Act Naturally

What’s the sign of truly great acting?  It’s when you don’t realize it’s acting.

“The very best actors,” Roger Ebert once said, “are the ones who do the least.”  Given a decent script and adequate preparation, he explained, a player in a film need only perform the physical actions required of his or her character, and everything else will fall naturally into place.

Watching Boyhood, Richard Linklater’s most peculiar new movie, I spent a great deal of time regarding its protagonist, Mason, as a largely passive character.  In scene after scene, everybody else is talking and carrying on and being dramatic, and Mason just sits quietly—serenely, even—offering little more than a raised eyebrow or a subtle grin.  Things happen around and to him—indeed, other people seem all-too-eager to tell him how to live his life—and he just runs with it, content not to generate any sort of drama himself.

Most movies don’t allow themselves a passive hero, perhaps from fear of boring their audience.  Screenwriting professors forever caution against it, and Kurt Vonnegut neatly instructed budding writers that a character in a story “should want something, even if it is only a glass of water.”

As Boyhood progressed, and the full measure of Mason’s personality gradually took shape, I realized I was mistaken.  Those early moments of introversion and pensiveness were not signs of a dull or lazily-written character.  Rather, they were the opening stages of an ongoing process that we might hazard to call a life.

Ten-year-old Mason’s silent wince when his dad talks to him about birth control is explained not by a timid screenplay.  It is explained by Mason being a prepubescent kid being cornered into an awkward sex chat with his father.  (Did I mention it occurs in a bowling alley and that Mason’s sister is there, too?)  His reaction is exactly what you would expect of anyone his age, albeit rarely in a movie character of any age.

A few years later, when he joins a group of shady schoolmates on a camping trip, quietly sipping cheap beer and allowing the others to dominate the conversation, it’s not that he has no personality.  Rather, it’s that he is a naturally reserved and easygoing person, and is perfectly fine not being the center of attention.

In high school, where he shows every sign of becoming a highly gifted photographer, a teacher gives him a tongue-lashing for spending too much time in the darkroom when he could be out there doing something lucrative and practical.  His response—shrugging the teacher off and sheepishly defending his work ethic against a charge of lackadaisicalness—might be dismissed by many script coaches as insufficiently confrontational.  In fact, what the scene underlines is Mason’s continued and determined effort to avoid confrontations.  It’s just who he is.

The cumulative effect of all these vignettes—the payoff, as it were—is a character not quite like any other in mainstream movies.  As Mason, Ellar Coltrane’s is an exemplary performance, because it never for a moment seems like a performance.  From the opening frame onward, Mason is simply a person we have the unusual opportunity of seeing evolve and grow.  (The movie was shot, little by little, over the course of 12 years.)  Yes, he is a fictional character, and yes, his lines were written down on a piece of paper.  But by the end of the story, we feel like we know him as intimately as many people in our own lives.  He has, through the magic of cinema, been transformed from a puppet into a real boy.

In the film vernacular, the word for this is “naturalism.”  There were points during Boyhood when I felt like I could go on watching it forever—not because its characters are exceptional (they’re not), but because they don’t feel like characters.  As with director Richard Linklater’s 2013 film Before Midnight (and its prequels, Before Sunrise and Before Sunset), the movie plays like a real-time documentary, but with all the exciting drama and wit that actual documentaries rarely contain.

I don’t have children of my own, but Boyhood instilled in me the sense of paternalism that comes naturally to the job of parenthood.  Like his mom, played by Patricia Arquette, I became protective of Mason—anxious when he went off on his own; horrified when his drunk, abusive stepfather took him and his stepsiblings hostage; proud when he placed second in a high school photography competition.  I felt those things as I rarely do for a fictional person, but in this case they were earned because the person in question was made to seem real and worth rooting for.

As it turns out, the secret to garnering affection in the movies is the same as in real life:  Don’t put on an act.  Just be yourself.

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A Day in the Life

Quentin Tarantino has proclaimed the biopic the film genre that least rouses his interest.  To make a movie that chronicles the life and times of a particular individual is, he assures us, not something to which he intends to expend his talents.

Tarantino does, however, permit himself an addendum on this subject:  He could be persuaded, in the right circumstances, to undertake a work of historical drama that concerns a particular event in a particular man’s journey from the cradle to the grave.  A day in the life, as it were.  A singular moment to reflect all the others.

What a curious conceit it is that by spending a mere hour or two in another’s company, one can be made to feel as if having peered into that person’s soul.

On this point, allow me to draw your attention to Richard Linklater’s Before Midnight, the new movie starring Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke that checks in on the relationship that began in 1995’s Before Sunrise and rekindled in 2004’s Before Sunset.

Like all great film romances, the one in the Before saga fills its adoring audiences with a real sense of insight into what makes its characters tick.  After three films whose subjects started as 23-year-olds and are now 41, Celine and Jesse (Delpy and Hawke) seem as much like real people as any fictional couple in the cinema.

What makes this more intriguing still is the fact (easily overlooked) that none of the three movies encompasses more than 24 hours of Celine’s and Jesse’s lives.  Before Sunrise begins in the evening and ends the following morning, while Before Sunset and Before Midnight both exist within a single calendar day.  They are mere snap shots—the most fleeting of glimpses into the comings and goings of strangers.

The catch is that these are no ordinary days.  Rather, they are the moments of high drama—major turning points, in some cases—that command our attention in ways that a more typical slice of life might not.

The arresting third act of Before Midnight, in which Delpy and Hawke lay down their emotional cards in an elegant hotel room, is the sort of domestic squabble that we do not normally witness in real life, although we know bloody well that it really happens.  Even the most seemingly harmonious duos are susceptible to the occasional battle.  The days of wine and roses are even shorter than we might presume.

These fairly commonsensical facts have never not been true, but we might spend an extra moment or two reflecting upon them in light of the recent news—which, in point of fact, is neither news nor recent—that the U.S. government has granted itself the authority to tap our phones and read our e-mails whenever its heart desires.  Privacy as we know it, already in a highly fragile state, is rapidly becoming a thing of a past.

While reaction to this so-called revelation has hardly been uniform, an alarmingly high number of citizens have essentially shrugged off the prospect that whatever privacy they had left has been forfeited in the name of fighting evildoers.  The refrain “I’ve got nothing to hide” has become all too common in the national lexicon.

On this particular claim, I can only stand back in awe.

If you can genuinely assert that you would feel no discomfort were everything you say and do to be secretly recorded and splattered across the front page of the New York Times, then please accept my congratulations.  You possess a level of self-confidence to which I can only daydream.

True, even with the powers now attained by the National Security Agency, it is fairly unlikely that a typical American will find his most sensitive personal business nationally broadcast without probable cause.  But the point is that it could be, and there would be very little one could do about it.

If one is prepared to surrender more and more of one’s civil liberties, this is the sort of culture one will need to accept.  When you say, “I have nothing to hide,” realize that soon enough this will become literally true:  You will not be able to hide anything, even if you want to.

Celine and Jesse’s midnight fight will no longer be between just them, and we will no longer feel like eavesdroppers in witnessing it.

Indeed, we will not require the penetrating power of film to peer into the lives of others.  We can simply ask the government.

Great Expectations

There is no term in the English language more overrated than “overrated,” and no approach to judging art more corrosive than on the basis of preconceived expectations.

This weekend sees the wide release of Richard Linklater’s new film Before Midnight, which has been riding a wave of critical euphoria since its premiere at Sundance in January.  The movie, starring Julie Delpy and Ethan Hawke, is the third in a series that began with Before Sunrise in 1995 and continued with Before Sunset in 2004.

Presumably, most audience members for the new installment have followed it from the start, swept up in the continuing story of Celine and Jesse, the characters played by Delpy and Hawke, whose on-again, off-again relationship is among the most intriguing and unusual of all cinematic couplings.

However, because the word-of-mouth for Before Midnight has been so ecstatic, it stands to reason that a fair number of curious moviegoers heretofore unfamiliar with the saga will wander into art houses showing it, if only to see what all the fuss is about.

My fear is that these late-arrivers will enter the theater with impossibly high expectations, fueled by the film’s near-universal critical acclaim, and exit in a state of profound disappointment.

It is inevitable:  When you are told the movie you are about to experience is the greatest thing since sliced bread, the only possible result is to feel let down—first, because nothing could truly be that good in any case; and second, because the bar has been set at a level that cannot conceivably be met.

The trend is so common and predicable in the American culture, you can set your watch to it:  A movie or TV show accrues a reputation for being unquestionably great, which in a few weeks’ time erodes into a reputation for being over-esteemed, as a second wave of viewers washes out the early enthusiasm of the first.

Speaking with the bias of someone who is often an early adopter of such cursed creative confections, I find it acutely irritating that Americans’ relationship with popular art functions in such a way with such frequency.

For starters, it strikes as profoundly unfair to the artists themselves, who produce the works in question long before the expectations game has been set into motion.  The average author or director often has no idea how his or her work will be judged by the public; the honest ones are simply trying their best to create something worthwhile, and might not even truly care if their audiences don’t like them.

In any case, these finished products ought to be considered with this dynamic in mind.  That is to say, they should be judged on their own merits, rather than being weighed against the opinions of those who happened to see them before you did.

To declare something “overrated” is, after all, nothing more than a critique of other people’s tastes, not a critique of the object itself.  The art is guilty of being liked more than it perhaps should be.  Why should this be the fault of the artist?

Gaze upon the brush strokes of Michelangelo and da Vinci as if six centuries had not passed since those men last roamed the earth.  Read Adventures of Huckleberry Finn without your mind clogged by a hundred years’ worth of political correctness and academic canonization.  Watch the first five seasons of Mad Men without reading every last comment on every last goddamned message board, as if some anonymous stranger on the Internet had any more wisdom or taste than you do.

Of course, this is all easier said than done.  Such a feat as viewing a work of art with total objectivity and freshness would require one of two rather herculean feats:  Either draining one’s mind of everything one has ever heard about said work, or not hearing anything about it in the first place.  The former is impossible (or nearly so), and the latter is paradoxical (how could you know to see something of which you are unaware?).

All we can reasonably do is try the best we can to be fair and open-minded, which requires the much more modest task of not taking other people’s opinions too seriously, tuning out the prevailing view about a particular piece of pop art until one has digested it for oneself.

And if you have the chance, be sure to catch Before Midnight.  It is an extraordinary movie, and I know you’ll just love it.