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JIGGLE IS GOOD

Posted by Gil Bettman on Wednesday, April 11th, 2012

Just to make sure I got it right in my last blog, I went out and saw “A Separation” for a second time. I got it right. If you aspire to break through like the Coens did with “Blood Simple” or Tom McCarthy did with “The Station Agent”, which is to say, if you will max out your credit cards to make an ultra, low budget feature with your name on it as writer and director, you must go see “A Separation”. This film should become your Holy Grail, because, as I said in my last blog, a movie on this scale is within the reach of every aspiring filmmaker. It is 90% close ups and two-shots of people talking in rooms.

Far too many of my students in the film school at Chapman University have been weaned on the big Hollywood franchise films – Batman, Spiderman, Lord of the Rings and Harry Potter. When they set out to make their first great film, they try to make a scaled-down version of one of these monster budget films. This is a formula for disaster. If you want to launch your career as a director you must think in terms of stories which can generate narrative drive by showing people talking in rooms. More about the key to this kind of small scale story telling in a later blog.

As a visual stylist, Fahardi is completely current. He knows perfectly well that contemporary audiences, whether they are sitting in a theater in Tehran or Topeka, will get bored and tune out if he does not present them with a kinetic image. So, when it enhances the story, he moves his camera. He does this the cheapest way possible – by hand holding the camera. Interestingly, when the story does not call for camera movement, he often continues to hand hold the camera and shoots many shots which are otherwise static with a hand held camera. By continuing to hand hold he introduces a slight jiggle into the shot which keeps the frame energized.

Thirty years ago, when I started my career as a director, this little bit of jiggle was unacceptable. If you were gunning to make a film which would be shown in theaters or on mainstream TV you expended a lot of time and money to make sure the product was jiggle free. Static shots had to be rock solid static and moving shots had to be mirror smooth. Then, starting with “NYPD Blue” and continuing up to “CSI”, mainstream TV cop shows went completely handheld. Audiences started developing a taste for a little jiggle in the frame. Then director Paul Greengrass pushed this trend into theatrical features by shooting all the “Bourne Identity” films handheld. Now what was once eschewed is considered a plus. A little jiggle is good.

Fahardi is completely down with this trend. Because jiggle is now good, the cheapest and easiest way to move the camera is now sexy. This is a win-win for anyone with little or no money to spend who wants to make a film which will rock the world. Fahardi has done it in “A Separation.” By following his example, you too can do it. Jiggle your way to the top!

How Are We To Judge?

Posted by Mark W Travis on Tuesday, February 21st, 2012

The Oscars are upon us again. I’m looking forward to the debates, disagreements, surprises and disappointments that inevitably accompany the Academy Awards. The fact that we often disagree on the artistic qualities of the nominated films and performances is what makes Award Season so damn exciting.

Today, I want to delve into one particular category: Best Actor (in a lead or supporting role). And I want to ask one simple, but compelling question: How do we assess the quality of acting, the caliber of the performance as we seek to define ‘best’? Clearly, such a determination is terribly subjective. There are no tools of finite measurement – no timers, no scoreboards, no bars that can be cleared that indisputably declare a winner. This is not the Olympics, after all. There are, however, criteria I believe we can use not only to narrow down the field of players, but that can likewise provide a more nuanced assessment of excellence.

First, we consider the script. Or, more specifically, the character contained within the script that the actor has been called upon to play. How challenging is the role for this particular actor? Is the character simply a darker or lighter shade of the actor’s personality or does the character require the actor to more or less abandon his sense of self and slip into the skin of one with entirely different sensibilities? Paul Newman once said to me (okay, me and a few other directors), “Don’t judge my work by the roles that were easy, where I didn’t have to stretch and explore and expand. Judge my work by the roles that challenged me physically, emotionally or spiritually. Those are the roles where one false step could bring down the whole house of cards.” Good point. Let’s look at a couple of nominees and the roles they took on.

THE ARTIST’s Jean Dujardin faced a very unique set of challenges as he embodied the character of George Valentin, a silent film star in 1920s Hollywood. First, Dujardin needed to research, explore and adapt a style of film acting that has long been abandoned. Since it is a silent film, there is no dialogue, so he lost the tool of language, intonation, verbal rhythm and tone. Finally, add in the dancing, an area in which Dujardin had no previous experience and which required five months of intense training.

Contrast this with George Clooney as Matt King in THE DESCENDANTS. King is a wealthy lawyer and member of contemporary Hawaiian aristocracy whose wife is in a fatal coma. Ostensibly, this story is about a distant and disconnected father of two unmanageable daughters who attempts to pull his family back together in the wake of the mother’s accident. In the midst of this, King discovers his wife had been having an affair. Finding his wife’s lover becomes King’s obsession as his wife lies dying in the hospital. Putting aside the gaping holes in the story itself, Clooney’s greatest challenge is bringing credibility to a character who is, at best, two dimensional.

Taking a look at these two examples, we see there are very different challenges. As I see it, THE ARTIST was an acting challenge whereas THE DESCENDANTS was more of a casting challenge. Casting George Clooney in THE DESCENDANTS meant that 90% of the work was done – all he had to do was once again showcase his charm, quirkiness, smiles and charisma in a loosely defined role. For nearly two hours, we watch Clooney do what he does so well, but do we ever really lose sight of George Clooney? In other words, do we feel connected to Matt King or George Clooney? And, does it really matter? Is the experience diminished if we don’t intimately connect with Matt King?

In THE ARTIST, however, the performance challenges are simply much more substantial. If Dujardin had not transformed himself wholly and completely into George Valentin, the film simply would not have worked. All credibility would have been lost.

This brings us to the second aspect with which to judge the success of an actor’s performance: The Transformation. How completely and thoroughly has the actor given himself over to the uniqueness of the character? Has the actor (think Meryl Streep in THE IRON LADY) disappeared into the role so unreservedly that we are no longer watching the actor but only experiencing the character?

Meryl Streep not only transformed herself physically, mentally and spiritually into the role of Margaret Thatcher, she imbued the character with such humanity that we often forgot this was a performance. I would also respectfully submit that Viola Davis’s performance in THE HELP and Demián Bichir in A BETTER LIFE are examples of such remarkable transformations.

So, what is it about transformational acting that is so challenging? Abandoning oneself and allowing a character to take up residence in one’s body and speak through one’s mouth is the fundamental challenge of acting. For well-known star actors (Streep, Pitt, Clooney, etc.) this challenge is even greater precisely because of their familiarity to us. We thrust expectations upon them to be as they have been in previous roles we have enjoyed. Essentially, they have more work to do to convince us that they are not who they have been before, but are now this new, fascinating someone dancing across the screen.

I know what you’re going to say. Meryl Streep had the benefit of a real physical transformation to aid in her becoming Margaret Thatcher. Dujardin had the creation of a bygone Hollywood world to support his performance. So, too did Michelle Williams and Kenneth Branagh in MY WEEK WITH MARILYN. Of course, period characters and characters that require physical transformations have a bit of an easier time drawing us into the character (think also Glenn Close in ALBERT NOBBS), but I submit that the real transformation is internal. In fact, if the actor never lets her own persona take a back seat to the idiosyncrasies, attitudes, behavioral patterns and emotional experiences of the character, we become painfully aware that we are watching an actor parade around in latex.

Taking another brief look at George Clooney as Matt King, my experience was that King never displaced Clooney. I was left watching Clooney play yet another iteration of Clooney. Understandably, this was efficient and effective casting and acting, but is it worthy of an Academy Award?

So, as you take out your scorecards this Oscar season and as you get ready to render your verdict in the category of Best Actor, consider the challenges of the role the actor was required to play and think about how well the actor completed the transformation into the character. Happy judging.