Overactose intolerance: cont’d

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(Continued from Part 1)

* * *

What am I thinking of particularly on this topic, actors being unfairly accused of overacting? Two films from a couple years ago. One is The Mist [Frank Darabont, 2007], with Marcia Gay Harden as a religious zealot of no particular church. She doesn’t become a major character until about a third of the way in, making one feel that she’s horning in on the other actors’ movie. In fact, her character is horning in on the other characters’ nascent plans. She destabilizes the fragile order of the grocery store besieged by veiled monsters. Unlike The Mist‘s other intensely irritating antagonist – Andre Braugher’s irritable skeptic/rationalist type – she needs people to believe in her in order to accomplish anything. So she needs to be constantly talking. Everything she says is hateful or awkward, and she’s been waiting all her life for someone to listen instead of brushing her off. She’s been waiting all her life to have a captive audience.

This is a character you can’t play without making everyone aware that you’re trying to direct their attention toward you and you alone. Anyone in this role would be accused of overacting. Many productions have a role like that – you have some characters that are just getting through their day, and then you have one or two characters for whom this is is the biggest day they’ll ever face and they are very emotional. Maybe Burl Ives is overacting as Big Daddy. Maybe Guy Pearce is overacting as Leonard Shelby. Maybe it would be impossible not to overact in these roles, and the actor shouldn’t resent being accused of taking the easy way and having too much fun.

* * *

Another note on The Mist: The actress who plays Thomas Jane’s wife Jessie is fantastic. Her name’s Kelly Collins Lintz and you can check out her performance here, albeit dubbed into Turkish. I was distressed to see that almost all her significant roles are in things to which I respond with part-instinctive, part-culturally-determined revulsion. (Exception: Surface. All fifteen episodes of which are available for free in IMDB’s Hulu links! Expiring tomorrow. What?) Lintz is only in a couple scenes at the start of the movie, and to her predictable motherly dialogue she adds flourishes that can be best described as “quizzical”. Eye rolls, laughs, gestures. I was looking forward to seeing what she’d do in the rest of the movie, but lasted 20 minutes before needing to go to bed. Resuming The Mist two nights later, I was disappointed by her generic performance as the protector of Billy in the supermarket. At the very end I was abruptly reminded that Jessie hadn’t accompanied her husband to the store, and the maternal role was being filled by a similarly blonde local schoolteacher, to which role Laurie Holden didn’t bring anything you won’t find in a thousand other horror films.

* * *

Like Tommy Lee Jones, Willem Dafoe is slapped down for “overacting” whenever he does a frivolous role [Boondock Saints, Spider-Man 2, xXx: State of the Union]. My first instinct was to accuse him of that offense in Daybreakers [2009], the mostly-satisfying vampire-world film that was saddled with the miserably awkward release date of January 8, 2010, surrounded by competitors big and small in the undead genre. Ethan Hawke (L) here is a vampire and Willem Dafoe (R) is a non-vampire who calls himself Elvis. Daybreakers proceeds nicely until Elvis shows up.

Conceived by the unpretentious Queensland-based team of Michael and Peter Spierig, now reported to be helming a Dark Crystal reboot, Daybreakers is about a world where vampires have taken over and non-vampires are farmed for blood. The lopsided qualities of the storytelling recall a comic book, in that

  • The world-building is amazing — all your questions about day-to-day logistics are answered. And yet
  • The plot has gigantic and obvious holes — did nobody anticipate running out of blood until a week before it happened? Have there been no scientific investigations by the ex-humans, now-vampires, into how this world can be coped with, aside from speculative and derided attempts to synthesize a blood substitute?

The design of the vampire-modded cars is delightful. The minor characters are intriguing. The storyline of well-meaning innovations and cynical machinations at a cosmopolitan drug corporation is not completely predictable. I was engaged, until this hard-bitten snake-eating vigilante named Elvis revealed himself as the savior of humanity/vampirity. He’s responsible for every positive plot development. He’s very helpful by nature and very cagey. Why is he so annoying? What’s wrong with this character?

  • A) He calls himself “Elvis”. [rolls eyes] This encapsulates the deceptively unrewarding a role this is for Defoe. The character is supposed to be charismatic, and he’s capable, but he is just not written consistently enough for us to see why he’d be charismatic. The character makes himself the center of attention, and he’s grating. This means whenever he wants me to think he’s done something great, I look for reasons to attribute it to his luck rather than his talent. I just want him to go away, and for the actor to help him go away by being more subdued.
  • B) He’s a TV character. I almost think this was envisioned as a big-budget TV series, part Jericho and part Justified, with Elvis and his gritty band of survivors, going town to town, lending a hand to people in crisis in the post-apocalyptic vampire world. And he made me realize that all the other characters are TV characters. His detective-esque non-vampire sidekick, both authoritative and vulnerable. Sam Neill’s amoral corporate boss. The corporate boss’s daughter, who fills two roles in the plot through the sort of awkward coincidence that’s often made necessary by a network TV show’s cramped cast structure. Ethan Hawke’s brother who follows the heart/fist rather than the head. Generic.
  • C) He’s not Australian. Every actor in the film is Australian or Kiwi except him and Ethan Hawke. It was made in Australia by Australian writer/directors. The credits contain multiple logos acknowledging Australian government support. To put it another way, it’s an Australian movie, and the fact that every actor is doing a fake and featureless American accent makes it even more like something made for TV. Ethan Hawke could easily be a star American scientist recruited to an Australian company, that part is fine. But the Elvis role should belong to a man vaguely indigenous to the film’s stark desert landscapes through which the vampire characters skulk fearfully.

I felt bad for actors like Claudia Karvan and Michael Dorman, unnecessarily devoting brainpower to maintaining their American accents, brainpower that could have been used to nuance their performances beyond “nervous woman” and “Jeremy Renner character”. I could imagine having twinges of resentment toward the two Hollywood stars, barging into our continent and forcing us all to pronounce our words their way, just because of the unipolar nature of the entertainment industry. If the Spierigs could have foreseen the success District 9 had without needing to fake a North American setting, they could have dared to make this the mass-market Australian vampire movie, like their own Undead [2003] had been the independent Australian zombie movie.

Although really, do we need any more proof that worldwide audiences can embrase a dystopian vision populated wholly by Australians?

An Epistolary Exchange: Part Two

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As Jonah Keri said by way of introducing his interview with Jon “Boog” Sciambi, “My buddies have some acclaim.” One such buddy is Andy Horbal, who has blogged about movies, TV and recipes at a variety of locations, most recently at Buzz, Buzz which I do hope will have a mighty rebirth now that he has found a job and doesn’t have to spend every minute of unpaid internet writing thinking “I should be writing cover letters”. Unlike Andy, I haven’t written many polished pieces of more than 200 words, so writing on this blog helps me train for a possible writing-intensive career in science. Andy has already optimized processes like “viewing one’s own thoughts objectively”, “not seeming sophomoric”, and “writing something with a beginning, a middle, and an end”, as you’ll see in this exchange.

Andy is qualified to be a film critic, not necessarily through his status as a film major, but through his years of watching everything available and puzzling out its significance both to himself and to the audience at large. More than half of the films I saw at Pittsburgh theaters in the last five years were in his company, and I always looked forward to hearing his opinion not just on the movie but on my opinion of the movie. I am more of a dilettante, always moving to a new obsession with a new topic about which I can become superficially knowledgeable.

Part One of our exchange is at Andy’s site. He’s just asked me to go into a bit more detail about my vaguely morality-inspired distaste for movies that seem wasteful of physical resources.

* * *

From: Mike
To: Andy
Date: December 27, 2010

It’s important to have these reviewers who completely trust their own opinion, and I think your citing Dave Kehr is a great compliment to him because, unlike the others you cite, he was a mass-market reviewer for decades, and not given the luxury of time to mull things over or of focusing on what he wants to write about. Although a lot of critics retain their enthusiasm after many years of maximum word-production about mediocre films that not even their creators care about, this enthusiasm can go in strange unintended directions. Roger Ebert in particular, his free-form internet pieces are sometimes great. But when he champions an obscure director or writer in the form of one of his 500-word reviews, it just seems like he was in a really good mood when watching something (also true of Stephanie Zacharek). And the relentless giving of 3 stars based on the idea that someone out there will like it leads to degraded judgment in general. I would rather see more people randomly giving things 0 stars based on the idea that someone out there will NOT like it. Are there any more Armond Whites, among the ranks of people who review everything?

I do like the idea that a worthy person would get valuable experience or a new perspective from working on Film X.  Film X might succeed at none of its intended goals (entertaining the audience, making the audience think, becoming part of a certain canon), but it probably isn’t a waste of everybody’s time. But there we’re just talking about the value of practice, or as Bill Simmons would call it, “getting the reps in”. Nowadays we don’t bemoan the tragic fate of Zack Greinke wasting his great performances on the Royals, because he’s going to have the opportunity to pitch Games That Matter at some point, before the end of his prime.

But there are some, let’s say, ideas, or images, that get associated with a bad film and then can’t be used in good ones. It’s often lamented that the Hollywood movies most worthy of remakes are the ones with solid premises that failed in some way (usually adaptations of great plays, or fascinating sci-fi/fantasy concepts done badly), and they don’t get remade because they lack the advantage of name recognition. And anyone showing a certain sort of vision of the afterlife now has to pretty much make the best movie of the year to overcome the reflexive response of “What is this, What Dreams May Come (Vincent Ward, 1998)? The Lovely Bones (Peter Jackson, 2009)?” You may have seen my posts on Facebook about how good Knowing (Alex Proyas, 2009) was, which I recanted a week later, because I didn’t actually want to recommend it to anyone since none of the actors do a good job. There are some moments in that film that are visually amazing in a straightforward, believable way, and those visual ideas are sort of stranded there. But those aspects aren’t really wasted on the film in question, because they are more appropriate for that film than for any other. Those are the outstanding elements that mean Knowing, unlike From Paris With Love (Pierre Morel, 2010), deserves to exist.

Really, the issue is wasted money, like you mention for Transformers (Michael Bay, 2007). That movie would have been basically the same if they had spent 1/5 as much on it. The visual effects might have been less sharp and flashy, or maybe not even if the filmmakers used some ingenuity. They didn’t use that money to hire an all-star cast or film in authentic locations. They didn’t even use it on costumes. It’s not a situation like Superman Returns (Bryan Singer, 2006) or Catwoman (Pitof, 2004) where the huge number quoted as the budget includes a decade of paying screenwriters and directors and other people to come up with ideas that were never used. It’s just a total waste from the audience’s point of view, even if it means a lot of visual effects programmers and designers can make a living.

I don’t think Marie Antoinette (Sofia Coppola, 2006) was a particularly expensive movie, but it creates this complete microcosm for its characters to interact in believably, it takes its time with important moments, it has all those perfectly cut little music videos, and all it needs is a story. I even appreciate its point, about showing us how the 18th century French royals resemble today’s Hollywood celebrities, and how jarring it is that they also had political power. But that’s conveyed pretty quickly. The film is one of those reflections, or meditations, on fame, on isolation, on its subjects’ situation. There could have been a lot more to it. They could have shot three different movies in this setting before it was dismantled. They were allowed to shoot in the actual palace of Versailles! I haven’t actually seen Tsai Ming-Liang’s film shot in collaboration with the Louvre, but I’m guessing he tried to take full advantage of the unique opportunities that offered.

Maybe my response to Sofia Coppola is sort of like my response to Noah Baumbach. Each one of their films seem like it wasn’t that hard to make (well, except for Marie Antoinette). The great moments come from things falling together unexpectedly, not from their being perfectionists, and yet it seems to take them an unnecessarily long time to make their films. I want to say to them, it seems like you have a lot of ideas, and I don’t think your oeuvre will be one in which any one film is a towering achievement, so get more ideas out there! Take more risks!

* * *

From: Andy
To: Mike
Date: January 12, 2011

Gilles Deleuze once wrote that “The cinema is always as perfect as it can be.” This statement can be applied to the work of individual directors, too: part of what makes Noah Baumbach Noah Baumbach is the fact that he has not made a lot of feature-length films [compared to the directors active in the heyday of the studio era]. Ditto for Sofia Coppola. Their cinema is always as perfect as it can be.

Were I employed as a professional film critic, I would feel obligated to asses films in terms of their value (to my readers, to film culture, to humanity, etc.). Since I am not, I prefer to ask not what the film in question has done for me, but what I can do with the film in question?

I watch as many movies as I can as a way of panning for gold: I’m looking for things I can use to make sense of my life and the world and the cinema (because to a certain extent I am mystified by the hold it has on me). I’m looking for examples. I don’t spend much time pondering the value of individual films, because that would be like questioning the value of a single grain of sand on a beach (or, to avoid mixing metaphors, in the silt of a riverbed). It can be done, but it misses the point somewhat.

This picture of Noah Baumbach came from a Google image search for "Armond White".

If a movie doesn’t speak to me, I get up and leave. Or, more often, I let my mind wander. In fact, movie theaters are almost as important to me for being places where I can go to think as they are for providing the best possible environment to fully experience films. When it comes to movies, I will gladly, happily — even necessarily, maybe — take the “bad” with the “good.” For that reason I am very rarely disappointed in the films I see. And to feel that something represents a wasted opportunity, I think it must disappoint you, yes? So perhaps we’ll never see eye to eye on this.

Armond White, by the way, is necessarily one of a kind, for the same reason that you couldn’t make a version of 12 Angry Men (Sidney Lumet, 1957) in which the initial vote came back 10-2, if that makes sense!

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From: Mike
To: Andy
Date: February 3, 2011

Yes, disappointment comes when I have some idea of what went into creating something — thus making me imagine what could have been accomplished. Unlike a novel, a movie contains evidence of the resources that went into it, and it’s hard not to have expectations, even if we know nothing about the genesis of the project. And then it’s easy to like something that gets the most out of its materials, like Moon (Duncan Jones, 2009) or The Evil Dead (Sam Raimi, 1981). I can’t be the only one who responded to Army of Darkness (Sam Raimi, 1992) by thinking “This is objectively much better than The Evil Dead, but given their respective budgets it should have been, like, 500 times better. No! That doesn’t make sense!”

I usually want to be carried along by a movie, not to draw something great from it here and there. The exceptions are muted human dramas like Starting Out in the Evening (Andrew Wagner, 2007) or Hell Is Other People (Jarrod Whaley, 2010) in which a character we’ve seen in such detail that he or she becomes unique is in a situation or state of mind that can’t be explained, only observed. This is akin to the experience with a novel where we’ve followed the characters for so long that we perceive their situation in ways we can’t describe. I think the collaborative nature of film makes these moments more serendipitous and magical. But a film needs to have more than one such moment to seem like it’s worth the effort. I kept feeling like Please Give (Nicole Holofcener, 2010) spent most of its time running through its plot points (maybe more like “character development points”) in order to get to one or two moments where it makes a major statement. It could have lingered on things more.

So in general what I’m hoping for in a movie is for the whole experience to be worthwhile, or at least consistently engaging, without requiring it to be polished or well-organized. Although I persist in viewing each grain of sand alone, instead of looking at the whole oeuvre, I tend to be interested in artists who keep producing work that expresses what they want to say at that moment, without masterminding every detail. Like Neil Young, or Robert Altman, or François Ozon. Someone who realizes they are not the best judge of their own creative output and relies on the audience to appreciate their high points while hoping they aren’t defined by the low. Looking at filmmaking as a job, I feel like that’s the way to do it.

But looking at it as artistic creation, I shouldn’t blame someone for having a different process. If Sofia Coppola or Rian Johnson can’t direct something that isn’t a fully conceived project over which they have total control, that’s understandable. And if people like Brian De Palma need to micromanage all aspects of the production, even those that aren’t among their talents (Is this a flashback or not? Why is this actor ten times worse than the others?), that’s the way they need to work.

Maybe it’s like being a coach. There are some people who try to hire a well-rounded group of assistants and delegate everything, and then there are people like Mike Krzyzewski who have many admirable traits but need to be surrounded by yes-men. There must be a reason why Andy Reid refuses to take Bill Simmons’s advice and hire a “Clock Management Closer”: he’s afraid of losing control in other aspects of the operation. When you hire him that’s what you get.

So, no one person possesses all the talents needed to make a great film. And, of course, when you put together everyone listed in the credits, you have an unpredictable mixture. You can end up wondering what the brilliant script would be like with better performances, or you can appreciate the score or a great performance surrounded by inanity, like George Clooney’s in The Men Who Stare at Goats (Grant Heslov, 2009) or Peter O’Toole’s in My Favorite Year (Richard Benjamin, 1982). Though one great element doesn’t turn an otherwise dismal movie into a good one, it makes it more bearable. So you’re right: it’s better to “pan for gold” than to imagine what perfection would look like.

* * *

From: Andy
To: Mike
Date: May 15

Right! Sorry it took me so long to respond to your last letter! Between the end of the semester, the overlapping Russian Film Symposium and Silk Screen Asian American Film Festival, and a few recent job interviews, I’ve been feeling overwhelmed by life lately. Thank goodness for the NBA playoffs, which, wow, are awesome this year. Anyway, without further ado:

Hmm . . .

I don’t know that I wanted to convince you that my way is better. In fact, in the sixth months since we began this exchange, I’ve turned a corner of, sorts, so I’m not even sure that it’s my way anymore. It is a way, though, definitely. What I mean by that: there is no correct approach to watching movies, but depending on what you’re trying to do, some work better than others. Auteurism, for instance, is a godsend if you’re writing a book about film history or covering a film festival, where a list of cast & crew and a one paragraph description in a festival guide is often all you have to go on. It’s less useful if you’re primarily interested in acting or music or some other specific aspect of filmmaking. And you can do without it if you’re not planning on seeing more than five or six movies a year.

My way was moments for a long time because I was trying to make up for my not-misspent youth by watching as many movies as I could, upwards of ten or fifteen a week. This didn’t leave a lot of time for dwelling on individual films or for proper long-form writing. Then, too, there’s the fact that I’ve never been very good at writing pans or playing the good-better-best game because I genuinely appreciate most of the movies I watch, which is sort of like being someone who enjoys traveling: the question isn’t ever What am I doing here?, it’s What’s going on? You can answer that in either 300 words or 3,000, but not anything in between, and being a blogger I generally opted for the former.

But I’m getting older now, and I want to do something with my film knowledge someday, and I’ve seen so many movies already, and as a result of all this I’m starting to change my ways. I’m much more likely to watch a movie twice now than I am to see two movies in a day, because there are so many other things I want to do, and if I am going to watch something, I want to make sure I really understand it: how it works, and what I’m being told, and what impact it has had on me. I also find myself wanting to start responding to the question of why movies matter. For much of my life it was enough that they did, but as with each passing day it becomes less obvious (but no less true) to the world at large that they do, I feel like it’s time to make a stand. What I’m doing, therefore, is spending more time with the filmmakers that matter to me the most, which makes me less charitable towards those that don’t mean much to me at all. I still don’t have anything against Sofia Coppola, and I still enjoy her work, absolutely, but darn it, she’s taking time away from John Carpenter and Raoul Walsh and Roberto Rossellini and Leos Carax, and I’m just not as cool with that as I used to be.

For the sake of symmetry, then, I’ll close the same way you did: yes, a great moment can make a mediocre film worthwhile, sure, but life is short, and there’s so much to do, so why settle? Why be a prospector if you have the training and resources to be a mining engineer? Perhaps it isn’t fair to ask how a movie isn’t perfect, but, after all, “progress depends on the unreasonable man.”

By the way, I love your idea that “director” and “coach” are equivalent concepts. The key to success for both is selecting personnel that fit into their system, but also being willing to occasionally adapt their system (which, incidentally, is a product of their personality in each instance) to take full advantage of whatever resources they have to work with. And it’s not necessarily all about winning for either. Spot on!

Mike, it has been a pleasure!

* * *

Thanks dude!

Again, Part One of the exchange is at Andy’s site.

Ringerblogging: Fit 1

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TV are what movies once was, so I hear. Today’s Godfather Parts I and II is The Wire. Today’s Cleopatra is Game Of Thrones. Today’s Susan Hayward  is Edie Falco. So it’s high past time to take this blog hard to the hoop by analyzing a TV show as it develops.

As Ned Flanders said about Impy and Chimpy, I can honestly say that the series premiere of Ringer is the best episode of TV starring Sarah Michelle Gellar I’ve ever seen. Since the end of Seinfeld every fictional TV show I regularly watch has been animated. And if that hasn’t convinced you to become part of this weblog’s far-flung following, let me enlighten you with a typical grain of insight: Since every meta-media entity has reviewed the premiere, the best thing for me to do is give it only cursory attention, because who cares what I have to say. But as all rational observers lose interest in the show, one only has to give the show a bare minimum of attention to distinguish oneself from the typical critic who for whatever reason of personal self-aggrandizement feels it necessary to watch more than one TV show and therefore falls behind on his Ringer watching.

Can I keep it up? No. I didn’t even get this post up until two hours after the end of the second episode. But there’s a chance. And by not caring enough to look for spoilers or in any way be savvy in my expectations, I hope to replicate the experience of the half-awake viewer who forgets what he’s seen an hour later.

Thanks to the mysterious Pixel 51 for this screencap.

The premiere of Ringer has inspired more disdain than acclaim, mostly or entirely because of the terrible green-screen effects in the scene on the boat. I ask you, is this fair? I didn’t even notice its terribility. Was this the effect of haughty critics having watched a preliminary version of the pilot, or is it that I’m just impressed if a TV show’s green-screen effects are better than those in The Muppet Show or the rock-climbing episode of Seinfeld?

The boat scene is very short anyway. The part of the show containing Siobhan, the rich twin, is too short in general. She dies a third of the way through the first episode? I cannot believe this is all we’ll see of her. Later in the series we’re going to either see extended flashback sequences, or find out Siobhan isn’t really dead, or both. Can Gellar play a double role if one of her characters is dead? Yes, she is playing two roles in that she is playing the role of one character who is playing the role of another character. That’s enough to be interesting. But is that all we’ll see her do? And will it really be interesting?

Ioan Gruffudd plays Siobhan’s husband Andrew, a man with an English accent. This was the most heartening part of the episode, though since this is just a pilot it could turn out that he’s American in all subsequent episodes. Gruffudd’s character seems like an asshole. Is he really an asshole, or is he acting this way because Siobhan is such a bitch? Was Siobhan really a bitch, or did Gruffudd drive her to it by being such an asshole? The actor has been very good at keeping this ambiguous so far. We’ll find out. And hopefully we’ll find out indirectly through watching how people react to Bridget’s Siobhan impersonation, instead of having the answers foisted on us.

L: English actress Tara Summers in extra-European dye job and American accent. R: Sarah Michelle Gellar in frigid bun.

Tara Summers plays a woman with an American accent. Tara Summers is an English actress, and her character’s name (“Gemma”) is about 50,000% more common among Englishwomen than Americans. And she’s an interior decorator working in New York. Why isn’t Gemma British? Come on. This character is fun, but the writers and the actress team up to make her seem like an utter moron for failing to detect anything amiss in Bridget’s Siobhan impersonation. Bridget comes over to see how well the redecoration is going. Bridget expresses no interest in the redecoration.  The exchange that follows is something like: Gemma: “Come on, you love this stuff!” Bridget:“Oh, yeah, I do! That… thing is really nice.” And so on and so forth.

Kristoffer Polaha plays Gemma’s husband Henry. He’s supposed to be some creative type but he seems like the same sort of overstressed MBA possessor that Ioan Gruffudd is playing. Henry and Siobhan are having an affair, and yet Henry doesn’t even seen more thrill-seeking than Andrew, let alone more interesting, let alone more romantic. If they did retool the show before episode 2, the best thing they could have done would be to start dressing Henry up like one of the Brothers Bloom, since he already looks like Mark Ruffalo. Or like one of the guys from LMFAO. Anything to make it plausible that he’s a self-loathing writer who gets away with being petulant because of his creative temperament, instead of what he seems like now, a guy who got fired for spending too much time at the gym and not enough time at the brokerage and now is trying to start a new brand of vitamin water.

The Brothers Bloom - what a good movie

There’s also a character named Bridget, played by Sarah Michelle Gellar in a perfectly protagonistic performance. She’s surprised and slightly distressed by everything that happens. Her Narcotics Anonymous sponsor and her FBI handler both just want to know what’s going on with her, and they just want to help her, but they just don’t understand the details, and she just has to make it on her own.

She also has a stepdaughter. I mean Siobhan has a stepdaughter, who hates her of course, and seems to hate her father. Another ambiguity presents itself: is Ioan Gruffudd’s character an asshole because his daughter is such a bitch? Does the causation run contrariwise? The resolution of this question proves to be uninteresting since their relationship is cliched from the start. Guess what, she’s just been kicked out of boarding school. Also she’s incredibly skinny. And slutty. Is this because her stepmother is an ice queen? Has Siobhan intensified her ice queenery because her stepdaughter is such a slut? Will Bridget bond with the stepdaughter, a fellow reprobate in whom she may even confide her true identity? All this and more as Ringer douses us with cascades of drama over the coming weeks, months and years.

What did you think? Did you watch it? You didn’t watch it, did you. Good lord, who are you anyway? Why are you reading this?

Stay tuned for more Ringerblogging. In the next instalment, we’ll mention some of the plot. The first episode has enough plot for 3/4 of a two-hour movie, so it would be impossible to recap it while having any pretense of being cursory.

Overactose intolerance

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One thing people find it easy to criticize is “overacting”. People also find it easy to simply note an example of “overacting” and smile in the way we do with “guilty pleasures”. “Jon Polito is wonderfully hammy as Johnny Caspar”, that sort of thing. “Few people can chew scenery with the endearing voracity of John Malkovich.” Would you want him to read that?

Maybe so, maybe you want him to know he’s making the production more enjoyable with his antics. But is it intended as a compliment? An appreciation? When it is, it may also be a flippant dismissal, a suggestion that the actor took the easy route. Either he or the director didn’t bother to figure out how to construct a subtle performance. Is this fair?

Take Tommy Lee Jones for example. He’s known for being pretty similar in most of his roles, playing fairly understated roles in fairly understated productions (In the Valley of Elah, The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada) or in unpredictable films where he embodies stability (Men in Black, No Country For Old Men). Sometimes he’s a menacing man of power (The Client, The Fugitive, Under Siege). In most of the roles you associate with him, you don’t remember him doing anything to attract attention. He himself has described his Captain America role as the same sort of thing he always does. And yet, when he does something different from what we expect, there are people who won’t give him the benefit of the doubt. “Overacting” just means “giving a big performance”, with a negative connotation attached.

Here someone accuses him of overacting in Natural Born Killers. Here someone accuses him of overacting in Batman Forever. Here someone accuses him of overacting in Eyes of Laura Mars. Dammit, those are movies that demand big performances. He’s the villain in all those movies and they are all full of shrieking noises and crazy imagery. What’s he supposed to do?

Especially Eyes of Laura Mars (Irvin Kershner, 1978), whose plot makes no sense. To keep people from walking out in bemusement once the sexy fashion-shoot segments are over, he needs to be as menacing as possible. To be menacing while playing a crazy person, he needs to exaggerate his personality a bit.

Look at some examples of overacting from this typically excellent discussion in Jim Emerson’s comments. Includes plenty of people who question the premise, and plenty who don’t.

  • Ben Kingsley in Sexy Beast – no, that’s the character.
  • Sheila Reid in Brazil – cited  as both “overacting” and a performance that makes the movie less comedic and more haunting. Is that possible?
  • Andy Griffith in A Face In The Crowd – no, that’s the character. Lonesome Rhodes is barely this side of Howard Beale as a character who’s written to be charismatic, but can’t honestly be played as less than maniacal.
  • Benicio Del Toro in Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas – no, that’s the character. Del Toro is capable of more subtle performances. It’s happened.
  • “Jack Nicholson in just about everything” – yes, you could say he gravitates to roles that require what some might consider overacting. Which after a long career, you could say, suggests that he prefers to act in unrealistic ways. If that’s how you see it.
  • “This might be an unpopular assertion, but Joe Pesci overacts his head off in Goodfellas. It’s perfect for the role and the film, but so out there that it’s about as easily mocked and imitated as anything in cinema.” So, it’s perfect for the role. It’s the sort of acting that suits the role exactly. It isn’t overly acted, it’s properly acted. The 1812 Overture is easily mocked too, you know.
  • Tom Hulce in Amadeus – fair enough.

Sheila Reid as the inaccurately widowed Mrs. Buttle in BRAZIL (Terry Gilliam, 1984)

Coming soon: Examples of actors who are not overacting.

How to decorate your Mergenthaler linotype machine

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Zachary Scott (left) needs Dane Clark to be the man that he himself cannot be in this scene from WHIPLASH (Lewis Seiler, 1948), the best classic film I watched this summer. Click for a good piece about it.

Do other blogs not go on summer vacation? I forgot to inquire.

My vision for this blog, my grand encompassing vision, was a magazinish structure. Three big pieces a month and three sort of sidebars. It may be impressive that I kept that pace up for almost eight months, since it sort of depended on having co-bloggers, which have not as yet materialized.

With any sort of project, I generally fall into the trap of “making the perfect the enemy of the good”. If we can’t read the whole scientific article, we shouldn’t bother doing it superficially. If we can’t enter our vital statistics into a spreadsheet three times a week, we shouldn’t bother trying to have a half-assed diary. Get obsessed by something, then get disappointed in our inability to devote our life to it. The infrequent posting structure (three big pieces a month) was intended to minimize this problem in two ways. First, I could build up a backlog of things during periods of intense interest in the topic, and then parcel them out during periods of laziness or lack of free time. Second, I wouldn’t be spending every movie taking notes and watching out for things to write about, if I only needed to write about three things a month.

However, the infrequent posts meant that I wanted each one to be really good in some way. Therefore each should say something new, or at least juxtapose topics in a new way. Therefore I’m back to taking notes during everything I watch, because each film might only take up 1/3 of an essay. Or even worse, I decide I need to write about the movie version of a book that I want to recommend (1, 2), and that requires re-reading the book. Or I start various series of posts and then realize that there’s not much room left in the posting schedule for posts that aren’t part of a series.

To put it briefly, if you envision your blog as a micro-Onion AV Club, you need more than one contributor. In the words of Ringo Starr, “I’m warning you, with peace and love, I have too much to do.”

So at the beginning of the summer (summer defined as the period between my work-related week in Davidson, N.C. and my family-related week in Raleigh, N.C.) I put the whole thing on hiatus instead of letting it peter out. And now, it’s back.