Monday, August 9, 2010

Acts of Choice

The following is the third installment of work-in-progress (more specifically an introduction). It follows "A Raft of Choices" and "Leveraging Ambivalence" (both below), but also stands on its own terms. Any feedback appreciated. --JC

All works art essentially say the same thing: This is the way the world works. They usually say it implicitly rather than explicitly (in modes of harmony or dissonance; optimism or pessimism; naturalism or artifice), and as often as not they point an alternative to the set of arrangements they depict. In the process of such a search, works of art will refer directly or indirectly to other works of art -- they will say, in effect, the world doesn't work that way; instead, it works this way. Or they will say, yes, the world works that way, but with this caveat or corollary. But all works of art must at least start, if not end, with an assertion about the nature of the world as it is.  No work of art claims to represent reality in its totality -- it could not, for then it would be life and not art --  but every work of art claims to capture something essential, which is to say something shared.

The life blood of art is choices. To create is to edit, and editing is a process (usually conscious, but sometimes not) of making decisions about what to include, which inevitably means decisions about what to exclude. Representing reality -- which is to say using one thing to stand for another -- is at least as much a matter of subtraction than it is addition. And, if you will permit one more theoretical statement here, representation is a matter of abstraction, the transubstantiation substance and concept.

Works of art vary in their degree of abstraction (think of the difference between a Michelangelo and a Picasso painting), and I think it's fair to say that some forms of art tend to be more abstract than others (think of the difference between a symphony and a building). If you were to somehow chart a spectrum from the abstract to the concrete, the medium of film would be widely considered to generally fall on the latter end. Though, even more than the other arts, it rests on an illusion (namely a neurological quirk of the human brain in which images shown in rapid succession create a perception of motion), film is widely considered among the most mimetic of the arts in representing reality. At the same time, because film is typically experienced in finite segments of time -- unlike related media such as television, which is more open-ended and discontinuous -- we also tend to think of films as fully realized worlds in themselves.

For all their perceived transparency, however, we all understand that movies -- I'm going to make a semantic switch now, both because in a digital age the word "film" is on the way to losing its precision, and because the word "movie" has a vernacular immediacy the corresponds to the larger point I'm about to make -- have traditionally been particularly expensive and complicated to produce. Every year at the Oscars, the Motion Picture Academy of Arts and Sciences (note the double plural) hands out a bevy of rewards to remind us of this fact. One reason they have to remind us is that for all our increasing cultural sophistication about the film industry -- the attention to box office grosses, for example, or the celebrity status of directors or producers like Stephen Spielberg, who always work behind the camera -- is that there are few things in life that immerse one to the degree a good movie does. We watch what's before us. And what's before us, the overwhelming majority of the time, are the people we call "actors." Movies are among the most mimetic of the arts, and actors are among the most mimetic aspects of the movies.

I so love that word: actor. To act is to pretend, to make believe. But it's also to commit, to execute. An actor embodies a set of ideas, the value of which is very often bound up in the fate of the character an actor plays. (Those cases when this is not so -- when the good guy gets punished, when the bad gal literally or figuratively gets away with murder -- becomes a statement in its own right.) The immediacy and clarity of this widely available performance art, an art that slices across linguistic lines and educational levels, make it -- paradoxically, given the vast sums and hierarchies with which it has always been correctly associated -- appealingly democratic.

Actors vividly display the experience of choosing at the center of the artistic process. Putting aside the fact that any acting performance includes countless renditions that get discarded in rehearsals or on the cutting room floor, watching a movie involves witnessing an immense array of choices in language, posture, expression and setting that can be inexhaustible in its appeal. A century of experience has taught us that some people make these choices so strikingly that we will watch them repeatedly not only in the same movie, but in movie after movie. One is reminded of the words of F. Scott Fitzgerald's narrator Nick Carraway, who, in the process of explaining what made his friend Jay Gatsby great, defined personality as "an unbroken series of successful gestures." This is what the best actors do -- or at any rate, a certain kind of successful actor does.

We have a term for such people: we call them movie stars. More so than other artists, movie stars intrigue us because they generate a series of intriguing frictions. One such series are relationships between the actual person, a character that person plays in a given movie, and the variations on that person in a set of movie characters. All but a child recognizes that each of these are distinct, but a star wouldn't be a star if there wasn't at least some reason to think there's a thread connecting them. Moreover, those threads very often matter. They connect the movie star to the fan -- which, in turn creates another set of frictions, because the fan experiences something shared with the movie star while at the same time experiencing a sense of awe-inspiring distance -- hence the metaphor of an astronomical object in the sky. Bruce Springsteen, a cinematic songwriter if ever there was one, captures this friction in his classic song "Backstreets":  "Remember all the movies, Terry, we'd go see/Trying to walk like the heroes we thought we had to be." Seeking liberation through, and yet being oppressed by, the set of choices a movie star makes is one of the great conundrums of cinematic life.

It's here that I want to remind you of another friction I brought up earlier, one more germane to the discussion at hand, and one that actors experience more acutely than their fans: the tension between the power of choice at the heart of acting and the limits of control intrinsic to appearing in a movie. For acting is also reacting -- to your co-star, to the director, and to the technical demands of the immediate task at hand, not to mention the professional apparatus of agents, managers, studios, and the like. This sense of obvious as well as subtle enmeshment helps explain the intensity of identification the public sometimes has with actors, a kinship of enmeshment greatly facilitated for better and worse by the modern media. Their lives are hopelessly complicated, just like ours.

We again have to make the distinction between actors and the subset of that species we know as movie stars, acknowledging that the line is porous. Actors need work, and although they may have standards or priorities about the jobs they take, a professional's code very often includes a commitment to flexibility and variety.  Movie stars, by contrast, tend to think in terms of roles. They have more power than actors to choose the work they do -- which in its most potent form is the power to say no repeatedly -- and to convert that power into other kinds, like directing or producing. Our democratic impulses lead us to honor actors, whose work ethic (typically exhibited a daily basis in theaters, as opposed to episodic stints on sets) we admire and identify with. But it's stars who capture our imaginations.

That said, my decision to focus this inquiry on movie stars is to a great degree a utilitarian one. In the way their work is embedded in a web of considerations, they mimic the sense of complexities of art that resemble the manifold complications and compromises of everyday life. But to the extent that they have more power over the conditions of their work than most people, they make it possible to identify, and even isolate, strands in their thinking that are powerful because they are widely shared -- very often at the level of presumption than explicit argument. Indeed, it's precisely in their uncanny capacity to project these shared presumptions and put them in a new light that allows such people to become stars in the first place. The way they look, talk, walk and act reveals something.

And sometimes, in the process of doing all this, movie stars reveal something about the past. They do this both in the way their acting becomes a historical document, which is something we've long understood and continue to cherish long after an actor has disappeared. But they also do it in the way their acting reveals an interpretive vision -- something that's more elusive than the actor as artifact, but something I'm trying to get at here. I think that the best way to get at this is to pay relatively close attention to a few such people to illustrate what I'm taking about.

So that's why I want to look at movie stars. The question now becomes which ones. To a great degree, the answer is generational.