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The Torch: In the crux – Acting – what role does the actor play?

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It has always been a bit of a mystery to me how amongst the plethora of factors that altogether determine the quality in any given movie, it should be the most unfettered human element of all things, the acting, which can be most objectively assessed.

thetorch1.jpgWhether it is good or bad, or lacking or too much, and in what exactly – most of us who care to pass such judgement can readily tell the difference right away. You can, in fact, compare the situation to what is key in your own travelling experiences, when you have to settle in with your chosen accommodation: no layer of exquisitely refined design in even the most boutique of places will be able to make up for what is missing in real person-to-person service; it always comes down to the human element where feeling comfortable and being at ease are concerned. And so it is with film.

Therefore, let’s question the state of the art that we have in acting nowadays. Notwithstanding the occasionally stellar performance to challenge the rule of mediocrity across the board of our beloved screens, you would think that there exists one universal hallmark of quality to define first-rate acting; but far from it. We still today observe two separate strands of how to put an actor’s professional skills to good use in a film. There is a Western tradition governed by the aim of acting “out” what the given content can be and opening up the personal to the fullest extent, as opposed to an Asian one, which sees the highest virtue in acting “in”: in-style with genre expectations and in-to the context of a picture. These are, of course, clichés, and they hold true to the extent that an abstract and generalizing discussion such as this one requires us to be. It takes a European like myself by surprise to witness the amount of genuine positivity and joy that a film as rudimentarily funny as “18 Grams of Love” for instance can inspire in its home audience; and very much so not despite, but almost, it will seem, because of the kind of apish acting it quite boldly features.

But not to get lost in too much detail here, it first has to be faithfully established how it is important for any movie of whatever denomination to feature the kind of actors and the level of acting that it takes to connect with any given target audience. For this, casting is essential – after all, any credible rendition heavily relies on whether an actor actually looks their part. Having said that, however, I have to make a blunt request: Enough of pretty-faces! And put away with those ill-conceived director’s guidelines that only inspire so many vacuous performances by having good make-up and lighting stand in for sound acting skills. All too often what we get instead of casting people, trained or not, to look their part (let alone reality!) is that preferences seem to be pointing in a direction as if someone was rehearsing for commercials, rather than a solid movie.

If you probe deeper than just the present-day situation to acknowledge the history behind acting as a profession, you will find that actors and prostitutes have been on intimate terms from the start; and it shall not be ignored here that this applies equally to both sexes. These two trades have developed side by side (if not with some degree of interchangeability) out of their common roots in offering and providing religious service to the gods. In fact, there is some valid reason for this kind of affinity which goes beyond that base law of afforded opportunities. The handing over of body and spirit (soul, if you like) is an actor’s part, too. In trusting the script and director to not only guide, but to “use” them at their will (hopefully with respect and integrity) to an end that doesn’t disclose itself until the completion of an emotionally and physically charged abandonment of self which is their part to give – one can rightfully say that there is a mutually agreed form of relative exploitation in this work and profession. Not to stretch this point too far, I put it on record here that of course there is a spectrum wide enough in acting to allow for more than just sex and giving pleasure to others. The exhibitionist impulse is serviceable in many ways; as is that part of our human nature which compels us to performance – and, well, acting.

As an art, acting as for the screen is different from acting as seen in theatre of course, and this is due to the differing ways in which a fiction drama can be watched. Real life actors deliver their performance to the audience by an invariably frontal aspect and have to give a static presentation, resulting in a picture that is confined to the singular angle as well as the spatial limitation that we have with the regular stage. Here the frame is fixed, and any tracking of movement possible only as defined by neck-range. In addition to this, visibility is an issue as distance on the purely human scale does indeed matter. Thus, onstage performances present us with a heightening of reality, which at its most complete will give a deliberate exaggeration of the particular into its general type, in this way superimposing an image detail with the larger-than-life impersonation; this is called theatrical representation. In film we want the same, basically, only in a much more direct and refined, a more precise and, lastly, a more individual fashion, we demand more of a distinction of character and situation, because we look for empathy; and this by contrast is called cinematic representation.

It is the core challenge for every actor to have their performance and personal rendition of a preconceived part to be on par with how it was originally thought up by the writer/director ahead of them. They lend their own and every bit of individuality to interpreting a script and thereby will be the ones on whom it falls to ultimately decide about the impact of the outcome, the film’s power to affect. But the watershed is clear and failure obvious, I insist. While a talented actor can take care of the introduction of character almost single-handedly by just a few gestures and well-assorted repertoire of manners and distinctive bearings, they will be able to save some unnecessary explanatory scenes; the not quite so gifted among them will tend to indiscriminately over-act and under-perform, which is how any story goes stale within just minutes. In most cases it is flat acting which really lowers a movie to the cliché.

However, all of this can only mean one thing: there urgently needs to be a push of Singaporean directors towards raising the bar in their films’ human distinction, which is the quality of the acting they feature. Responsibility for achieving this goal lies primarily with the ambitious auteur. It is their task alone to provide all the instruction and explanation for their talent, to help them realize their part in the strongest and the most comprehensive way they possibly can, for their contribution and dedication is vital to the performance of the entire film. We also need our directors to challenge themselves – and not just on perfecting their visuals and implementing eye-candy; but from now on and above all else emphasis should be on working tirelessly with a skilled and professional cast to deliver outstanding acting.

Here I have to be as uncompromisingly direct as ever and reiterate a point I’ve made before: it is uninterrupted, long takes that demand the most of actors as well as the director, and as a result make for the highest in cinematic quality and refinement – if done properly. But since they are so hard to do (and time consuming), this is most likely also the reason behind why we get to see so very few of them these days.

So here’s my bit of unsolicited advice to the young and aspiring filmmaker in particular: Before honing your craft to meet the polished production industry standard, do develop and train your own understanding first, and let your eyes follow suit with what insight you have gained by doing documentaries. Learn to interact with real living people through your camera, and explore how to make the rough individual unpredictability square with your set frame. You have to have an acute knowledge of how emotions release themselves into expression in order to form and to appropriate them to evoke a genuine picture voice. Unless you really know the human soul in its deepest and richest and down to its most conflicting constitution, you can never direct a human being (an actor that is) into their double analogy, into credible samples playing out meaningful drama. As only then will we stand in awe of a distinguished performance and give rapturous applause to what amounts to real significant acting by our future stars.

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