Friday, 30 September 2011

Drifting Clouds Recommends Larisa Shepitko's The Ascent

"SYNOPSIS: Shepitko’s emotionally overwhelming final film won the Golden Bear at the 1977 Berlin Film Festival and has been hailed around the world as the finest Soviet film of its decade. Set during World War II’s darkest days, The Ascent follows the path of two peasant soldiers, cut off from their troop, who trudge through the snowy backwoods of Belarus seeking refuge among villagers. Their harrowing trek leads them on a journey of betrayal, heroism, and ultimate transcendence." - Criterion Collection

This is one of the most astounding films I have ever seen. It looks incredible, the action is compelling, at times harrowing, and ultimately profound. Masterpiece.

Wednesday, 28 September 2011

The Great Acting Blog: "Reality & Illusion"





All stills by Rouzbeh Rashidi


The Homo Sapiens Project is an ongoing series of personal video works by Rouzbeh Rashidi, who asked me to contribute to the project by talking about myself on camera for 40 minutes (few actors need to be asked twice to do this). We shot the interview in Dublin while filming HE, along with additional footage in various parts of the city. After seeing the finished film, Rashidi remarked : -

“it is very interesting because there are no lines in this film between documentary or fiction. The film goes beyond all of this and your performance (the interview) seems completely fictional and staged.”

This is strange because in the film I simply talk about what I've been doing as an actor, there was no preparation – the camera was turned on me, I was asked a question and just spoke. So, how can it seem “fictional and staged”. I believe what is being referred to here is the precision of movement and speech, that everything which is not germane to answering the question is censored out, and this censoring creates a “deliberateness”, a control, which could also be viewed as staged.

But how does this situation come about? Well, the tools of the actor are his body, his voice, his personality. A profound understanding of these tools and how they function is crucial if he is to develop into an effective performer (you cannot improve something you don't understand). Much of the actor's time then, is spent observing himself, making improvements where necessary and discarding bad habits. This requires enormous will and self-control, which can be built up and strengthened over time, after facing up to real challenges. Ultimately, this self-monitoring becomes habitual: I've always loved the story about actor-impresario and co-founder of Dublin's Gate Theatre, Michael Mac Liammoir, who, upon learning of the death of his partner Hilton Edwards, walked downstairs grief stricken, when he caught himself in the mirror and thought: “ah, so that's what I look like when I have just learned about the death of a loved one”. Now THAT'S an actor (incidentally, the report of Edwards' death proved to be false). The point is, the actor is continually working for “the moment where you have to deliver”.


An actor's performance should not be pretended to, regardless of the fiction of a script, the performance should be an actuality – in short, it should be true. The actor renders his performance truthful by giving himself something concrete to accomplish in the scene, by giving himself an action .* Further, this aesthetic can also be applied when the actor is not performing, in his everyday life, strengthening the aesthetic, and making it habitual so that it will kick in and help the actor when he is under pressure – every moment of the actor's life then, is effectively contributing to his growth as an artist. The net effect is that the actor's work becomes indistinguishable from his personality.

The combination of the actor's intense self-awareness and the habitual employment of actions, can make the illusory seem real, and the real seem illusory, and sometimes it can make something seem both real and illusory simultaneously. Perhaps then, the distinction is false?



*For example, if character A is trying to get character B to leave her husband and dead end marriage, and,run away with him to start a new life, then an action could be “to sell a great idea” - point is, selling a great idea is something you can actually do, and it doesn't need “preparation”.





Sunday, 25 September 2011

The Great Acting Blog: "Duologue"


Still by Rouzbeh Rashidi


By the time Dublin actor CILLIAN ROCHE arrived to do our scene, I had already completed my monolues for Rouzbeh Rashidi's new feature film, He, and was feeling nicely warmed up thank-you very much. And, as with the monologues, we intentionally avoided rehearsals, none of the tedious and useless backstory “work”, Rashidi simply gave us enough to spark the scene, then it was upto us to create something infront of the rolling camera – we had to deal with whatever we threw at eachother as best we could.

The idea here, was that Roche was to be my best friend, my only friend infact, and I was to tell him that I was going to end my life, but I am not telling him for any specific reason, there's nothing I want him to do. The scene was not necessarily to be emotional, I was explaining to Roche what I was doing in matter-of-fact terms. This created a nice contrast at the beginning of the scene, because I was very relaxed about my decision to commit suicide, however, at first, the news was incomprehensible to Roche, especially as I told him it in such a level headed fashion, and I confess that I enjoyed holding the aces at this point, that I had gained a reaction and upset the equilibrium. Gradually though, the scene shifted, Roche began to accept what I had told him, and started asking me questions as to why I was going to kill myself. This put me on the run slightly as I was now forced to explain myself more fully, which also demands that I come to terms with why the character is doing it – essentially then, I am discovering my own character as the scene developes. There was a certain amount of waffle on my part as there was no succinct reason why the character was going to kill himself, I simply offered that suicide seemed like the logical end point of my trajectory – however, death is the end point of everybody's trajectory....perhaps then, my character, having nothing in his life to commit himself to (especially since the important relationships in his life had failed), may have wanted to take matters into his own hands and set his own end date himself. As the improvisation wore on, I got the distinct feeling that my character was killing himself simply because he was curious to see what would happen, as if a life which had been disappointing although not tragic, held no more possible excitement for him, that the notion of death was all that was left for my character. When Roche asked me what did I expect to encounter after I died, a slight thrill shot though my system at the thought of confronting the awesome which lays beyond life, but fear too, as I could not know what would await me, if anything at all. Either way, it is to come face to face with something infinite – suddenly I became aware of our distinct powerlessness in the world, and how we underestimate our own courage.

The final phase of the improvisation almost drifted into absurdity, as by this stage Roche had also become quite rational about what I was going to do, and wanted to talk practicalities - was there anything he could do in order to help me? Perhaps, in the interests of dignity, he could make sure my body was discovered quickly?...We mulled it over, and came up with some convoluted ideas, but concluded it would be too risky: since I had told him I was going to kill myself, and Roche wasn't going to stop me, this may make him an accessory before the fact (this is the kind of knowledge you gain by watching American movies), and if he happened to be around so soon after my death, then it may cause suspicion and place him in the firing line. It was best that he stay well away. Finally, the improvisation ended as Loche and I decided to go for one last pint....

The duologue scene presented different challenges to the monologue scene. The monologue needs to be self-generating, you have to stimulate yourself into action, which presents it's own difficulties, but with a dialogue scene you are being stimulated by your scene partner, and you've got to be fully committed, in the moment, and alive to what the other actor is sending your way, then bat it back to them. Working off the other actor, taking the attention off yourself and placing it fully on the other guy, is fundamental to giving a truthful and provocative performance. Easier said then done though, some actors never do it (lacking either will or ability), it's scary because you're apt to reveal yourself, shattering the carefully composed persona maintained to help us get through everyday life, you become vulnerable, it's much more preferable to simply wallow in preparation, but without working off the other actor the performance is dead in the water.


Wednesday, 21 September 2011

Drifting Clouds Recommends Pedro Costa's "Blood"


I urge you to check out this worderful film from Pedro Costa, it's a dark tale about two brothers dealing with the loss of their father, it's compelling, and it looks stunning. I had never seen any of Costa's films before this one. Love it when I discover a new filmmaker.

The Great Acting Blog: "A Very Mysterious Business"



Still by Rouzbeh Rashidi


Readers of my blog “Preparation For He”, will already know that I was in Dublin last week, filming He, the new feature film by Rouzbeh Rashidi. It's essentially about a man who has decided, quite rationally, to commit suicide, and so examines the important relationships in his life. Since Rashidi works not with a script, but only a brief outline, much of the film is created through improvisation, in a highly collaborative relationship between actor and filmmaker. I have decided to document the key acting challenges of the shoot and see if we can't learn something from them. Also, I have decided to split this blog into two parts: this week I will look at an improvised monologue scene which we did, and I will post another blog later in the week looking at a duologue scene, and some conclusions too.


Although I knew the outline of the film, when I arrived in Dublin Rashidi gave me some more detail in preparation for the monologue scene: yes my character was intent on ending his life, however, he did not have a specific reason as to why he was doing so, there was no one single trauma which had pushed him into this decision. He was a logical man, unemotional, a handyman who loved to construct objects like chairs and tables, but he was not depressed although downbeat. The idea of the scene is that I am leaving messages for my estranged wife and my parents on a voice recording machine, which I would then send to them. Again, there was not to be one overarching problem with them, more a general bitterness and disapointment, which of course was to be explored during the improvisation. As always, Rashidi sets the general boundary of the scene but everything within that boundary belongs to the actor, and there is just enough detail to spark the imagination and no more – it's a way of working which opens up rich creative possibilities for the actor by allowing him to take responsibility for his work (against the modern trend of infantilising the actor), although enormous creative will is required if those possibilities are to be explored fully. And my imagination was sparked immediately: I could see the scene in my mind's eye, I could see my face, and I could hear myself speaking slowly, and with a strange cracked voice, and I thought; “wouldn't it be great if I could have that crack in my voice for the actual scene”, but quickly dismissed the idea, as there wasn't time for me to work on it. Anyway, based on the information I had been given, I needed to give myself a concrete action, something to hang my hat on for the scene, and get me moving.


Rashidi wanted me to speak about a wife and parents, but how could I do so truthfully when, at this point, my wife and parents were merely images and impressions in my imagination, and what's more, had only been there for a few moments? I decided that the improvisation itself would be a literal exploration of those images and impressions, ie – I would actually observe the images I saw in my imagination and respond to them during the scene. I was unsure what the outcome of this approach would be, an approach which, to a certain extent, was experimental for me: typically my method would be to take the fiction I was being asked to participate in (e.g. – a playscript) and convert that fiction into physically doable actions that were in line with the author's intentions as I discerned them*. However, in the He improvisation, my action actually creates the fiction, the end product derives directly from my imagination, without external mediation – and so experimental because I don't know what the outcome will be.


I had been determined on this improvisation to be more patient than I had been in the past, where I might have felt that I should speak or do something purely for the sake of doing so, as oppose to waiting until I unearth something or have something to say or do. So, I expect to wait in silence for quite a time (as did Rashidi), like a seance. However, when the scene began, it began quickly, I hadn't had to wait and I hadn't had to force anything: an image formed in my mind of a kitchen, or more prescisely, the corner of a fitted kitchen, where I could see some cupboards and the tiled floor – it was a kitchen belonging to the family of a childhood friend of mine, why it came into my mind at that moment I do not know, but there it was. Now, on the floor-tiles in the corner of this fitted kitchen there were swipe marks, because the mother of my friend would move from the work surface of this kitchen to the sink by stepping across with her right foot, then dragging her left foot in a swiping action, and she had done this so many times that it had marked the floor. Anyway, I started the improvisation by combining this image of the kitchen with the notes Rashidi had given me: in my message to my ex-wife I began to complain that she was complacent in the way she moved from the work surface in our kitchen to the sink, and that it was this complacency which had made me start to hate her.....and the scene rolled on from there. My choice of action had worked straightaway (I'll most certainly be using it again), I was active and energized, full of intent and everything I said was grounded in truth. I had also decided to be more disciplined during the improvisation, stronger with myself, cutting away the waffle and censoring myself more rigorously than in the past, overall I wanted greater self-control, selecting precisely what I wanted to say. This approach suited Rashidi's desire for the scene to have a slow rhythmn, almost an emotional monotone, and this created wonderful long silences. The improvisation continued in 10 minute blocks with Rashidi asking me to focus on different aspects of my relationship with my wife in the first scene, and my parents in the second. There was no need to re-shoot scenes as we thought there might be, the improvisation was coherent, and it was a question of pursuing the same line of enquiry through to it's natural conclusion, and, miraculously, the crack in my voice which I had heard in my imagination, was present in my speech without any conscious application on my part – this is the weird voodoo aspect of acting I love so much – we all of us pretend we understand what acting is, but none of us really does. It is a very mysterious business.


Sunday, 18 September 2011

The Great Acting Blog: "Preparation For He"

This week, I travelled to Dublin start filming on Rouzbeh Rahsidi's new feature film, He. I am currently working on a series of blogs about the shoot, which Rashidi and I will expand into a codified technique which can be employed by other directors and actors, independently. But first however, I want to share with you my preparation for He in the week leading upto the shoot. For those of you unfamiliar with Rashidi's methods, it is important to point out that he doesn't work from a script, there is no script. In the case of He, all I knew about the film was the brief outline that Rashidi had provided me with. There were no lines to learn, no script to analyse, no rehearsals. So, the question for me was: “what do I need to do to make sure I'm ready to perform?”

Well, it was helpful that I had worked with Rashidi before, on the Remodernist feature film, Closure Of Catharsis, and therefore, I at least knew what to expect from him: Rashidi intentionally avoids rehearsals with the actor – on Closure Of Catharsis I was given only a few sentences prior to filming, enough to get my imagination working, and then it was up to me to create something infront of a rolling camera. With this on my mind, I decided to arrive in Dublin without preconceptions about what I was going to do – I needed to be receptive to my surroundings, to what is being said to me, and able to respond quickly, vividly, and fully. In order to do this, I had to ensure that I was relaxed and refreshed, with my mind as free of clutter as possible, almost completely blank. In great performances, the actor simplifies and intensifies life, it is a heightened state of being, every moment is exciting and meaningful. When working from a text (if it's a good one), the writer has already created a structure which helps the actor to simplify and intensify (ie: discard anything not germane to the script), or, when improvising, there is usually a rehearsal period where a structure is created and then carried into the performance – however, when improvising without rehearsal, the actor must create the structure himself during the performance, moment-to-moment - this requires serious creative energy, and the mind must be razor sharp. If the actor fails to create this structure, the simplicity and intensity will not be present in his work, and then we are left with a performance overloaded with meaningless detail, a hodge-podge. No thanks. So, I knew I had to arrive in Dublin absolutely on top of my game.

There is also a game I am playing with myself – I must ensure that the current work is an improvement on the work I have done previously, I need to finish each production a better actor than when I started it, so there is this little pressure that I add into the mix. Therefore, in order to accomplish my dual goal of doing my job well and defeating my own limitations, I rest myself. I decrease my normal activity, I avoid committing to new tasks, or anything which requires deep thought and sends my brain off into new directions – I go into stand-by mode, a sort of hibernation. This is difficult for me because if I'm not working hard then I feel as though I am not living life, so I have to fight my natural instincts. Throughout the week I suffered from pangs of anxiety that I am wasting my life, but quickly settled when I reminded myself why I was resting. The strange aspect about consciously decreasing your activity, is how it affects the brain – the length of time I could concentrate for shrank, suddenly I couldn't remember things, I became absent minded, I missed words out when writing a sentence, my resolve was weak, and there were certain moments when this decline seemed shocking, but again, I reminded myself that I am deliberately shutting parts of myself down, and that it is only temporary in any case. I do this vague emptying-of-the-mind preparation all week, holding the general outline of the film at the back of my mind, never thinking about it directly, and neither did I focus on anything else with intent - I stared at movies without really watching them. Then, at the last minute, I do all that I need to do to be ready to leave for my flight, and I do it quickly and decisively, the resting period is not over, that won't end until I officially start work, I do it this way because it minimizes the time I spend concentrating on it, and therefore it's ability to disrupt me. Broadly speaking, this preparation worked. I turned up in Dublin strong and focussed, ready to not only cope with the creative challenges which lay ahead, but energized to excel by them.

 NB - When working on a script, I get a feeling of fullness by the end of rehearsals, it's the carrying round of the dialogue in my head, and rehearsals in my muscle memory. I got the same feeling of fullness when preparing for He, even though there was no dialogue or rehearsal. It was a sort of Pavlovian response to the fact I was going to perform. Strange.


Wednesday, 14 September 2011

The Great Acting Blog: "Concealing And Revealing" by Mel Churcher

Mel is a leading acting and voice coach.  She also coaches a wide range of professionals from budding newcomers to top film stars like Daniel Craig, Angelina Jolie, Keira Knightley and Jet Li; from presenters like Raymond Blanc and Goldie to singers like Tricky and Joss Stone; from top corporate executives and lawyers to rugby union referees.

Recent projects include working with leading actors on the films: 

The Lady, The Door, Berbarian Sound Studio, Sherlock Holmes, The Last Station, Control.


I’m delighted Mel has shared her extensive knowledge and experience in a guestpost for The Great Acting Blog, which is both practical and insightful, and with it’s use of video clips from classic movies, will prove to be, I’m sure, a wonderful resource for practitioners and enthusiasts.  


Concealing and Revealing

(thoughts from Mel Churcher...)


Actors are often obsessed with sub-text and when they find it, they want to share it. But what is sub-text? Literally it is what lies beneath the words. But we deal in sub-text all the time, even when we are not telling lies or trying to hide. Every association, clutch at the heart, memory or link we make as we talk, look around or communicate is a form of sub-text. If I say, ‘I’ve got to go and pick up Johnnie from school’, there is a whole world within that line – a life with and caring for Johnnie, pictures of the journey, a happy excuse to go or a duty to be done and so on.


If I look around my room or out of my window, everything I see evokes associations, feelings, memories and needs.

In life, these connections are already there but for a role, you have to build them. You can use improvisations, research, psychological gesture, substitutions, sense memories and especially any physical imaginative or practical work that stores muscle memory. Always act out stories that you have to tell at home so that when you tell them on set, your body has real memories of what happened.


(You will find many ways to rehearse alone in ‘A Screen Acting Workshop + DVD’ published this year by Nick Hern or my earlier book, ‘Acting for Film: Truth 24 Times a Second’ published by Virgin Books and also available on Kindle.)


  But once these connections and deep feelings and thoughts are stored, they must be trusted and relied upon without you feeling any need to parade them. You must not show us your preparation or how hard you’ve worked. Just like life, we will see it when we’re meant to or it will seep out in spite of yourself. Just like life, you may have to work hard not to show it if you wouldn’t want others to see it. The difficult words may be simply statements thrown away or they may be pulled out like thorns to extricate you from the situation. It all depends on what you, in the role, want to do – to conceal or to reveal and whether that is easy or hard. You may even smile or laugh when you talk about the most painful things.


Watch any documentaries or newsreels when people talk about terrible things that have happened to them. They don’t lose their warmth,  personality or even humour. They don’t stand back and comment on how the story should make you, the listener, feel. They are factual, practical, often laid-back and sometimes surprisingly funny. Their action is to share the pictures in their head with you, not to ‘feel’ it again. In fact, this is often the last thing they want to do.


 ‘Sub-text’, when used in acting training,  is usually focused upon the want or need that lies beneath the surface of the actual words or action. The first thing to ask yourself is, do you want the listener to understand this need?

1. ‘Would you like a drink sometime?’ (I fancy you like mad but you mustn’t know that – I’ll play it cool.)  


2. ‘Would you like a drink sometime?’ (I need you to know that I’m here for you whenever you want me.)


The speaker in example 1. will not give an inkling of the desires running underneath. He or she does not want the listener to read the subtext.


The speaker in example 2 will be trying to make contact and to see something back from the other person that shows the proposition has been understood. The speaker wants the listener to understand the subtext.


But we don’t even think about this in life as sub-text. We just know what the stakes are and whether we have to conceal or reveal our thoughts. And if we are alone, we just think. There is no-one to share it with, but we are not concealing anything either. In film, if you are alone,  this is the same. You are not having to conceal anything from anyone else but there is no-one to explain those feelings to, either.


We are not trying to ‘show’ our thoughts – we are just having them. And reacting to them ourselves, if we need to.


If there are other people in the room who mustn't understand those thoughts we will not give them away. If Kevin Spacey, in 'The Usual Suspects' gives the game away and we know his story is fiction, there is no film:




Of course, if we want the other person to guess our thoughts then we can share them, as Lauren Bacall does in this famous clip from ‘To Have and Have Not’:




Sometimes our eyes can show what we feel but our voices mustn’t give us away.  Consider this superb moment from Colin Firth in ‘A Single Man’(He cleverly takes off his glasses. A natural move but it allows us to see his eyes. )There is no-one else in the room so he doesn’t need to hide his emotion in his face but his voice cannot give him away. This is also superb moment-to -moment work. He is always just dealing and computing each second as it comes.




A clever director will allow the actor a private, unobserved moment when the thoughts don’t need to be hidden and we , the viewer can see what the other roles must not. But there are other ways for us to observe subtext without the actor ‘showing’ us. In this famous clip, Marlon Brando cannot show Eve Marie Saint’s character how much he cares for her, but when he puts on her glove, we, the audience, understand the subtext through this (seemingly) unconscious move.




Here is another example of secondary activity explaining the actor’s feelings. Dorothy Tutin in ‘Savage Messiah’ prepares food. Notice her unexpected flashes of humour and the way she really meets the art student’s eyes.




In this clip from ‘North by Northwest’, Eve Marie Saint and Cary Grant play it cool but trust the other will know the subtext!




We think of James Dean playing haunted characters. But in this clip from ‘East of Eden’, the shadows have not yet descended and he and Julie Harris explore their attraction for each other. They are both superb actors and here Dean allows his warmth and charm to shine through and we see clearly how he feels about his brother’s girl.




Look how much we learn about the relationship between these two people and Lawrence’s background and feelings about his father from these short moments between Omar Sharif and Peter O’Toole in ‘Lawrence of Arabia’:




Jeanne Moreau in the classic ‘Jules et Jim’ sings a song with a deceptively upbeat tune. See the deeper meaning in her eyes and the way she looks differently at the two men.




Here in the Pinter screenplay, The Servant,  there are dark undercurrents in this beautifully played scene between  Dirk Bogarde and James Fox (Doesn’t Laurence look like him…). Notice how they hardly look at each other. Even at the height of the quarrel, there is no sign of the screwed up faces or histrionics you see all the time on daytime television!




In Mrs Brown, Judi Dench never indulges her pain. It is always about interaction with the other people. Her loneliness, confusion and sorrow leaks out of her, but her energy is always away from her, looking, listening, watching – never towards herself or trying to get a ‘feedback’. She is always communicating.





See all the things that are not said, but understood, in this scene from the Swedish series Wallander with Krister Henriksson, Ola Rapace and the late Johanna Sällström. The acting in this series was suberb – easy, truthful with enormous depth that is never ‘signalled’.




Subtext doesn’t always have to be serious. In this scene from the beginning of ‘The African Queen’, Humphrey Bogart, Katharine Hepburn and Robert Morley deal with an embarrassing social situation.




Clips from older films are easier to find on youtube and earlier Hollywood actors were superb at sitting back, letting their words fall out and allowing the subtext simply to happen. But I would have liked to have shared more wonderful examples from recent television dramas, The Killing’, ‘The Sinking of the Laconia’ or ‘An Appropriate Adult’.


The moral of all this is: do your homework, but then trust it - sit back, relax, think, let pictures pop into your head and simply interact. Watch, listen, pursue what you want.  It is YOU speaking, they are YOUR needs – it’s easy, like life. Don’t add anything. Don’t know what will happen next. Don’t try to make it interesting. Don’t show us…



















U.S. Trailer For Aki Kaurismaki's Le Havre

Friday, 9 September 2011

Nuts4R2 Reviews Ben Wheatley's Kill List

By Nuts4R2

Kill List 2011 UK
Directed by Ben Wheatley
Screening at UK cinemas

Although I’m not going to talk about specific story details of anything that takes place after the first half of this movie has played’s really hard to talk about the kind of film Kill List actually is without at least spoiling the surprise of what it turns out to be. So, if like me, you managed to stay away from all the publicity this one garnered at certain festivals and on Twitter and you think Kill List is just another British crime thriller... you might want to turn back at this point and go see it totally blind like I did.

If you’re still with me I’d like to start off by saying that Kill List reminded me of two things when it comes to the art and craft of movie making. Two things that, I have to say, are rarely a given any more with modern cinema.

Number one is... movies can be very powerful. They can ooze a certain degree of thought-influencing juju from the very pores of their celluloid skin. Number two is... sometimes the power of a movie is not in what is shown on screen, but lies with what is not shown on screen. Kill List is very much an exponent of movies which have these kinds of qualities in spades.

The film starts off as very much a character study of domestic tension between a husband and wife and their little boy. The husband Jay (played by Neil Maskell) and the wife Shel (played by MyAnna Buring, who horror genre fans might recognise from her role as one of the girls in The Descent movies... the first of which was excellent) are at the end of their rope pretty much. The money has run out and Jay hasn’t got a job since his days of soldiering went horribly wrong in an unspecified manner. When his also ex-soldier mate Gal (played by Michael Smiley who was Tyres in Spaced and who I was trying really hard to “place” all through the duration of the film) comes to dinner with his new girlfriend in tow the domestic tensions spill over and it really gets quite hard to watch for a while there.

Think of the reality that someone like Mike Leigh would spin on this kind of material and you’d be half there to the “in your face-ness” of it all... but Wheatley has a very interesting cinematic style. I mentioned about the power of a movie sometimes coming from what’s not shown and this director has this edited in such a way that, although you can strongly feel the emotional impact of the characters and know where that’s at (due to some truly magnificent performances), things are kind of peered at in little sections and spliced together so what you actually get is an impression of who these people are, and it’s a very deep impression, without actually knowing much of anything about them. Gal has brought Jay the possibility of a job working with him and it’s only after a while that you realise the job that Jay is being talked into picking up is as a hitman, which seems to be something the two have done before.

Wheatley does some other interesting things with sound here to make you really feel the “authenticity” of the scenario and he makes use of overlapping soundtrack spills between scenes to shift you along... but it’s even more interesting than usual when he does this because he quite often uses the sound of a completely different emotional state overlapping... or rather grating... against the visual images. So an image of deep depression and tension can suddenly have the sound of fun and laughter on the soundtrack for 7 or 8 seconds before you are suddenly thrust into the next sequence where the sound matches up. The emotional juxtaposition actually seems to punch the pace of the film up so it feels like its hurtling along when, in reality, not much really happens for that first half an hour. There’s even a shot where he does this visually in one hit without a sound enhancement where Jay and Shel are in a sad and contemplative mood at the foreground of a shot while Gal and his “mysterious new girlfriend” are cavorting wildly in the background.

He does something else very clever with sound in a few sequences too but I’ll get to that later. Another great thing this director does visually is not shy away from contemplation... characters seen alone and with their thoughts for chunks of time give a real emotional impact and it’s quite a strange feeling to be manipulated to empathising this closely with characters whom you know nothing about. There are some great shots of MyAnna Buring on her own within a frame which take on almost Bermannesque status in their visual intensity and emotional colouring.

And then you get your first clue that the rest of the movie is not going to be as straight forward as it looks when Gals new girlfriend is alone in the bathroom and scratches a symbol, the same symbol seen in the opening credit of the movie, into the back of her hosts wall mirror. Strange things are afoot.

And then Jay and Gal go to get the job from their new client, which is to kill three people on a list (The Priest, The Librarian and The Politician) but Jay is taken by surprise when their new boss slits both Jay's and his own hand open to seal the contract with blood. Things really begin to pick up a pace then as we see Jay and Gal staking out their victims and all the while we are beginning to slowly realise that the main protagonist really is quite psychotic. The first victim smiles at him as he goes to shoot him and when he gets upset and extracts information (which leads to much more extracurricular torture and killing as Jay goes up against some people he really doesn’t like) from the victim whom he is smashing up with a hammer, the victim is, amongst all the screams, thanking him for it. “I know who you are” he says to Jay at one point, showing that it’s an honour to be paid a visit by the man... Jay, of course, doesn’t know what’s going on and he keeps a lot of this to himself.

There are some really wonderfully bleak, almost Lynchian scenes here like the sequence where Gal goes into “enemy territory” with a shot gun to find out what the heck has happened to Jay. And this is where that second trick of sound comes in that I was talking about earlier... well I say trick, it’s an interesting technique which I’m sure I’ve seen/heard done before... I just happened to notice it last night. During certain scenes the director turns off the naturalistic sound and builds tension through an alternate soundtrack overlap... and not so much music but industrial noise almost. Kinda like something Alan R. Splet might have designed for Eraserhead. This is used to punch up the tension during certain sequences and it works really well. Kurosawa would do something similar with music and it’s juxtaposition against a sequence of naturalistic sound (think the big battle sequence in Ran)... Wheatley does it with ugly and uneasy sounds it seems to me.

There are some pretty violent scenes here and because of the way this one is shot, you are still kinda sympathising for Jay and Gal, even though Jay is doing some pretty dreadful things to his victims. And then, once you think you’ve got a handle on the kind of movie it is... things start kicking into high gear and you realise there’s something even more sinister going on. Each section of the movie, once "the job" is underway, is titled after the name of each “contract” and, by the time you get to “The Politician” and Jay has been sent “a message”, and by message I mean his cat is killed and strung up outside the door of the family home, you really start to wonder what kind of conclusion this film will have.

Well all I’m saying is that Mr. Ben Wheatley’s movie gets to point about 20 mins from the end and then it all starts to go a bit Mr. Dennis Wheatley for the finale. In fact, to not put too fine a point on it, this film is very much a modern equivalent of Robin Hardy’s cult classic The Wicker Man and, while the ending of this film is in some ways predictable (when a fourth caption comes up on screen as The Hunchback... you should have no problem working out the exact, dual identity of this persona) it is also vastly less penetrable than that aforementioned chiller.

When I came out of the cinema I came out thinking a few things. They were:

1. It’s not a horror film anymore than the supernaturally disguised giallo All The Colours Of The Dark is a horror.

2. That was unsettling.

3. I never have to watch this movie again in my life and

4. Why the f*** did that just happen? I’m as baffled as the lead character as to why any of that just occurred.

However, having lived with the memory of this film now for a day I’d have to say that I take back points 1 and 3. Because, just like The Wicker Man before it, there are little clues hidden all the way through this movie and I want to look at them again to see if they reveal anything. This movie might actually have a supernatural content to it but it’s alluded to quite subtly and there’s a slight possibility that this movie may be a horror movie after all. Frankly, I know the director has put those clues in, I’m sure, not to give me any closure but to deliberately make me think and ponder little moments and intricacies of a story which is, I think, designed to be baffling in some ways. And by doing so, he’s cleverly built a certain longevity into his movie which you won’t normally find in other contemporary fayre and it almost begs repeat viewings. This one definitely will have a passionate following for years to come... I won’t use the word “cult” because I believe that definition to be overused and transient in terms of its usefulness to film appreciation but, for a small amount of time it may well have a similar kind of status.

Either way you look at it, Kill List is to be applauded for being a truly powerful and thought-provoking movie amongst a sea of much more forgettable multiplex fodder. It truly gives me hope that the art of film is not completely dead and buried as yet. It’s an absolute must see for genuine cineastes, it has to be said, but be warned... some of you may find the way the scenes of violence are handled to be quite unsettling, if not disturbing, depending on how jaded a viewer you are. Easily one of the best crafted English language movies of the year and I take my hat* off to all involved.

*I don’t wear hats actually but if I did, I would raise it in the presence of this director as a sign of respect.

Wednesday, 7 September 2011

The Great Acting Blog: "Great Acting Is Wrought"


I recently watched a film which, by all accounts, I should have loved: the precise full frontal camerawork, the pared back narrative, “gaps” in the montage which encourages the viewer to create the film in his own imagination, and I am always interested in good protagonists who descend into moral turpitude as a result of tragedy. Despite these merits, something bugged me about it - I was never quite able to accept the film while I was watching it, and at times I even felt something akin to embarassment. I finally lost respect for it when, near the end, the protagonist solved his spiritual crisis by having a bit of a tantrum and a bit of a cry, then threatening to kill himself before his friend intervened. In the next scene his hair is washed (which indicates that his inner conflict has been resolved) and he is ready to return to his loved ones after his self-imposed exile.

The problem with this film is that there is no proper struggle on the part of the protagonist throughout the film to resolve his crisis - what we see is the pretence of a struggle -  and the reason is because there has been no struggle on the part of the filmmaker to create the film is in the first place, only the pretence of struggle. My guess is the filmmakers studied the “hip” cinematography of the day, and the “hip” “issues” of the day, and constructed the film using a pic n mix of “hip” cinema, the goal of which is to supply a pre-determined effect. The trouble with this approach is that the results are alienating, because we feel, rightly, that the filmmaker is making assumptions about us in an effort to control what we think (it's like the person who, in trying to extort an endorsement from us, posits a notion which is apparently unassailable because it is fashionable, or because it is oh-so-magnanimous, and assumes we'll agree) – it's when cinema becomes advertising. The filmmakers here are complacent, they are well educated and know which end of a camera to hold, so perhaps their goal is not to create a work of art, but to get us to admire them. What I am criticizing here is not their skills then, but their art. You cannot copy and paste art, whatever the form and no matter how skilled you may be – it is drawn from the strange, vague and inchoate feelings that lay beyond the outskirts of our consciousness, and the inner struggle is the struggle to bring forth those feelings and give them a form which makes them meaningful, first to ourselves, and then to other people. If there is no struggle then there is no true creation, and therefore no art.

Well, the good news for actors is that you can't pic n mix your performance from other actors – your personality and the way you look are unique – there's only one of you. However, the equivalent for an actor in terms of supplying a pre-determined effect is working out exactly how you are going to say the lines, and exactly which moves you are going to do and when, and simply step on stage or before the camera, and execute your preparation regardless of what is actually happening in the scene – the famous example of this is the actor who is playing a scene where they have to creep into a room making as little noise as possible, however, when they open the door it unexpectedly squeaks, but the actor ignores this because it wasn't in the script, and continues to play the scene as it was rehearsed. This performance is not a performance at all, merely a reference to the work done in rehearsals, and it's usually dull to watch regardless of how technically accomplished it may be, because nothing is being created in the moment. The exciting actor is the one who doesn't know what is going to happen next, and possesses the will and the courage to face the truth of the moment as it presents itself. This kind of actor does not fall back on his preparation when the spooky unforseen upsets his apple cart, but struggles to come to terms with it as best he can – this is extremely hard work, and very different to some complacent, reasoned, hand-picking of pre-determined moments.

Great acting is wrought.

Drifting Clouds Recommends Barney Platts-Mills' Private Road

Such a shame Platts-Mills only made two films, Bronco Bullfrog and this. Private Road is a wonderful film, it looks great and there's some fabulous minimal acting from the cast, Bruce Robinson among them. Check it out.

Sunday, 4 September 2011

Trailer For Phillippe Garrel's "That Summer"

The Great Acting Blog: "The Narusian Setsuko Hara" by Richie Abraham

Richie Abraham is a cinephile who lives and works in Mumbai, and whose regular comments on this blog have been wonderfully intelligent and insightful, and at times mindblowing. And so it is I am delighted to be presenting The Great Acting Blog's very first guest post, which I think is an excellent exploration our great and mysterious art form. James.



Mikio Naruse was one of the great Japanese directors who made quick movies pertaining to his personal vision of the suffering of women in contemporary Japan. Repast is one of his masterpieces and a personal favourite of mine. It stars the inimitable Setsuko Hara  (Michiyo) and the assured Ken Uehara (Mr Okamoto) as the middle-class couple who are parading through an unprepossessing lifeless marriage immersed in  ennui. This routine turns haywire when they face an unexpected visit of Okamoto’s  flirtatious young cousin who turns their married life upside down. The events that follow prove to be the push that Michiyo needed to search for her own identity.  This plot conforms with the usual Narusian motifs of the female tragedy and the tenacity and fortitude that the women portray in light of these gargantuan struggles that never seem to end. Like almost all his films , this film too ends with an acceptance,  not a meek or surrendering one but rather a brave enlightening one. But here for a change we don’t witness it as a tragedy but rather as a reinforcement of the spirit, a realization of the nature of marital suffering making it one of Naruse’s least pessimistic films.
Setsuko Hara who is widely known for her Noriko trilogy with Ozu gives a stellar performance which at least to me overshadows her fabulous work as the endearing daughter in her films with Ozu. We still witness the smile that moved us in Ozu but it is supplemented with a restless restraint which forms a dulcet counterpoint.  The only other performance of a wanting housewife that I could compare it with, would be of Soumitra Chatterjee in Charulata. Every single time I view this movie , it unveils a newer dimension to her character. It thrusts the basic question  “What is the nature of Acting?” ,” What does it mean to deliver a genuine effective performance?”

Acting in the most theoretical terms should be  the  process of subjecting  the actor’s  own conscious self to the sense experiences of ‘the character’ being  portraying and responding to them as ‘he himself’  would  with a certain predestined intention. It is important to note that the character is just a notion, a concept, of which the actor is the corporeal manifestation. This process involves projecting his self into the space-time  zone of the character. The success of the performance then depends on both his seamless projection into the character and his own responses to the perceived sense experiences.  To bring Bresson , this  character ( as a part of the director’s  world )  is born in the Director’s mind and dies on his script ; is brought to life by the actor again when he lives it ; dies again on the screen and then lives an individual personal life for an eternity in the consciousness of the viewer.  Thus when we witness an honest portrayal of a particular character it is the honesty of the actor that reaches to us through the mise-en-scene of the director.  It becomes imperative for the actor to be infallibly  honest to the sense experiences that he must subject his consciousness to. At the same time, it is the responsibility of the director to create the mise-en-scene which form a medium through which  the performance reaches out to this world that the director has in his mind.  


Such instances of masterful direction and acting abound in this film. Naruse never looms on Michiyo’s face searching for reactions, he only provides glimpses of them and every single time they unleash a torrent of emotions. In one of the memorable scenes of the film, when Michiyo comes back home from a visit to her friends to find out  how her husband and his cousin have paid no heed to what she said prior to leaving, Naruse unfolds all her reactions and her husband’s responses in a completely matter of fact way. We are provided with semi close ups of both characters and emotion is mightily conveyed through the disdain that Michiyo shows when she hurries through her chores. The scene ends with a priceless expression followed by Michiyo turning back to her cat and him relaxing on the floor smoking a cigarette. What follows in the plot seems completely inevitable after this encounter.

Okamoto’s utter indifference seems to have stemmed more out of the habits of their married life. Michiyo exclaims at one point “You only see food when you see me”. His indifference ignites a desire in Michiyo to find meaning in her life. She leaves him and goes to tokyo and starts looking for a job. But there is no escapism in Naruse. A running irony throughout the plot is how everyone who greets Okamoto takes his married life for granted as he has such a beautiful wife and everytime he nods with an unwilling conformism wondering how he has forgotten to spot this beauty.  The film ends when Okamoto arrives at Tokyo asking her to come back. This scene immediately bring to mind the finale of Rossellini’s “Voyage to Italy “ but its not a miracle here. It is  Michiyo's resolve that brings about this change. She has searched her soul and that feeling of resolve she filled herself with once, now seems to her an erroneous moment of caprice.

Michiyo is an endearing woman played with impeccable grace and restraint. One leaves the film carrying this brilliant characterisation of Miss Hara forever.