Tuesday, July 15, 2014

Honk if You Like Hemingway

At the same time the average lifetime expectancy for individuals has increased, so too has the number of dramatic deaths--those in motion picture and television drama--increased as well.  As a result, you've watched with interest as more characters die and the actors who portray these deaths are called upon to simulate states of plausible, convincing death.

Watching the season opener of Ray Donovan, a series marked by intelligent writing and acting, you noticed one of the characters, a young professional boxer, as he was done to with near brutal effect by a larger, seemingly impenetrable hulk of a fig here.  The character of your focus was floored after a rapid, deadly combination to the body and head.  As he lay on the canvas, the referee beginning the count, the actor's eyes seemed to glaze over, reminding you what a fine performance the actor gave.

In rapid consequence, you recalled Al Pacino's performance as a blind person in the film, The Scent of a Woman, during which there was never a thought of the Pacino character being anything but blind.

How do they do it, these corpses, fighters knocked senseless, the blind, the injured, the young actors portraying older and/or afflicted individuals?

Even though it is not enough, one word defines the mechanism, and is itself a key factor to the art of performance, indeed of writing, of storytelling at any level.  The word is concentration.  The actor concentrates on the who and what of the character.  The writer concentrates on story.  The athlete is "in" the event, concentrated on performance.  The painter concentrates on the inner vision, whether that vision be abstruse or of a high figurative degree or of an intended portrait of absolute realism.

The performer gains entry into the project by an ability to concentrate.  You are far from stating an original belief with the recognition that the actor is concentrating on a controlled reality, where you have no entry or exit; the actor is concentrating to convince self of a condition, such as death or petite mal seizure or drunken wobbliness.  

The actor is not concentrating to convince you.  The actor is concentrating to convince herself of a condition, a broken heart, a broken leg, a spider descending on its silk, its point of eventual arrival some three or four inches above the perciever's face.

You have tried this form of conversation many times, as a set up to the improvisation of feuding characters in their attempts to hammer out an agreement of sorts, one that will lead the reader to the resolution of the story.  In this improv, the characters ratchet upward the contentiousness and edge in their voices.  Your only awareness at the moment is of the degree of focus, the concentration by which light the reader or audience disappear.

You have seen this degree of concentration dissipate because of the presence of one unnecessary word, a word embodying innocence and at the same time the snap of the finger of a skilled hypnotist, breaking the hypnotic force of concentration in a character.  The unnecessary word is often an adjective or adverb, some unnecessary attribution as it calls attention to itself.

Think of the suspense scenes within movies you've seen where a character, in hiding from a menacing presence, fights the urge to sneeze or pant.  The situations are similar.  A word, meant to send along information to the reader or the audience, now becomes the agent of betrayal.

Think as well of the gifted mime or impersonator, who appears to hijack the presence and personality of some well-known public figure.  Then understand the how of the wonder of impersonation.  The actor is concentrating on the target, then passing along information to muscle memory.  The impersonation is now the result of the practice and understanding of the implications of muscle memory.  Actors do such things from observation followed by concentration followed by performance.  And what is performance but action?

A writer impersonates the style and voice of another writer, using the same formula, observation, concentration, then action.  The observation is of sentence length and idiosyncrasy, of sound, texture.  The performance is a muscle memory imitation of the style of the writer to be mimicked, perhaps in exaggeration to the point of ridicule.

What actor comes so often to mind as a demonstration of an impersonator's seemingly magical abilities?  James Stewart is a likely candidate because his voice, gestures, and rhythms are so unique.  What writer comes most to mind as a target for impersonation?  Honk if you like Hemingway.  Then, think how you would not only impersonate Hemingway but how, more than once, you did.  Think of the time when Hemingway's son, your classmate, actually sent him one of the impersonations, to which he wrote back to his son, "Tell S.L. nice try, he got me."

An actor can cause you to see a mouse where there is none, death when there is in fact life, chills when there is in fact heat, and suspicion when there is no cause.  The actor achieves these ends via concentration, then action.

Note how seldom description transmits information in story and how often action does.  Note how, every now and then, a character in a book or story you're reading does something to surprise you, causing you to stop to think why.  Then ask yourself if this was in fact the thing the writer intended you do.

Whether in films, stage plays, or books, characters concentrate on doing the things of story, without in any way seeming to care if the audience knows or reacts.  Through their own rigorous concentration, the actor and the author take us to some wall or its equivalent within a scene, where we can eavesdrop.  And if we concentrate hard enough, we can almost hear the characters think.


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