Thursday, July 5, 2012

Vulnerability in the actor's craft

While watching Woody Allen's movie Midnight in Paris, I was stimulated to think about what makes an actor's performance compelling. In order to deliver a story, to make it real, the actor uses his craft to engage the audience in a cathartic experience. This is in contrast to performance-as-spectacle, where the audience has an aesthetic or emotional experience that is produced by witnessing a drama or event. I see far too much of this at the movies, where computer graphics and derring-do substitute for engagement and genuineness. The hugely expensive comic book extravaganzas hang their special effects on thin, clicheed stories, where actors can only deliver broad and stupid performances with the scripts and direction they are given, with few exceptions.

I'm not talking about that kind of movie now, so don't get me started.

I want to talk about movies that are supposed to be the other type that I first described; the ones about life that make the audience feel deeply engaged in an experience that is cathartic and thought-provoking. I'm interested in the magic that an actor can bring to a story. A bad job of acting is the fastest way to destroy a movie — not the lack of a sufficient special effects budget. Film makers: take a page from the theater playbook, and recognize that it's the actor's craft, with outstanding scripts and brilliant direction, that brings a project to life.

When you think about it, you know which actors are capable of delivering a performance that can touch one deeply. I think that those actors are in touch with what I call vulnerability: their ability to suffer, and to recognize their own suffering, and to express it in a genuine manner.

Actors hate performing with small children and animals. Why is that? It's because animals and small children — young enough not to understand that they are performing — always upstage the actor. This is because small children and animals have vulnerability. They are unmediated by self-awareness. They are not "acting." We feel their presence and vulnerability, and that makes them engaging; they make us aware of our own vulnerability.

Which takes me back to Midnight in Paris, and why it wasn't more successful. I thought the story was brilliant. The sets were a love-song to Paris. The script was intelligent and touching, and was ready for production. Alas, however, for Owen Wilson, who deeply tries to deny his vulnerability, and routinely depends on his shell of a persona to get by. I see him as a fragile human being caught in tragic condition, just as most of us are, but this is not the same thing as being a compellingly vulnerable actor. He doesn't make his emotions and experience available to his audience. Consider for a moment, if you will, Woody Allen's movies which starred Woody Allen. In his best movies, he demonstrates his vulnerability, and that made him engaging, funny, and excruciatingly real, and the audience could have a genuine experience; comedic, dramatic, and cerebral.

I'm thinking that the requirement for vulnerability also applies to writers; that's something I'd like to explore.

If you agree or disagree with me, or if you would like to mention some of your favorite actors who succeed by being in touch with their vulnerability, you're invited to leave a comment.

My letter to Congressman John Kline re: H.R. 4170

Lately I've been doing my small part in the political process by putting my name on various petitions, and communicating my opinion to Federal and State representatives. This invitation came to my inbox via

There's a bill before Congress now, H.R. 4170, The Student Loan Forgiveness Act of 2012. The amount of debt that students are taking on is staggering. The fact that they're allowed to assume as much debt as they do needs scrutiny; doesn't this remind one of the subprime mortgage fiasco? In any case, these students will be defaulting on their loans in massive numbers, because the burdens of debt are unaffordable. The fundamental problem is that state universities have become too expensive for students from low-to-middle income families. Another problem are the commercial colleges that are in many cases a ripoff.

Here's what I wrote to the Chairman of the House "Education and the Workforce" committee:
Chairman Kline,

Please hold hearings on H.R. 4170 as soon as possible. The amount of student college debt held by recent graduates is a scandal in a prosperous country like ours, and doubly scandalous when compared to many European and Asian countries.

We Americans need to do more to support our smart and ambitious students. A democracy without educated citizens cannot stand. The rate of increase in tuition costs at state universities presents an insurmountable burden for students from low-to-middle income families. If we want to keep the American dream alive, we must make college affordable and accessible to motivated students.

Please move forward with the Student Loan Forgiveness Act, which should have strong bipartisan support. Compare the cost to the very expensive and nearly pointless wars we have recently engaged in, and we should see clearly by that comparison how we can pursue the public good with sensible economic policies that support education and the lives of working people. We should be talking more about supporting the public good, and affordable quality education should be at the forefront of that discussion.