Sunday, January 11, 2009
Actors In Motion: The Art Of Movement and Meaning
This morning's Washington Post has an excellent essay on Cary Grant and the art of physical movement on screen. The author, Sarah Kaufman, posits that the defining difference between new movie stars and classic movie stars is they way they move across the screen. Kaufman argues that today's movie stars don't have the graceful flow of Grant (or, one could add, the rugged integrity of Gary Cooper or the pure sexual power of Marlene Dietrich).
One aspect that Kaufman underplays in her otherwise insightful essay is the way in which modern movies restrict actors. Classic filmmakers like Howard Hawks and John Ford were interested in letting action play out in wide shots. Directors like Orson Welles, John Farrow, and Joseph H. Lewis were famous for shots that lasted five, eight, sometimes ten minutes. This allowed actors the chance to move around the space on screen, to use their entire body in performance. Today, mise en scene is largely a forgotten art. Filmmakers move their cameras in nearly every shot, they edit shots much quicker, and they rely heavily on the close-up. Watch something like The Dark Knight again and notice how short the average shot is. I don't know what to make of this exactly. I like the quick moving film if it's well done, but we lost something when filmmakers gave up on long, wide shots. For one thing, those kinds of set ups demand more out of the audience. We have more of a share in the action on screen, more responsibility to interpret meaning.
Look at an important scene from John Ford's The Searchers. After a long absence, John Wayne has come to his brother's ranch to visit. His brother's family gathers around the breakfast table to eat when a lawman played Ward Bond shows up to recruit men to investigate an Indian attack at another ranch. Wayne gets up to go. His brother's wife, Martha (Dorothy Jordan) gets his coat, stroking it gently for just a moment. Bond, drinking a cup of coffee, sees her but barely reacts. He just takes a deeper pull off his coffee. Wayne gently kisses Martha on the forehead and leaves. This is done in just three shots. What is the relationship between John Wayne and his brother's wife? What does Ward Bond infer from what he's seen? This is a magnificent scene, subtle and rich with meaning (with deeper resonance as the film progresses). Moreover, Ford trusts the viewer to read the action and interpret it. The relationship between Wane and Dorothy Jordan is never underlined in a closeup. Nor is Ward Bond's respect for the intimate and probably unconsummated passion between these two people. Through Ford's blocking--and the exquisite body control of Wayne, Jordan and Bond--we have a three-way psychological exchange full of meaning and subtext.