Saturday, August 15, 2009

When a detail is more than a car wash

Of all the actors performing in a story, Detail earns the least applause and gets the lease acknowledgment--until it is overused. Then it is booed off the stage, called by a host of unflattering adjectives, and is viewed with suspicion the moment it tries to earn its way back.

True enough, the skilled actor can impart authenticity and resonance to the most banal story, but equally true, Detail is one of the first tools an actor reaches for when defining a role. Detail is not merely some battery-powered doer of all things, it is a special tool, a relic from the actor's own life, connected with a family member or the memory of some long vanished workshop, stored with all the actor's other interior treasures.

Give a character a name and you have already given the character a lurching step toward recognition. Give a character one added detail--a limp, a jones for marshmallows, a facial tic when pressure mounts--and you have brought that character (who is now named) out of the shadowy world of the background and into the world of definition.

The same is true of an apartment. Two identical floor plans in the same building, same furniture, same view. One has a leaky faucet.

Or a meal in a restaurant.

"Waiter, there's a fly in my omelet."
"Actually, sir, it's probably the beginning stages of a butterfly.'

Or a relationship.

He: "Why are you so hesitant? I thought you wanted to."
She: "I do. I very much do. But--"
He "But what?"
She: "I've never made love with a sixty-five-year-old man."
He: "Neither have I."

The details give us the sense that the fictional is real because the details chosen are the details that validate the reality of the characters, the situations, and the places; they convince us that these persons, places, and things have a resonance because the details affirm our own understanding of the vast opportunities of our dreams and the brick walls of our waking moments.

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