The Unexpected Virtue of Ignorance

We often come across remarks like, ‘He acted brilliantly’ or ‘She did justice to the role’, but how do we really arrive to such expert opinion. What’s the math that goes on in our head that we could rightly point at something and easily call it brilliant or do we say it in an offhand way. If we just ponder upon it, we would realize that it is quite difficult to judge an actor. Well sometimes it’s quite easy to say when an Al Pacino gives a long monologue at the end of Scent of a Woman, or a J.K Simmons scares the shit out of the young drummer in Whiplash. But these are extraordinary characters and do we really come across such people in real life, perhaps never. The fascination for these characters come from their garishness, the rigor that they exhibit and we as viewers are often sucked into such performances. These characters are often born out of some vague inspiration. As the writer writes them down, he has someone in his mind for whom he has formed an exaggerated outlook, and in order to strengthen these characters he goes on re-tracing the lines he has already drawn, these lines are then further re-traced by director and then by the actor, and the character often ends up being one dimensional. Well it certainly requires a great amount of talent to bring these characters to life, but this talent becomes so clearly visible that it rather acquires the form of a well sculpted monument which we could marvel at but can’t really identify with. Perhaps that itself is the intention of the makers of these films, but we as viewers, did we really like the acting or did we like the theatricality of these performances.

An actor has to find the character’s existence in the created universe and the foundation for that existence could only be laid while writing. The writer needn’t write the manifestation or mannerisms of the character, an actor could very well assign such traits to the character, but a writer must be able to create a person of not just flesh and blood but of a consciousness and only then an actor could get a firm ground to build upon his structure. We have often seen actors putting up some great performances even to a poor storyline, this happens when the actor takes the pen in his hands to draw further dimensions to the character which were absent from the script. Some actors have especially excelled in biopics even in poorly plotted pictures, this is certainly because of the access to ample material that exists on the character apart from the script, adaptations could also bring out similar results. But an actor is not only dependent on the writer but also the cinematographer. The relation between a writer and an actor doesn’t change much from that of a theatre but when it comes to the cinematographer it’s a whole different story. There is certainly an aspect of acting on stage that could be far more challenging than acting on camera but that’s what makes both of these medium totally diverse. A film is a unique medium and comparing it to stage is as bizarre a notion as comparing a painting with a book. Theatre and Film certainly have many things in common but the diversity is way too sizeable in comparison to the commonalities, however when one speaks about acting, film and theatre are the two words that immediately springs in one’s mind. Especially theatre being a predecessor, it has been a preconceived notion for many actors to pay some sort of tribute to its birth place and only then could he carry on with films. Films may have introduced acting to a different medium but it is difficult to eliminate the theatricality out of acting. And even though film is not directly related to theatre, one can’t help but see it as a magical medium that itself presents its own theatricality. Marlon Brando, who is considered the epitome of acting once said “In a close-up the audience is only inches away, and your face becomes the stage. In a large theatre it is the entire proscenium arch, so that no matter what you do, it becomes a theatrical event” So is it how we arrive at an opinion where we are able to pass a judgement over the acting abilities, is it the theatricality that appeals to us. Camera is often considered a ground breaking tool which could reach certain depths that are beyond the limitations of the stage, but what are considered as limitations are actually the virtues of the stage and such virtues could never be a part of film, for film has its own virtues. When it comes to an actor’s interaction with camera, an actor has to find his place between the three main aspects of cinema, i.e. the camera, time and space. So when the camera closes up on his face, his face itself becomes the space of the film, and even though considered a theatrical event by Brando this virtue of film cannot be found on stage. And it is up to the actor to utilise this virtue which unfortunately is often misused by many actors. In an already theatrical event, i.e. a close-up as mentioned by Brando, if an actor adds any amount of theatricality in his performance, they would not only ruin that close-up but also destroy the very idea of a credible performance. The idea of credibility holds importance on the stage too, but a camera gets far more personal with an actor and therefore he can’t use the same technique on film. Also any actor must never forget that film is primarily a visual medium, that as theatre has the capability of creating a picture in one’s mind through dialogue, a film has the capability of creating a dialogue in one’s mind through the pictures. So even though the proscenium arch remains the same, the idea is radically different and the only similarity is the theatrical aspect.

Actors are the most important tools of the storytelling process and it is ultimately up to the directors to make full use of these tools in order to tell their stories, perhaps more than any other tool in their paraphernalia. Also an actor should consider the vision of the director, for it is up to the director about what he wants from an actor. Would he really want to put a close-up on his face or would he put him in a wide frame, giving him some amount of freedom to use his body as well. If one could call the actor a puppet whose strings are pulled by the director, then he is a conscious puppet and the string he is attached to is essentially a restraint that prevents him from moving into unexpected territories rather than making him a slave to the director. An actor by his virtue is supposed to be restrained, be it a stage or in a frame of a film. However the frame of the film is dynamic, it has the capability to change perspectives, it moves through spaces and time unlike the stage and an actor needs to be conscious of these dynamics. He also has to understand that he is not solely responsible for his performance, factors like lighting, staging, make-up could either enhance or diminish it. Nevertheless as restrained as he is, he has the absolute liberty to move deeper into his character and is therefore capable of giving exemplary performances even under bad directors. Many film directors have worked with non-actors and have yet told their stories very effectively. But choosing a non-actor has its own limitation. Due to the person’s limited ability in acting it is important that the person’s life must closely resembles the character making it easier for him to play the part, also it is important for that person to have a significant presence on screen. This theory even though on a smaller scale has efficiently worked under a good director. On the other hand a professional actor by his virtue should be versatile in order to play different characters irrespective of their resemblances to his personal life.

There is another factor that challenges film actors, the ones called as stars. The public persona of many a actors often bring about a block in our minds, even though we could never get the actor's original identity out of our heads, we still can't help but praise him. But that is not praise for acting, that is perhaps our devotion to the person and mostly such remarks come straight out of this devotion. The faithfulness of masses towards a celebrity defeats the possibility to get over their larger than life persona. The celebrity status is so overpowering that we could never watch past their actual image. It is quite ironic that their greatest strength i.e. distancing their own true self in order to embrace the character eventually stops them from getting over their true identity. Though many have broken this barrier and have successfully adopted their characters but it remains to be a big challenge. But does that mean that an actor shouldn't be celebrated.

Alejandro Iñárritu’s Birdman is a classic example for us to glimpse at the theatrical elements in the distinctive worlds of both theatre and film, even if the outlook of the film is farcical. No, I am not going to discuss if it’s a well-acted film, but the idea of the film is pretty amusing. Birdman is about that transcendent path between the two worlds. A washed-up film actor known for his theatrical performances i.e. portraying a superhero wants to put up a realistic performance on stage. On his way he has to battle his ego and his jealousy towards a method actor. He later ends up shooting his nose while performing on stage inadvertently bringing forth a super-realism to the whole act and towards the end he literally becomes the eponymous incredible character from whom he was running away the entire time. The film is also shot in a way to give us an illusion of a single take, to sort of exemplify the idea of hyper-reality. In its essence Birdman portrays the struggle of an actor to achieve that realistic quality in his performance which could be only be possible by eliminating the theatricality to an elemental level, albeit the film deliberately dons a theatrical façade in its long takes and fantastical elements.

It is up to the story-tellers (which includes the directors, writers and actors) to bring us closer to that reality, to the very psyche of the character, to understand and imagine him as a real person. And if these story-tellers are even fairly successful in their pursuit of reality, then we as viewers even upon knowing that the person is acting, beyond a certain consciousness start forgetting the acting of the actor and start believing in the being of the character. It is like a pantomime giving us an impression of glass as he puts his hands in the air pretending he is touching a glass wall. So good acting is not the theatricality of the pantomime but that invisible glass that actually doesn’t exists. And the point where we start seeing that imaginary invisible glass is where we start becoming ignorant to the theatricality. It is but an illusion created in our minds, but this illusion could only last till the theatricality empowers it rather than overpowering it. This ignorance helps us break the barrier of a conscious mind that is aware about the actor’s true identity, however the path that leads to this escape from reality passes through the corridor of theatricality. So perhaps the question we should ask ourselves before passing remarks like ‘He acted brilliantly’ or ‘She did justice to the role’ is, whether the actor succeeded in making us ignorant enough to break that barrier of consciousness or was it just theatricality?

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