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.