Sunday, December 19, 2010

A Million Little Ruptures

In Leap Year (a lite treacly touristic rom-com - I didn't finish watching but I imagine it's one of the worst movies of recent years), Amy Adams and Matthew Goode walk up a hill to a castle.  The modulation from moment to moment is based upon emotions that are arrived at, and then left behind, easily.  That is, quickly.  An entire aesthetic of both editing and performance revolves around the quick and, sometimes, deft "sampling" of emotional cues.  My sense (and it's fine if it feels a bit too Frankfurt School on first glance) is that this is because the context of emotion is usually left wholly unexamined in mainstream film & TV.  Only a false sense of "contained" emotion is to be respected. Emotions do not build upon each other; they do not have texture - the audiovisual, gestural archive of emotional cues is large enough at this moment to be drawn upon without elaboration, without narrative.  We already see what a pouting lip means, what a raised eyebrow might mean, what a threatening posture entails ...the biggest aesthetic threat to competent film & TV acting is that people often hit these cues thoughtlessly and yet treat them as a register of "knowing" performance.  This is a problem even in good examples.  Party Down, my favorite TV comedy of the last several years, spreads itself thin when it indulges in the aesthetics of the awkward stare - a tired gesture, especially, after this past decade.  The moment when something embarrassing or strange or gauche happens, the camera holds its gaze upon a character or two - stand-ins for the smart viewer - who give the same old face, the sort of face that JLG & JPG might have analyzed in A Letter to Adam Scott, were it to have been made.  (Adam Scott - an actor I do like! - was also apparently in Leap Year, but I didn't watch long enough to get to him.)  I must admit that I love a lot of stuff that partakes in this kind of gestural shorthand (like Party Down, like Ricky Gervais' shows) but I await the next development in the "smart mainstream," one that will hopefully exhibit some distance from the over-worked arsenal of faces, gestures, and picture frames.


Trevor said...

I happened to have the opportunity to see Pedro Costa's Where Does Your Hidden Smile Lie? this weekend, his documentary about Jean-Marie Straub and Danièle Huillet editing their film Sicília!, and your post reminded me of one of my favorite sequences in the film. Straub is talking about cliches and how we always initially resort to cliches in order to express our ideas. But we must work, he says, to massage these cliches and enter deeper into them, bringing out previously unseen details and moments (this is partly my interpretation of what he said)--which, by the way, is sort of how Straub-Huillet edited their film, it seems.

Then Straub says, "A sigh can become a novel." I think the same could be said of the "awkward stare" or anything else in our catalog of gestures. Cliches are all around us because our modes of communicating rely on conventions, but art comes about by chipping away at them. In one scene, Straub and Huillet argue about where to cut to a shot and eventually realize that their difference of opinion about exactly where to cut amounts to precisely one frame, but I was blown away by the craftsman-like dedication they had to every aspect of their film. It made me reflect somewhat on the nature of art, which I think in large part has to do with moving away from the convenience of the conventional gestures and cues you talk about here.

Jake said...

Recommended: Michael Winterbottom's The Trip, the full TV version.

ZC said...

Trevor, that documentary is an amazing study of the importance of "minutiae" in film aesthetics! "Straub!" Certainly in the S/H films one sees a very, very high level of commitment to working through gesture (broadly speaking), which I sometimes think is one of the fundamental things we can really ask of our artists when it comes to making worthwhile art. The unexamined shorthand is not worth performing.

(Or rather, maybe it is, but only for the connoisseurs who don't mind unspectacular muddling, for the scholars and historians, and other assorted freaks. I count myself in this category.)

Jake, will keep an eye out for The Trip - thanks.