Wednesday, 29 September 2010


The video is Jack Nicholson as Jimmy Hoffa laying down the law to Robert Kennedy.

Most people wake-up in the morning and go to work and repeat this cycle over the course of the month and are guaranteed payment for that work at the end of the month. For the actor, however, there are no such guarantees. Most of his time is spent hunting for work and practicing his craft (this practice might include daily voice exercises, script analysis and physical exercise), and this hunting and practicing are bound together because the actor must be in shape when the work comes along. Further, this hunting and practicing takes up most of the actors time. However, this effort is unpaid, and there is no certainty that any reward will be granted at all. It is driven by the actors desire for excellence and by the need to accomplish goals. And it is not easy to maintain this daily effort without a guaranteed pay-off. Many cannot cope with the struggle and insecurity a life in art brings, the constant demands on self-esteem, and the pressure to improve in order to survive in this highly competitive arena. Many quit, of my own group there are only a handful of us still standing, and as we get older we see our friends marry and start families and acquire the material goods which are typical for our time, while the actor faces a life of gruel, speckled with moments of exhilaration. The lure of security for the actor can be strong, one can be seduced away from achieving one's acting goals by the warm images of the regular life, by membership of the country club, by comfort, in short. And, unfortunately, most are in the end.

Question: How can the actor remain fixed on his goals despite the overwhelming odds against him?
Answer: Singlemindedfuckoffedness.

Stick to your decision. Ignore your intuition and you're feelings. Coldly and rationally formulate your objective (there will be price whichever path you take, something's got to give), and articulate the actions you need to do to accomplish your objective. And this must be renewed every single day. Often when we wake-up in the mornings, all manner of things swirl around in our mind and so this daily renewal of goals and actions helps discard that which is not helpful but only confusing. It also helps to remind ourselves of the thinking which lead to the formulation of our objective in the first place. And stick to your decision. Fear of commitment can have a strange affect on us, the most common of which is a “going off” of the task we have set for ourselves. It is at this point of no return that all kinds of other options suggest themselves as preferable alternatives (including country club membership), but the trick is to be strong in this moment and dismiss those alternatives and see it through. Singlemindedfuckoffedness.

This philosophy is embodied by Jack Nicholson in the movie Hoffa. The film charts Jimmy Hoffa's rise from street agitator to one of the most powerful men in America as leader of the Teamsters union. And he accomplishes this goal against ludicrous odds. During the film Hoffa takes on The Kennedy brothers, the mob, big business fat cats among others, and he does so not only through the force of his personality, but also through a commiment to doing the job he said he was going to do, by remaining focussed on his goal whilst under enormous pressure, by having the courage of his conviction and by refusing to bend when faced by powerful forces. As one of the characters says of Hoffa during the film; he built a union with “a pair of brass balls”. However, it is important to note that the character is played by Jack Nicholson, one of the most dominant actors there has ever been in the history of the profession (note how Nicholson's personality still looms large on the Hollywood scene while those of De Niro and Pacino [Nicholson's only serious rivals] have diminished in recent years). Although I do not know Nicholson personally, I would hazard a guess that the qualities his displays as Hoffa the character are engendered in the actor himself. Nicholson, being the Hollywood outsider he was, could not have risen to the prominent position he has, without employing the philosophy of singlemindedfuckoffedness.

Saturday, 25 September 2010

Excerpt from Faces by John Cassavetes (1968)

Brilliant scene from John Cassavetes' Faces.

"The Growth of a Film Artist: Part 2" - Ray Carney




The Growth of a Film Artist: Part II

Ray Carney Returns to MovieMaker (Part II)

by Shelley Friedman | Published October 13, 2002

This article is a continuation of Shelley Friedman’s interview with Ray Carney, author of Cassavetes on Cassavetes.

Shelley Friedman (MM): What qualities must a moviemaker embody to be considered an artist?

Ray Carney (RC): All that matters is that you tell your own personal truth. The world the way you see and feel it—not the way anyone else does; not the way any other movie has ever shown it. And there is no right or wrong way to do it. Your movie can take a trillion unknown, undiscovered forms. It can be about anything: showing us how strange and miraculous our lives are, how weird society is, how extraordinary ordinary people are, how heroic everyday life can be, depicting the love and kindness that never make the news, or the mystery of what we are. The important thing is to copy no one.

Forget every film you've ever seen, everything you've been taught in film school. Film school is a curse. The one thing we know for sure is that the next great work won't look at all like the last one. I don't want to see another Citizen Kane. I saw that movie already. I don't want a moviemaker who makes Cassavetes or Leigh or Ozu or Tarkovsky movies. Those filmmakers didn't become who they were by imitating someone else, but by throwing chunks of reality up on the screen in their own unique ways.

MM: Some critics talk about sentimentality as a by-product of an industrial society, unable to feel without "emotional guideposts." (Like we have to be told where to take pictures at Disneyland!) What to you distinguishes genuine emotion in art from fake emotion, i.e., genuine human empathy from manipulated sentimentality? How do we get back to the genuine in film—free from guideposts? Isn't all film a manipulation?

RC: I've written so much about the "guidepost" issue and devoted so many classes to it, that I'll skip it if you don't mind. Anyone interested can just read one of my books. As to the other part of your question: You want me to tell you how to tell fake emotion from real? You should be asking Charlotte Beck, not me. She's a Zen master who has written books about the subject—beautiful books. I'm not as smart as she is, but I'll take a stab at an answer by saying something that may sound weird: As far as I am concerned, 99 percent of all of the emotions we experience in life and in Hollywood movies are what you are calling "fake."

Our culture is a machine for creating false feelings—a whole panoply of petty, personal, egoistic demands: our greed and obsession with possessions and appearances, from houses to cars to clothing; our need to keep up with the latest gadgets, trends, news and events; our concerns about glamour and charm and what other people think of us; our feeling that we need to fight, struggle and compete to get ahead—and a million other self-destructive fears and insecurities. They are everywhere. And they are all unreal. Made up. Crazy. Cuckoo.

We put ourselves on an emotional hamster track we can never get to the end of. And we love the whole insane race. The push and pull of the bustling, grabbing, self-centered ego has become our substitute for the soul, which we ball up and jam into an hour at church or synagogue once a week. There are good emotions—truer, deeper, more authentic ways of being—but the problem with Hollywood and television and the rest of the media is that the whole system is devoted to presenting, manipulating and exalting the self-destructive, self-centered feelings—not the valuable, good ones. In fact, as far as I can tell, movies organized around ego-centered emotions are the ones people love the most. Just like they love football games more than they love ballet. That's because they feed into a whole cultural system of programming. For more than you want to know about this subject, read the introduction to my Leigh book.

If limited to teaching the same three-hour class, Carney would make Elaine May’s Mikey & Nicky (1976); and Ozu’s Late Spring (1949) required viewing; As for directors who are making a difference today, Carney claims that actors like Tim Roth, on the set of The War Zone (1999), are producing the best work.

But let me add that I've discovered that when I call these feelings "fake," my students get confused. They say people really feel these emotions. Their pulses really beat faster during the ending of The Matrix. They really cry at the end of Titanic. They really care who wins in Erin Brockovich. They really feel elated when a villain gets blown up in the Star Wars movies. They really got choked up when they wore a yellow ribbon during the Gulf War, or when they attached an American flag to their car more recently. And my students are right. To the people who experience these feelings, they are real. But that doesn't mean they aren't fake. Maybe it would be better to call them "mental" emotions, since they are created by our thoughts. They are in our heads. That's what's wrong with them.

They represent postures, stances and attitudes that make us feel good about ourselves. Even as we torture ourselves by casting ourselves in this endless, draining struggle, these emotions flatter us. They inflate our importance. We struggle so we can feel we are getting ahead. We keep up with the Joneses so we can feel superior to them. Even as it hurts them, people love to create self-justifying emotional dramas this way.

It doesn't have to be that way. Bad movies play on our emotional weaknesses, but great ones can move us beyond these clichés or show us their limitations. But don't look to Hollywood for that kind of movie. Look at Dreyer's Ordet or Gertrud. Look at Bresson's L'Argent or Pickpocket. Look at Cassavetes' Faces, which critiques the reliance on business values for personal interactions. Look at Mike Leigh's Abigail's Party, an absolutely brilliant dissection of the emotional role-playing we imprison ourselves within. Look at Tom Noonan's The Wife. These films reveal how unreal and self-destructive these feelings are.

MM: Sometimes it seems like so many films are becoming more like roller coaster rides of stimulation rather than windows into human experience. Even so-called "art films" many times gloss over the interior life of their characters and become cynical reflections of the moviemaker's unwillingness to grapple with deep questions. Why do you think this is?

RC: How beautifully you put that. I couldn't agree more. Of course, cynicism never goes by its own name. It is always called something else: smartness, stylishness, coolness, playfulness, wit. Look at L.A. Confidential, which David Denby thought was one of the best films of the decade. Or Pulp Fiction, which every critic in American had multiple orgasms over. Or the complete works of John Dahl and most of what the Coen brothers have done. All those hard, tough, mechanical film noirs. Look at Mulholland Drive. All those smart-ass tricks and games. Big friggin' deal. That's the best we can do with a couple million dollars? I don't care how the New York critics revel in it; it's cynicism.

“Look at Mulholland Drive. All those smart-ass tricks and games. Big friggin’ deal. That’s the best we can do with a couple million dollars?” asks Carney
of David Lynch’s film, starring Laura Harring (l) and Naomi Watts.

You wouldn't need all the emotional backflips and narrative trapdoors if you had anything to say—if your characters had any real souls. I always think of something Robert Frost's students said he used to repeat over and over again: "Is this poem sincere?" Robert Graves had a similar bullshit test. He used to ask, "Is this poem necessary?" Those are not bad questions to ask about any work of art.

The issue of whether you feel something or not is not a sufficient test of the value of a work. Our feelings are too primitive, too simple. I can get excited by the final minute of a Final Four playoff game, but I don't mistake it for a work of art. I tell the boys who want to equate Michael Jordan with Suzanne Farrell that they have to ask what they learn from the experience. Does it change or enrich their understanding of life? Or does it just play into their preexisting emotional clichés? Does it leave them thoughtful and deeper, or just breathless and excited? If they want that, you're right, they might as well go on a roller coaster ride. Great art is not about revving us up. That's what a sales conference or How-to-Make-a-Fortune-in-Real-Estate seminar is for. The greatest art is more likely to take us through an experience that humbles and abashes us—that chastens, bewilders and hushes us into silence at what we suddenly realize we have failed to see and experience up until then. That's pretty different from a video game or a roller-coaster ride.

Inner life is everything. What else is there? The rest is capitalism and cars and houses. You're sick if you care about those things. I'm not opposed to some of the multiculturalist and feminist agendas, but it's something that filmmakers who focus on sociological issues and institutions need to ponder—that our imaginations, our dreams, our emotions are the only things that really matter. You can have all the equal-pay-for-equal-work statutes in the world, but if your imagination is impoverished, you are poorer than a ghetto kid squealing in the spray from a fire hydrant. Treasure Island and The Arabian Nights have more to say to a child's soul than a whole library of I Have Two Mommies books. We need films that recognize that what a teenage girl thinks and feels and dreams is far more important than the clothes she wears or the car she drives.

“If I were limited to teaching one two or three-hour film class for all eternity—my one shot to change the history of American film—I wouldn’t show any movies!”

Even most of the children's films I've seen have adopted our culture's depraved adult values. The kids in them are just little adults. Their minds and hearts do not represent an alternative to adult values, but just a miniaturization of them—right down to the smutty adult leers the little boys have for the little girls. The emotions are just as meaningless and self-destructive as the ones in adult movies. The kids are just tiny capitalists and the goal is to turn the kids watching them into little consumers, too—as they run off to McDonald's to collect the mugs, action figures and stickers.

MM: What does the future hold for indie moviemakers with the rise of desktop moviemaking? Do you see any interesting moviemakers out there working in digital video?

RC: All of the young filmmakers I know are working in digital, since they can't afford film! Well, maybe not all, but most of them. The advantage of digital is that you can massively over-shoot. I just got off the phone with a friend who told me he shot 30 hours of footage for his new movie. It would have been out of the question to buy and process that much 16mm film.

The downfall of most low-budget indie work is the acting. By necessity, young filmmakers usually have to use students, relatives and other non-actors in their work. If they are limited to one or two takes because of the cost of film and processing, the results can be embarrassing. Massive over-shooting allows them to compensate. They can shoot until their actors are too tired to "act," or put down their actorly mannerisms and start being real. My friend said he even shot some stuff like a documentarian, filming his actors when they weren't acting, when they didn't realize they were being filmed. Cassavetes did the same thing. It can make a real difference. As Renoir said, the whole scene is saved when the girl playing the servant thinks the shot is over and lets out a sigh.

Having a smaller crew and less equipment can also make things less intimidating. The mood is different. You can improvise. You can do a scene over and over again. You can take chances. You can have fun, play around, experiment. Chaplin shot this way and it's always good for the work. And, of course, the PC has revolutionized editing, to take away a little of the time pressure and cost from that part of the process.

But I'm convinced that, no matter how cheap filmmaking becomes, there won't ever be a glut of masterpieces. Technology does nothing by itself. Better, smaller, cheaper cameras don't make better art; better artists do. In 17th-century Holland, oil painting was a cutting edge technology, but it took Rembrandt and Frans Hals to do something amazing with it. The digital revolution will probably quadruple the number of feature films made in a given year, but most of them will still be garbage, just like most of them are now.

Look at the first video revolution 10 or 15 years ago—when Beta and Hi-band 8 became cheap. What is its legacy? Porno flicks. There won't be any more artists born in a given year just because movies become cheaper to make. That particular form of insanity is in your DNA, and you either have it or you don't. Pen and paper are the ultimate low-budget technology, but how many great novels and plays and poems are written every year? I don't see a stream of Shakespeares being produced just because writing is inexpensive. Emotional clichés still lurk like landmines waiting to destroy you. As a violinist friend used to say, it's a poor musician who blames his instrument. A real artist can use whatever is available. Picasso could have created masterpieces with a burnt stick and a piece of chalk. In fact he did; we call them charcoals. Cassavetes could have used a cheap, old-fashioned VHS camera and created a scene that was worth watching. In fact he did. In the last 10 years of his life he used to film scenes at home that way just for the fun of doing it. Michael Almereyda made three amazing movies with a Pixel-cam—one of those $69 dollar video cameras for kids that records on audio tape that they used to sell at KB Toys: Another Girl, Another Planet, The Rocking Horse Winner and At Sundance, a documentary about the Sundance Film Festival.

It's a faulty analysis that locates the problem in the cost of the production. The harder nut to crack for young filmmakers is distribution. How does a young, unknown filmmaker get a movie into a real theater or on mainstream TV (the Internet doesn't count), no matter how it is made? The rub, of course, is that the more original the work is, the harder it will be to sell it to the corporations that run those enterprises. It might offend someone. It might not be "entertaining" enough. It might require you to think a little. It might be different! The distribution problem won't go away.

The life-or-death struggle every artist fights is not with technology, but with our commercial culture. The businessmen, the accountants, the advertising guys always want to get their fingers in the pie—suggesting cuts, trying to speed up the pacing, pandering to some imaginary demographic—and it's the death of personal expression. If anyone ever tells you to do something because someone else won't understand what you've done, you know they are talking nonsense. Generic truth—what "they" want, need or feel—is not truth anymore. Truth can only be what you feel. The more personal your work, the more idiosyncratic and eccentric, the more truth is in it. Don't ever let anyone talk you out of that.

I don't have an answer to the distribution question. All I can tell you is that every week I have videos sent to me that are better than anything broadcast on HBO or PBS, accompanied by letters describing how the filmmakers can't get them screened or how, even if they have won an award at some festival, they can't get distribution. The indie films that get lucky, the ones you hear about, are almost always picked up for the wrong reasons. Not because of their intrinsic merit, but because they deal with some flash-in-the-pan controversial theme, have sexual content or appeal to a special interest demographic (gays or blacks or feminists or whoever). If you don't play to a special interest, forget it. When The Believer gets picked up, it's not a vote for art; it's a business calculation of how many talk shows the distributor thinks the director can get onto because of the "hot" issue. That's why most of the people who claim to want to help the indie movement are actually part of the problem.

MM: You explain in Cassavetes on Cassavetes that Cassavetes had this "mind's eye" view of himself, which is defined as how you perceive yourself before "society forces compromises or self-censorship on you." Which moviemakers today seem to hold true to their mind's eye view?

RC: My hope is in the actors. Some of them have become filmmakers by default, usually out of disgust with the roles offered to them in mainstream movies. Others are willing to work for nothing in an independent film written and directed by someone else, just for a chance to be able to do something really interesting and creative for a change.

I trust both groups of actors. Face it, most born-in-the-bone directors are rhetoricians. They are seduced away from truth in the pursuit of flashy, razzle-dazzle, special effects. Look at David Lynch's work or that of the Coen brothers: it's all rhetoric. Actors, by the nature of their calling, have a simpler, purer conception of art. They have dedicated their lives to individual, personal expression—to what you are calling "holding onto your mind's eye view"—against all the bureaucratic and social forces leagued against it, attempting to level and homogenize it.

That's why many of the best contemporary directors are actors. I'm thinking of people like Tom Noonan, Steve Buscemi, Sean Penn, Vince Gallo, Tim Roth and Gary Oldman. Their work is really good.

MM: In this time of economic hardship, what do you recommend for people just entering a career in moviemaking?

RC: I'm always uncomfortable with the notion of a "career" in anything. American society is structured so that it opulently rewards certain roles (lawyers, doctors, celebrity actors and athletes, wheeler-dealer businessmen, stockbrokers, producers) and ignores or financially penalizes others (teachers, nurses, mothers, caregivers, ministers, artists).
That never changes, in good times or bad.

I think we focus too much on the financial side. That's Hollywood thinking. If you're a real artist, you can make art with no money:
Red Grooms used house paint and plywood to make his art. Paul Zaloom sets up a card
table and moves toy soldiers around. Todd Haynes used Barbie dolls. I had a friend, Freddie Curchack, who made shadow puppets on a sheet. An artist who complains about not having enough money is not an artist, but a businessman.

MM: If you could make one film required curriculum for American film audiences, what would it be and why?

RC: If I were limited to teaching one two or three-hour film class for all eternity—my one shot to change the history of American film—I wouldn't show any movies! I'd have the students listen to Bach's Double Violin Concerto and ask them to try to get that into their work. Or read Stanley Elkin's Greatest Hits. Or look at Degas' paintings. Those are things I already do in my classes, and I'm convinced that many of the students learn more from doing that than they do from looking at any movie.
If you absolutely required me to screen something, I'd use my three hours to show short films. They're better than most features, and would at least demonstrate that a movie doesn't necessarily have to tell a stupid "story," be "entertaining" or any of that other rot Hollywood would make us believe.

MM: What would you show?

RC: Bruce Conner's Permian Strata, Valse Triste and A Movie; Jay Rosenblatt's Human Remains, Period Piece and Restricted; Su Friedrich's Sink or Swim and Rules of the Road; Shirley Clarke's Bridges-Go-Round; Mike Leigh's Afternoon, Sense of History and The Short and Curlies; Charlie Wiener's Rumba. And any 10 minutes from Tom Noonan's What Happened Was, Caveh Zahedi's Little Stiff, Mark Rappaport's Casual Relations, Elaine May's Mikey and Nicky, and Ozu's Late Spring.

The least the students would learn is that a film doesn't have to look like a Hollywood movie. that Hollywood is a tiny and ultimately unimportant rivulet flowing away from the great sea of art. The really smart ones would learn something about artistic structure and how the greatest movies use something other than action to keep us caring and in the moment—that the worst way to make a movie is to organize it around a sequence of events. Plot is the biggest lie we can tell about what life is really about. MM

Ray Carney is Professor of Film and American Studies at Boston University and the author of more than fifteen books on film and other art, including the critically acclaimed Cassavetes on Cassavetes and The Films of Mike Leigh. He runs a web site devoted to independent film and other art at


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Comment by Rap Magna on 8/12/10 at 1:59 am

It is not easy to be good and excellent director. You have to choose the best story line, characters and you will be needing props. It must also be close to the interest of the viewers.

‎"Actors, by the nature of their calling, have a simpler, purer conception
of art", so says Ray Carney in a 2002 interview, where he allows us to infer that the future of cinema lies with actors.

Wednesday, 22 September 2010

The Great Acting Blog: "Waiting For Godot"


Watching Michael Lindsay-Hogg's production of Waiting For Godot, made as part of the Beckett On Film, I finally came to realize the play's true power and why it's held up as a masterwork of 20th century drama. I once read it and found it tedious, and the only production I had seen was an inferior one where the actors resorted to physical comedy to keep the audience interested because they lacked the skill required to cope with the intense demands Beckett's writing makes upon the actor.


Johnny Murphy and Barry McGovern play Beckett's iconic tramps Vladimir and Estragon, who, situated in the middle of nowhere and with only a tree for company, wait for a certain Mr Godot to arrive. The acting is a model of excellence: simple and true, direct and generous, Murphy and McGovern exclude the non-essential, and both posses the skill and discipline required to deliver Beckett's intricate and rapid-fire dialogue with the necessary precision of intention and cleanliness of action (further, they are able to deliver the speeches at high velocity and yet nothing is lost, I recommend their work as a demonstration of the power of superb diction) thus revealing the humor and sadness of the play, (as oppose to stamping on it with good ideas and characterization). And so then, this production is an excellent example of how high quality actors can unlock the true power of great writing. My guess is this is fairly close to Beckett's original intentions. *


Many interpretations of the play refer to the “futility of life” and the “absurdity of man's existence”, I, however, view the play as an acknowledgement that, yes, life can be a grind, that it can be disappointing and sad and miserable and even humiliating, but also that hope can inspire resilience. What's great about Vladimir and Estragon is that even though they are disappointed at Godot's failure to arrive on the first day, they stick to their task , and come back and wait to see if he'll turn up the next day. They have nothing to go on apart from a young boy who is sent by Godot to inform Vladimir and Estragon that he wont be coming. Several times during the play one of the tramps suggests to the other they move on, but each time one reminds the other that they cannot move on because they're “waiting for Godot”, and if he doesn't come today, he may come tomorrow or the day after that or the day after that and so on. Nothing is certain, there is only hope, nothing is concrete. And herein lies the greatness of our lives: that despite the disappointments of today, we will try again tomorrow.


If this is an expression of the human condition, then that expression takes a concentrated form in the life of the actor, which is, in truth, many ephemeral lives, short and intense, lived out before an audience. When the actor is not performing, his time is spent waiting to be given the opportunity to perform, and when that opportunity is offered to him and hungrily accepted, a whole lifetime is lived by the actor during those couple of hours of his performance, but with an intensity that, for everyone else, is spread out over one life time. The non-performing part of the actor's life is empty, and lacks meaning and direction, he is often confused and uncertain and dissatisfied, his personality only makes sense when he is playing a character. Away from the stage or the camera the actor looks for ways to fill his time, usually by engaging in projects which he pretends are important but which are quickly dropped once the chance to perform comes along again. This time is the equivalent to Beckett's protagonists who play out games in order to avoid the silence. We never see Godot's arrival during the course of the play, but for the actor in life, Godot does arrive occasionally in the form of a performance, and he occasionally arrives for all of us at various moments over the course of a lifetime.




* Alan Stanford as Pozzo, Stephen Brennan as Lucky and Sam McGovern as the Boy are also superb, especially Brennan as Lucky, check out his tommy-gun delivery of the stream of consciousness speech.


Saturday, 18 September 2010

The Limits of Control | Film review | Film | The Observer

This was one of my favourite pictures of last year, a minimalist hit man noir from Jim Jarmusch, starring Isaac De Bankole, John Hurt, Tilda Swinton and Bill Murray.


The Limits of Control

Jim Jarmusch sets his latest enigma in Madrid, Seville and Almería. Existentialist mystery ensues…

 Philip French Critic of the year

jarmusch: jarmusch Isaach De Bankolé in The Limits of Control.

Jim Jarmusch has been writing and directing intriguing, highly accomplished independent movies for a quarter of a century now and occasionally acting in those of fellow independents. His budgets remain relatively modest by Hollywood standards, but he has attracted leading performers like Johnny Depp and Robert Mitchum to work with him, as well as musicians such as Tom Waits and Joe Strummer.

  1. The Limits of Control
  2. Production year: 2009
  3. Country: Rest of the world
  4. Cert (UK): 15
  5. Runtime: 116 mins
  6. Directors: Jim Jarmusch
  7. Cast: Alex Descas, Bill Murray, Gael Garcia Bernal, Isaach de Bankole, John Hurt, Paz de la Huerta, Tilda Swinton
  8. More on this film

His films are mysterious without being obscure and are sometimes carefully patterned and sometimes linear stories of journeys of discovery. Mystery Train, for instance, retraces the same few hours as it interweaves several stories of Presley fans in Memphis, while in Broken Flowers Bill Murray crisscrosses America visiting old girlfriends (all played by well-known actresses) to discover which one bore him a son. Despite the fact that few of the characters actually meet each other, there's always a sense of ensemble acting in Jarmusch's work and this is true of his hypnotic new picture The Limits of Control.

Isaach De Bankolé, the black French actor from the Ivory Coast making his fourth film with Jarmusch, travels around Spain encountering a dozen people played by familiar actors from a dozen countries ranging from Japan to Palestine, none of whom appears to know of the others' existence. The movie is something of a homage to John Boorman's dreamlike thriller Point Blank (it's actually announced as "A Point Blank production") and is much influenced in its themes and settings by Melville's Le samouraï, Antonioni's The Passenger and the conspiracy pictures of Jacques Rivette.

No one has a name. Bankolé, identified in the credits as "Lone Man", belongs in that tradition of professional hitmen who have fascinated writers and film-makers from Shakespeare (the Murderers in Richard III and Macbeth) through Graham Greene (A Gun for Sale) and Jean Paul-Sartre (Les mains sales) to Michael Mann (Collateral). Forest Whitaker played such a figure in Jarmusch's Ghost Dog: The Way of the Samurai, and while Bankolé also seems attracted to eastern ways (he begins the day with tai chi), he's an existential figure about whom we know nothing beyond his few laconic statements and his behaviour.

He's dispatched on a mission by two Frenchmen, one black, one white, in an airport lounge, who begin their briefing with the question: "You don't speak Spanish, right?", which becomes both recognition code and mantra. As with his later contacts, they exchange matchboxes, alternately red and green, from a brand called Le Boxeur, the one he receives always containing a small, encrypted message which he chews and swallows. He first flies to Madrid, where he stays in a famous high-rise apartment block that looks like a Bauhaus reworking of Gaudi. Wherever he goes, he orders two separate espressos, an indication of his rigid sense of control, and makes contact according to oblique instructions.

From Madrid, he takes the train to Seville, where his backstreet apartment in the old town is in a different, more traditional style. Another train takes him to rural Almería, where he stays in a ghost town near his target, a closely guarded fortress belonging to some powerful international organisation, possibly connected to the helicopters that hover everywhere.

Along the way, the Lone Man meets a variety of colourful characters, all of a philosophical bent, who have to be reminded of their essential roles in some conspiratorial enterprise, at which we can only guess. My hunch is that we're watching the revenge of the downtrodden upon globalism and capitalist society. The film's one demon is called simply "the American". Death and disorientation are much in the air.

The only time Bankolé faintly smiles is when he watches a flamenco singer and dancer in Seville and several times he is directed to a grand art gallery in Madrid to interrogate a cubist painting by Juan Gris of a violin, an erotic 1920s nude by Roberto Balbuena and, at the end, an all-white painting by Antonie Tàpies of a sheet nailed to a canvas. There are numerous clues in this delightfully ludic, enigmatic film to suggest we're experiencing a dream or watching a film about film. For example, the hero flies by Air Lumière and an exotic cinephile dressed all in white (Tilda Swinton) tells him she loves old films because they capture a vanished past, that in her memory she can't distinguish dreams from films and that she loves watching movies where people just sit around and nothing happens.

The Limits of Control is a picture people will love or loathe, though no one could fail to be impressed by the haunted, surreal atmosphere that is rendered by the brilliant Hong Kong-based Australian cinematographer Christopher Doyle. I was riveted from the moment I read the epigraph from Arthur Rimbaud's "Le bateau ivre": "As I descended into impassable rivers/ I no longer felt guided by the ferryman."

The Limits of Control | Film review | Film | The Observer

This was one of my favourite pictures of last year, a minimalist hit man noir from Jim Jarmusch, starring Isaac De Bankole, John Hurt, Tilda Swinton and Bill Murray.

Thursday, 16 September 2010

The Great Acting Blog: "This Then That"

Per Oscarsson's performance in Henning Carlsen's Sult is one of t
he greatest performances in all cinema and a brilliant example of an actor expressing the unfathomable complexity of one man's state of being by performing simple actions scene by scene. Oscarsson does those actions each scene demands of him, one action in one scene, another action in another scene, then another in another and so on throughout the film, and the sum total of these actions equal the character. This is oppose to coming up with an “idea” about the character and dragging that idea through every scene and every line of dialogue until the audience is sufficiently bored that the only thing left for them is to appreciate the actor's technique.
Oscarsson plays Pontus, an impoverished writer in 1890 Christiana (Oslo), and spends most of the film trying to avoid starvation (at one point eating the dust he has wiped off a cabinet with his hand) after he is made homeless early in the film. His efforts to find work are frustrated for various reasons and he visits the pawnbroker several times to raise funds. He also falls in love with a coquette he nicknames Ylajali (played by Gunnel Lindblom) . However, his goal is to get an article he has written published in the newspaper.

Now, one of the important aspects of the character of Pontus is his pride, and there are many displays of this pride during the film, as when pawning his hat he tells the pawnbroker he needs the money for cigars when we all know he needs it for basic sustenance, or when he tells Ylajali he was drunk to explain away strange behavior which had, in truth, been brought about by starvation.

Pontus' displays of pride, however, are more complex when they seem, at first glance, to be against his own best interests, and they are also when Oscarsson's performance is at it's most brilliant. A crucial example is when Pontus finally gets a meeting with the editor of the newspaper. The editor informs Pontus that he liked the article and that he thinks Pontus has talent, and if Pontus'll do some rewrites he'll publish the article. Fine. The editor then offers Pontus an advance on his wages but Pontus declines the offer despite the fact he hasn't eaten and needs the money to pay for his new lodgings otherwise he'll be homeless again. What does Oscarsson as Pontus do after has declined the cash advance? He meekly thanks the editor, muttering under his breath, and bowing several times whilst making his exit walking backwards. It's like a menial before an emperor.

Oscarsson is doing one action in the scene, namely: ensuring his article gets published, and everything he does is to that end: he exits walking backwards because he fears turning his back on the editor may cause offence and jeopardise the article. Similarly, he does not accept the advance because he fears the editor may think him lowly which again may jeopardise the article. That he cannot pay the rent as a result is unimportant to him because his action is to ensure his article gets published, and Oscarsson only concerns himself with this action. And this is why Oscarsson is so moving in the scene: we witness true courage, selflessness, Oscarsson puts his ideal before his immediate material well being, and, in so doing he reveals how precious and fragile his work is to him, and how he dare not do anything to damage it, and all of this bound up in only a moment of his performance. There are no expository emotions or fake little indications to make sure we get the “idea”, he's not playing it “now-I've-turned-down-the-advance-i-cant-pay-my-rent-and-will-be-homeless-again-AREN'T-I-BRAVE”. No. Oscarsson gives us the truth by doing an action.

And that is the pattern of Oscarsson's performance throughout the film. He performs a simple action truthfully in each scene, and allows the context within which the action is performed to do it's work. He does this action in one scene, then that action in another. This action then that action. This then that.

NB - I have concentrated on one small part of Oscarsson's performance, to cover all of it would be far more than a blogsworth. Further, I highly recommend watching this remarkable film, which I had never heard of until recently, when filmmaker Rouzbeh Rashidi suggested I watch it , recommending Per Oscarsson's performance specifically. The film's called Sult and it was directed by Henning Carlsen.