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.

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Shakespeare, "Inspiration," and Social Influence

Here's an interesting little video, a mash-up of forty cinematic "inspirational" speeches in two minutes, cut together to be a single, clichéd inspirational monologue:

Especially interesting to note is that it starts with Braveheart, perhaps the most iconic of modern cinematic inspirational speeches, but that it cuts late in the clip to Branagh's performance of Henry V, which, aside from being basically the same speech, is also the grand-daddy of every single one of the monologues the clip cites. Obviously, we could make the point here that a great deal of Shakespeare's cultural legacy today is the kind of schlocky/hacky "inspirational" writing that we see in all of these clips, from The Muppet Movie to Mr. Smith Goes to Washington to Lord of the Rings to Charlie Brown to ... well, we get the point. Certainly, this implicit critique of "Schlockspeare"--that it is an apolitical shift away from some of the meanings that could be applied to Shakespearean texts--is the kneejerk reaction some scholars of Shakespeare in popular culture would have after seeing this.

A couple of problems with that interpretation of this legacy, though. For starters, there's the assumption embedded in that claim that Shakespeare (even cinematic Shakespeare) is a better cultural object than the schlocky films (or even film moments) that make up his legacy: Henry V is inherently more meaningful--or, at least
more meaning can be applied to it--than can be applied to, say, Street Fighter or Bring It On. After all, if we don't make that assumption, and instead assume that Shakespeare was doing the same thing then as these other cultural objects are now (only he did it first!), then we have to re-examine in a fundamental manner questions of cultural value that still make Shakespearean scholars nervous, even though it's something of a dead horse in other disciplines. In other words, we would need either to elevate popular culture or to lower Shakespeare to it.

After all, one of the standard lines of argument about what the St. Crispin's Day speech in Henry V does is that it actually critiques precisely the kind of inspiration it offers. That Shakespeare is somehow commenting on how Henry is exploiting specific structures of feeling associated with an emerging nationalism and an older brand of masculinity in order to inspire his motley crew to battle:

It's a theme Shakespeare returns to frequently, most famously Marc Anthony's rallying of the plebs in Julius Caesar. But again, I feel that the assumption is often that Shakespeare is smart enough to make this argument, even as he exploits these very structures to great effect on his own audience in the theatre. And, of course, the other assumption is that these speeches in these other films are derivative of Shakespeare, but reduce it to a schlock that doesn't have the same kind of self-awareness.

But, check out the following clip from Animal House (also excerpted in the above clip):

The John Belushi clip is truncated slightly, but I think the comparison still holds. In both scenes we see a perceived leader assert his leadership by voicing an artificial and inappropriate appeal to history, by re-asserting rhetorical clichés that would already be familiar to his audience, and by subsuming rational argumentation to a more affective logic grounded primarily in masculine values. They're doing pretty much the same thing in their very commentary on how such "inspirational" rhetoric causes social influence with vast consequences (the result of both speeches is literal battle, after all). In this sense, can we really continue this artificial difference between Shakespeare and his cultural descendants?

Well, sort of. After all, while I think we should probably agree that there really isn't a great deal of difference in terms of the "meaning" carried in these cultural objects, the cultural value each carries is still very different in spite of the fact that they all have similar formal effects. In other words, Shakespeare and Animal House have different cultural effects on a larger scale. Part of the purpose of my dissertation is to point out that, despite much cultural critique that deconstructs ideas of high or low cultural value, Shakespearean critics are still on to something by suggesting the different values inherent in Shakespeare, although not for the reasons they would believe (they're merely repeating the same assumptions that the rest of society already holds to a large extent).

The thing is, we can actually tap into this difference by looking again at the mash-up that opened this post: not all of these are war movies, after all. A good portion of them are educational inspirational speeches. In particular, Dead Poets Society stands out in this respect, as the film itself uses Shakespeare to make the inspirational message. I find it really interesting (and a possible avenue for future research) to see how the "inspirational" speech genre of cinematic rhetoric (created, in some sense, by Shakespeare himself) is a constitutive element of the "inspirational teacher" cinematic genre. This genre weirdly turns the screw on this mode of rhetoric by actually eliminating its own self-awareness (something that a film like Animal House obviously doesn't do), and in particular it eliminates this self-awareness by using Shakespeare in a pedagogical context to do the inspiring. No longer is Shakespeare in these films commenting on how easily audiences are led astray on the basis of a bogus affect, but instead is used to advance the argument that Shakespeare himself is just a genius that can inspire us through time, that it is the teacher's role to tap into that genius in order to inspire his (and it usually is "his") students in the same way. And then, what of something like the "inspirational teacher movie" speech that Steve Coogan's character gives in Hamlet 2? It seems to turn the screw yet again, by restoring a different kind of generic self-awareness and parody to how Shakespeare's cultural value is perceived....

Beyond all of that, we have to consider the distribution of these kinds of strategies of valuation: the fact that in a way, the mash-up is the perfect vehicle for these ideas, since so many of these films are really most identifiable through these inspirational moments in the first place. It's not that these monologues are merely there to inspire us emotionally (or even to inspire us intellectually to question the ways in which we are inspired), but rather to inspire us in another way that has to do with yet another kind of value: these monologues are the big selling points of these movies, and they are often front and center in cinematic marketing practices as a way of inspiring us as consumers to pay for these products (and don't think that this wasn't the case back when Shakespeare was doing it; he was the most successful playwright of his time due to savvy self-promotion). Ultimately, the key to "inspiration" in these films (especially in those films that use Shakespeare consciously within a classroom setting) is an attempt to teach (and I use that word deliberately) audiences how to respond to this convergence between cultural value and exchange value....