To my chagrin, I am often remiss in avoiding the timely experiences of performances... in theatre, dance, music. And so with cinema. In part it's because I'm an awkward, uncomfortable audience member. And over the years the growing disruption of attention-deficit audiences has added to that discomfort. Once I had the privilege of seeing a wide array of films with a critic friend of mine in a private San Francisco screening room. There the experience of being with 30 or so people in comfortable seats with a large, well-outfitted display was fulfilling. There was no food or drink or vibrating cellphones. I was surrounded by people who were intent on experiencing a film from beginning to end. Though I still believe that a film should be seen on a large screen in a darkened theatre, many contemporary filmmakers create with television and Netflix in mind. So now I accommodate them. There in my downsized personal screening room with its rather good technical delivery, I find that if a film touches and mesmerizes in those circumstances, it will do so anywhere. Viva Cinema Paradiso!
Recently, I wiped away a bit of the chagrin and took on a film I had avoided—the 2006 Oscar-winning Das Leben Der Anderen (The Lives of Others). Part of that avoidance had to do with a lingering distaste for German dialogue. That distaste seems to be waning. But that's another story.
The Lives of Others deserves the avalanche of accolades it received internationally. Written and directed by Florian Henckel von Donnersmarck, the story, appropriately set in 1984 five years before the fall of the Berlin wall, explores relationships and tragic betrayals in the Communist police-state of East Germany. It has almost no special effects, no mash of camera verité and hand-held self indulgence, no gratuitous sex and violence. It does have the marvelous Martina Gedeck in an ensemble of high-craft actors, a fluid cinematography of visuals that richly supports the actors and the story, masterful direction that imbues every innuendo with just enough tension to continually pull in the viewer, and a brilliant, multi-layered script circa early Orson Welles. It is a beautiful film.
To be fair and mildly reasonable, I decided not to avoid the timely viewings of as many of this year's Oscar nominees that I could take. I took the five leading contenders:
The Hurt Locker, District 9, Inglourious Basterds, Avatar
and Crazy Heart.
The first four can be categorized in a phrase: they are video games. The Hurt Locker could just as well have been animated—it has a 'slash&burn' script and less acting than in a documentary. Is it a great war film? Compared with Robert Aldrich's Attack, Stanley Kubrick's Paths of Glory, and David Lean's The Bridge On The River Kwai it's not even about war. District 9 will become a classic when it is adapted to Nintendo and Xbox. Tarantino's offering is a mess. The script and direction are from his consistent mantra: "snicker with me, be 'down', or get out." And then there's Avatar. The script? Insipid comes to mind. The acting? Insipid comes to mind. Does this film make great statements about Climate Change and Regime Change and Spiritual Change? Does Bambi? I must admit I viewed this film in 2D, so Cameron's acclaimed cinematic breakthrough wasn't evident. Some day, I'll put on the little glasses, forget about the lack of script and lack of acting, and 3D game myself with awe.
Crazy Heart is a simple film with a simple story, simply photographed and simply directed. It suffers from a flat, undramatic script and may have fared better as a docudrama. Except it has Jeff Bridges. A 'lazy actor' with great talent, he's a joy to watch on screen. He can act, and believe it or not, he can speak, though the awe-stricken director allowed him to mumble away his mumble-worthy lines.
I couldn't bring myself to see Up in the Air because I couldn't bring myself to once again watch George Clooney. He can't act. The camera likes him, but like De Niro and Eastwood, once you've seen a close-up (regardless of the movie or the scene), you've seen all you're ever going to see.
Actors. I was standing in the wings of a play I had directed (my favorite audience position) with a lead actor who had come up way in advance of his entrance. He was standing next to me, sweating. I asked him if he was all right. He said that he was nauseous and his legs were weak (this was already two weeks into the run of the play). He said it happened every night but once he was on stage it was gone. I told him that this was a curse of many actors even the great ones. He knew that. Then he asked me why this never happened to him in film, in front of the camera, only on stage. I told him: You have two spaces–the inner space where you the actor lives, and the outer space where you the performer lives. In a film, which is not an actor's medium, you are performing for camera, crew and director. Which means you are not performing at all. Your audience will see you but not in real time. On stage, you bring your inner space to the wings and wait to cross over into your outer space. Once on stage, in real time, there is only you and your audience, no director, no playwright, no designer, no crew... just you and your audience. You perform. That crossover is like pushing through a thin, clear suffocating blanket. Once through, you're free. It's the anticipation of that breakthrough that causes the fear. The trick is to learn how to harness it. Acting on stage belongs to you. Acting on camera is an invasion of your privacy. That's why there are so few good film actors–only their 'avatars' are needed.
He smiled and said: Thanks for the acting lesson. There's my cue.
Here, hold my harness.