Friday, 31 December 2010

Diary of a Chambermaid | Senses of Cinema

"Buñuel did not want mystery to emanate from a well-contrived chiaroscuro; from the timely creaking of a door, from blurring, from slow motion. He thoroughly distrusted every kind of cinematographic effect, rejecting it as facile, arty…. Rejecting virtuosity implies that you are sure of the power of what you are showing". (4)

I saw The Diary Of A Chambermaid as part of my facsination for the work of Michel Piccoli, and discovered not only that he is brilliant in it, but that the film is a true masterpiece.

Wednesday, 29 December 2010

The Great Acting Blog: "The Discreet Madness Of Michel Piccoli"

“There are musicians who practice all the time but we actors are not able to do that. We don't have an instrument, except if you say we are our own instrument, and yet I always try to continue searching and working for the moment where you have to deliver.” - Michel Piccoli.


Like his countryman Alain Delon, although a very different acting animal, Michel Piccoli has worked with many of the great auteurs of European cinema; Jean-Luc Godard, Jean-Pierre Melville, Luis Bunuel, Jacques Rivette, Claude Sautet, Otar Iosseliani, Louis Malle, Claude Chabrol, and those are only the ones I can think of. And not only has he worked with the best, but Piccoli has also appeared in several masterpieces, my favourite of which must be Godard's Le Mepris, where Piccoli plays a hack writer, who spends most of the film trying to keep hold of his wife, played by the beautiful Brigitte Bardot. He fumbles around after her, trying to satisfy her needs which are apparently incomprehensible to him, but we see Piccoli really trying, desperately trying, we see it in his face, it's the sad sight of a strong man brought low, until he does eventually lose her, tragically, to his own paymaster, played by Jack Palance.

Piccoli is a real lion of an actor, he's physically strong, and possesses a personality of force, along with an easy vocal power. But there is also a delicacy about him, a grace, he's self-conscious, he is generous and humble. He is mentally tough too, a rigorous thinker, which gives his strength a vulnerable quality, all of which adds up to a provocative and compelling acting whole. It has even been said that Piccoli is the perfect split between the physical and the intellectual, and I'd go along with that.

I began to understand the nature of Piccoli's talent better, after I read an interview with him in Cahiers Du Cinema, where he expressed his admiration for the work of Louis Jouvet, describing him as having “a kind of discreet madness”. I thought this an apt description for Piccoli himself. The “discreet” is the intellectual, graceful side of Piccoli, stiff upper lipped and impassive. In this mode, Piccoli's work is pared down, allowing the audience to project their own imagination onto him, and therefore vicariously experience the character's trials and tribulations. This is the Piccoli of self-control, enabling him to play the white collar gangster, Nuttheccio, in Jean-Pierre Melville's Le Doulos, or an old woman (yes, an old woman) in Otar Iosseliani's Gardens In Autumn, or a great painter in Jacques Rivette's La Belle Noiseuse. And yet, even here, beneath Piccoli's intelligence and civilised mannner, there is the “madness” too. And we sense it, even when it is not brought forth directly, as in Claude Chabrol's Les Noces Rouges, where Piccoli plays the Deputy Mayor, he seems somehow savage when cherishing Stephane Audran during their illicit love affair. But Piccoli only ever offers us brief glimpses of this madness, but when it comes it's shocking, fierce, and decisive, and tends to manifest itself in sudden outbursts. In Claude Sautet's Les Choses de la Vie, Piccoli's vicious berating of the architect who messes up his plans is intense but it apparently comes from nowhere and is over in a moment, it's effect however, is total. There are other moments too, in the aforementioned Le Mepris, where we see Bardot flinch when faced with the chaos of Piccoli's temper. Ultimately though, this madness is always present in Piccoli's work, even if it's usually only latent, shadowing his essentially classy nature.

Michel Piccoli is one of the greatest actors there has ever been. His body of work is immense (which includes a substantial amount of theatre work, infact, the first 10 years or so of Piccoli's career were spent upon the stage, learning his trade, sadly I have never seen him live), and I can only look upon it with awe. The qualities he embodies as a man, and therefore brings to his work, are a lesson for any actor. He also thinks deeply about his work, in this sense then, he is a philosopher of acting, aswell as an artist.

I fear Michel Piccoli is little known here in United Kingdom, if you don't know his work, I urge you to watch his films, any of the films mentioned here would be a good place to start*, try them, and experience, for yourself, the discreet madness of Michel Piccoli.

* and I have hardly mentioned his substantial work with Luis Bunuel, for whom Piccoli was an important collaborator

Wednesday, 22 December 2010

The Great Acting Blog: "My 10 Favourite Performances In Films I Happened To See In 2010"


I had intended to blog about a scene I was to shoot for the trailer for Sean J Vincent's new feature film, a psychological thriller called Their Law, where I get shot in the foot. Unfortunately, Sean got stuck at Munich airport, a victim of the travel chaos caused by the weather, and I was stuck for a topic to write about. I thought about doing my “10 best films of 2010”, but questioned whether that was entirely appropriate for an acting blog, and also I realised there were far too many movies I haven't scene this year, and consequently my list wouldn't have carried any weight. Then I thought, I'll do my 10 best performances of the year. Fine. As I compiled my list however, I saw that the first few entries were performances in films not necessarily released in 2010. However, I felt the performances in question were just so superb that I couldn't ignore them, and desperately wanted to share them. And so, what I'm actually offering you is my 10 favourite performances in films I happened to see this year, regardless of when those performances were given.

What all of these performances have in common is that they are provocative and individualistic, we see the true workings of the actor's personality. Also, it struck me, that all of the performances have a certain level of intensity, which implies a full commitment on the part of the actor in question. If you've seen any of these films, I'd like to know your thoughts, and if you haven't seen any of them, I highly recommend all of them.

The list is in no particular order.

Per Oscarsson in Sult (Henning Carlsen, 1966). A brilliant and moving masterpiece from Oscarsson, who plays a starving writer in this examination of the artistic temperament. Check out Oscarsson's response in the scene where the pawnbroker refuses to lend him money.

Robin Hill in Down Terrace (Ben Wheatley, 2009). Darkly sardonic and natural, Hill's performance is brilliant as the neurotic son of his crime boss father. Always on edge, and seemingly about to explode at any moment, Hill wrestles with the demands of being part of a crime family as well as the trials and tribulations of domestic life. Checkout the scene where Hill screams for his mother after he discovers some of his books have been moved.

Peter Lorre in M (Fritz Lang, 1931). Remarkable from Lorre, hunted and haunted after he's suspected of being a child killer. Lorre's work here is provocative, unusual, and vivid, not to mention powerful. Check out the judgement scene when Lorre pleads his case.

Maria Ornetto in The Headless Woman (Lucrecia Martel, 2008). Unbelievable work from Ornetto, minimal and intense, after she's suffers the guilt of running over a child (or did she?) and fleeing the scene. It's the kind of performance where Ornetto appears to be doing nothing yet we know exactly what she's thinking. Check out the scene where she stops the car and simply takes a few minutes to compose herself after the accident.

Christos Sterigioglou in Dogtooth (Giorgos Lanthimos, 2009). Controlled and precise from Sterigioglou, who switches devastatingly between measured father and viscous brute, playing a man who keeps his family in a complex, cut off from the outside world. Check out the scene where Sterigioglou cuts his suit to ribbons and covers himself in fake blood in an effort to convince his children that domestic cats are dangerous.

Rudolf Hrusinsky in The Cremator (Juraj Herz, 1969). Hrusinsky's performance is just so strange, playing a man who believes he is “liberating souls” when he cremates dead bodies, and who is ultimately employed by the NAZIs. Hrusinsky treats the ever increasing extremity of events almost indifferently, certainly matter-of-factly, which creates a bone dry humour, and lends a chilling quality to his work.

Tilda Swinton in I Am Love (Luca Guadagnino, 2009). Swinton's gives her best performance in this film set among the higher echelons of the Italian upper-middle classes. She plays a woman dedicated to her family, until she embarks on passionate affair with a chef. Swinton is wonderfully sensitive in the role, there is a humility about her work, and she is completely true. Checkout the “prawnography” scene.

John Hurt in 44 Inch Chest (Malcolm Venville, 2009). Playing a viscous misogynist old git, Hurt's brilliance is to take a character which should've been repulsive and render him compelling. Hurt's commitment is total, throwing eveything he's got at it, his performance comes from the heart. Hurt's work is the embodiment of truth, he's an example of a true actor-artist.

Pete Postlewaite in Distant Lives, Still Voices (Terence Davies, 1988). Postlethwaite's performance here, is a supreme example of craft; precision, force, control and intent. He plays the bullying, tyrannical father of a working class family in 1940s Liverpool. Checkout the scene where Postlethwaite opens his front door to the son he banished; there is a pause before Postlethwaite dismisses him with “frig off”, and slams the door in his face. Goes right to the bones.

Olle Sarri in The Ape (Jasper Ganslandt, 2009). A great slab of a performance from Sarri, playing a driving instructor continually on the brink of a nervous breakdown. Sarri's work is naturalistic and incredibly intense as he struggles to cope with the world around him. Checkout the scene where he tries to converse with his neighbours, but all we see is the sheer weirdness of everyday interaction.

NB - The still is Peter Lorre in M.

Monday, 20 December 2010

Drifting Clouds Recommendation: "The Cremator"

This week, I'm delighted to recommend a lost masterpiece from the Czech New Wave, courtesy of the Second Run DVD label, The Cremator by Juraj Herz. It's a strange and beautiful film, and if you like your comedy dark and your angles Wellesian, then this is the film for you. Also, check out the central performance by Rudolf Hrušínský, surely one of the most remarkable in all cinema. Below is a short write up from the Channel 4 film guide.

The Cremator
Director - Juraj Herz
Czech Republic / 1968
Main Feature: 95 minutes
Certificate: 15
Black & White

Channel 4 Film Guide

An enjoyably strange, undoubtedly original and occasionally terrifying film (9 1/2 out of 10)

On one level The Cremator can be enjoyed simply as something truly strange and different. Although it is live action, the film has much of the oddness and Gothic trappings of Czech animation. Director Juraj Herz actually studied puppetry rather than film, and is a friend of the Czech surrealist filmmaker Jan Svankmajer. This is a film full of strange angles and odd ways of looking at the world. At its heart is Karl Kopfrkingl (Rudolf Hrušínský) the cremator of the title. Though he loves his job dearly, his strangeness is emphasised in one of the film's key early passages, a trip to a fair during which he s perked up by a visit to an exhibition of gruesome waxworks.

But while you might expect a film this eccentric to be otherworldly, The Cremator is actually grounded in politics. In what isn't a terribly surprising twist given the late 30s setting, Kopfrkingl's interest in the purifying power of the oven chimes in with the rise of Nazism. But the clunky premise - that there is a fine line between rigid middle class conservatism and being a fascist - is less important than the extraordinary atmosphere the film creates, and Hrušínský's portrayal of the increasingly deranged Kopfrkingl.

Wednesday, 15 December 2010

The Great Acting Blog: "A Very Real Mystery"


Last week, in Hackney's London Fields, I shot a scene for Rouzbeh Rashidi's new feature film, provisionally titled Closure Of Catharsis. Rouzbeh intentionally works without a script and outside the bounds of traditional storytelling, instead, his cinematic style is rooted in the poetic interaction of image and sound, letting his actors respond to their immediate situations in order to create “moments” of cinema. His film language is completely personal, it would be impossible for me to reference any other filmmaker to help you understand it, you'd have to watch his films for yourself. However, suffice to say, his was an aesthetic which completely bowled me over when I first discovered his work. And so, it was against this background, I approached my first collaboration with the young Irish-Iranian filmmaker.

The scene in question was to be an improvised monologue, I would be the only person infront of the camera. There was no rehearsal, Rouzbeh gave me only very brief instructions as we made our way to the location, and were something along the lines of; “you are trying to remember something, something you have repressed because of it's traumatic impact upon you, but now you are really struggling to bring forth the memory”. He told me that the memory could be real or something I just made up, or a mixture of both. Now, the object of all of my work is to avoid the hideous feeling of falsity which comes via bad acting. And the way that I have taught myself to do this is by turning everything into a concretely doable task, or action, something I can actually do or try to do, because this keeps me grounded in truth. So, in the few minutes between receiving my instructions and beginning my work before the camera, I reasoned thus:

“a memory I cannot remember is a mystery, and I have been asked to remember something I've forgotten, therefore, my task is to solve a mystery”.

To solve a mystery is doable. It also frees me from having to “invent” something, and by that I mean, inventing a memory within the improvisation and then pretending to forget it and then pretending to remember it. So, what I am doing as an actor and as a character is exactly the same, and what I hope to give the director is the truth, so what you see is not me pretending to remember something, but me trying to remember something in actuality. The objective of the character is to unlock a repressed memory, and what I am doing is trying to solve a mystery, and the mystery for me is: what am I actually going to remember for the purposes of the improvisation.

The danger of improvisation is that the actor tries to manufacture a result because the clock is ticking and he may feel he should produce SOMETHING. I believe that we should be very patient in improvisation, and simply wait until something happens within our given circumstances. So that's exactly what I did after I sat on the bench, I just waited with the camera turned on me, confident that my action of “to solve a mystery” would begin to work for me, and that I would start to move and speak truly. I did absolutely nothing for what seemed an eternity (it may only have been a few moments). There were occasions where I almost succumbed and was about to speak merely because it would've made me feel like I was doing my job and not as a result of any genuine impulse, but mercifully I resisted and those moments passed.

At the beginning of shooting, the camera is always oppressive to me, I am always conscious of it, it is like a flame too close to my face and I want it to go away, and I am horribly self-conscious which means it's almost impossible to do work that is anything other than mechnical. Rouzbeh would disappear for long walks, maybe for 10 or 20 minutes he would go off for, and leave me with the camera rolling, which did make it easier for me to be patient because I may have felt more pressure to produce something had he remained present. Mercifully however, it was not long before my performance instincts took-over, suddenly I love the camera and long to deliver provocative moments for it to record, I am no longer worried about what I should do, but I'm looking around the park, responding to the environment; a couple of unleashed dangerous-dogs come a-sniffing nearby, a squirrel darts across some branches, a jogger cruises by oblivious to the camera, while some schoolgirls giggle at it. For me, this is all grist to the mill, providing me with something concrete to respond to, taking me out of myself, and thus enabling my action to do it's work in my sub-conscious. And, in time, a mystery did emerge, something about dogs from my childhood and something about an old 14 inch black and white television, also from my childhood. And the mystery became about understanding the link between the television and the dogs which was never actually resolved during the improv.

Very curiously, after awhile, I began to feel as though the whole of London Fields belonged to me, and that all the passersby were merely extras in the film, orchestrated by Rouzbeh. I also felt as though I was now in a bubble, and that I could not leave the frame within which I had been placed, but not necessarily unwillingly, but more like a character from a Beckett story, voluntarily and involuntarily immobile. I felt sad when Rouzbeh drew the improvisation to a close, after what, he revealed to me, had been a 2 hour non-stop session (I had lost all sense of time). Of course, I was mentally drained, plus the cold weather had started to get to me, which meant I was probably producing very little that was worthwhile by this point, nontheless, I didn't want to leave my little kingdom where I had felt so imprisoned to begin with, but now felt so at home.

As an actor, I never concern myself with the outcome of my work, I never try to artificially create a result, if a provocative moment is brought forth, then terrific, acknowledge it and move on, it would be false to try to recreate it. I don't know if what I have produced in this film is any good, and I wont know until I see the finished film, and even then I will only measure my performance in relation to my intentions, but of course, in my heart I hope I have done my job well. The most satisfying aspect of my work on Closure Of Catharsis however, was how my technique worked for me, almost independently of any conscious effort on my part, a very real mystery was brought forth, and I tried my best to resolve it. This this is the pay off of an habitual approach to craft.

Wednesday, 8 December 2010

The Great Acting Blog: "Prepare To Play


Sometimes the actor is employed to work on a production where there is no time to rehearse his scenes with his director and fellow cast members before performance. This situation is rare in the theatre and more common in films with a small budget. Here, the actor is expected to have the discipline and the skill to rehearse himself, and turn up, on set, ready to deliver the goods. In order to be relaxed and work with confidence, thereby doing his best, the actor must prepare correctly, and further, this preparation will help him to deal with any curve balls that may come his way and avoid freaking out when confronted by the unforseen.

Central to this preparation is identifying and accepting that which is within the actor's control, and that which is not. How the actor feels is out of his control, as is his mood, his confidence. How the actor's colleagues respond to him, their manners and professionalism, or lack thereof, are not under his control and if he understands this, then the actor is less likely to be disturbed by contemptible behaviour. The production itself is not under the actor's control, how well it is going, whether it's on schedule, morale, etcetera, none of this should affect the actor's work for it is not within his control.

But the preparation the actor chooses to do is under his control. In addition to identifying the above, the actor must keep his own house in order, by planning to conduct himself impeccably, by knowing his lines so well that they have become habitual, by choosing a concretely doable action* to play the scene. It's also important to realise that, when rehearsing and performing, emotions are NOT under the control of the actor. Sometimes we come across someone who has a knack for making themselves cry on cue, but this is not a good actor, this is merely somebody with a knack for making themselves cry on cue, and infact, these kind of crocodile tears are the antithesis of the actor's work, which is to perform the scene truthfully, because any emotion which is not created organically by the actor's attempts to do the actions called forth by the script, is a lie. (It is at this point that I implore dramatists to write not emotions but actions).**

Actions are within the actors control, emotions are not. And if our goal on set is to only concern ourselves with that which is in our control, we will forget about emotions and concentrate entirely on our actions. So, the actor arrives on set and settles into position, ready to do the scene. The director shouts ACTION! Now, during his lonely rehearsals, the actor made a choice about how to play the scene, he chose to “demand some peace and quiet” (this is a fictional unwritten scene that I've just made up, but you catch my drift). But, at the end of take one, the director screams: “CUT! No no no! What are you doing, you imbecile! You're too strong! Why play the scene like that?! Lets do it again and this time I want you to be weaker, you need to be frightened of the other actor!” Now, that's quite a radical change the director is asking for. What is the actor to do in this moment of pressure as everyone around him is preparing for the next take, and appears to be doing their job perfectly? Well, he certainly doesn't want to have anything to do with trying to summon fear within himself, or even worse, indicating that he is frightened with his “scared” acting, both options would lead to phoney work. Might the actor simply adjust his action, and instead of “demanding” peace and quiet, he might “plead” for peace and quiet. This requires no special “preparation”, the actor can begin pleading immediately, it's concretely doable, and as such, the actor's work will remain true and full, and of course, the director's demand will be met, unless they want more that is, in which case the actor might add an adverb to his action, and “plead desperately”. So the properly prepared actor then, not only chooses to do an action he thinks will fulfill the intentions of the script best, but he may also come up with reasoned variations on his original choice, and practice doing those too.

Rigorous and detailed preparation will enable the actor to remain creative under pressure, and do his job well, and maintain impeccable standards of behaviour. It is the paradox of acting, that the better prepared the actor is, the freer he is to play.



*An action here refers to the actors attempt to accomplish something. For example: to sell a great idea, to tell off a fool, plead for a second chance, get a straight answer etc.


** If anyone else can come up with more items within and without the actor's control, even if they come from a different discipline such as writing, please do post them in the comments section, as I am always eager to learn. Thanks.

Wednesday, 1 December 2010

The Great Acting Blog: "Work For Your Own Satisfaction"

It is true that going on rounds and rounds of auditions is not necessarily the most productive use of the actor's time, however, the actor must accept auditioning as part of the actors' life (unless he forms his own theatre company that is). The actor can benefit from auditioning in ways other than getting the role though, and these benefits include: a chance to practice craft, talk about yourself, learn how to work with different directors and their approaches, plus it's an opportunity to win new allies, the actor may not get the part on this occasion but might in some future production if all goes well.

For the actor, the object of an audition is to obtain his own good opinion of himself, which is to say, that he conducts himself and performs the scene requested of him or reads the scene requested of him, to a standard which meets his own satisfaction. The actor should not worry about getting the part because that his out of his control, and the actor should not worry about whether the audition panel think he's a good actor or even if they like him, for this too is out of his control. Most actors will have experienced auditions where they've done the scene and thought they've hit the bulls-eye only to be greeted by an embarassed silence, and others where, at the end of the scene, they've hung their head in shame at the paucity of their effort only to be treated like a hero by the panel. Again, the actor's sole object in an audition situation is to obtain his own good opinion of himself, and all of his actions should be directed toward that end.

What happens if an actor is invited to audition, but upon reading the script realizes that he is the wrong kind of actor for the material, which basically means the material doesn't interest him, doesn't get his blood up, and that the actor probably wouldn't like himself playing the role. And this has nothing to do with playing an “unlikeable” character, an actor can revel whilst playing somebody like Hitler, no, what I'm talking about here is simply liking yourself, liking the work you're doing. When the actor likes the material he is working on, he is energised by it, can practice all day long, line learning and script analysis are not a problem, the actor cannot wait to show what he can do. Contrast that to reading a script which holds no interest, concentration is a nightmare, it is extremely difficult to follow the action, the stage directions become irritating, turning the page is a genuine effort. And, of course, the rules of auditions are no different to the rules of life generally: if it bores the actor at home, it'll bore the actor in the audition room, and he'll do less than his best, and what he'll get is not the part in the play or the film, but a bout of self-loathing, which may even cause him to turn against our most mysterious art form, and declare it worthless in an effort to be cleansed of the ill-feeling he has for himself.

If the actions engendered in the scene chosen for the audition mean that the actor cannot perform in the audition to a level which meets his satisfaction, then he should cancel the audition, regardless of the excellence of the people auditioning him, and regardless of the potential to enjoy those benefits other than getting the part. Of course, this is easier to say than to do, because auditions are hard to come by. Most actors are optimistic, because optimism is crucial if your life is spent battling against ludicrous odds, and, as such, many actors put a positive spin on a project that does not excite them in order to motivate themselves, and this is especially true when options are limited and work is scarce. But an audition is not work, an audition is the possibility of work, and a remote possibility at that. Why would the actor risk damaging himself by taking a long shot at a job he doesn't even want? It's just not a shot worth taking...... “Ah yes”, I hear you say, “but I have rent to pay, a CV to build, agents to impress”....Granted. But that, I'm afraid, is a subject for another time.


PS - The photo is of Jose Ferrer as Cyrano de Bergerac in the 1950 film version of Rostand's play, and would like to recommend Ferrer's performance as an example of great acting, a performance so true and generous, it is a joy to watch.