Sunday, April 18, 2010

When Does An Actor Go Too Far?

Have you ever watched a movie where you actually felt sorry for an actor? Not because they had the misfortune to be in a dreadful film. But because they have committed so much to their role, that they have crossed an imaginary line. It is difficult to define this line, but you know it when you see it. You know it, when you say to yourself during a film, "no matter how immersed they are in their role, no actor should have to go through this" or "no person should have to do this on camera". All good actors go the distance, giving themselves emotionally and physically to the demands of a film.  But is there some such thing as going too far?

These thoughts ran through my mind as I watched the film 'Antichrist' last weekend. The film stars Charlotte Gainsbourgh, the redoubtable French actress of hardy cinematic stock (she is the daughter of actress Jane Birkin and screenwriter Serge Gainsbourgh) who has incidentally also sold a fair number of music CDs as a singer of some merit.  And she is asked in this film to do things that are, frankly, unspeakable. To see her in this film is to realize, how deep and far into the woods an actor can go, following in step behind the director. Yes, we all know that the actor of gumption is meant to be an empty vessel, a blank slate, devoid of all vanity, all inhibition, and willing and able to enact whatever the director asks of him/her. But I ask this question again, is there room to place a limit on where an actor can or should go? When does an actor tell himself, I just cannot go to that place? Charlotte Gainsbourgh's scenes in this movie are so exhaustingly enervating, both emotionally and physically, that after one is done feeling sorry for her, one's regard for her bravery starts to gradually accumulate -  for unequivocally demonstrating that she knows no limits as an actor. When it comes to movies, I am not weak of heart, or prone to the slightest prudery, but the extreme performances of the two lead actors in this film (Gainsbourgh and Willem Dafoe) shook me. Lars von Trier, the director of 'Antichrist' has acknowledged that he made this film during a period of extreme personal depression. But does this justify what he demanded of these actors? I believe this question lies at the crux of the polarization between avid defenders of this film and those who are outraged by it.

Charlotte Gainsbourgh in a publicity still from 'Antichrist'
The history of cinema is studded with examples of performers, male and female, who have reached that elusive ether-bound realm of acting that is immediately eternal; performances that are uniformly regarded as classic. But what of those actors who dive into the deep-end, holding hands with the director, with nary a fear of whether they would make it back to the surface? Gainsbourgh (and Dafoe's) performances in 'Antichrist' (which I would score 9 out of 10 on the 'How Far Did They Go' scale) got me to thinking about other movies where I have noticed actors going far, very far, and thought I would list them here.

Speaking of Lars von Trier, Emily Watson in another film directed by Trier, 'Breaking The Waves', also created a bold, heart-breakingly raw and honest character that remains memorable for all who have seen the movie (which announced her immediately to the world as an actor to watch out for). Her portrayal is so stark, that it is altogether exempt from the audience's judgment, and this is almost impossible to do in films. A great measure of her achievement here is that it is difficult to decide if the character she portrays is someone approximating saintliness or is simply a person who is not entirely mentally sound (I would give her a 7 on the 'How Far Did They Go' scale).

Any inquiry into the limits that actors have crossed on camera would have to consider Monica Bellucci in the French film 'Irreversible' (an easy score of 9 out of 10 on the scale). Directed by Gaspar Noe, and running backwards in time, the film begins with the gruesome consequences resulting from the very real trauma faced by a young couple, and ends with the idyllic times from when the two first met. In the middle of this film is a single seemingly unbroken 9 minute shot, where Monica Bellucci's character gets accosted in a Paris subway underpass late in the night, and gets raped and brutally beaten. Unlike other movies, the camera gets unbearably close to the violence, and by making the viewer watch this event enact in real time, makes them complicit in what is occurring on screen. I had to look away from the screen through much of this because it was simply unwatchable; this movie was labeled the most walked-out film of 2003 for good reason. That someone as well regarded as Monica Bellucci would participate in this film is a measure of how fearless an actor can be. I will not pretend to understand what sort of an experience this may be for an actor, but I have wondered if it may actually be freeing to know that you are capable of doing something so emotionally and physically extreme.

Another French film that registers high on the scale (again, a 9) is 'Ma Mere' (My Mother); it stars the dauntless Isabelle Huppert and Louis Garrel, both no strangers to wandering off the beaten track when it comes to acting. I will only leave you with a brief outline of the film and have you recognize why these actors belong in this discussion. The movie, based on a controversial novel, is about a young man who (after the death of his father) begins to start spending time with his mother who holds an extremely fluid opinion of morality. As he is exposed by his mother to her hedonistic lifestyle, his relationship with her and the friends she spends her time with, takes increasingly dark turns. Huppert brings dignity to a role that calls for absolute disregard to any sense of norm, and Garrel gamely goes with this movie to places that films seldom visit.

All of this would make it seem that it is only European actors who cross the line with full abandon in the name of their craft. But many American films too have asked actors for their pound of flesh and received it in more than equal measure. Christian Bale's deliriously unhinged and guileless take on materialism in the eighties, in 'American Psycho' directed by Mary Harmon, scores high (7 out of 10). Also, Bale's physical transformation in The Machinist, unseen by me, is often brought up as an example of an actor's commitment gone wild. Tom Hanks famously went through a similar physical transformation in 'Cast Away', but while his performance was outstanding in the film - he wordlessly kept viewers riveted for more than an hour in the middle of the film - his acting was too conventional, in my opinion, to qualify for being on the list of actors who have gone too far. Robert DeNiro similarly is often cited in 'Raging Bull' for his unrecognizably effective physical transformation, but again, I am not sure that I would consider that he crossed that imaginary line into going too far in that movie. So who did actually cross the line? Definitely Harvey Keitel in the Abel Ferrara directed original 'Bad Lieutenant', in which Keitel leaps anchorless into a sea of depravity. It takes courage to play someone so loathsome; repulsive is not a trait most actors seek when looking for roles (score 5 out of 10).

Amongst American female actors, Jennifer Connelly's drug-fueled, free-falling descent in 'Requiem For A Dream' sticks in the memory almost a decade after the release of the film, with the last scene of the movie defining the "no actor should have to go through this" moment (score 8 out of 10). Also, Chloe Sevigny started her career portraying dangerous/creepy lapses in early teen (mis)behavior; 'Gummo' and 'The Brown Bunny' earned plenty of notoriety, but nothing she has done surpasses the gutsy abandon with which she defined the shocking moral sting at the end of 'Kids', her first film (score 6 out of 10). Bernardo Bertolucci's 1990 film, 'The Sheltering Sky' gave Debra Winger, an uninhibited actor from the start of her career, a chance to completely unravel in portraying the despair and slowly settling insanity of the character; I recall wondering as to why Winger would allow herself to come so emotionally and physically unhinged for the sake of a movie (score 6 out of 10). Amongst more contemporary female actors, Ashley Judd in 'Bug' and Anne Hathaway in 'Havoc' (score 5 out of 10, for both) have made it abundantly clear that there is not much that they will shy from in the service of the role at hand; it is obvious that they are here for the real thing, and not to serve as Hollywood wallpaper. And how about Ewan McGregor, who seems peerless amongst contemporary male actors in being almost recklessly game in complying with pretty much any and all manner of demands from the roles he takes on. His commitment to crossing every line there is, is particularly evident in Peter Greenaway's 'The Pillow Book', where his character goes through physical and emotional turmoils of unthinkable variety (score 7 out of 10). [Greenaway, by the way, has probably made more consistently outrageous demands from his actors, than any other director].

So these are the great warriors of the cinema screen, the ones who have earned the right to say that they can do anything for their craft. Viewers sometimes see this level of extreme malleability from an actor as a lack of discipline or self-respect even; I have only great admiration for them.

I am sure there are tens of other actors who deserve mention here. That is what the comments section of the blog is for; I could use some reminding of those I have missed.

Thursday, April 15, 2010

Goodbye Solo ***1/2

The first scene of "Goodbye Solo" lays out the basic premise of the movie. During a routine drive, a cab driver is asked by a frequent passenger if he can book a ride ten days later to be driven to a location from which the passenger is almost assuredly planning to commit suicide.

Although there are umpteen ways that a film can be constructed from this premise (a thriller, a Hollywood weepie, or a psychological mind-bender come to mind), this movie has no interest in indulging in cinematic conventions. The film tracks the lives of these two individuals over those days, as the cab driver tries to convince the man to not go through with his plans. That is it. And while this may not make you want to rush out to rent this film (although I would urge you to), you may want to jot down the name of this movie on a piece of a paper for that day when you are in the mood for a meditative, introspective experience.

How many films have you seen where the primary relationship is between a young immigrant cabbie and a hard-lived, burnt-around-the-edges, old man? Oh, but the richness of these two characters.

This film takes an objective eye to these two individuals and does not let up. And it is the specific details which emerge that matter. The cab-driver (the titular 'Solo') is a young Senegalese man trying to make a living in small-town North Carolina. He is the sort of person who has a way with people: friendly to a fault even with strangers, guileless, alarmingly happy at all times, and capable of talking a mile a minute. As a black immigrant, if he is aware that his feet rest on the lowest rungs of the socioeconomic ladder in America, he does not seem to mind it at all. He works his night job with honesty and humor, and is trying to support his family which includes his Mexican-American spouse and her intelligent and poised teen daughter (presumably from a prior marriage). Their first child together is on its way. Solo works in his spare time to study to qualify for becoming a flight attendant. He is pushing upward for a better life -  exhausted yes, but never without a game smile on his face. So that is the cab driver, but what of the other character? The other character is somewhat of a cipher, for the audience as well as for Solo. He is a grizzled, old, Southern man, who harbors an avid aversion to human interaction. But even then, why is he giving the appearance that he is getting ready to take his own life? Is this what draws Solo to this old man, the desire to solve the mystery of what would lead a man to contemplate suicide? Or is Solo, as involved as he is with his own life, simply forced to encroach in the world of the older man to stop him from going through with his plans. The old man is as gnarled and obstinate as might be seen in a movie; alcohol and cigarettes are the closest he has to anything he is dependent on in life. Here is a man who simply wants to be left to spend his life on his own terms. Yes, he likes to go to the movies once in a while, and succumbs to the most marginal thawing when asked to spend some time with Solo's family, but beyond that, he remains confoundingly impenetrable to Solo.

This is a movie that might frustrate a particular type of viewer as a film in which nothing happens. To others, this will be one of the most unaffected, close to the ground portraits of human behavior committed to film. We seldom see this level of fidelity to the incomprehensible aspects of human nature, including what remains resolutely blurry about it, portrayed in a movie. In how far it goes, it reminded me of Clint Eastwood's "Million Dollar Baby" released a few years ago. While Eastwood's film is showier and more conventional in its treatment of the material, both movies deal with an uncommon relationship between two characters, one of whom learns to accede to a fundamental choice exercised by the other, as vehemently unacceptable as it seems.

I saw the depiction of the cab-driver in 'Goodbye Solo' and could not separate actor from character. This must be one of the more difficult roles to play; if it were not for the genuine warmth of this actor (Souleymane Sy Savane), the portrayal of an endlessly congenial man would slide a hundred ways into caricature, or just plain annoyance. And Red West who plays the older man, has an unquestionably weathered demeanor about him, and it appears as if he agreed to let someone film his own life. It is not faint praise to say that a movie has found lead actors who make a scripted film seem like documentary.

The film is written and directed by the thirty-something Ramin Bahrani [whose previous well-received films 'Man Push Cart' and 'Chop Shop' are unseen by me] and he appears to be influenced by italian neorealism. Described in Wikipedia as a style of film characterized by stories set amongst the poor and working class, filmed on location, frequently using nonprofessional actors, this definition could be another way to describe 'Goodbye Solo'. There is a rigorous commitment to austerity in the making of this film. It reminded me in its purity, of last year's "Wendy and Lucy", starring Michelle Williams and directed by Kelly Reichardt.  If you leave conventional movie-going expectations at the door, 'Goodbye Solo' will be a wholly unique, and yes, fulfilling movie-watching experience.

Roger Ebert wrote in his review of this film that "wherever you live, when this movie opens, it will be the best film in town". Who am I to argue.