Essays (book reviews)
On Andrew Klevanís Film Performance:
This text from 2006 – as well as Andrew Klevan’s civilised 2007 response to it, which is reprinted here with his kind permission – has been through a complicated trail of appearances, reappearances, misappearances and disappearances. It initially showed up in the academic journal Film Studies (which itself died in 2007 and resurrected in 2015), but credited (still, today, on the publication’s website) to one Andrew Martin (either an American academic, or my nephew). From there it travelled – with Klevan’s response now attached – to the online magazine Undercurrent edited first by Belinda van de Graaf and then mainly by Chris Fujiwara and me over several hard-working years for FIPRESCI. This international association representing the interests of film critics turned out, alas, to be a fickle host: first, the entire contents of the magazine (plus hundreds of other member-written texts) were dumped onto an ‘old FIPRESCI’ site – without the slightest indication on the new site that this was the case – and, eventually, this hidden, shadow site was left to publicly vanish altogether, without notice or lament. (Lesson to be learnt: do not rely on friendly favours alone in the realm of Internet publishing.) Even film critics deserve better treatment than that! (May 2022)
It is a pleasure to read and re-read this relatively short (114 page) book about acting in cinema. Published in the “Short Cuts” series of Wallflower Press [since 2011 an imprint of Columbia University Press], Film Performance lives up to the aims of the list: it provides a clear, economical introduction to an aspect of cinema which, in this case, is everywhere evident (and, indeed, celebrated), but so rarely discussed in rigorous, analytical terms. But Andrew Klevan, a gifted writer, does still more than this: although fairly quiet on the polemical front, his book offers itself as an example of a new kind of criticism, descriptively rich and poetically suggestive.
It is essential to understand the two poles in the book’s title: achievement and appreciation. Achievement is what a great or even simply good film (and Klevan lines up a shining parade of Classic Hollywood examples) manages to do all by itself, by dint of its art and craft. But appreciation is what the spectator must rise to, and what she or he can create only in an interplay of description, evocation and analysis.
Time and again in this book, Klevan enacts for us what it can mean to poetically free-associate from the posture of a body to a detail of décor or the suggestion of a theme – as when a chair is compared to a character: “It has slim parts, a straight back, and is firm (a touch hard, perhaps?)” (p. 65). This is not belles lettres impressionism of the kind once excommunicated from serious film writing; it penetrates to the heart of a film’s dramatic and poetic logic.
I unreservedly recommend this book to both beginning and advanced students of cinema. My comments from this point on should be construed less as criticisms than suggestions of areas that it would be interesting to see Klevan reflect upon in future, for the general elucidation of us all.
The pithy introduction (“Interpreting Performance”) arrays a select number of masters, or mentors, in the annals of writing about film acting – including David Thomson, V.F. Perkins, Charles Affron, and especially Stanley Cavell (whose philosophical terminology filters pervasively, and at moments cryptically, into Klevan’s language). One reference sticks out oddly: the Australian anthology Falling For You: Essays on Cinema and Performance (1999) edited by Lesley Stern and George Kouvaros. Odd, because where that book goes, Klevan fears to tread, or he at least seems happy to leave it between the pages of his previous book, Disclosure of the Everyday (2000): cinematic modernism, which has, for at least four decades, proposed a very unclassical, split-level relation between actor, character, “body too much” and (increasingly in our digital age) the performer as mere graphic element or special effect. This is not a matter of theoretical fashion: one can hardly appreciate the achievement of Vivre sa vie (Jean-Luc Godard, 1962), Arizona Dream (Emir Kusturica, 1993), Dogville (von Trier, 2003), or about a thousand other innovative movies, without the sense of these levels.
Klevan, however, gives us classicism with a vengeance: it is startling, at times, how he returns the act of “reading a film” to what most filmgoers spontaneously do, i.e., speculate on what fictional characters are “really” thinking, feeling, deciding or remembering at any given moment of their screen story.
It was once suggested to me that the quality – or, at least, the nature – of any book can be adduced from the structure of its notes. This part of Klevan’s book is brief and to-the-point, but is nonetheless telling on the level of what it leaves out. In a book about acting, there is not a single reference to any anecdotal material about the actors considered in his text – material of the sort that can be abundantly found in biographies, memoirs, journalistic profiles or television documentaries. I am not referring to private-life gossip, or speculations on larger-than-life personae, which Klevan does well to skip. But why does he feign such lack of interest in what his preferred actors (or those who worked with them) might have had to say about how they approached their craft? If Barbara Stanwyck has only once said on the public record – even indirectly, or seemingly in jest – that she somehow pitched her acting in relation to the décor she found herself surrounded by, Klevan’s argument about her work in There’s Always Tomorrow (1956) would be immeasurably strengthened by citing it. But we read nothing, here, of actors’ processes, Method or otherwise – and, likewise, not a single classic text on acting for theatre or film (by Stanislavsky or Michael Chekhov or Michael Kirby) is referenced.
Ultimately, in fact, this is not a book about how actors act. It is about how they figure within the stylistic ensemble of any given film. That in itself is a big deal to grasp, and no previous book has offered us such a generous handle on it. Klevan’s approach – it has a pedagogical air, in the best sense – is to attend to nothing except what is on the screen before us. What we infer (following Klevan) about the quality and nature of performance can be generated only from this frontal, wilfully reductive vantage point – other inputs, like the social discourse around actors, are mere distractions. But consequently, in order to empower actors as creative agents within the filmic frame, Klevan virtually ends up attributing to them almost everything that is normally attributed to the mise en scène, or the director.
That is a provocative move, involving a risk richly worth taking: it’s not everyday that we read accounts of The Philadelphia Story (1940) or The Cobweb (1955) that mention the respective holy auteur-names of George Cukor and Vincente Minnelli only once, within parentheses. And there is no doubt that Klevan awakens us to details and aspects of these movies – such as the bodily language of acting – that we have probably never noticed, or appreciated, so well before.
But the stratagem – this critical fiction in which actors seemingly respond, unmediated, to the felt needs of “the film” or (in a curious and mystified affectation filched from Cavell and William Rothman) “the camera” – leads to some strange, questionable moments. An example comes when Stanwyck is praised for “playing off” the resonances of a previous scene in There’s Always Tomorrow: a scene that, in all likelihood, she would not have attended the shooting of (since she does not figure in it), nor watched its rushes. Only one person was in the position to seize, develop and take advantage of these resonances, and his name (whisper it between parentheses) is Douglas Sirk.
Indeed, much of what counts as acting or performance in this book – particularly in the discussion of Marlene Dietrich’s role in The Scarlet Empress (1934) – is quite simply what any director of even middling skill routinely instructs the actor to do: where to stand and move within the frame in relation to props, lights and other actors. And that is, after all, a decent, working definition of mise en scène! This is why Klevan’s argument is strongest when he is in fact detailing the work of a director who directed himself on screen: Charlie Chaplin. Only here does an implicit auteurism of film style slip back in through the side door.
Which brings us, finally, to an intriguing ambiguity in the book’s main title. I remember a moment, 20 years ago, when the reasonably avant-garde term film performance referred to how a film itself could be said to perform, not merely the actors inside it – and indeed, it was a kind of Knight’s Move, taking the movies back from their glittering stars in order to empower other players and generate other responses.
intentionally or not, cleverly reverses this trend for a new historical moment:
in his account, what the actors do becomes, with a touch of grandiosity, the
heart and soul of every old-fashioned narrative film, the very vehicle of its
deepest artistry: a passionately nostalgic position in this digital age. And it
is probably what the “ordinary moviegoer” (or “average person of cinema”)
foolishly believed to begin with. But even the most naïve spectator stands to
learn a lot from the inspired, in-depth, beautifully composed responses of
A Reply to Adrian Martin by Andrew Klevan (2007)
I am very grateful for Adrian Martin’s generous and sympathetic reading of my book on film performance, and for vividly articulating its qualities. Responding to some of his queries presents me with the opportunity to reflect upon the age-old matters of text /context – and related matters of intention – as I have experienced them in my own work, and to explain the reasoning behind a form of philosophical criticism. (I should also declare the influence of Stanley Cavell’s philosophy and criticism on these thoughts.) Adrian clearly recognises the aspirations of the book and celebrates its internal consistency: he claims the accounts “penetrate to the heart of a film’s dramatic and poetic logic” (my emphasis). Given that he recognises the benefits of the book’s “logic” (it “awakens us to details and aspects of these movies … that we have probably never noticed, or appreciated, so well before”), it is somewhat surprising, as appreciation tussles with reservation, that he is frustrated by the absence of elements which do not “penetrate” it.
Adrian writes of the book’s “frontal, wilfully reductive vantage point”, but this “vantage point” does not feel “wilful” on my part because the films will me, sometimes against my will. Hollywood melodrama and comedy lead me, despite my better judgement, to better judgement, and I am thankful for it. Beholden to the “film’s dramatic and poetic logic”, the “vantage point” is less “reductive” than deductive – working things through from what I observe as the film unfolds – and, by Adrian’s admission, more than adequately productive. I am told, usually by people politely reminding me of my (scholarly) limitations, and implying my idiosyncrasy, that this is my “approach”, but it is equally true that the good film approaches me (as I reproach myself for inadequately acknowledging it). Having established a relationship with the film, I am emotionally involved, and it is difficult to look away. Other “inputs” unavoidably feel like “mere distractions”, not because they necessarily are, or because they are unnecessary, but because I am caught in the workings of the fiction, where each moment creates a web of arrangements and associations (performer with object with décor with camera), and where the permutations of meaning ensnare. It is not easy to escape.
Therefore, I do not “feign” lack of interest in what the performers “might have had to say about how they approached their craft” but I am committed, for good or ill, to another “vantage point”. It is precisely this “vantage point” that, as Adrian identifies, “awakens us to details … – such as the bodily language of acting – that we have probably never noticed”. I am surprised Adrian puts such faith in spoken testimony, rather than, for example, “bodily language”, and thinks my argument about Barbara Stanwyck’s performance in There’s Always Tomorrow would be “immeasurably strengthened” by looking at her public statements. This is a rather “reductive” view of intention. Why are her statements necessarily any stronger than simply seeing what she has done? We will not necessarily find the truth of a crime in what the participants say, but rather through a keen observation of the crime scene. (Near the end of his review, Adrian writes in reference to another matter that “Klevan, intentionally or not, cleverly reverses this trend …”, acknowledging that, thankfully, any cleverness on my part does not need to be a product of what I deliberately or consciously intend. Only with hindsight might I come to see what I meant, after you have pointed it out to me.) Furthermore, though I learnt many interesting and relevant facts about the films, I found this evidence to be inadmissible because the aim was to make the case primarily from the films, from the organisation of their internal relationships and their patterns, precisely to illuminate their skill in this regard. From this point of view, a film’s capacity to elicit an intelligent response, without external support, is a fine measure of its achievement. Films stimulate inference and surmise, for example from “bodily language”, where meaning is latent yet accessible, and interpretations are suggestive and various – depending on perspective and observer. We test the quality of these interpretations against our evolving experience of the film. Given that film offers this democratic access and right to reply, why seek official validation in the “public record”? Stanwyck performs on film to create something that will necessarily go beyond her, beyond her explanations, for us to discover, and rediscover, in our experience. This is her gift (to us).
Let us accept the gift graciously, and not ask her what she means by it. Writing is one type of acknowledgement, and is itself an act of substantiation. I am taken with Adrian’s pithy summary of this: “appreciation is what the spectator must rise to, and what she or he can create only in an interplay of description, evocation and analysis” (my emphasis). The very process of description is a mode of revelation as we labour to articulate the experience of a film’s interactions, as they develop and deepen, and we attempt to conjure dynamic and density. At the risk of sounding ungrateful, I am not a “gifted writer” (but thank you). I am mostly lost for words, but the reward for moment-by-moment responsiveness is that at least the film shepherds my prose. Much of a film’s substance is necessarily ordinary, therefore elusive in its familiarity, and writing on a film enables us to magnify and dwell upon the apparently insignificant, overlooked, or incidental. Film also has a special capacity to embody the metaphorical in the literal, in the physical and in the real; and we may describe the actual in such a way that discloses the symbolic. Film criticism translates moving images and sounds, and this conversion into words is investigative, discovering designs that are explanatory and telling but, unlike the “public record”, indefinite.
The film is a direct point of reference, the origin of my interest and, most importantly, the thing we share. I rarely mention the director in the main text because he is not in plain view. References to the director are like references to external documentation and context; they are non-fictional and prosaic and are not easy to blend with evocations of the fictional and “poetic”. Adrian says that my point about Stanwyck “playing off” a previous scene is ‘questionable”, because “only one person was in a position to seize, develop, and take advantage of these resonances, and his name … is Douglas Sirk”. Again, Adrian is literal minded here because Stanwyck does not need to have “attended the shooting” (of the earlier scene) or “watched its rushes” to sense what is at stake. A cursory glance at the script would suffice and besides she could play off the previous sequence without knowing exactly what happened in it. Not knowing, in fact, could help her portray Norma’s lack of knowledge as she endeavours to interpret the empty house and imagine Clifford’s world. Is it really a “critical fiction”, as Adrian claims, that “actors seemingly respond … to the felt needs of ‘the film’’’ or is it rather “critical” to the “fiction”?
Important as they are, directors do not appear in the film (as the director) and I do not necessarily acknowledge them by explicitly mentioning them. Indeed, if I do “whisper [the director] between parentheses” then this might be an appropriate way of inferring his absent presence. A good director’s artistic personality infuses a film and our consciousness of their style enriches understanding and appreciation. This consciousness can also overwhelm or become customary, and then regulate or circumscribe response, so it is refreshing to experience the director’s style (and their decisions) from the direction of the performers.
My respect for Douglas Sirk’s authorship lies in accepting that I am incapable of realising his immeasurable and untouchable influence. The result of all the interactions on set, conscious and unconscious, manifest and mysterious, some documented, some forever hidden, is (what we call) “the film”. I mean to celebrate the director’s creativity when I say the film has a life of its own. As I write, I sense many an academic and scholar wincing, after sweating for years in the archives, at my credulity and gullibility. Indeed, Adrian rather affectionately likens me – as I “return … the act of ‘reading a film’ to what most filmgoers spontaneously do” – to the “ordinary moviegoer” or “naïve spectator”. Perhaps, spontaneity and naïvety are qualities worth pursuing. Film seeks them, with its eye for ordinary lucidity, and is ideal encouragement.
© Adrian Martin April 2006 / © Andrew Klevan March 2007