Acting Natural

Cinema Guild

From Miguel Gomes’s Our Beloved Month of August, 2008

The camera, just by its presence, altered human behavior. The motion picture camera changed the nature of acting. Among other things, it created that apparent oxymoron, the non-actor, the subject of an unusually rich and stimulating series now at the Film Society of Lincoln Center.

Programmed by Dennis Lim and Thomas Beard, “The Non-Actor” is predicated on the idea that all camera-based movies are documents and that filmed acting is perhaps synonymous with behavior. In this sense, the first movie actors—the workers filmed leaving the Lumière factory or the family that the Lumière brothers documented in Feeding the Baby in the mid-1890s—were also the first non-actors.

Movies existed in multiple prints and could be widely distributed, thus freeing actors from the constraints of time and space as well as the burden (or satisfaction) of performing for a live audience. Editing allowed actors to seemingly perform miracles. The close-up, no less radical, rendered theatrical acting ridiculous and encouraged a new, subtle form of physiognomic performance. By their nature, motion pictures emphasized the performer at the expense of the role. “For the film, what matters primarily is that the actor represents himself to the public,” wrote Walter Benjamin in his ever-relevant essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction.” Movie stars, to a far greater degree than stage actors, are always playing heightened versions of themselves.


From Sergei Eisenstein and Grigori Aleksandrov’s October, 1928

Motion picture technology simultaneously created a hierarchy of movie stars—ageless creatures of light, at once everywhere and nowhere on the screen—and democratized movie presence. If, as Benjamin noted, cinema deprived the stage actor of an actual connection to a live public, the medium allowed members of that public to themselves become actors: “The newsreel offers everyone the opportunity to rise from passer-by to movie extra.” (“The Non-Actor” provides a fascinating example of this in the form of three short movies by Margaret Cram who, throughout the 1930s, produced the same scenario—a Hollywood star returning to her hometown, being kidnapped and rescued by a local hero—in a number of New England towns using locals as actors.)

The Soviet filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein may have been the first to widely use nonprofessional performers in his narrative films: first in Battleship Potemkin (1925), and then again in October (1928). He chose them according to their appearance—a practice he called typage. Typecasting also led to the practice of casting against type, as when Carl Theodor Dreyer chose the boulevard comedienne Marie Falconetti to play a martyred saint in The Passion of Joan of Arc (1928).

The most celebrated early exponent of the non-professional actor was the pioneer documentarian and amateur ethnographer Robert Flaherty, whose films—Nanook of the North (1922), Moana (1926), and, with F.W. Murnau, Tabu (1931)—were semi-fictional narratives in which Inuit and Polynesian islanders played themselves in situations that were often staged. Some twenty-five years later, the professional ethnographer and amateur filmmaker Jean Rouch developed a more collaborative form of documentary with his West African subjects in his so-called ethnofictions, Moi, un Noir (1958) and Jaguar (1954–1967).

Icarus Films

From Jean Rouch’s Jaguar, 1954–1967

Each in his way, Flaherty and Rouch were devoted to enlarging the cast of filmable humanity by concentrating on non-Western individuals. It might have been more honest for them to present their subjects as actors, which is in a sense what Rouch did. The nonprofessionals in his work give coached performances that effectively reframe the films as narrative fictions. On the other hand, non-actors were among the signifiers of authenticity—along with location photography and open-ended narratives—in the most influential of cinema movements, Italian neo-realism. The movement was short-lived (it lasted only from the end of World War II into the early 1950s), but filmmakers like Roberto Rossellini and Vittorio De Sica set an example for a number of Third World and American independent directors who succeeded them. The Italians’ influence can be felt in Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali (1955), Ousmane Sembène’s Black Girl (1966), and Shirley Clarke’s The Cool World (1962), to name three films included in the Lincoln Center series. All three are extremely pragmatic productions that use youthful non-professional actors and strong locations—although in its voice-over and fragmentary editing Black Girl also reflects something of the French new wave.

Janus Films

From Ousmane Sembène’s Black Girl, 1966

Film, however, is an impure medium. Neo-realist directors cast nonprofessionals by type and professional actors against type. (Anna Magnani was a music hall performer before Rossellini cast her in his 1945 masterpiece, Rome, Open City.) Filmed in the rubble of postwar Berlin, Rossellini’s Germany, Year Zero (1948) is often described as a movie cast with German non-actors—but the truth is more complicated. Rossellini drove alone through the city without a particular story in mind, searching for what he called “satisfactory physical types.” Coincidentally or not, a number of them turned out to have performing experience. The film’s principals included an elderly silent movie actor, a chorus girl, and a circus boy—cast by Rossellini for his resemblance to his deceased son, to whom the movie is dedicated. None wound up playing themselves, although a critic for Cahiers du Cinéma wrote admiringly of eleven-year-old Edmund Meschke that “at no point does the child give the impression of ‘acting’, or of being an actor. It is impossible to say that ‘acts’ his role well or badly…. The child simply exists there before us, captured in his ‘existence’ by the camera.”


Janus Films

From Roberto Rossellini’s Germany, Year Zero, 1948

“The Non-Actor” includes several relatively recent films that play with the notion of non-non-acting by presenting members of their nonprofessional casts as film actors. These include two Portuguese films, Pedro Costa’s Colossal Youth (2006), which serves as commentary on Costa’s earlier films documenting the residents of a vanished Lisbon slum, and Miguel Gomes’s Our Beloved Month of August (2008), in which, once funding disappears, the filmmaker’s original plan to make a movie in a remote village collapses into a documentary of its own making. Brazilian director Eduardo Coutinho’s Twenty Years Later (1984) is an even more extreme revisiting of an unfinished film, involving the same non-actors, now two decades older.

The most remarkable of these is a midcareer film by the Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami, whose more conventionally neo-realistic earlier films had featured non-actors playing themselves in reconstructions of actual events. Kiarostami’s Close-Up (1990) is a partially staged (and reenacted) documentary about a poor Tehran man who successfully persuaded a middle-class family that he was the well-known film director Mohsen Makhmalbaf and wanted to make a movie about their lives. The imposter was discovered and subsequently stood trial, an event that Kiarostami was able to record—and even supply some of the imposter’s defense.

Cinema Guild

From Eduardo Coutinho’s Twenty Years Later, 1984

In contrast to these cinematic halls of mirrors are the radically stripped-down narratives by two utterly dissimilar film artists, Robert Bresson and Andy Warhol. Bresson regularly cast non-actors—whom he referred to as “models”—in dramatic narratives to eliminate any sort of faked emotion, most radically when he used a donkey as the protagonist of Au Hasard Balthazar (1966). Warhol simply turned his camera on his typical extroverted non-actors and, without any direction, let them perform in unedited takes that often lasted half an hour. Even more than Bresson’s, Warhol’s movies—particularly those, like Vinyl (1965), that featured his “superstar,” Edie Sedgwick—questioned whether movie acting was anything more than the presentation of self.

Janus Films

From Abbas Kiarostami’s Close-Up, 1990

Any consideration of non-acting should at least consider what it means for acting to be “authentic”—though this is not a question “The Non-Actor” addresses directly. Possibly responding to the challenge of Italian neo-realism, Marlon Brando—arguably, the most influential American actor of the past century—reinvented the notion of on-screen naturalism. In his early films, The Wild One (1953) and On the Waterfront (1954), and even in certain later ones, Brando dramatized acting in the same way that Orson Welles’s Citizen Kane (1941) dramatized the act of filmmaking.

Welles was also an actor, one inordinately fond of make-up and bombast, as is apparent in the 1958 Martin Ritt film The Long, Hot Summer which I recently had occasion to watch. A dull mediocrity, the movie is a free adaptation from William Faulkner made with an eye toward Hollywood’s cycle of Tennessee Williams films—and unlikely to be revived, except as an attempt to mimic the success of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof. Paul Newman, who had starred in that film, here appears in a version of his earlier role, a charismatic, secretly traumatized drifter, with Welles cast as a version of the overbearing pater familias embodied in Cat by Burl Ives. It could be that by casting Welles, Ritt hoped to show that the Welles character represented an anachronistic generation. If so, he got more than he bargained for.

Welles’s grandiloquence not only clashes with the more subtle performances given by the film’s Actors Studio types (Newman, Joanne Woodward, Anthony Franciosa, and Lee Remick), it calls attention to their stylization. Welles’s overbearing acting—which, given his dislike of the project, may have been intentional—is another form of non-acting, more authentic than the role-playing of the successfully phony performers who surround him, and perhaps the subject for another series.

Janus Films

From Robert Bresson’s Au Hasard Balthazar, 1966

“The Non-Actor,” a survey spanning over forty films, is at the Film Society of Lincoln Center through December 10.


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