This is a topic I have been thinking about for the past few years. As a fan of (mostly) American cinema, I have seen, what I consider, poor acting, good acting, and great acting. One example for each of those categories would be Mark Wahlberg, Daniel Craig, and Russell Crowe.
Now, I realize my examples above are actors for one genre, being ‘action films’, but it should give you what I think are “poster boys” spanning the range of actors in cinema now-a-days. Usually, in film today, it’s tough to get an original story out of Hollywood, a character that requires an actor to “stretch” to pull off the role, or anyone truly talented as the top billing star. However, sometimes I am impressed with the end result if I think of the film as a whole and tell myself, it’s just a movie. I’m not saying all movies or actors are crap but there’s an increasing amount of crap that is passing as film with scores of untalented individuals passing as actors.
But far from being a snob, as I have written may times before, I just have my own opinions about what works for me, and there is one thing I actually value from seeing in film, and simultaneously critique at the same time. I’ve been a movie fan my whole life, but for the last 10 years, I have just been mystified by something in American Cinema. Surprisingly, it’s not the acting on screen, but what’s going on behind the camera that can that can help make or break a movie. I have always been fascinated by set design (it’s the Architectural part of my brain), but the one thing that truly makes a movie for me specifically is the lighting and music.
Watching Cold Mountain yesterday I could not help but be reminded of and think about how much “treatment” an American film gets. Keep in mind, while films are staged, films are not a true stage performance where it is just the actor and their acting to sell the story to the audience. Actors today get so much help from multiple trades and departments which layer things sound, effects and editing to enhance the story and compliment their individual perfomances. In Cold Mountain, I was almost completely unmoved by interaction between Nicole Kidman and Jude Law, and almost uninterested in what was going on. Mainly it was because I felt their portrayals were sub-par. While this particular scene was just a simple conversation, my attention was drrifting away from what they were talking about and I couldn’t help but think of all those layers of treatment a films gets and how fabricated this whole scene was.
If you have the movie, go to the part (the night scene towards the very end) where they are outside in the snow after just being reunited but before the love scene. If not, take anything in the last 20 years from a video/DVD shelf and put it in your media player. Try Liar Liar…not a lot going on in that movie, there’s not even many special effects. Look at the close up interaction between Jim Carey and whoever he shares screen time with – same in Cold Mountain. There is just this calming, almost glowing, but completely unnaturally great lighting (and make up too) coming up from every angle beneath the camera lens which makes the actors so appealing and larger than life (despite their performance). Now try to find that detail, glamor in anything in your daily life. Hell, even the blinding bathroom lighting in front of our mirror doesn’t make us look as good as people do on screen. Another prime example of where you can see this is in Transformers, or any Michael Bay film for that matter. It creates that much of an impact that its like another character on screen. Film lighting is even becoming standard in most sit-coms on major TV networks (“How I Met Your Mother” is a good example). Lighting just helps lack luster images and acting along and I believe makes the uninteresting suddenly interesting.
Now, on to music, which I think is the undisputed champion for setting the mood of a film. I guess that’s why some music is referred to as tone (get it? a musical reference…sorry just couldn’t resist). Anyway, some of my first memories of music and its impact on how it adds to the story telling is in the original Star Wars. Holy cow, was that exciting how John Williams’ score added to the otherwise not entirely threatening 4 TIE fighter attack, not to mention how moving and memorable was the music for the entire Death Star attack. The music’s gravity and reverence absolutely made that movie for me, and most paopular and coveted movies today would be nothing without their iconic (and some legendary) scores. Music is hands down my favorite part of any film (provided it’s quality of course) – don’t think that needs any more elaboration or defense.
But back to lighting. Since college, I’ve been a big fan of British Cinema, BBC sit-coms and even some French films and late night 90’s Jackie Chan flicks. And that kind of lighting just doesn’t exist in most of the above. If anything it’s an almost lack of lighting and cold hues, which makes it look like it was shot with a home video camera. However in a setting like that, when a talented actor is giving a great performance it lets him/her shine on their own. Lighting can and should enhance a performance, not carry it.
So that made me think. Is ‘American Cinema’ thought of as great cinema for the acting, or the dolled-up characters, superficial lighting and music telling us how to feel about what we’re watching? I will say “not so much” to the former (since most of out best actors aren’t American) and “undeniably yes” to the latter. To me, I believe lighting helps to aid in giving the audience great visuals but it’s music that aids in a completely great cinematic experience…punctuated by acting which may or may not be great, but acceptable if the other two are high in quality.
Now back to watching Cold Mountain. There was sufficient music and lighting going on in the night scene but again not a great performance by either Jude or Nicole. So thinking about it, if the mood is set by music with lighting/visuals aiding in your film’s enjoyment, could you replace Jude and Nicole with just about anyone and still enjoy the movie? There wasn’t more than maybe 15 minutes that I really thought I was impressed with the performances, except maybe Renée Zellweger, who actually surprised the hell out of me. So, for example, if you put Paul Walker in for Jude, and Michelle Tractenberg in for Nicole, would you have even noticed?, or would you basically have a Soap Opera worthy outcome? I would say the change would go unnoticed.
So, unless it’s a stellar performance by an amazingly talented actor (i.e. Guy Pearce or Johnny Depp) I think there are quality Hollywood elements (along with other unnamed cinematic trickery) that can take a disposable performance and create an enjoyable experience without focusing on the actor. At the end of the day you can watch the remake of The Italian Job and be entertained all the while thinking that there could have been better casting decisions (ahem…Mark Wahlberg) but enjoy it because the visuals/lighting and music was there. Or in foreign cinema, you can watch Shaun of the Dead and realize that the lighting was not the Hollywood type but Simon Pegg’s brilliant humor and good music carry the film. Sometimes an actor’s performance drives the bus and other times, but I feel that most of the rest of the time, the actor takes a back seat to Hollywood’s tools.
So that’s what I look for in a movie to make up for not so dependable acting quality. Anyone agree or disagree?