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.