Monday, 2 May 2011

Reacting to Reactions

Good acting and writing is in the creation of a character anchored to the fictional world around them. The integration of person and place (and the successful interplay of one to another) makes both appear real and lifts the work in suspension above disbelief.

Good acting is in intonation, facial expression, body language. It is in the illusion of control in pre-decided action and spontaneity in reaction. Good writing is in filtering the story through the eyes of these characters.

However, the importance of acting, and hence the merit of good acting, is more fundamental still than fashioning something credible that we can understand or distantly connect to. The characters, the fleshy ghosts behind the screen, are us, they are our representatives, our vessels, avatars that allow us to run through the verdant landscape of fiction's fancy.

When something happens that is moving or scary or surprising it is just as important, if not more so, that the characters appear appropriately and authentically moved, scared and surprised. We echo off them. No matter how the sight awes us, we need to see the awe of those actually there (the characters) to found our feelings, to validate them, to fulfil and fortify them.There is a back and forth, audience and character feeding off each other.

Good acting and direction and writing geared towards showcasing reactions, are paramount. Acting is not something that I can dismiss as  easily as some do, dedicating a mere sentence to how the acting is wooden yet frankly insignificant when set against the majesty of its action. Steven Spielberg is a master of accentuating the reactions of characters (either before we ourselves see the object or after) turning around in shock or joy, eyes wide and turned heavenward. These witnesses are often gathered in groups too and the sense of community makes the events more palpable.

Close Encounters of the Third Kind: Which is more wondrous - the alien spaceship or the awe of those who see it? Do we say only "Did you see that ship!?" or also "Did you see the look on his face?"

The trailer for Super 8 (produced by Steven Spielberg and said to be made by J J Abrams in part homage to Spielberg's films) is replete with shots that revel in the glory of the grand reaction.

To dismiss the importance of a character's reactions to what we see in this way is to amputate our own importance, to accept a benumbing of our own senses.

If that strong bond is created between character and audience (of a remote link, of sympathy and empathy) then we will begin to look forward with worry or with excitement to see their reactions to revelations that we know are forthcoming. We know how it will further charge our own gratification. We can't wait, or dread, to see what these characters we like will make of it.

The best revelations (and reactions to them) are not only those we don't expect, like Harry Lime appearing smugly in a doorway of The Third Man, Sonia hearing that Bruno has sold their child in L'Enfant (perfectly acted), or Peter sat behind the desk in Charade (Cary Grant's self-satisfied face and Audrey Hepburn's shock, annoyance and delight are priceless), but those we know are coming.

 Charade : The revelation and the perfectly acted reaction that cements a brilliant scene

L'Enfant : The Shock of Bruno selling his son only hits home when we see the mother's reaction.

In the latter cases (the character being unaware) we act and root for them in response to what they can't know, and then the tension is released through the characters, when they are enlightened. Their gasps, their tears, their smiles and smiling eyes are projected onto our faces, the light of the image using our faces as a screen.

Clark Kent is revealed as Superman, Peter Parker as Spider-Man, comic books and comic book films work on and through this dramatic irony, on first establishing a relationship through an imbalance between what the audience and the character knows and then making it stronger through consummation via a revelation and a reaction.



Yes, it is not just fiction and reality that is brought together in this explosion of revelation but audience and character are suddenly and violently fused in knowing the same, feeling the same, being the same.

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Abbas Kiarostami manipulates this bond in Shirin, swishing it about our heads like a rapier. Here we have our backs to the screen and watch the reactions of people to the film that they are watching. We can only hear it. Watching the reactions - serenity, concern, tears - we ourselves are split between the audience, each person in the auditorium taking a part of us, as the film echoes off them into us.

One discovers later that Kiarostami had showed the actresses a screen of dots and not the romantic tale we could hear. They are acting. A rotten farce. The bond of empathy, of a disbelief wilfully and cooperatively suspended is violated. However, the revelation of the subterfuge (the film itself never admits it) reframes it as a sobering and fascinating meditation on the nature of cinema and of fiction as a whole, on layers of reality, on the control we want to have on the deception (the structure also provides a pretext to look at beautiful, "unveiled" women). We want to be complicit in the trick and not its victim. What a tangled web.


We want to walk hand in hand with the character, with the person, and that is why, at first, we grieve when we are disabused - they are ghosts, it is fake, and the traces of our shared response will soon fade.

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Think of when we discover, in Rebecca, that Max hated rather than worshipped his wife. Is it our shock that makes it? Is it our joy? Or is it Mrs de Winter's (excellently depicted by Joan Fontaine) and ours through her? The second revelation, of Rebecca's illness, is undermined by a paucity of reaction shots. In The Empire Strikes Back how much of the impact of his father's true identity is its impact on us through Luke? The proportions may change but sights and sounds in cinema are nothing without those who are there and make us believe that they are there experiencing them. So much of cinema is faces, the actual presence of a person upon the white sheet. It isn't our real after all. It's theirs. Otherwise film is just events, dear boy, events.

15 comments:

  1. Could not agree more. I’ve long since concluded that the face–the reaction to the action–is often cinema’s most powerful tool, particularly when wordless.

    I think David Lean was a master of this. Take, for example, the end climax to Bridge on the River Kwai, with a succession of moments, realizations that begin slowly then build, beginning with Alec Guinness spotting the detonator cable. And the way each character is distanced from one another: Guinness tracing the cable along the river bed, Geoffrey Horne (the young lieutenant) manning the switch from behind the rock and watching in panic as Guinness approaches; William Holden watching from the bushes across the river and Jack Hawkins watching from atop the embankment.

    As the train draws closer and the fighting commences, the reaction shots become shorter, faster and more intense. Guinness is overwhelmed, stunned by Colonel Saito’s quick death, almost dumbfounded. And after Holden scrambles across the water, taking bullets, the two men exchange “you!” reaction shots, and as Holden dies there’s a fast cut to the Siamese porter girl (who loved him) as she darts up into frame, and finally Guinness is left standing there amidst the death with wide eyes. It’s a precision action scene, but an action scene that is defined by the expressions on each of the participant’s faces.

    Another more bare-bones example from Lean would be Omar Sharif’s horror stricken reaction shot to ‘Bloody Sunday’ massacre, one that happens entirely off-screen, in Doctor Zhivago.

    A more recent example is in the Coen’s True Grit as Cogburn and young Mattie wait in darkness from atop the hill as Ned Pepper’s gang approaches their cabin down below; and after LaBoeuf rides up unexpectedly, he and the men stand in confrontation and exchange words that can’t be heard. The tension mounts and Cogburn takes aim, but there are two very distinct close-up reaction shots of Mattie, both nearly identical and motionless, as she watches the scene unfold with a strange hybrid expression of fear, curiosity and extreme naiveté – the two shots of her are very impressionistic. Their almost like still photographs placed within a scene of live action.

    I could go on and on with other examples, but there’s nothing really to add that you haven’t already covered.

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  2. Thanks Cadet.

    "I’ve long since concluded that the face–the reaction to the action–is often cinema’s most powerful tool, particularly when wordless."

    I think you're right about wordless reactions - events that are out of the ordinary stun us into silence. These are all the rarer in 21st Century Cinema, in which characters dribble banal semi-catchphrases to themselves and us : "this can't be good", "that's what I'm talking about!" etc.

    I don't remember the exact shots that you mention in The Bridge on the river Kwai but the way you've described it...it sounds very dramatic.

    "Omar Sharif’s horror stricken reaction shot to ‘Bloody Sunday’ massacre, one that happens entirely off-screen, in Doctor Zhivago."

    Yes, that can be even more effective. We only see it through the character.

    I like the sound of those shots in True Grit. I still haven't seen it.

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  3. Great observations here. I recall something Jack Lemmon talked about on "In The Actor's Studio" a while back, noting the difference between acting WITH somebody, and acting AT somebody. The former is about reactions to somebody else's performance, the generosity of give-and-take; the latter is selfish and all about your own show.

    At the same time, I will admit that so many of my favorite performances don't have a lot in the way of reactions, and are largely dedicated to characters who have what you'd call "good poker faces". The characters who put up fronts that don't let you in so easily, the ones who are a bit more difficult to read.

    A classic example for me is the difference between the acting of the original "Star Wars" movies, and the Prequels. The original movies feature people who are out of their element, for the most part-- Luke, Han and Leia all react violently to their circumstances, they panic and bicker when things are bad, but laugh and celebrate when they're finally out of the frying pan, if only for a moment. It's fun, and easy to get into, but to an extent I prefer the more reserved portrayals of the Jedi in the "earlier" episodes-- Qui-Gon, Mace Windu, and Obi-Wan don't get upset as easily, they remain calm and cool even when the chips are down. Their lack of reactions is often read as wooden, but to me it's just as much of a valid reaction as anything more substantive, as it reveals their confident, professional demeanor.

    Off the top of my head, there are plenty other figures from movies that offer these kinds of portrayals-- the heroes (and anti-heroes) of Leone's spaghetti westerns, the best of the Bonds, good ol' Mister Spock. They don't offer as immediate thrills and sensations as the automatic responses that people usually have in everyday life, but there's something interesting to me about characters who wear their own masks so long that we have to read between the lines in their faces, the wrinkles of so many heavy burdens.

    I might wonder, now, how someone will play Obama whenever people start making movies about him in the future. He doesn't wear his emotions on his sleeve like we're used to, with US Presidents, which has made it easier for actors to play them in the past-- whether it's Jack Kennedy or Richard Nixon, they all tend to chew the scenery something fierce. As this past weekend has shown, though, Obama's one guy who definitely keeps his cards close to the vest.

    On a semi-related note, as you mention Clark Kent above-- did you know that Superman of the comics is no longer an American citizen?

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  4. Thanks Bob.

    "At the same time, I will admit that so many of my favorite performances don't have a lot in the way of reactions, and are largely dedicated to characters who have what you'd call "good poker faces"."

    Yes, me too. Performances that are subtle (or even blank) can often draw you in closer. There are those performances that drop you in them like a trapdoor and those that pull you and envelop you as sinking sands.

    That's a good point on Star Wars. I think we do get closer to the characters in the original films. The style of acting and reacting casts the audience (or me at least) as a member of a gang of friends. The newer ones is not quite so immediately welcoming but the one off devastating moments (Padme's "you're breaking my heart") seem to work better (be more affecting) in the newer films.

    "Their lack of reactions is often read as wooden, but to me it's just as much of a valid reaction as anything more substantive, as it reveals their confident, professional demeanor."

    That's true enough.

    "...the heroes (and anti-heroes) of Leone's spaghetti westerns, the best of the Bonds, good ol' Mister Spock. They don't offer as immediate thrills and sensations as the automatic responses that people usually have in everyday life"

    The people I've mentioned here are less in control (if at all). In Spaghetti Westerns their taciturn inscrutableness is a sign (and a weapon against enemies) that they have no worries.

    "As this past weekend has shown, though, Obama's one guy who definitely keeps his cards close to the vest."

    Yes, that would be interesting to see. I must say that the portrayals of someone like Clinton that I've seen have substantially missed the mark (though biopics of this kind always seem a little pointless to me).

    Is that Americans say, "Close to the vest"? We say "close to the chest".

    "On a semi-related note, as you mention Clark Kent above-- did you know that Superman of the comics is no longer an American citizen?"

    No, I didn't. In fact I'm consistently surprised to find that these comics are still going(!) Why have they changed it?

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  5. Interesting comment on the "one-off devestating" moments in the SW Prequels. People hold in their emotions so long, that when they let go, it's a big thing. For me, Anakin's AOTC confessions (of love, then of slaughter) are the high points. But even the other characters get great "peak" moments. Palpatine "coming out of the closet" as a Sith Lord, etc.

    Another, perhaps better example of the kind of split between reacting/non-reacting performances can be found in the first three Jack Ryan movies. When Alec Baldwin played the CIA analyst in "Hunt For Red October", there was something rather smarmy about him I didn't like. He wore his emotions, his patriotism on his sleeve. He got too excited about his mission to help a Soviet captain defect to the United States, he was too zealous and rather off-putting in a strikingly political way. All that's realistic for the character, especially as Tom Clancy wrote him, but it's all rather distasteful to me. In Baldwin's hands, Ryan is very much a Reagan-era hero (odd, considering he's anything but, in real life).

    But when Harrison Ford took over the role for "Patriot Games" and "Clear & Present Danger", all that changed. Ford's approach is much more reserved, more intimate. Granted, his concerns are far more immediate and personal than those of Baldwin's Ryan-- he's fighting to protect his family from IRA terrorists, or taking over the job of his beloved, dying mentor. There's moments when he lets out his anger, yes, but for the most part he bottles it, channels it into his job of tracking down leads at Langley. He's a more universal hero that way. They might be Ford's best performances.

    "Close to the vest/chest"-- I think they're interchangable here. I like "vest" because it implies "bullet proof", even though it probably goes back to the days of card-playing cowboys who actually wore gentleman's vests to the table.

    The biopics of Nixon have been mostly great-- I like both "Silent Honor" and Stone's movie with Anthony Hopkins. Haven't seen "Frost/Nixon" yet. But then Nixon was an oversized personality who sort of demanded that kind of caricature-- he already was a cartoon, himself. The Kennedy portrayals are more hit and miss, either relying too much on heavy Boston accents, or not enough. "Thirteen Days" was especially weird, because you have Bruce Greenwood looking and acting NOTHING like JFK, but Stephen Culp as a virtual DEAD RINGER for Bobby. It's uncanny.

    In Spaghetti Westerns, the more haunting the backstory, the more deserving the reserved characters. It's kinda empty for Clint Eastwood's Man With No Name, but works perfectly for Charles Bronson's Harmonica.

    The basic idea of the Superman thing is-- he flies over to Tehran to go save a kitty from a tree, or something. Iran gets mad, and calls it American interventionism. Supes gets concerned, then relinquishes his citizenship before the UN so he doesn't get the United States into trouble anymore. I have no idea if that goes for his identity as Clark Kent, though.

    Yes, all the old comics are still running here. Superman and Batman have been around for ages, obviously. It scares me that Spider-Man will soon be turning 50.

    The best comics are the ones that don't follow the long-as-hell continuity, though. Frank Miller's Batman graphic novels, Grant Morrison's "All Star Superman", Bendis' "Ultimate Spider-Man", etc.

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  6. Sam Juliano4 May 2011 21:07

    There are so many exceptional examples you display here Stephen,to back up an irrefutable point that I for one have never doubted. In the same way that acting is the center of the theatre it achors the narrative strains of the cinema, where the theatrical-cinematic connection has always eclipsed the sylistics that set the cinema apart. Ironically the example I pose here is probably one you don't necessarily support, but it's one that illustrates why the silent cinema in particular featured the face like no other form. The performance of course is the shattering one given by Renee Falconetti in Bresson's THE PASSION OF JOAN OF ARC. Never before or since has agony, trepedation,and the bearing of the human soul been so tellingly transmuted on the movie screen, and doubtful it will ever be. But as you have shown here so persuasively there are many examples to support the vital importance of this component, always a center point in artistry, and realization of a vision.

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  7. Bob,

    "For me, Anakin's AOTC confessions (of love, then of slaughter) are the high points. But even the other characters get great "peak" moments. Palpatine "coming out of the closet" as a Sith Lord, etc."

    Yes, those are good examples and I would say (in relation to the premise of my post) that they would fall flat without the fine reaction shots of a perturbed Padme/Anakin.

    That's an interesting comparison between Alec Baldwin and Harrison Ford doing the same character. Of course an audience may not be fed the great reaction by Ford but an audience will always seek to infer a particular emotion (the one we might feel or expect him to feel) from the character even if it is not apparent.

    This is where charisma is important but also camera movement which implies a sensation (a little push on the face, a withdrawal etc.).

    Alec Baldwin has always impressed me; he can be by turns funny and menacing or both at once.

    "I like "vest" because it implies "bullet proof", even though it probably goes back to the days of card-playing cowboys who actually wore gentleman's vests to the table."

    I think that's a fair assumption.

    "In Spaghetti Westerns, the more haunting the backstory, the more deserving the reserved characters."

    I agree. They are locked inside - not giving anything away to their enemies or to us.

    Well, it's good to hear that the comics are still going strong and that Superman gets embroiled in the quagmire of politics like anyone else.

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  8. Sam,

    While I am not a great admirer of The Passion of Joan of Arc it is a fine example. We as an audience are wrapped up in her reactions to what we see and hear. We are not allowed to look beyond her face.

    I think this can go the other way and begin to feel oppressive or claustrophobic and ultimately alienate an audience who might wish to have space for their own reactions to grow too.

    Thanks Sam.

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  9. Actually, Padme after Anakin's post-Sand People confession is a great example of non-reaction, in my opinion. Lucas doesn't write a big "Oh My God!" moment for her, and Portman holds back the emotion. Lots of people have criticized that scene for the way she essentially says "So you killed women and children-- big deal!", but I like the way that she balances her sympathy, fear and ultimately moral collapse in the face of her lover's monstrocity. She's been given a glimpse into the future of what Anakin will become (much like he will have a prophetic vision of his own), but instead of running away for dear life, she sticks with him. Anakin talks a lot about "fixing" things in that previous scene-- does she think that she can "fix" him? The more I think about it, the more I really love that scene, and AOTC in general, as an expression of the tragic, but really rather noble ways that love can seek to cure ultimately broken people.

    Baldwin as funny and menacing is very apt. He steals the show in his one-scene turn in "Glengarry Glen Ross". I wish he did more Mamet.

    I like the thoughts on the Spaghetti Western heroes burying all their emotions as though they were hidden treasure, jealously keeping them from enemy hoarders. It makes a nice transition into Eastwood's late period, with "Unforgiven" (his one and only good movie as a director, IMO).

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  10. Lovely, eclectic survey of the reaction shot, Stephen. It's a dangerous tool. It might kill off a scene or elevate it to sublime proportions depending on how one uses it.

    Since it basically tries to manipulate our response as well, as you have detailed, in drama, this might become didactic and for comedy it might become powerful. Yes, it's a very effective tool by all measures.

    Cheers!

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  11. Bob,

    When it comes to the reaction shot that connects us to the story, the character and to the fictional world it's not (necessarily) about a big reaction (even a blank face works as a reaction). It's firstly about there being a reaction at all and secondly about being the right reaction. Natalie Portman's/Padme's reaction is right, consistent with what we know of her and therefore what we might expect her to do in those circumstances.

    "Anakin talks a lot about "fixing" things in that previous scene-- does she think that she can "fix" him? The more I think about it, the more I really love that scene, and AOTC in general, as an expression of the tragic, but really rather noble ways that love can seek to cure ultimately broken people."

    It's both, I think. She wants to try to fix him though realises that he needs her even if she cannot. It is noble. She knows that her love for him will not be easy.

    "He steals the show in his one-scene turn in "Glengarry Glen Ross". I wish he did more Mamet."

    That scene brings together the character's fears of redundancy and complexes of inadequacy and bleeds them out, twice as concentrated, over the rest of the film.
    It is a brilliant performance.

    "I like the thoughts on the Spaghetti Western heroes burying all their emotions as though they were hidden treasure, jealously keeping them from enemy hoarders."

    A nice poetic way of colouring it. I think Unforgiven is his best too. The others I have seen by him lack any real character or interest.

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  12. JAFB,

    Thank you.

    "It's a dangerous tool. It might kill off a scene or elevate it to sublime proportions depending on how one uses it."

    Very true. Here I do concentrate on where it is effectively used to seal us into the story. A reaction shot, badly timed, acted or presented can scupper what is intended.

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  13. re response to Bob,

    Correction: Characters' not "character's"

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  14. Just remembered one of my favorite reaction moments, an coincidentally another Spielberg, to follow what you mentioned at the top-- Sam Neil and Laura Dern in "Jurassic Park", staring at awe and dropped jaw at the Brontosaurus herd. Spielberg really takes his time here, showing both of the scientists' reactions before we get to see what they're actually reacting to. It's a good build-up, that helps earn the effect of that early, even risky CGI moment.

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  15. Ah yes,

    That's my favourite part of the film and I'd completely forgotten about it.

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