The New York Times Magazine offers us a beautiful piece: Fourteen Actors Acting: A Video Gallery of Screen Types, a series of little vignettes. They offer about the minimum of what you need to qualify as “cinema:” each features a single actor shot in black-and-white in a single take that lasts about a minute, with a simple music score. Each repeats a cinematic trope you'll undoubtedly recognize.
I have a soft spot for this sort of thing in part because it provokes a confrontation with the nature of the medium. How little can a scene contain and still tell us something? What comes from story, and what from pure action? Why do we love these iconic scenes so much that we create them again and again in films? What makes them work? And what makes them work again and again, in countless movies, without becoming stale?
And, apropos of the collection's title: What do actors do, really? I started asking that after I read Stephanie Zacharek's review of Monster, which she opens with that haunting question. All of the performances in these micro-cinematic efforts impressed me with the magic of acting, and they act as meditations on what makes film actors interesting. Robert Duvall's clip gave me a chuckle because he reminded me of showrunner Ron Moore talking about how Edward James Olmos shaving constituted one of the major themes of Battlestar Galactica. Vincent Cassel reminded me of my theory that God gave us movies so we could watch people dancing beautifully, which explains why we make so many action movies these days — they provide a substitute for the musicals which have gone out of style. James Franco manages to make a two-character scene work through the use of a mirror. Matt Damon revealed a series of thoughts and emotions without benefit of either his voice or much time on screen. (I've sung the praises of Damon's gifts as a physical actor since I saw the scene in The Bourne Identity in which, early in the film, his amnesiac character gets awakened on a park bench by a cop's nightstick, and Damon communicates with a little shrug hey, I just realized that I know how to take this cop's nightstick away from him and beat him up with it, which I find both astonishing and disturbing. How did he do that?)
And Michael Douglass provides an utterly compelling performance by pretty much just sitting there.
Which brings me to If We Don't, Remember Me. When I started writing this post, I had meant to call it a different take on the same project, but I realize that in truth it has a profoundly different project.
Remember offers a series of animated GIFs made from great movies. I ordinarily think of animated GIFs — a technology for showing brief looping animations — as the scourge of the web, but Remember does something marvelous with them. Stills taken from movies generally seem surprisingly sterile; movement plays such an essential part in what makes well-composed film shots work that taking a single frame out, even if we choose carefully, loses much of the magic. Remember gives us not stills but what we want from stills: a single, atomic moment, including the essential movement. And by essential movement, I do mean essential: often the faceless author of Remember has included only the movement in one part of the frame, or has the image hold perfectly still for a second or two before showing something small move in a flicker, or includes just a tiny sway or flick of an actor's eyes.
The moments captured by Remember don't really show us acting at all, I think. Acting means revealing a character through action. (There it is, lurking in the word itself!) The moments of Remember don't do that, they show no progression, else they would not work as endless loops the way they do.
But they often do show a thing that film actors do — the thing that Michael Douglas did in his Fourteen Actors clip — which has only a loose connection with acting: exhibiting screen presence, that subtle and mysterious quality by which some actors can hold our attention. Some actors, indeed, have very modest acting abilities but an extraordinary screen presence: think of Arnold Schwarzenegger, Ruth Gordon, Keanu Reeves, or countless classic-era stars like Bogart, Hepburn, John Wayne, Rita Hayworth, Jimmy Stewart. I suspect that skilled actors can cultivate this, but some actors just have it.
How the heck does that work?