Monday, August 15, 2005

Roger Manvell’s Film, and thoughts on screen acting

Jai here, dear Reader (as Chandrahas would say), and this is my first post on this site:

Following the comments exchange on this post I’d written on my blog a few days ago, I was trying to recollect where I’d read a certain sentence about Henry Fonda’s walk, which had nested in my subconscious; and from the cobwebbed depths of one of my oldest bookshelves I pulled out Roger Manvell’s Film, a book purloined from a local magazine library in 1991, the year I became seriously interested in international cinema.

Manvell’s book, a series of essays on various aspects of cinema, was published in 1944, when film criticism was still at a confused, underdeveloped stage. (The very simplicity of its title points to the fact that serious books on cinema were rare at the time!) Film is not widely read or widely available today (even has just one blank page on it), which is a pity, for some of Manvell’s observations are remarkably ahead of their time – he was among the few critics of that era who seemed able to look at cinema as an independent medium with its own set of strengths and limitations, rather than judge it with reference to theatre or literature.

There’s much I can say here about this book, but I’d like to focus on one aspect of it – the excellent four-page essay on screen acting (which is where the Henry Fonda reference came from). Here, Manvell says:

“The real artists of cinema acting observe and reproduce the small things…to understand this one must watch for the details of acting technique. You will see them in the eyes and hips of Bette Davis, the face of Jouvet (whose body is nearly always stiff and still) and apparent expressionlessness of Raimu (whose body is part of his eloquence), in the walk of Fonda and the poetic realism of his hesitant voice, the smile of Spencer Tracy, the differing sensuous qualities of face in Garbo and Dietrich (watch the lighting which accentuates this), the commonplace ease of Gabin. You will see these details in the signs of neurotic passion which are the strength of Agnes Moorehead’s performance in The Magnificent Ambersons. You will see them in the curious eccentricities of facial expression and bodily movement with which Michel Simon presents his characters…it is difficult to tell where acting stops and the plastic properties of face and body begin.”
Remember, this was before the advent of the Method actors (led by Montgomery Clift, John Garfield and Marlon Brando) and the new definition of “realism” they brought to screen acting; this was before the notion of an actor allowing his own personality to be subsumed by that of his character became popular. The great actors of that time (and it must be stressed, they were great actors) - people like Tracy, James Stewart, Katharine Hepburn and of course Fonda (to stick with Hollywood) - weren’t versatile in the way we understand that word today: they didn’t play a wide array of roles, never experimented with accents or even different looks; they could be (and often are) accused of playing the same roles over and over again. But they were versatile in ways we tend to overlook; within the framework of the characters they played, they were adept at a vast range of emotions and could do extraordinary things with their eyes, hands and physical movements. And they were almost always completely believable within their roles.

Here’s another bit from Manvell’s essay, where he talks about Charles Laughton and Leslie Howard, two of Britain’s biggest stars in the 1930s:

“Men of the great acting quality of Laughton and Howard are often accused of being themselves at the expense of their parts...a man is often chosen for his first lead because he has the right face and physique for the part: Laughton passed through a series of parts for all of which his physique and remarkable face were of great plastic value. He has great versatility within his own range – Henry VIII, Rembrandt, Bligh, Ginger Ted, Ruggles, all different and yet the same photogenic Laughton mannerisms in all. Leslie Howard varied still less but audiences loved his quiet, superior, confident, kindly charm.”

It’s interesting how Manvell focuses on individual mannerisms as markers of high-quality acting – since these days an actor’s trademark mannerisms are used more often than not to run him down. In the current Hindi film context, for instance, Shah Rukh Khan is often accused of being Shah Rukh Khan at the expense of his characters in practically every film. Now I’m not going to go out on a limb to defend SRK since I don’t have much of a personal stake where he’s concerned (I happen to think he’s a good actor based on the three-and-a-half movies of his I’ve seen, but that’s about it). But I do baulk when old-timers go on about how Amitabh was a star, not an actor; and how Sanjeev Kumar (vastly overrated in my opinion) was a Serious Actor because he consciously chose to play a variety of roles (a classic case of awarding points for intention over actual execution); and of the many other clich├ęs that perpetuate in the name of acting versatility. It’s annoying the amount of importance many people place on the most superficial definition of “versatility” and on an actor’s ability to completely submerge himself in his part.

There’s another reason why it can be misguided to stress too much on whether an actor is believable in any role – especially when we’re talking about a big star whose popularity was built on the basis of a certain screen image. The reason is us, the audience, and the preconceived notions in our minds. The fact is, some very good actors become stars on the basis of a definite screen persona – and, yes, mannerisms - which an audience connects to immediately; and it’s pointless to blame those actors when they subsequently fail to step out of the constraints we’ve created for them in our own minds. My personal reference point for this is the 1990 film Main Azaad Hoon, a remake of Capra’s Meet John Doe, which was Bachchan’s belated attempt to move out of the mainstream. There was much talk at the time about how admirable this move was, about how he was at last appearing in a “non-starry” role. But the reason the film didn’t work was Bachchan himself: you saw that face up there on the screen, heard that voice and connected it to the Vijays and the Sikandars who had gone before, and (for no lack of effort on his part) it was impossible to see him as anything but The Superstar. John Doe? No way!

Anyway, what started as a revisitation of Roger Manvell’s book has turned into a ramble on acting theories, so I’ll stop here; but expect another long post on this topic soon. And since comments on The Middle Stage are disabled, if (as Sanjeev Kumar-lovers or Shah Rukh-haters) you want to write hate-posts, feel free to do so on my blog.

Thursday, August 04, 2005

Life winding down in Cather and Saratchandra

Many readers are familiar with a wrenching experience associated with powerful novels: that of coming towards the close, the last few pages, after which our fortnight- or month-long involvement with a set of characters and an imagined world (no less real for being imagined) will abruptly come to an end. Surely this feeling is more painful than, say, the news of the death of a distant relative or acquaintance. To postpone closure, we try to read more slowly, linger over every sentence, close the book for a while and drift into our own thoughts.

Often novels also enact this mood with respect to their protagonists. Many novels which portray aged characters, or people who have endured some great struggle, attain closure on a kind of diminuendo - a term from music meaning a diminishment of force or loudness, and in the case of novels a flickering and weakening of energies animating the work.

In the third and final section of Willa Cather's great novel The Professor's House (1925) we find the professor of history Godfrey St.Peter, a man in his fifties with a large family, suddenly feeling an immense weariness after having completed a project lasting several months, which is to write down whatever he remembers of the life story of a very dear, and now dead, student of his, Tom Outland. (That story forms the second section of the book, simply titled "Tom Outland's Story", and its effect is quite the opposite: it is of such force as to make the life blood of every reader throb more powerfully.) Alone at home while his family is away on vacation, he begins to behave in a highly unusual way:

All those summer days, while the Professor was sending cheerful accounts of his activities to his family in France, he was really doing very little. […] All his life his mind had behaved in a positive fashion. When he was not at work, or being actively amused, he went to sleep. He had no twilight stage. But now he enjoyed this half-awake loafing with his brain as if it were a new sense, arriving late, like wisdom teeth. He found he could lie on his sand-spit by the lake for hours and watch the seven motionless pines drink up the sun. In the evening, after dinner, he could sit idle and watch the stars, with the same immobility.
He begins to feel the imminent close of his life as an instinctive conviction, "such as we have when we waken in the dark and know at once that it is near morning; or when we are walking across the country and suddenly know that we are near the sea." A few days later he goes off to sleep in a room with a gas stove and a freak accident fills the room with gas fumes. Awoken by the smell, he feels strangely loath to switch the stove off, and drifts into sleep or unconsciousness again. Finally he is saved by the family's old maidservant.

And towards the end of Saratchandra Chattopadhyay's Srikanta (published in four parts from 1917 to 1933, eight years to either side of The Professor's House), Srikanta, the weak and sickly protagonist and narrator of the novel, is told by an astrologer that he is shortly about to go through a very bad time, a matter of life and death. His wife Rajlakshmi takes him away from the city to their village, hoping his health will improve. There Srikanta sees out the days in the same dreamy and desultory state as St.Peter:

I passed my days in reading and gazing out of the window at the hard blue sky and dun-coloured fields. Sometimes, I wandered about by the side of the canal or stood for a moment on the rickety bridge. But, more often, I sat at my table and put down on paper the strange and varied events of my life. I knew myself. I had little drive and less ambition. […] It was anough for me to be allowed to live. Sometimes, shamed by the energy and enthusiasm of the others, I would try to rouse myself, to break out of the inertia that had settled on me like a cloud. But, before I knew it, I was back again within its enveloping folds and was my weary, half-conscious, half-dying self again.
And a little later the news arrives that Srikanta's childhood friend, the Muslim poet Gahar, is seriously ill, allowing Saratchandra to extend this meditation on passing away. Even though he is ailing himself, Srikanta immediately sets out for Gahar's village, only to find when he arrives that Gahar has already passed away and been buried. Gahar' was a great lover of nature; now, walking through his courtyard and the rooms of his house, Srikanta remembers the last time he came to visit this house:

It had been spring then and the vines newly in bud. Now, nurtured by the new falling rain, they were laden with clusters of flowers. So many had been swept away by the wind, so many had fallen to the ground. I remembered Gahar's desire to give me some flowers and his frustration at the sight of the wood ants that crawled all over the trunk. I bent down and picked up a handful and felt it was my friend's last gift […] I had eaten and slept here so often in my childhood; I had played within these walls. I had fought and sparred with Gahar and heard stories from his mother. No one was left to share those memories. My roots were being cut away from me…
"My roots were being cut away from me…" - that is very powerful.

One feels that, although their behaviour is received with perplexity within their respective worlds, St.Peter and Srikanta would have been able to understand one another perfectly. As readers, we may find Cather deepens the meaning of Saratchandra and vice versa (as I once remarked while proposing the complementarity of a poem by Cavafy and a song by Gulzar).

And to return to where I started out, one might also venture that we feel distress at the state of characters like Srikanta and St.Peter so deeply because, subliminally, we tangle this sense of human life ebbing away with the extinguishing of another kind of light: that of the novel itself, and the break with a world in which we have invested a great deal of our lives and in fact partly helped create with our imaginations.

A previous post on Cather can be found here. And here is a marvellous essay on The Professor's House by Donald Lyons. Some remarks on Saratchandra's life, milieu and works can be found in this essay by Ranjit Gupta. I would welcome more links to essays on Saratchandra.