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Journal of No. 118


March 29th, 2010

out of place/out of time in film & Kiernan's Threshold @ 03:56 pm


Maybe some of you film/acting types can help me out with something I've been pondering. In historical films, some actors/characters just seem to melt into the history, while others stick out like extremely sore thumbs. In some cases, no doubt it's just the difference between good acting and bad acting, say if we look at some of the most egregious examples that come to mind: Elizabeth Berridge as Frau Mozart in Amadeus, or Theodore Logan Esquire as Jonathan Harker in FFC's BS's Dracula.
Or is it a matter of accent? I'd hate to think I'm so shallow that I think, "Hey... that guy doesn't have a British accent! He can't possibly be a Roman emperor!" But I think it's more complicated than that. What brings this to mind a recent viewing of Ridley Scott's first feature film, the Duellists, set in the Napoleonic Era. Surrounded by a host of English actors, Keith Carradine and Harvey Keitel play the titular duellists. Apart from a few aggressively Fronch grunts, Keitel sounds basically American to me. Rather, he sounds like Harvey Keitel. Nevertheless, despite the hint of Brooklyn, I bought him as an early 19th century Frenchmen. Carradine sounds equally American, but somehow I just didn't buy him as belonging to the time and place. Is it maybe (I hypothesize) that Carradine is too Californian, and I place him as a fellow native and contemporary? Is that part of Keanu's problem as well?
So, peanut gallery, what do actors use to alter their chronology? Does it come down to acting coaches, dialogue coaches, or a more indefinable magic acting skill? If those questions are too big, who are some other sore thumbs that give you the pip?


I finished Caitlín Kiernan's Threshold. I had heard it praised for its 'Lovecraftian' tendencies. I'm starting to come around to the opinion that that poor abused adjective has almost ceased to be useful. It is often applied to slavish name-dropping pastiche, or to anything featuring tentacles. It is also applied to fiction that relates to some of HPL's greater themes, or cosmicism. Fortunately, Threshold is closer to the latter kind of Lovecraftian, because the former is almost invariably crap.
Happily, Threshold is not crap. I liked the set-up, and the mystery, and the build-up of fear. But somewhere along the way, as things got set in motion, I felt the story (and my attention) wandering. Nonetheless, I enjoyed it, and elements of the resolution redeemed some of that wandering.
I had two particular annoyances that don't affect the story much, but I am compelled to share. Kiernan experiments with coinages by smooshing adjectives together -- "skinnytall" and "icywet" appear in the first sentence -- and while some may consider this edgynovel, I found it irritatingsilly, particularly when obtrusivefrequent. And then there is math FAIL. Kiernan apparently confuses the fact that a regular heptagon cannot be constructed (i.e. with straightedge and compass) with the idea that a regular heptagon cannot exist in a sane and rational world. [Curiously, the regular 17-gon can be constructed, as Gauss proved, showing up all the Greek geometers while still in his teens.]
 
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From:alex_victory
Date:March 29th, 2010 11:07 pm (UTC)
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I clicked on the heptagon link and suffered 2d6 SAN loss. I hope you're happy blarglesnout randolph glurk.
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From:essentialsaltes
Date:March 29th, 2010 11:10 pm (UTC)

Good thing I didn't put in these like I was originally going to

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From:stevenkaye
Date:March 30th, 2010 01:02 am (UTC)
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She actually gave up doing that, after she got tired of people calling it pretentious. I dunno, if it's good enough for Faulkner...
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From:crboltz
Date:March 30th, 2010 04:32 am (UTC)
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In Othello (1999), I had (and still have) an incredibly hard time with Laurence Fishburne. I don't think it is his acting, or accent, or anything, but when I see it, all I see is Cowboy Curtis from Pee-Wee's Playhouse doin' the Bard.
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From:essentialsaltes
Date:March 30th, 2010 03:33 pm (UTC)
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Yeah, an actor being strongly associated with a particular role (even if it's only in *your* mind) obviously creates problems.
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From:dondragmer
Date:March 30th, 2010 10:01 am (UTC)
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Funny you should mention The Duellists, because I've always had a problem with the casting in that film. For me, the problem is easily fixed by swapping the two leads -- Carradine should be playing Keitel's role and Keitel ought to be playing Carradine's. With that simple change, I think everything would have worked, but without it the film just misses.

And I think that's part of the problem with period performances in general -- the illusion of authenticity is a fragile one, and the actor isn't solely repsonsible for creating it. Even a slight bit of miscasting can throw everything off.

And of course there's only so much an actor can do with bad writing -- just look at the differences between Russell Crowe's performances in Master and Commander and Gladiator. Or Paul Bettany in Creation and A Knight's Tale. The character needs to be believable before the performance can be convincing.

As far as accents go, it's the actor's job to interpret the character with depth and present the period dialogue as though it were second-nature. I think if an actor can pull that job off, the audience will forgive them an uneven accent. But getting an accent down can't hurt, and it's one more tool useful towards maintaining that fragile illusion.

Edited at 2010-03-30 10:03 am (UTC)
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From:essentialsaltes
Date:March 30th, 2010 03:36 pm (UTC)
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Switching Keitel and Carradine? I don't know. It would help in that Keitel is the better actor, and Carradine's role was much more central. But Keitel just radiates that irrational bloodlust that defines his character. Could Carradine have done the same?
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From:dondragmer
Date:March 31st, 2010 10:26 am (UTC)
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No, not at all -- Carradine would have emphasized entirely different aspects of the character, and that's why I think he'd have been a better choice. I actually found Keitel's irrational rage to be one of the more troublesome aspects to the story. No one holds onto that kind of anger for decades, building it up into a lifelong feud. It takes cold-blooded stubbornness and determination to maintain that sort of commitment. The way I see it, Keitel's dedication to his code of honor gives his life purpose and meaning, and he's devoted to obeying and defending that code no matter the cost. In short, he's a man on rails, and Keith Carradine excels in that sort of role (his performance in Alan Rudolph's Choose Me comes to mind, although that character wasn't trying to kill anybody).

Carradine's role, on the other hand, requires the sort of simmering internal conflict that Keitel does so well with. He simultaneously admires, resents, and sympathizes with his opponent, and Keitel is one of those actors who can layer conflicting emotions on top of each other with apparent ease.

Despite all that I still like the film, though, and I really enjoy watching the pair of them play a scene together.
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From:gotham_bound
Date:March 30th, 2010 03:29 pm (UTC)
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Hm on matters of acting for period, doctorray and I touched on it briefly yesterday, whilst solving many other of the world's problems. I think we largely decided that it was important that an artistic throughline was maintained. That it be a choice that supported the work, not one that attempted some sort of pandering to audience expectations. It's a pretty messy area this, which also includes casting actors based on how much they look like the role (e.g. share ethnicity, facial features) and how much they play the semiotic keys that tell us when something is "correct." I'm sure there were round faced, clean shaven white guys with soft skin out on the range but I'm more likely to believe in a cowboy who's lean and at least a little bit mean.

As for the actors themselves... I know Harvey Keitel is solidly Method. And that might work against him in a period piece that isn't *his* history. I think it's a shortcoming of Method. Method actors have difficulty assuming iconic bearing and speech patterns that commonly infer a character from a different age and social strata. Though I think whatever choice the actors and/or directors go with, the application has to be thorough and consistent. Bad accents, for example, just cock up everything, even if it's an otherwise good performance (perhaps there's a caveat to the intentionally bad accent but I can't think of any examples). I've never seen The Duelists and I don't know enough of Carradine's non-martial arts movies to grok his wider acting attampts. Keanu just sucks. He's my poster boy for lazy acting rationalized by a crap understanding of Method.
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From:essentialsaltes
Date:March 30th, 2010 03:48 pm (UTC)
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As the voice of Dustin Hoffman on The Simpsons reminds us, "And, for the record, there were a few Jewish cowboys, ladies and gentlemen. Big guys who were great shots and spent money freely."

Which reminds me of another thing I almost put in this entry. Steve Martin's take on the story of Hoffman and Olivier on Marathon Man:

"Hoffman came to the set one day looking absolutely wretched, and Sir Larry said, 'Dusty, you look absolutely wretched!', and it turns out that he had been awake for twenty-four hours, because at this point in the movie, Hoffman's character had been, so Larry replied, 'Oh, Dusty, why don't you just try acting?', and the American retorted, 'Act on this, you British *#%&*#,' and Larry replied, 'I asked for a meal, not a snack.'"


Although he played the young Caine a bit, this is David's younger brother Keith Carradine, Oscar winner for his songwriting in Nashville.

Journal of No. 118