Wednesday, 28 December 2011

The Great Acting Blog: "5 Best Performances In Films I Happened To See In 2011"

Here are my 5 selections for this year. I based them on the fact that they piqued me in an unusual way, asked me to re-examine my own work, or I saw something in them that I loved, and wanted to define. I have excluded performances I have already blogged about earlier in the year, and, where possible, I've added the trailer for the film in question. Please feel free to add your favourite performances in the comments section, I'd be fascinated to hear your suggestions. Anyway, I hope everyone enjoyed Christmas, and I wish ou all the best for 2012. Cheers! James.


We Need To Talk About Kevin (Lynne Ramsay)

 I suppose it is something of a cliché to praise Swinton these days, but the truth is, I think she has improved with age. While she has often made bold choices, she's unusual in that she has seemed more committed to cinema in general, rather than her own individual performances. It is only in recent years that she seems to have relaxed about performing. If you look at her earlier work (e.g. - with Derek Jarman) there is an actressiness about her work, as though she was giving a performance in the style of an actress giving a performance, indicating an unease. Nowadays however, she is more committed to her performances, and it shows. Last year's I Am Love was comfortably her best work, but I believe that has been topped by We Need To Talk About Kevin. In the latter film we are seeing a master craftsperson at work, as demonstrated by the sheer breadth of Swinton's expression in the film. She is in an enormous number of scenes, and each require something slightly different from her, and Swinton delivers absolutely. Scene by scene, she gives just what is required, offering subtle variations of action, and she does so with simplicity, discipline and force. Her look of shock when she arrives at her son's school to discover a tragedy, is utterly heartbreaking. This is an epic performance of the very highest calibre, and I offer it as a masterclass of screen acting.



 Archipelago is, in truth, an ensemble piece, about a family who go on holiday to bond, but seething resentments are brought forth instead. Some of the scenes are painfully tense, even when there appears to be nothing happening. But I have chosen Leonard's performance largely because she is the arch protagonist in the film, it's her snooty, reserved, agro sister/daughter, who seems to cause most of the problems. Leonard pitches it perfectly, she possesses a touchiness which creates the impression she could kick off any time. Again, her performance is very precise and controlled, and so, so true: we believe every moment of it, we've met people just like her, and know how torturously problematic they can be, and it is this truth of course, which makes Leonard so painful to watch. Check out the scene in the restaurant where she complains about her food, but complains just a little bit too much. Brilliantly excruciating.



 What a surprise and a joy to discover Elena Anaya! Where have you been, and why aren't you an enormous superstar? Anaya has a subtle screen beauty coupled with that odd mixture of strength and vulnerability (think Emmanuelle Beart's younger, more idealistic cousin, less moody). The course qualities are, of course, inherent in the actress herself, but the point is her well ordered technique enables her to give these qualities full expression. Anaya's performance has a real purity to it, free of the desire to manipulate, and these honest intentions are what make her performance seem so refreshing, and compelling to watch.



 Thank God for the films of Powell and Pressburger, otherwise we'd have almost no examples of Livesay's work, because he rarely did films, preferring to work on stage. For me, Livesay is one of the actors I measure myself against - his work always stuns me, and causes me to re-examine what it is I am trying to do. Generosity and humility are the qualities that spring to mind when I think of him. So generous with his talent, total commitment, and giving his all to express the moment as fully as he can for us. But his humility is revealed by the fact that he appears to be completely oblivious to how good he is, he's just doing his job. These qualities, combined with supreme skill and the pleasure in his play, make his performances astonishing on screen. Ever performance of his I've seen on screen, has been a masterpiece. Roger Livesay. One of the greatest actors there ever was.



 Kroner plays Antonin "Tono" Brtko, a lazy and somewhat dim-witted carpenter, living during World War Two in Nazi occupied Slovakia. Kroner is appointed "Aryan Controller" of a rundown button shop, which is managed by and old, deaf Jewish woman (brilliantly played by Ida Kaminska), who doesn't even realise there's a war on. Kroner forms a friendship with the old woman. Kroner's performance in this film is special because of the remarkable way he shows us his character's

ambivalence. There is a scene where all the Jews in the town are being rounded up in the market square, to be sent way to labour camps, and this happens literally infront of Kroner's shop window. However, Kroner has decided that the Nazi's are not going to take the old lady away, so he hides her away in the back room of the shop. The mounts on Kroner as he sits in the shop, while outside, the names of each Jew are read out in preparation for transportation. The scene really does become more and more agonising with every name that is called out. The pressure brings Kroner almost to breaking point, and the genius is how, in this fever pitch moment, Kroner alternates between wanting to protect the old woman, and wanting to give her up to make himself safe. He reveals this inner conflict to us by continually flipping between two conflicting actions, which creates the idea that he is wrestling with himself, with his own nature (which of course he is). Kroner's performance in The Shop On Main Street is a wonderful example of how an actor can express something deeply complex, by performing simple actions.

Wednesday, 21 December 2011

The Great Acting Blog: "Flipping Between Mindsets"

Before I head back to Ireland to complete filming on Rouzbeh Rashidi's HE (which is going to be an utterly sublime feature, by the way), I intend to squeeze in a quickie short film, called Phone Box Gun. It'll be a Kaurismakian film noir, about a jewellery heist, where I'll finally get the chance to wave a Beretta about and wear a false beard, and further, just because I enjoy making life difficult, I'll also be directing the film aswell as acting in it.

Whenever I've tried my hand at filmmaking in the past, I've gone into it with too aggressive a mindset, which I think is inappropriate. An aggressive mindset is very good for acting (or, indeed, writing) because acting requires short bursts of heightened intensity, which are generated in the moment of performance. Filmmaking, I believe, requires a slow burn kind of energy – a filmmaker needs to be able to function consistently well over the period of time of the shoot, making many decisions, being alive to mishaps. The filmmaker is required to manage other people, which means he needs to ensure he is available for them, and create conditions whereby they can work happily.The filmmaker is at the centre of everything, all eyes are on him. The actor need only concern himself with himself, and the singular act of his performance, and all of his attention is dedicated to that, he need not multi-task – and that's just the way most actors like it,  because most actors are minimalists, it's the philosopher aspect of their work, favouring clarity and simplicity (this becomes very evident when actors move behind the camera), however, this is not a pre-requisite for the job, but certainly a common trait I have witnessed. It's also worth noting that a relaxed body and mind is crucial to the actor's work, and so another reason why they don't want to be pre-occupied with anything else. The poor filmmaker is often under stress, as he skits around, trying to keep all the plates spinning. The life of the actor sounds positively leisurely in comparison to that of the filmmaker, which of course it is, apart from that battle with the awesome which takes place during the performance (I've met more than one director who started out as an actor, but switched because they could not cope with the pressure of the performance). Acting requires a laser-like in-the-moment precision, and to deliver that requires immense discipline, mental strength, and self-control, all difficult, improved only over a long period of practice. Directors need a certain kind of generosity, a magnanimity, because they are handling different personalities, with differing talents – a director needs, to a certain extent, a big tent, whereas actors needs only a sleeping bag. 

To be a filmmaker requires a certain kind of humility: he is responsible for everything, yet much of the production is out of his control. Setting up the shot may take time, it may not go according to plan, but the key is to accept this state of affairs, not grind against it, which will only lead to fatigue and a diminishment in the quality of the work. It's also being aware that everybody else is doing their best, and it is upto the filmmaker to be able to articulate what he wants in a way that is useful and practical to the person he is speaking too. Much of this then, is a preparation issue, being ready to explain yourself, being ready to communicate – if the filmmaker cannot articulate himself properly, he should refrain altogether, and let cast and crew go about their work. I think this is the  aspect I need to work on most. I find managing people to be tedious, which is why I prefer to work with independent types, who think for themselves and take their work seriously, just getting on with it. Also, so much of acting is about energy conservation, and articulating what you want is energy draining. Therefore, directing and acting in the same production, requires compartmentalisation,  flipping between the two mindsets as and when. The point is, committing totally to the scene when acting in it, then, when the scene is over, stepping out of it, and looking at it with a director's eye. 

On Phone Box Gun, I intend to be more relaxed about how the production will unfold, and flip flop more consciously between the mindsets of actor and director, as oppose to jumbling it all together, and pushing it through by force of will. Hopefully, this adjustment to my previous approach, will lead to greater productivity, and ultimately serve the film better.

Sunday, 18 December 2011

Trailer For Masaki Kobayashi's Harakiri

Masterful samurai tragedy from Kobayashi's, centering on the notion; "the honour in death, the death of honour".

Wednesday, 14 December 2011

The Great Acting Blog: "A Tragic View"




“I like the futility of effort – the uphill road to failure is a very human thing” - Jean-Pierre Melville

My penchant for Samurai films has lead me to Masaki Kobayashi's 1962 masterpiece, Harakiri. The film is set in the world of the 17th century samurai, and centres on the notion: “the honour in death – and the death of honour”. Tatsuya Nakadai plays an impoverished samurai, who  visits the House of the Iyi Clan, and requests he be given somewhere to perform harakiri  (the samurai ritual suicide by disembowelment). Just before Nakadai  is to kill himself however, he begins to recount his fate to the surrounding clan, and here the film cuts to the past. It transpires that Nakadai has fallen into abject poverty, ironically because Japan is at peace, a peace Nakadai helped to forge by fighting in the civil war,  but because of that peace, demand for the samurais' services has slumped, and many are forced to wander as ronin (masterless samurai), looking for work (unfortunately, the samurai cannot take normal jobs, because it may cause trouble). Despite his poverty however, Nikadai refuses to give up his beautiful daughter to a clan because she will be turned into a concubine, instead, he encourages her to marry the honorable but equally impoverished and unemployed samurai, Motome Chijiiwa, played by Akira Ishihama. They have a child, but the mother falls ill, and soon the child does to, catching a fever. In general, the film is about the individual who stands alone, who refuses institutional comfort, preferring a true and singular life, even if it means additional toil. Crucially, Harakiri is a film which acknowledges that life is tragic, that we humans are flawed, and no matter how hard we try, more often than not we are doomed to fail. There is one heartbreaking scene in Harakiri which reveals this, where Nakadai, at his wits end, is explaining to his grandson who lays in coma, that they have run out of options, that they have sold everything they own in order to keep the boy alive, but now they have nothing left (the boy's father, Motome, has even sold his two samurai swords, replacing them with bamboo facsimiles – the swords are deemed to be the samurai's very soul).  The tragedy is the fact that this situation could have been avoided, the choices Nakadai made to safeguard his family, have infact lead to it's destruction: he decided his daughter should marry the samurai Motome, a pauper,  who now cannot afford a physician to keep his child alive. Watching this scene, I dropped my head as I felt shame, then looking up again, I felt sorrow – seeing this good and noble warrior beg his unconscious grandson for a forgiveness which can never be forthcoming, was hard to bear. Luckily though, it is only a film, and so Nikidai experiences these trials and tribulations in the land of make believe. The point is, tragedy enables us (the audience)  to see that we are not perfect, that we can come up short, and damningly so at times. Tragedy strips us of our intellectual arrogance (if only for a moment), and offers us  a chance to acknowledge our helplessness. We are not perfect. That's why I have never been interested in disaster movies or superhero movies – they're a comforting lie – we don't have the power to re-direct meteors heading toward Earth, and we can't put on a pair of underpants and fly to Mars. It's also why I've always loved film noir, the protagonist is an ordinary person with an accomplishable goal, but he often fails, or at least, if he succeeds, it is at a far greater cost than he could ever have imagined.

Since writing “Create Precisely The Body Of Work You Want”, I have started to think a tragic view of the world can help us do just that. A tragic view enables us to be braver, to stand alone, to identify those things we want to fight for, and go out and fight for them. It is a concern with perfectionism which holds us back . Someone responded last week that “success” differed from person to person – well yes, but I would go even further and say that success and failure are highly ambiguous, whatever your definition of them. The perfectionist view implies that there is a perfect result, and any outcome other than that perfect result is a disaster. So, with the perfectionist burden too heavy to bear, we trundle along on the prescribed path, regardless of how meaninglessness and fruitless it may be – it's numbing, but at least we'll feel no pain. Perhaps you have an idea about precisely the kind of work you want to do, but you're not being offered anything like it, so you may need to step out and create it yourself – and creating it yourself is difficult because you will be criticised for not being attached to an established institution, and in any case, your precious creation could fall apart, and you could be left with nothing other than the ridicule of your peers. Absolutely. And so what? Nakadai could have made  his life considerably easier by sending his daughter away to become a concubine, but he refused on a point of principle. That your decision to employ your principles (and an aesthetic is a principle) may lead to disaster, is not an excuse to not employ them. How serious are you about doing precisely the kind of work you want? The tragic view encourages us to go for it because it accepts that we may fail miserably, and so the perfectionist burden is removed. If we do infact fail in our task, fine, but that failure will not destroy us - we'll live to fight another day.

Creating precisely the work you want to do, is, on the one hand, liberating, because you seize control of each action step, you're not relying on somebody else to come through for you (which happens almost all the time if you are an actor), but on the other hand, it is more frightening, precisely because you are controlling the steps – if it should all fall apart, you've got nobody to blame but yourself, and that can be a very lonely place. However, if we accept the tragic view of the world, that, despite our very best efforts, we may still fall short, then we may make braver choices, and seize that thing we want from the fire.

Wednesday, 7 December 2011

The Great Acting Blog: "Create Precisely The Body Of Work You Want"


I've always been fascinated by Hollywood mythology, so it's surprising that it took me until this week to watch Sophia Coppola's 2010 film, Somewhere. The film charts the empty, lonely life of Steven Dorff's movie star, Johnny Marco, who lives at the Chateau Marmont, moving from encounters of meaningless casual sex, to meaningless promotional work for his latest blockbusting action flick. The paradigm of Dorff's life shifts when his daughter from a previous relationship comes to stay with him (not as icky as it might sound, as it turns out). Somewhere is a film made up of delightful moments, as when Dorff, who almost exclusively eats take-away, picks up an apple from a fruit bowl, and looks at it as though it had just landed from Mars. One of the things that struck me about Dorff's character though, was how useless he is, how impractical, and how he lacks drive, lacks passion, he just goes with the flow, he doesn't seem to care about anything, although this manifests itself as amiability rather than anything demonstratively destructive. In some respects, Coppola romanticizes Dorff's empty existence, fuelling my suspicion that she has disdain for us little people. There is however, a neat little scene, where Dorff, at a party, is engaged by a nervous young actor who asks him what “school” of acting he subscribes to, to wit Dorff shrugs, and responds that he doesn't subscribe to any school, adding that when he started out, he got an agent and “just went on auditions”. 

I was also taken by surprise this week, by people who came out and not only defended ass kissing, but passionately advocated it after I had criticized it in last week's blog. If you haven't read it, I said that you shouldn't use your work to kiss ass, but simply let it speak for itself. One person came out and said that actors should kiss as much ass as possible, another said that ass kissing was an actor's only means of “getting work”, and another, a theatre producer, said that the actor who has the attitude that they will not kiss ass, goes straight in the “trash”. Why this advocacy for the loathsome toadyism? Well, ass kissing is a form of schmoozing, which is to say that you want someone to give you something but you have nothing to give in return. The ass kisser believes that one can become an enormous success without engaging in the nasty unpleasantness of actually learning a demonstrable skill, ie - without hard graft. This is not merely a point of view for the ass kissers, it's actually crucial to their psychic well being. Why? Because progress without effort enables the ass kisser to maintain their delusion that they are simply “special”, that they're not like us little people. For what else can success without effort mean? When, as happens with the vast majority of those who go into acting, they learn that the life of the actor is mostly about toil, we see them freak out, unable to cope with the shattering realization that they may need to put in a shift at some point, they flee the business altogether – hence the preposterous drop-out rate (in many respects, it's these wannabees who give acting a bad name – for sure, actors spend a lot of time working on themselves, but that's not because we think we're special little creatures, but because we use ourselves in our work - do we criticize professional sports people for being “obsessed” with their bodies?). In the end, that's what the ass kisser desires: the Stephen Dorff/Johnny Marco lifestyle, an unconstrained life, effortless and useless, where every whim and urge is catered for, the entire world their playground – not only is it success without effort then, but it's success without responsibility – and the ass kisser is rewarded with all this for the mere fact of their existence.

I'm advocating that the actor take responsibility for his work, and put in some graft so that his work is actually worth the attention of an audience. I'm advocating that rather than try to preserve our well being by ingratiating ourselves, the actor should cultivate a rational self-esteem through hard won accomplishments which require no outside validation. Don't “just go on auditions”, but define your ideal work, and apply yourself to the things within your control in order to construct precisely the body of work you want*. All this is an immense task of course, which will be spread out over many decades, and requires constant self-improvement such that we can work ever more productively, and for longer, necessary in order to get everything done. Understanding how and why you are making progress, boosts confidence and self-respect, which in turn becomes a self-perpetuating process of ever greater accomplishment. That doesn't seem to me, to be a bad place to be.


*I'm reiterating this point, because although people responded to my ass kissing comment, nobody responded to this comment – actors are constantly being told they should be grateful for whatever scraps come their way, but why not aim for something more?



Sunday, 4 December 2011

Some Interesting Thoughts By Mike Figgis On Cinema

...#IsConventionalNarrative passe? Speaking for myself I find it way past its shelf life.Observational cinema and interractive dialogue work.

...why I am finding inspiration in #theAmericanMusical and #IngmarBergman. Both have strong 'theatrical' elements,no fake realism.

..therefore less time wasted on Phony relationship with the audience, convincing them of 'reality'. #InvasionOfTheBodySnatchers good example.

* Figgis originally posted these words on Twitter.

Saturday, 3 December 2011

Andre Wilms Talks About Acting In Aki Kaurismaki's Le Havre

The trick to great acting? Do nothing


MONTREAL - Film is notable for its ability to feel real – to take us into a situation and give us the impression we’re living it – or to sweep us away into Hollywood-style fantasy. But there is a less-celebrated strain of cinema that goes in the opposite direction, toward surrealism.

The work of Finland’s Aki Kaurismaki falls into this last category. His latest film Le Havre is an oddly endearing, shrewdly comic drama about illegal immigration set in the French port town. Where most any other director would milk the tale’s torment for everything it’s worth, Kaurismaki has his cast play it straight, delivering life-important lines as if they were reading the phone book. It’s classic Kaurismaki, and it works like a charm, injecting offbeat humour into the most serious situations and bringing the narrative to another place by consistently defying our expectations.

“He hates emotion,” said André Wilms, the French actor and Kaurismaki regular, in a sit-down interview during the Toronto International Film Festival in September. “He wants it to be very reduced, (like) Buster Keaton. He says, ‘Play it like an old gentleman. Don’t make me crazy with your actor tricks.’ ”

Le Havre posits Wilms as Marcel Marx, a solemn shoeshine man who hides a young African refugee (Blondin Miguel) from the authorities, while his wife Arletty (Kati Outinen) lies sick in the hospital.

Wilms could almost be said to be non-acting for most of the film, as he shuffles from scene to scene with a grim look on his face – not seeming to want any part of his own heroism, but unable to avoid it and, most importantly, unable to not do the right thing.

Some actors might be frustrated by such constraints on their expression, but Wilms couldn’t be happier.

“I have to say, he’s the only great director I’ve worked with,” he said. “He’s a real genius. And I totally agree with him. I see (actors) playing really intense, real suffering and everything, and I am bored. Okay, suffer – I don’t give a sh-- about your suffering on the screen. Less is more. It’s very difficult to do nothing; to cry is easy.

“I try to make my job as humble as possible.”

If Wilms is deadpan in the film, he is outdone only by fellow Kaurismaki veteran Outinen, who takes her monotonous delivery to outrageous extremes. She won best actress at Cannes in 2002, for her role in Kaurismaki’s The Man Without A Past, which also took the festival’s coveted Grand Prix as well as the Ecumenical Jury Prize

“She understands Aki,” Wilms said. “She’s very grave … She doesn’t speak a word of French. She learned (her part) all by heart, phonetically. I worked with her for hours and hours.”

Wilms’s own history with the director goes back 20 years, when he was cast in Kaurismaki’s only other French film, La vie bohème, after being sent to a rather unusual audition.

“It was two in the morning in Paris in a bar,” Wilms said. “He was sitting behind two bottles of white wine, three beers and a bottle of vodka. He sees me coming in – he’s very big, like a bear. He said to me, ‘Oh, you have a big nose, you can smoke under the shower. You have sad eyes; you are hired. Okay, let’s talk about something else.’

“He never saw me act. He didn’t know anything about me. We became friends. I don’t know, he’s a bit like (a character) in a Western – ‘Let’s do it, and don’t talk about it. And don’t ask me questions, please.’ ”

Kaurismaki approached Wilms for his latest project wanting to make a film about a serious subject, immigration, but also wanting to do something with a lighter tone.

“He said, ‘I only make depressed, dark films; nobody wants to see them. Society is so dark and apocalyptic, we have to make a comedy. And I will make two happy endings.’ It’s his kind of comedy. And a fairy tale, but the red cap (Little Red Riding Hood) has to eat the wolf,” Wilms said.

Shooting in France was an obvious choice, given the country’s immigration issues. It also brought Kaurismaki closer to some of his greatest influences – classic French directors Robert Bresson, Jean Renoir and Jean-Pierre Melville.

North American film fans may be reminded of Jim Jarmusch and Hal Hartley, directors whose works are marked by minimalism, humour and a playful affection for the absurd. But while comparisons provide orientation, Kaurismaki has made his own distinct mark on the world of cinema – a unique vision, at once insightful and ironic, that changes our ideas of what a film can be.

“Aki is a bit apart,” Wilms said. “He’s an outsider who makes his own world … He doesn’t like the whole (mainstream movie thing) – wow, fast, camera always moving, explosions – he hates this. He calls these popcorn movies, and says, ‘I don’t want to be a popcorn director.’ But he is okay. He’s much more a poet than a filmmaker.”

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