Madcap Films and the Mysterious Art of Acting
Critic vs. critic.
Jan. 3 2002 1:59 PM

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Dear friends,

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Sarah, I'm glad you brought up that anecdote about the cowboy feller in Mulholland Drive for two reasons. First, because of the point you raise about aesthetic rule-breaking in recent movies—not in the service of an overt taboo-smashing avant-garde agenda, I think, but out of a kind of pragmatic exuberance, a willingness to see what works, and to trust the audience to stay with you even as you mess with ingrained cognitive assumptions about continuity, chronology, pace, and coherence. I haven't yet seen Donnie Darko (I know David went to see it yesterday), but I'm sympathetic to any case you might make for The Man Who Wasn't There. I recall that we were both irritated, when we saw it at Cannes, at how cool some of our colleagues seemed to it, complaining about its slowness, the passivity of its hero, etc. (The best response to the accusation of slowness came, if memory serves, from Michael Wilmington of the Chicago Tribune, who remarked that you might as well complain that the "Moonlight Sonata" is slow.) It's hard for me to think of another movie that so elegantly combines gravity and whimsy or that modulates its pace so effortlessly from the stately to the madcap.

Speaking of madcap, Sarah, you also made me think of Moulin Rouge, a movie I did not much like but that I found myself rooting for even as it drove me crazy and whose ambitions I still, in hindsight, respect. Baz Luhrman clearly yearned to resuscitate a lavish, spectacular mode of movie-making, something he (and as far as I know nobody else) likes to call "red-curtain cinema." His mistake was to sacrifice the formality and grandeur that make such movies thrilling in favor of that feverish, rave-party editing, in the process subverting the impressive work of his set designers, his costumers, and his cast. He misconstrued what people love about pop music and the kind of pop spectacle represented by MGM and Bollywood musicals: It's not clever references, quotations, and isolated gestures, but songs, dances, sustained moments of longing and grace. The only moment I found fully satisfying was the "Spectacular Spectacular" production number during which, for a few moments, the camera stood back and stood still to allow us to see what the Moulin Rouge audience might have seen, and to experience the sublime rush of pure theatricality. I think the incorporation of theatrical performance into movies, which has been governed lately by either an unthinking or an overtheorized commitment to naturalism, is an example of the transgression you're talking about, and one that occurs in such disparate movies as Hedwig and the Angry Inch, Piñero, Va Savoir, and (especially in the ravishing "llorando" sequence) Mulholland Drive. Even as we (critics, audiences, filmmakers) still hold to the dogma that movie performances should be true to life, we need to be reminded that life includes moments of extravagant performance.

This brings me, sideways, to the second thought that occurred to me in reading Sarah's post, which is that screen acting remains a mysterious art. My new year's resolution—partly inspired by David's brilliant critical profile of Gene Hackman in the Sunday Times—is to try to think more clearly and write better about actors and what they do. What writers, directors, and even cinematographers do seems more analytically accessible to me—not that I could do any of it myself, but the tools are at least external to the self, and one can imagine their applications. An actor's tool, on the other hand, is the self, and even as the results of the work are visibly and viscerally apparent, the language to capture it can be difficult to locate.

Which may just be an abstract, navel-gazing way of saying that this was a mighty fine year for acting. Critics often note the paradox of good performances occurring in bad movies, but this was a year of great performances in good (or pretty good) movies, movies brought closer to greatness by acting that exceeded the intentions—and perhaps escaped the control—of the directors. A list of such performances might include Billy Bob Thornton in both Monster's Ball and The Man Who Wasn't There, Charlotte Rampling in Under the Sand, Gene Hackman and Delroy Lindo in Heist, Will Smith and Jamie Foxx in Ali, Thora Birch in Ghost World, Nicole Kidman in The Others, and Mark Rylance and Kerry Armstrong in Intimacy. Also Kirsten Dunst in Crazy/Beautiful. (Leave me alone, David. Just shut up right now.)

Coming to your last point, Sarah, I notice that none of these (possibly excepting Ghost World) are comedies. There were movies that made me laugh—Pootie Tang, Wet Hot American Summer, Pearl Harbor—but these were mostly regressive laughs. Two movies that tried to revive the soigné studio-comedy atmosphere of adult sexual shenanigans and social collisions—Town and Country and America's Sweethearts—failed (the former honorably, the latter less so). Does their failure suggest that a culture at once governed by sensitivity and freed from taboos, subject to vast inequalities of wealth but allergic to the very idea of class distinction, is fundamentally inhospitable to comedy? (A similar argument about tragedy was a popular hobbyhorse among theater critics in the 1950s.) Or am I over-reaching? It wouldn't be the first time.

And now, just as I prepare to send this off, I see my in-box filling up with your morning messages, which probably have nothing to do with any of this.

Until later,
Tony

A.O. Scott is a film critic at the New York Times.

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