A Slab of Ham and one Filet Mignon

Prior to rhapsodizing about a few joys of San Francisco, I briefly digress to the NY Times video features in which a handful of A-list actors “[strike] some of the classics attitudes of cinema,” according to A.O. Scott. If that sounds insufferable, well, you’re perceptive.

The concept of the shoot isn’t half bad: Throw an actor into a situation and see how s/he deals with it, silently, in one minute. About a third of the time the execution works and in one case is quite breathtaking. The other two thirds is as pretentious as anything you’re likely to see on the Times this year, which is quite an accusation. There is much Brooding, and the Flaring Nostrils of High Dudgeon that go with it. When actors like Natalie Portman and Michael Douglas move slowly, always a good bet in moments of silence, there doesn’t appear to be any internal impetus rather than, “I will look really cool and dramatic if I take my time.” Douglas, naturally, is going to be fraught; we all know, he most of all, that any appearance these days is potentially his last and therefore Great Portent must be read into his every second onscreen. But just like in his movies (except for a truly great performance in Traffic), Douglas is all surface, and not a particularly interesting one; his father does more with a contemptuous flick of a cigarette lighter in Out of the Past than he does in a full minute of over the top lighting and music.

I don’t, however, blame the actors. Silent film belongs to a different world; it doesn’t matter whether or not these particular folks ever watched a single frame of Griffith or Murnau when the director and producer of this shoot barely applied any lessons from the masters. No context is given for any of the shots; without it, a great actor like Javier Bardem looks hammy as he breaks plates whilst glaring with fiery eyes into the lens. Matt Damon cusses up a blue streak with no sound; it’s interesting to watch him create an arc, and you can lipread lots of f-bombs, but it’s also hugely predictable; you know he can’t sustain the fit of pet and will, at approximately 35 seconds, lapse into a somewhat psychotic smile that will quickly retreat as all the the cords in his neck start to strain like piano wire against the skin. Damon doesn’t look fierce so much as in the midst of an epic hissy.

The current crop of It Boys and Girls exhibit varying degrees of success. James Franco is allowed to have a little bit of fun by building to a make-out session with himself, but it’s studied, humor without a bit of spontaneity. Again, it’s not his fault; he’s an actor completely at ease in front of a camera. But there is simply no way to capture anything remotely genuine given the extreme artificiality of the entire exercise. More unfortunate is Jennifer Lawrence, who’s received nothing but raves for her performance in Winter’s Bone. Her moment of panic followed by what appears to a grisly death out of frame reminds me of every woman I knew in college trying to impress by trying on emotions way too big for her, or really, anyone; if Jane Lynch is watching, I wonder if she’s thinking, “She’s acting up a storm!”

The two actors not playing to the cheap seats work well: Lesley Manville does a kick ass phone conversation in which her eyes go from uncommitted to panicked; I wish she’d talked less, not because she doesn’t do it well (it’s silent, so you have to guess), but simply because this is still a kind of cinema and the eyes have it a lot more than mouth. Chloe Moretz has a delightful shrieking fit which works because it’s all aimed off the lens. You can imagine watching both women through a window and trying not to get caught as you eavesdrop on their drama.

Naturally, Tilda Swinton manages to almost justify the entire exercise, a combination of the facts that a) she simply cannot do anything wrong onscreen and b) she alone is recreating an iconic scene, one from Dreyer’s Passion of Joan of Arc. Swinton may be one of the only people on the planet who can basically xerox a great performance (that of Maria Falconetti in this case) and yet make it wholly her own (Daniel Day-Lewis came close in There Will Be Blood, but I could never stop hearing and seeing Huston in Chinatown, which made the whole viewing experience exhausting, not engrossing). She embraces and fully realizes the power of silence; it’s as if she can even will her tears to fall at a largo, rather than adagio tempo. Naturally, the Oscars will ignore her genius work in I Am Love this year and poor Annette Bening will lose yet again to Natalie Portman’s red contacts. It hardly matters. Swinton is living proof that brilliant acting exists, and that it matters.

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