a new low in topical enlightenment

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Issue #23 (December 9, 2009)

San Pedro, California

Photo by Mike Watt

Acting Methods, Alive or Dead
by Joe Carducci

David Thomson is a movie voluptuary of a type that is pretty rare today. Back in the high studio period (1935-1950 or so) closeted homosexuals often had similarly intense relationships with the screen, whether they wrote about it or not. But the attenuated emotional states of lush melodrama at its best never approached the intensity that silent films had for their viewers. That early audience was guilelessly open to the films and those films were made with a less cynical sense of storytelling -- the earliest professional filmmakers (Francis Ford, Griffith, Ince, Dwan…) were dashing off one- and two-reelers two or three a week. The lack of naturalistic sound set the relationship of film and viewer deeper than the simpler vicarious one possible since then.

Originally, in nickelodeons, all were film voluptuaries when the projectors’ intermittent mechanisms showed darkness in the same ratio as the projected film frame (the mechanism moves to the next frame while the light is blocked). I can’t resist quoting Terry Ramsaye’s 1926 account of Thomas Armat’s first successfully projected moving image:

“This intermittent gear arrived about the middle of August, 1895.… They threaded up the machine with an Edison Kinetoscope film, and started the motor. Their hearts were in their mouths. In a second their fingers were in their ears.

The thing worked. There was a living picture on the wall, probably the best motion picture that had ever appeared on a screen. But the noise was terrific. The picture, tearing madly, trying to reach a speed of forty-eight images a second, with the heavy three inch brass gear starting and stopping so often, lasted only a few seconds when the film ran out. They ran it over again and again. Very shortly the gear was battered out of shape by the intermittent stops.

Pound for pound this was the noisiest piece of machinery in the world. The art of the screen was born in boiler shop roar.” (A Million and One Nights)

Of course 48 frames-per-sec is twice the standard finally settled on. (The eye requires a minimum of 16 fps for persistence-of-vision to really kick in so 48 fps is extravagant.) Before the standard, flexible practices were allowed by the different cameras and projectors. The films projected in the late 1890s and into the new century then, created a stroboscopic hypnosis that left viewers uniquely open to the film’s suggestion. This effect was then lost. The dark interstices were thereafter shortened and the image frames flashed twice to minimize flicker in a new standard. The speed of projection was still variable for effect until synchronized sound required the standard 24 frames per second we’ve known ever since.

It’s important to remember the history of the motion picture’s effect because the history of cinema otherwise is unmoored and becomes just a study of a critic’s psychology, as if revealed under a still-existing hypnotic effect. Apparently Thomson’s book, Nicole Kidman, is all that in spades. His WSJ article, “The Death of Method Acting”, is poorly thought out as well, but editors value Thomson’s unmoored movie star meditations. But in fact The Method is just a postwar Russophile pretense made of something that is as natural as the untrained or de-trained Hollywood approach to acting.

D.W. Griffith wrote, “We are forced to develop a new technique of acting before the camera. People who come to me from the theater use the quick broad gestures and movements which they have employed on the stage. I am trying to develop realism in pictures by teaching the value of deliberation and repose.” Of course Griffith was making more than a film a week and learning by doing and pushing his cameraman Billy Bitzer and the Biograph partners to allow him to experiment, so one might wrongly reference Lillian Gish as Thomson does as totemic of “the histrionics of the years before 1920” if one’s only seen the film The Unseen Enemy (1912), her and sister Dorothy’s film debuts. It’s one of six films Griffith made that July and it commenced immediately on their introduction to Griffith by Mary Pickford. Harry Carey is also in that film, though he was still playing sullen heavies rather than his soon-to-come low-key, witty western hero. For Griffith realism same year try The Painted Lady which stars Blanche Sweet. (Both are available on DVD, the youtube posts feature randomly applied music or I’d link to them.)

The battle for realism in the theater is never-ending and predates Stanislavski. And it is a battle always lost. Though it is a never-ending battle in film too, there it is a battle often won, although always in films less celebrated. Whatever histrionics had come into film from theater at its beginnings, they were rooted out quickly by Griffith, Carey, Keaton and others before sound brought them all back in as the studios imported playwrights and thespians from New York all over again after sound came in big in 1928. This retarded film realism and Broadway Britishism suddenly reigned again in a flood of elocution.

At first in the sound era outdoor filming was suspended as sound studios were built, so westerns weren’t made, and actorly film realism was sustained mostly in crime films and newspaper films, where recognizably American ethnic types would rattle off the colloquialisms that still echo through our lingo. But sound realism was different and tended to ground the spell a film might cast over an audience in a literalism best, though rarely, employed as throwaway. In Eileen Whitfield’s book Pickford - The Woman Who Made Hollywood (Kentucky), she references critic James Agate’s idea that in the strange improvised moments in The Jazz Singer (1927) “the unrehearsed exchange had the aura of language overheard.” But those moments stand out from the terrible rehearsed hamboning of the rest of the film. An early attempt at a sound western, The Big Trail (1930), directed by Raoul Walsh and starring John Wayne fails despite its widescreen epic budget mostly due to its poor use of sound; the acting and directing seem to have been undercut by the needs of sound equipment. At its best, what intimacy sound could provide was not as casually suggestive and metaphysical as the musical accompaniment had been as it treated the procession of images with nonliteral information. Synchronized sound recording can easily anchor an audience to the written wit alone, something better done with literature.

Properly used, sync sound can catch James Agee’s “middle range of feeling” that comes of a cooler style of acting. Italian cinema never rebuilt their stages for sound recording; their production standard is for dialogue to be recorded later for dubbing in. In any dubbing process the voice doesn’t match the body or the space, and the ear is much harder to fool than the eye. And so cultural differences aside, the Italian westerns become grotesques and hit the viewer-listener as circus-like cartoons. Even when the dubbing is in English by Clint Eastwood himself, the Man with No Name sounds like El Magnifico extranjero. The ear discounts here in a way similar to how the eye discounts when watching special effects.

Manny Farber on Red River (1948) refers to John Wayne’s “clay-like acting” and Montgomery Clift’s “one non-mush performance.” Wayne worked his way into acting from crew and stunt work. Clift had been on Broadway as a juvenile lead and was a student of Lee Strasberg’s Method. Wayne learned how to act by starring in serials and series westerns through the thirties. The films themselves are so bad it hardly mattered how good Wayne was. He got better though and John Ford gave him his re-entrance in Stagecoach (1939) but famously remarked after seeing Red River, “I didn’t know the son of a bitch could act!” Ford had known Wayne for over twenty years at the time. Directed by Howard Hawks and written by Borden Chase, Red River is one of Wayne’s best films; it’s Clift’s only good one, though he himself is often worth watching as he mushes through those white elephant productions, as Farber would call them.

Unlike Thomson, the painter-writer Manny Farber, whose complete film criticism has just been collected had an artist’s concerns as he evaluated the movies he saw. He refers to the aging Wayne circa 1959 as still good at action but looking “nailed together” in repose, and a couple years later writes: “Wayne’s acting is infected by a kind of hoboish spirit, sitting back on its haunches doing a bitter-amused counterpoint to the pale, neutral film life around him…. Wayne is a termite actor focusing only on a tiny present area, nibbling at it with engaging professionalism and a hipster sense of how to sit in a chair leaned against the wall, eye a flogging over-actor (Lee Marvin). As he moves along at the pace of a tapeworm, Wayne leaves a path that is only bits of shrewd intramural acting -- a craggy face filled with bitterness, jealousy, a big body that idles luxuriantly, having long grown tired with roughhouse games played by old wrangler types like John Ford.” That “middle range of feeling” again, that impresses an audience most in the drama’s down-time when seemingly aimless in its observation goes about setting up the climax.

Marlon Brando, like Montgomery Clift was from Omaha and made his name on Broadway as they delivered some Method-measure of post-war realism to the theater. Brando avoided a direct contrast of himself with someone as stolid as Wayne, but he did make a number of rather goofy westerns. Brando is described in a recent biography as watching and absorbing everything he could from Ben Johnson on the set of One-Eyed Jacks (1961), which Brando also directed. But in the film Brando plays mostly against Karl Malden and the female leads. Here’s the principal scene he has with Johnson, who came to acting from horse wrangling after a career in rodeo:

Ben Johnson was the gold standard of movie acting, not really a star but more than a type. He told Robert Pirosh in 1992, “As far as being an actor, that never did intrigue me a whole lot. Even after I started acting, I’d go out and wrangle or drive a truck or anything.” No kind of movie star for David Thomson I suppose. His performance in a nondescript, generic western directed by John Rawlins called Fort Defiance (1951) is clear like mountain spring water -- there is no affect. The other actors, Dane Clark and Peter Graves, burn hotter and they and the simple production value in an early cheapo two-color system, shot mostly outdoors, set off Johnson’s movements and line readings perfectly, and there’s none of the lesser Ford hokum as in his cavalry pictures to get in the way. This too is movie magic.

Many elements go into a film, and the difficulty these impose accounts for the fact that a film’s best moments are so often accidental motions of actors, or nature that are caught by the camera. It’s also what offends when an A-budget production stamps out all such life and replaces all it can manage with the ersatz, a high polish set design that swamps any performance style attempted, any story told. But many prefer pure culture for its very inhuman processing because it takes us away from Life and Death. And the movies and star worship like other culture too often feed those appetites rather than the more time-honored human ones.

[John Wayne and Montgomery Clift drawing by James Fotopoulos; Photo: John Wayne in The Big Trail; The Man With No Name drawing by Nunzio Carducci]

Drawing by James Fotopoulos

From the desk of Joe Carducci...

Is Ayn Rand Good for the Market?

Heather Wilhelm answers, No, but then she is v.p. of marketing and communications at the Illinois Policy Institute. And marketing is her concern when she asks, “How are free markets best ‘sold’?” But there’s also a place for salesmanship-free, impolitic undiplomacy. And then you figure, subtract Ayn Rand from the debates around economics, the state, the individual, etc., and all the hip young girls and women then simply go with the flow of progressivism. At least many of these women have to deal with Rand at some point even if she’s just a speedbump on the way to straight ticket voting. The general debate aside, that female behavior and style is seen to include Rand is fine and a good thing.


EU farm policy is the biggest block to the WTO attempt to free up agricultural trade so as to allow the third world to sell more than tea and coffee north. This report has the UK, Holland, Sweden, Denmark and Malta constituting the opposition but there’s likely some east European states in there as well, though the European Commission’s internal market will now be overseen by the former French agriculture minister.


Strategic Weakness


James Grant knows a lot about financial aspects of market economics; his column began in Barron’s and his Grant’s Interest Rate Observer claims to be “the financial-information medium that least resembles CNBC.” Here he is in the WSJ reminding us that Section 19 of the Coinage Act of 1792 “prescribed the death penalty for any official who fraudulently debased the people’s money.” They must figure there’s safety in numbers I guess. He also notes, “It was no good portent when the tellers’ bars started coming down from neighborhood bank branches. The uncaged teller was a sign that Americans had began to conceive an elevated opinion of the human capacity to manage financial risk.” This and the moving of Wall Street partnerships to LLC’s and the 1971 taking the dollar off the gold standard are decadence markers, my terms.


Here are two NYT articles from Thursday that go together perfectly discordantly as the Times attends to one long-term hobby horse and on the other page lets in some light on the nominally the same subject -- racism. Charlie Savage reports on the Government Accountability Office’s spare-no-expense audit of the Bush administration’s “Civil Rights enforcement” and it is necessarily inflationary in its drive to paint this country and that particular administration as soft on racism or whathaveyou in the way of sundry insensitivities. Civil rights enforcement is a cottage industry that’s been moved into the bowels of the state itself, must be, uh… nice up in there. Meanwhile outside of the American race laboratory, which goes back roughly but profitably for five hundred years, we get to the old-world’s ancient world-of-color where even grading on a curve the peoples of color will not, can not, prefer not to get up to speed of modernity. Here, same day same paper, we read about Iraqi race relations. Maybe taking a cue from the NYT I’ll call it racism in Mesopotamia, which is after all just about the first nation, first economy, first city, so if they can’t get along… we just look better and better. These two writers’ articles are related in their editors’ conflicted preference that America change, but the Mesopotamians of color(s) never change. It’s a marker of how confused the mediated conventional wisdom is in America that so many black radicals took on Arab names to blame Jews for slavery.


Hamed Abdel-Samad, an Egyptian ex-Marxist, ex-Muslim Brother, now of the Institute for Jewish History and Culture in Munich has written a book called My Departure from Heaven where he writes that on Friday mosques are filled with young people “living in a sexual state of emergency.” He sounds like a French intellectual circa 1960 when maybe there were still some French in the cathedrals.

Rod Liddle on the unofficial sentiment of Europe whereby “Holland was the most antithetical to Islam because it was the most liberal.” Further he provocatively refers to “the indigenous way of life” in Europe as if Europeans are just another obscure jungle tribe we must keep in its natural state. What a target-rich environment Europe remains.

Dan Bilefsky’s NYT article on Ottoman fever in Turkey provides another great slant on these West-Near East issues: “Ertugrul Osman, an heir to the Ottoman throne, was unceremoniously thrown out of Turkey with his family. He lived to be 97, spending most of his years in a modest Manhattan apartment above a bakery.” Let’s hope Prince Ertugrul wasn’t the last believer in Turkish democracy. Suffice to say, the day after Palestinians receive exclusive rights to the Temple Mount, Christendom shall expect the return of the Hagia Sophia, if not Constantinople itself -- the Occupation must end. Although now they believe the Noble Sanctuary near the Temple Mount was built over yet another Eastern Orthodox church. This is getting Byzantine.

Meanwhile, Swiss-born Tariq Ramadan complains that “Every European country has its specific symbols or topics through which European Muslims are targeted. In France it is the head scarf or burqa; in Germany, mosques; in Britain, violence; cartoons in Denmark; homosexuality in the Netherlands -- and so on.” He’s a professor of contemporary Islamic studies at Oxford University so I guess he is so supersmart that he relates to those words as s-i-g-ns that do not represent anything except as they indicate specific phobias of our European patient. He claims the populist UDC “wanted first to launch a campaign against the traditional Islamic methods of slaughtering animals but was afraid of testing the sensitivity of Swiss Jews, and instead turned its sights on the minaret as a suitable symbol.” Maybe he’s confusing them with PETA; I think that’s what’s going on here.


Pirates Are Not Observant Muslims!


The New York Times ship-jumpers (Frank Rich can’t swim apparently)


John Strausbaugh on Flip the Frog and other projections.


Trip Henderson’s New York area December dates:

•09 - Hill Country BBQ w/ The Second Fiddles (9–12am)
•12 - Greenwich, CT - Round Hill Comm. Hse Square Dance w/ Jane's Gang (8–11pm)
•14 - Parkside Lounge w/ The Second Fiddles (7–9pm)
•15 - WKCR (89.9 fm) w/ Honky Tonkin’ Radio Band (9:30–11pm)
•19 - Banjo Jim’s w/ The Whistlin’ Wolves (10–11pm)
•31 - The Living Room’s New Years Eve w/ The Whistlin’ Wolves & others (9pm–2am)

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• The New Vulgate
• Joe Carducci, Chris Collins, James Fotopoulos, Mike Vann Gray, David Lightbourne
• Copyright retained by the writer, artist, or photographer

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