September 30, 2008

Orson and Rhythm

Excerpt from an interview published in the Autumn issue of Sight and Sound, 1966--Juan Cobos and Miguel Rubio are interviewing Welles about Chimes at Midnight (1965):

"You edit very dramatically, breaking up your long takes with constant movement. Is that because you are apprehensive about boring the public?

Welles: Because I am so easily bored, I think the public probably is. You people who love the cinema are not as easily bored by it as I am. In other words, if I had to make films only for people who fundamentally love the movies, then I could be longer. But I would be false in it.... I believe that films should be able to tell a story quicker than any other medium....

I do not like verbosity; I don't like wasted time. I like concentration in every art. And although I know that I lose, that the public loses, a great deal because of the concentration, I also hope that somebody will see one thing and somebody else will see another...."

Love that man.

September 27, 2008

Acting, II

Still coming down after The Small Back Room (1949)...

Odd because the acting was more traditional, but piercing because it offered some insight into what I wrote earlier, although I think I will ignore that entirely. Immediately I thought this served as a great parallel and counter-point to Gone to Earth (1950). The Small Back Room is darker in tone but lighter in principle while Gone to Earth is just the opposite, both offering startling moments.

The opening scenes of The Small Back Room had me thinking this would be a film of action, something like 49th Parallel (1941) or One of Our Aircraft is Missing (1942), where personal drama is entirely forgotten under pressure of danger, the "Here we are; What do we do now?" situation. But it quickly becomes personal drama. Adult personal drama. Something along mainstream lines... yet still unmistakably P+P.

I began thinking about acting the way I usually think about it: as a minor part of an integral whole. How could I have tried to convince myself differently? Actors only have as much power as you give them, and perhaps this is what impresses me about Powell's direction and Pressburger's writing. Impressive not in that they abuse their power but that the actors do not need it. Usually. The Small Back Room gives a surprising amount of power to the actors, let's Farrar be dark and moody, but their is still that touch of Powell I have to address.

It's in screen psychology. Rather than giving characters monologues and emotional explosions, their psychology is expressed in the cinematic universe around them. In the obvious, it is the expressionistic sequence in which Rice is tortured by the bottle and clock. More subtly, it is the way we see Rice leave the key in the lock or hear his reactions through the voice of a nervous secretary operating the wire. It is this that keeps much of a character's psychology internal, this that allows for stoicism.

If The Small Back Room is so grown-up, perhaps it is because of the acting. Not that the story or characters by themselves are mature, but that the filmmakers take so mature an approach to the material. No, the actors have no power, but they are needed.

Acting, I

I want to sort out some thoughts on acting before going into The Small Back Room (1949) tonight. There is something about British acting during the 1930s and 40s, and in Michael Powell's films specifically, that I cannot explain but which has integrally changed many of my perspectives.

Maybe it is just the accent they use--always awesome. Maybe it is just called "Britishness." It is a stoicism that highlights the dignity of humanity. Most acting schools highlight emotional expression and in doing so deviate widely from reality; few of us are ever in the grips of erudite and uncontrollable emotion--in fact it is better to say never. Feelings are internal and we are forever brooding and mixing emotions in our own minds, separate from the world. We keep a straight face and try to continue life as though we were unaffected by personal tragedies and triumphs (although we always know differently). The candid eloquence (verbal and physical) with which actors express themselves on-screen is unnatural--it is also expected. How else are we to know how they feel?

My admiration for Powell-British acting is two-fold: First, although we try to keep a straight face in reality without revealing our inner emotions, we always fail. We are continually acting and reacting within our environment and always doing so without thought, by instinct, and we are guided emotionally in these reactionary choices. Our emotions are revealed through our actions, many of them very simple: a quick smile, a heavy breath, a blink. And when the actions we do have real consequences, small emotions become compounded in the real world. We leave our traces on existence; where we have been is marked by how we have acted.

What I really mean to say is: Emotional action is given by spontaneity. And in film, it is not just how the character is acting but also by how he or she is to react. In Powell and Pressburger's films, instead of being caught in an emotional universe where we have one emotional course to voyage through, the world is spontaneous and the characters are continually having to adjust/react to the changes presented to them, doing so with equal spontaneity and with emotional action rather than thought. In The Spy in Black (1939), when Cpt. Hardt discovers that he has been found-out and is being sabotaged from his sabotage, there are no words, no grand emotional gestures, no eloquence. Only stoicism. Only action. The situation is anxious and tense and terrific beyond imagination, but his emotional and intellectual processes are displayed through what he does rather than how he does it, as they would be in reality. Perhaps I will be able to better express this with more thought...

Second, stoicism allows the audience to impress their emotions on the character rather than vice versa. Buster taught me this. When something happens to a character in a film, we all have our own emotional reaction to what is happening; most of the time the actor is trying to capture this emotion and tell us what we are feeling through the character, trying to navigate us through the complex world of feeling, but when that guidance is removed we are left simply with our own emotions which we are to impress upon the character. As the on-screen universe changes and more complexities are thrown our way, the actions of the character become all the more surprising as we are continually forced to position ourselves in relation to their actions, each action revealing to us a new dimension of their psyche within ourselves. <-Okay, that was a bad sentence.

I shall meditate on these points and perhaps write more after I have watched The Small Back Room.

September 24, 2008

Compromised Endings

Watching One Way Passage (1932) the other night has caught me at an impressionable stage, just as my love for the romantic has really blossomed with discovering Borzage; classical comedy and romance (and romantic comedy) are structured to end happily and to resolve all the conflicts that have driven the narrative to the final point, but many such endings are too painfully contrived and disobey the logic of the narrative to obey the logic of comedy. Must this be so?

Classical comedy must end with triumph or else the tragic will out-play the comic. Most comedies end with miraculous solutions, everything coming together in harmonic support of the leading players (in romance, everything comes together for the couple). But do such miraculous events need to happen for triumph?

Two of my recent loves have made me question this: Lonesome (1928) and Little Man, What Now? (1934). Both end in miracles for the couples that ensure a happily-ever-after, but both seem to recognize that such an end is necessary only to their cinematic universe. In Lonesome the end is almost a deserved respite after such great anxiety; in Little Man, What Now? the ending is a gift to everyday saints who have accepted fatalism. I couldn't help but feel relief at both these endings, but in my mind I knew they were unnecessary. Why should one fear letting the tragic consume the romantic? Or: Why can't a tragic ending be triumphant?

It was Marie, legende hongroise (1932) and One Way Passage that really told me the miracle need not be so. Of course Marie is tragic throughout, but it plays lightly (which makes it all the more wonderful in my eyes) and the ending subverts the tragic into something triumphant, while One Way Passage can end only in tragedy, but again subverts the tragic and preserves the romantic tone of the rest of the film. The triumph is this: the human spirit. The world does not conform to your dreams--it continues to beat you and hurt you and keep you mortal--but your dreams still survive and it is the very survival of those dreams that makes life so beautiful. This is the romantic-comic ending that wins out. This is why I love comedy so dearly.

In this absurd and impossible universe, we are still driven by a uniquely human will. Comedy is the preservation of this will, the recognition of its nobility (or ignobility) in the face of absurdity.

Hmm... I still have much to think about before further formulating my classical romantic-comedy outlook.

September 01, 2008

Documentary Movement

[9/1 Entry:]

Sometimes I need reminding Jennings was not the only star of the British Documentary.
Granton Trawler (1934)
Night Mail (1936)