design, or any of the other aspects of film that routinely is assigned the most important position in authoring a film text. If I don't have anything particularly interesting to say about actors goin' rogue at the moment, at the least it should be a call to arms for more people to start considering the ways in which acting changes the meaning of film texts beyond the production and distribution aspects typically examined by star theory.

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