My favorite artists offend me on a personal, philosophical, and artistic level. They’re emotional robots who have as much sympathy for others as they do for themselves. My favorite artists might use some swear words and some provocative imaginary, but they’re not reliant on them. They’re also not offensive for the sole purpose of being offensive. They don’t care who they offend in their pursuit of artistic purity, and they don’t pick safe targets. Some might say that it’s not possible to be observant, creative, and artistic without sympathy, but my favorite artists ask how an artist can report on the world if they handicap themselves by being sympathetic to the people they report on. My favorite artists refute my worldview in a rational and constructive manner, and I find their challenges to my belief system engaging. They might not change my mind on one single issue, but I don’t think they care. I don’t think that’s why they’re here.
Acting is as difficult and specialized as any other art form, but for all the overblown accolades and financial rewards we provide actors, they’re little more than vessels who carry artistic messages to the people. It takes special qualities to convince an audience that they’re another person. It takes other qualities to capture emotions and convince an audience that those reactions are genuine. Taken down to their core, these elements involve lying, so an individual who wants to become an actor should be an unusually good liar. Those who spent an inordinate amount of their youth learning the subtle intricacies of convincing others of a lie, before they ever thought of becoming an actor, might have the qualities necessary to convince others of the lie that they’re another person. These qualities are difficult to quantify and qualify, but they do lead to some sort of ingrained qualities that is evident to all who seek them for their productions.
For entertainment purposes, an audience agrees to enter into any fictional production with some suspension of their critical facilities, but at some point, the audience wants that latitude they offer rewarded. This is where those with ingrained qualities shine. Some are better at it than others are, of course, but at some point all inherent qualities are equal and it becomes difficult to distinguish one quality actor from another. Physical traits play a huge role, of course, as some casting agencies won’t let prospective applicants in the door without a decent headshot, but as with any profession those with a hunger to succeed, can overcome physical limitations, so what separates a quality actor from those who can never quite manage to capture the same on-screen magic?
If an actor has established a motif after acting in 40 different productions, how difficult is it to convince other people that they are a 41st character. Landing a key role in a beloved production can advance a career, but it can also kill it, if the audience’s association with a particular character is too strong. We call it being typecast. We’ve also witnessed some actors who are so charismatic they can play themselves every time out, but the others are chameleons and shape shifters who assume another’s characteristics so well that the audience forgets there’s an actor playing the role. How do any of these types wipe the slate clean, so they can help the audience wipe their slate clean? Is it easier for a quality actor to be an empty vessel? I would think that a strong sense of identity would be a difficult obstacle for any actor. If they have little-to-no character of their own, wouldn’t it be easier for them to assume the characteristics of another? When I watch a master craftsman accomplish what so few can do, I wonder if there’s an equation that suggests the less character an actor has in life the better they are at playing another.
On that note, we’ve all heard the stories of method actors who demand that everyone involved in the production call them by their character’s name. Is this a silly, childish game? No, according to some on the inside, and those who want inside, some actors demand this, so they can get “locked in” on their character. In order for them to play pretend properly, others have to join in on the façade. If someone breaks that spell by reminding them that they’re Joey as opposed to Esteban, they can’t continue. Does it kill the empty vessel thing? Is the spell is broken? I’m not an actor, and I have no idea about the process involved in playing another character, but I wonder how much of this is stoked by public relations outlets trying to hype a role one of their clients is in to build the mystique of the actor’s abilities. If it’s all true, and I don’t doubt that it is, in some cases, it seems so silly to me.
We’ve all met unusually good liars who couldn’t find a channel their ability in anyway. We’ve heard them lie about matters we considered so inconsequential that we wonder why they lied about it in the first place. After we hear enough lies from unusually good liars, and the quantity is not as important as the quality, it becomes apparent that they want us to think they have a master plan. They might not have a master plan, but some elements of their intangible qualities lead us to believe they do. Some of these qualities suggest that they pity the rest of us for our struggles, and they might even be laughing at us. They don’t look like they have a plan. They look as bored, unfocused, and as random as the rest of us, but what if they weren’t? What would we think of them if they were someone else? How would our opinions change if they had such an adventurous past that it informed their present? What if their past was so adventurous that they couldn’t wait to tell us their tales? What if none of them were true?
Screenwriters love coming-of-age scenes, and to express their views of coming of age in the compressed time a movie allots them, they use common tropes. One of their favorites tropes involves an actor playing a teacher asking a pre-teen actor a question about a classic book. The child actor’s answer is often far too complex for their age. (The screenwriter is attempting to rewrite and vicariously relive their pre-teen years by appearing more intelligent than they actually were in junior high.) The child actor’s lines often involve shocking, adult swear words that sophisticate their answer in a manner that the screenwriter intends to shock the audience’s sense of moral values. Using children in such scenes feels like a cheat, because moviemakers know adult audiences will feel silly if something a child says offends them. We are to forget that we’re watching a movie created by adults, and that the child actor is reading the lines adults write for them. In the movie, the principle suspends the kid for using offensive language in class. While in the principal’s office, the adult actors playing the child’s parents are dutiful and respectful before the principal. While walking away from the principal’s office, the adult actors offer the child actor sympathetic condolences that suggest that not only is the matter closed as far as they are concerned, they are actually quite proud of the spunky kid for speaking his mind. The supporting character actors, playing the teacher and the principle, eventually develop an indirect way of showing support for this precocious child actor by rewarding him for an unprecedented level of sophistication. (The screenwriter is receiving the vicarious accolades that they felt they always deserved.) (End Scene.)
“I don’t care if you disagrees with some of the ideas expressed in that book,” I would tell my child, as we walked away from the principal’s office, “you sullied your reputation with the language you chose to express your opinion. It’s immoral and disrespectful to say such words in a classroom setting, but more than that, it leads others to believe that you are not capable of formulating a decent argument without using such words. If your argument begins and ends with swear words, no one will remember what you said in between. They will only remember that you “had the cajones” to say a swear word in class, and while that might pay some immediate dividends among your peers, they will not respect you long-term for it. If however, you drop an articulate refutation of the book that expresses a passionate view, you might blow those kids away. No one cares about a book at your age, and they won’t care what you think of it either, unless you say something so profound that they can’t help but notice. Trivial moments like these define you. They might also affect who you’re going to be.
“If you insist on offering your class such a provocative refutation, don’t forget to back that characterization up with details,” I would add. “It’s not enough to call your philosophical opponents a name. You still have to defeat their arguments. Most provocateurs forget to do that when they are trying to sound cool, and most of us forget to hold them accountable for this failure. Most of us will only remember the name you called them. It’s pointless. If you choose the other road, while standing on this philosophical fork in the road, and you strengthen your mind to a point that you can defeat other people’s ideas with concise factual data, and/or a persuasive opinion that is not dependent on emotional provocation, you will leave an impression on them that you are an intellect.”
The Joker is one of the greatest bad guys of all time, and I love stories that involve The Joker, but I never feared the character in an artistic sense. For most of my life, The Joker never really hurt anyone. It was all a game. He said things that made him sound psychopathic, and he had a deranged laugh, but the worst thing he did, for decades, was create precarious James Bond-like situations for Batman to undo, under time constraints, to save the good citizens of Gotham. I never feared The Joker, in an artistic sense, in the manner I did the Tommy DeVito character that Nicholas Pileggi and Martin Scorsese created for Joe Pesci in Goodfellas, based on the real-life actions of Tommy DeSimone. Their Tommy DeVito character made me so uncomfortable that I wanted it over. I didn’t care how it ended. I just wanted to return to my comfort zone. I don’t recall ever having such a visceral reaction to a character before, and to my mind, that’s art. If The Joker ever caused such a reaction to an audience, that ended when DC Comics’ editors put an end to any killing in the second year of The Joker’s publication history, and they did it because they didn’t want to influence young, impressionable minds to commit violent acts. Their goals were laudable, but they essentially defanged The Joker. The psychological games The Joker played were some of my favorites, but in the era of The Sopranos and Quentin Tarantino, The Joker seemed like nothing more than the other team in an exciting chess match, until Christopher Nolan and Todd Phillips changed that in the movies.
“I pay hard, cold cash for such an experience,” I informed a friend after she said she didn’t care for another movie, because it made her feel uncomfortable. I told her about my experience with Tommy Devito, and how uncomfortable he made me, and how much I loved it. She couldn’t understand that mindset. She considered such characters and their movies too realistic and too unnerving. I told her that I think that should be every moviemaker’s primary goal.
Most people don’t think this way about artistic enterprises. If they attend violent or horror movies, they want them toned down just a tad, so they can maintain a comfort zone, and they don’t want to pay their hard-earned money to experience anything that rattles their core. I’ve experienced moments in other movies when they tweak my comfort zone, and I always think back to my friend saying that she doesn’t want to be uncomfortable in a movie theater. If she had a particularly violent past, or even a violent incident that such movies unearthed in an uncomfortable manner, I could understand, but she didn’t. She was just a casual moviegoer who doesn’t enjoy it when movies, or art in general, take her to uncomfortable places. I know most people don’t think this way, as evidenced by most of the movies they make, but as a movie connoisseur, I seek those that offend me, horrify me, and takes me to uncomfortable places. The theme of my rant might be violent movies, but I often wonder if the world would be a better place if more people welcomed, with open arms, those who constructively challenge our ideas and ideals in a rational manner, as opposed to those who just provide us more blankets in our comfort zone.