It’s about two weeks ago since the 84th Academy Awards ceremony held place in Hollywood. This time it wasn’t a movie being the “star” (like i.e. The Lord of the Rings or Avatar have been), but the actors. Such big players like George Clooney, Brad Pitt and Meryl Streep were nominated. They were in the focus of the bulletins.
But anyway, what makes a movie a work of art? How can film be interpreted? And which role do the actors play? How can film as a performing arts be interpreted? To give one answer to these questions I’ll take a look on Stanley Cavell’s The World Viewed.
In this post I will summarize what he’s writing about the movie star in the chapter “Audience, Actor, and Star” (pp. 25-29). There he highlights that the movie star is to be seen different from a stage actor in a fundamental way.
A stage character, like i.e. Othello or King Lear, is an independent entity created by a playwright. Contrary to this, a movie star is doubly bound. It’s bound to a single performer and to the public. How Cavell comes to this idea and what this idea means I will explain in the following.
Both in a theater and in a movie theater the actors are present to the audience, while the audience is absent to the actors. The actors are present since they are looked at. The audience is absent, because reality is parenthesized, which is to say that “I am present not at something happening, which I must confirm”, which allows me, that “I do nothing in the face of tragedy, or that I laugh at the follies of others” (p. 26).
But there is a difference between the audience in front of a stage and the public in front of a screen, which is perfectly pictured in the cartoon by Nicholas Gurewitch alias Perry Bible Fellowship.
Shooting at a stage actor may cause him or her death; at least an injury will be inflicted. That means in a movie theater in front of a screen the audience is completely relieved from action. “I am present … at something that has happened, which I absorb (like a memory)” (p. 26).
The single performer.
A second difference between the theater and the movie theater is that on stage there are living human beings, while on screen there are not, but yet a human something. To explain this Cavell refers to Erwin Panofsky.
The figure on stage (i.e. Othello) is a substantial figure, an entity created by a playwright. It exists definitely, which means it exists whether it is played or not, whether it is played well or not, and whether it is played by Mrs. X or Mr. Y. (Call to mind that in the past women were not allowed on stage as pictured in the movie Shakespeare In Love. Yet there were female characters. Or take Kierkegaard’s The Crisis and A Crisis in the Life of an Actress, in which he writes about an aging actress which is feared to not being able to play a girl of 18 any longer. But Kierkegaard argues, that an actor or actress of real greatness will be able to play this role, which results in the accomplishment play acting as such.)
Contrary to this the movie character is an incarnation by an entity. Cavell names Greta Garbo and Robert Montgomery, who incarnated into several movie figures. From this Panofsky concludes that the character in a movie lives and dies with the actor.
Cavell turns this conclusion upside down. He states that the actor lives and dies with the character. That needs some clarification.
The stage actor, the stage actress works him- or herself into a role. Cavell compares this with a sports game. (He refers to baseball, I will take football as illustration.) In football (soccer) you’ve got the inside defender. Various persons can play this position, but the great inside defender “is a man who has accepted and trained his skills and instincts most perfectly and matches them most intimately with his discoveries of the possibilities and necessities of” this position (pp. 27-28). That means for the stage actor the role is the study subject. That way he becomes the projector through which we, the public, know who King Lear is, because we have seen King Lear in flesh.
In contrast to this the film actor takes on a role. Cavell compares this with a store: “he takes stock of his physical and temperamental endowment; he lends his being to the role and accepts only what fits; the rest is nonexisting” (p. 28). That way the movie actor becomes the study subject and study of the movie camera, which projects this study. As a result an exemplary screen performance is one, in which a star is born. Cavell names Bogart as an outstanding example. In the same breath we can call George Clooney, Brad Pitt and Meryl Streep. The presence of a movie star is who he or she is. This figure is in the presence of the audience and the audience is in the presence of that figure – as a projection on the screen. Without the movie a star wouldn’t exist.
Last but not least the creation of a screen performer is at the same time the creation of a character in the form of a type. But this will be subject in another blog entry.
Finally for this moment let’s make a note of the fact that a movie star is doubly bound. He or she bound to a single performer and to the public.