There’s Method in the Method

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When it comes to “method acting,” I’m very much on the fence. On one side, there’s still that child within me, very much alive, who loves grand stories about grand acts. I don’t know how many times I’ve read Kenneth Anger’s Hollywood Babylon at this stage and, indeed, I even recorded an album inspired by the imagery it conjured. Like the rock fans of decades past, reading up on the outlandish and, routinely, morally repugnant acts committed by bands like Led Zeppelin in planes and hotel rooms all round the world, ridiculous tall tales about Marilyn Manson having ribs surgically removed to perform auto-fellatio, not to mention the extent to which the character of The Thin White Duke allegedly had on David Bowie’s nervous breakdown during the production of Station to Station, film journalism even in 2016 cannot get over romanticising the self-destructive exploits of certain, otherwise abundantly privileged Hollywood stars.

The other side of me, and I cannot stress this strongly enough, doesn’t give a toss about actors. When some of the greatest films ever committed to film have been made without so much as a single camera, let alone a single actor, the necessity for the obnoxious toadyist personality cultism, and the obnoxious cultish personalities upon which cinema is allegedly dependent really starts showing its holes. There’s more and purer cinema in Paul Sharits’ Ray Gun Virus than in Room and Spotlight combined, so please don’t insult me by suggesting we need to put up with Christian Bale disgracefully losing his shit at a blue collar worker for “throwing him off” his unintentionally hilarious performance in a Terminator sequel nobody ever asked for.

Given that you’re currently reading the blog of someone with a Maya Deren tattoo, but is as yet bereft of any Spielberg-related designs, you’re presumably less than surprised my main interest is not, in fact, contemporary Hollywood. That’s not to say, however, that I don’t have a certain adoration and fascination for its potentials – just read my recent love letter to Some Like It Hot if you need convincing of my faith in Hollywood as an entity’s abilities. It takes considerably less practical or academic knowledge of the machinery of the American film industry (which, I’ll be the first to admit, is not one of my strong suits) to know that everything is a product, every product has an “image,” and make no mistake, the image of having no image at all is the most meticulously constructed one there is. Thus, concepts such as “truth” and “reality” become aesthetic choices in their own right – André Bazin discussed “realism” as essentially the dialectical synthesis of reality and the inherent artifice of the cinematic medium, and that was when he was describing people wandering through bombed-out Rome with a 16mm, let alone the studio sets of tinseltown, complete with traumatised runners, dodging traffic whilst desperately clutching Mr. Cruise’s almond milk extra foam double shot decaf mint mocha matcha macchiato in one hand, and his prize pet salamander in the other.

See, here’s the thing: there’s a certain undiscussed, unacknowledged violence in empathy. Alejandro González Iñárritu is quite correct in saying The Revenant would never have worked if, the moment he yelled “cut,” Leonardo and Tom could happily pop back to their trailers for hot coffee. Thing is, though: coffee is still available at the end of the road. It always is. Lived experience is not simply some room you can walk into; it’s a complex intersection of an array of nuances, multiple pasts, presents and futures. Who cares that you’re hungry today? You were at a 5-star restaurant last month and, come the wrap party, you’ll be at one again. Dumping your girlfriend and selling your house is not, actually, an accurate way of accessing first-hand experience of being a victim of Shoah. Losing masses of weight by only eating melon and steamed fish for a set period of time will teach you nothing – repeat, nothing – about destroying and ending your life through heroin addiction at the tender age of 21. Trust me. Still, I have no objection to someone changing their lifestyle to one degree or another during a role in order to achieve better the constructed aesthetic of realism, as opposed to the constructed aesthetic of “stageyness;” knock yourself out. What I object to is not the addition of realism to a role; what I object to is the complete undermining of the “method” by creating such a performance out of the method itself that the only thing embellished is the star’s own image, to the great detriment of their character.

Unsurprisingly, Jared Leto is the strongest example here, and not just on the basis of his remarkable levels of self-satisfaction, but also on the basis of his remarkable levels of self-preservation. See, Leto represents quite simply the ultimate hypocrisy of outlandish method acting: not only do you get to pretend that lived experience is simply a room you can just walk into, you also get to choose exactly how long you stay in the room, and even how far into it you’re willing to walk. “He started watching footage of actual violent crimes on YouTube, until he had to stop himself.” Oh, fuck off. It’s 2016. Who hasn’t? I couldn’t go to school without someone shoving a phone in my face, with footage of Saddam Hussein’s execution, or a military contractor’s beheading. I imagine for a moment the cornucopia of “useful” method experiences that were so easily accessible to him for which he apparently did not opt – namely, anything that might have put him remotely in harm’s way.

I think back to all of his godawful interviews with regard to the character Rayon in Dallas Buyers Club. It’s actually quite incredible how many people are willing to blow smoke up an actor for the most trivial and frivolous of pursuits. Take John Patterson’s pitifully obsequious interview with Leto, in which he, riotously, describes Rayon as yet another example of Leto’s “total immersion.” What method of total immersion is that, you ask? To go out, dressed as the transgender female character. Once. TO WHOLE FOODS. Let’s break this down for a second: Jared Leto, method actor extraordinaire, “immersed” himself as his character once and only once, “to get a little judgement, some meanness, a little condemnation…for the part,” from those notoriously violent denizens of spelt bread, purple cauliflower, and ultra-conservative social politics: Whole Foods. Don’t get me wrong, I’ve gotten the occasional dirty look, passing through a farmer’s market, but it’s not exactly the same as wandering into a Plaistow lock-in, either. Of course, the irony of Leto’s choice lies not only in the stereotypically liberal stance Whole Foods projects – however genuine or ersatz these projections may be – but in the fact that, at the steep prices of Whole Foods’ organic gourmet produce, there’s not a snowball’s chance in Hell that Rayon, or indeed most trans women – real or fictional – would or could ever shop there, anyway. Perhaps Leto is too solipsistically self-involved to realise that, or perhaps he knows perfectly well, but didn’t feel like taking a bigger risk. Still, it was vastly apparent that his “method” was founded upon ignorance, hypocrisy, or both. Beyond the issues’ amplification due to Leto’s inappropriateness as an actor for the role, by being cisgender in the first place and the hilarity of his jaunt round the supermarket being called “total immersion” is that, for trans women desiring genital reconstructive surgery, required time for “total immersion” into the role of one’s true gender can be a year or more. Had he the desire, Leto could have got estrogen and anti-androgen medication delivered to his trailer on a silver platter within the hour but, no. Some total immersions can be a little too immersive, apparently. Am I suggesting that Jared Leto should have altered his hormone levels, thus reducing body hair and developing breasts? I don’t know, I’m no actor; I’m just a film-loving tranny with an axe to grind.

Leto can flatter himself into thinking he “got into the mind of a psychopath” by sending his fellow Suicide Squad cast and crew dead pigs and used condoms because it didn’t affect him. He was surrounded by professionals who were kind enough not to leave him, picking up his teeth with a broken arm, but also were kind enough not to have him sectioned under any local mental health acts for doing so, as would of course happen to anyone who was actually suffering bouts of mental illness, and was making others suffer, too. It seems particularly pertinent because, of course, there are uncountable people who have had front-row access to abusive, sadistic, psychopaths and narcissists their entire life, in the form of their mothers, fathers, husbands, boyfriends… But who cares about the survivors of those kinds of psychopaths, the real ones? They’re boring, right Jared? Perhaps, more than anyone else, Leto represents the ultimate paradox of a “method” actor, who is clearly bereft of the experience of being told “no,” on account of who he is: there’s no chance of a character’s fictional psyche EVER dominating an ego already so inflated. I might politely suggest that, for his next role, Leto might want to try and get cast as a decent human being, mindful of others, with more than a shred of humility. But I’m sure he’d manage to interpret his remit as requiring him to shoplift from charity stores and prank-call orphans, pretending to be their parents.
The meticulous cynicism with which actors like Jared Leto pick and choose which roles demand what levels and what means of “method” approach reveal all too clearly that we aren’t dealing with an actor “losing himself in the role.” We’re seeing someone push all known boundaries to ensure that the role gets lost in him.

You will never understand
How it feels to live your life
With no meaning or control
And with nowhere left to go
You are amazed that they exist
And they burn so bright
Whilst you can only wonder why
Rent a flat above a shop
Cut your hair and get a job
Smoke some fags and play some pool
Pretend you never went to school
But still you’ll never get it right
‘Cause when you’re laid in bed at night
And watching roaches climb the wall
If you called your dad he could stop it all
Yeah

“Common People,” Pulp

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The Revenant (Alejandro G. Iñarritu, 2015)

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It is, of course, hard not to discuss The Revenant in terms of The Hateful Eight. Both were released the same day. I saw the latter on the Monday of this week, the former on the Friday. Both are set within the unforgiving snow territories of North America in the 1800s. Both are gaining a certain infamy for their respective degrees of brutality. Both encourage comparisons to earlier films.

However, whilst The Hateful Eight‘s relationship with cinephilia is what one must call, with an ever-deepening sigh, “postmodernism,” with its fairly cloying nods and winks to camera as it references exploitation, Western and horror films of varying obscurity to score geekdom points above all else, The Revenant‘s relationship with the wider world of cinema is of a traditional, subtler and considerably preferable sort.

Obviously, thematically, The Revenant‘s tale of a man more or less back from the dead, battling both the elements and nature red in tooth and claw, on a mission to avenge a lost loved one can be understood as something of a mixture of The CrowApocalypto, and All is Lost. Its magical realist relationship with its protagonist’s mortality in the context of First Nations territory conjures strong images of Dead Man. (There may also be comparisons to make to The Grey – having not seen The Grey, though, I wouldn’t know).

However, it is the formal elements of The Revenant that made the most impression on me as a cinephile. The roaming camera effect that effortlessly seems to document 360º action and follows characters – both lead and supporting – through water, fire, smoke and snow creates exactly the same sense of immersion within a fully extant universe that the late Aleksei German achieved so stunningly with Hard to Be a God. Meanwhile, the ever-so-slightly more fantastical elements of The Revenant, connecting existentialism, nature and spirituality in a way that exploits aestheticism without compromising humanity connects it to the oevre of Andrei Tarkovsky, by no means limited to Andrei Rublev and The Sacrifice, certainly with flourishes of Akira Kurosawa throughout. The combination of all these elements held František Vláčil’s Markéta Lazarová immovably in my mind throughout the grand majority of The Revenant. It perhaps goes without saying that the very immensity of this project’s approach seems wholly Herzogian.

Especially when we consider the usual Oscar-bait, the certain element of snobbishness that has criticised The Revenant – particularly DiCaprio’s performance in it – can be understood, even forgiven. No, contrary to what some may think, suffering does not equal acting. DiCaprio’s performance reveals considerably more than pain; instead, we see the rapid and necessity devolution of a man into beast to survive a wilderness for he was not made. Certainly, there are avenues down which one can take this to understand a message regarding just whose land the settings can be considered. Hugh Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio)’s ability to survive the ordeal is founded upon a boldness and bravery we cannot see in any way connected to his white maleness – instead, we see a variety of skills we can connect most easily to his interaction with (and marriage within) the Pawnee tribe, and a variety of instincts that don’t seem human at all. Fitzgerald (Tom Hardy)’s brand of survivalism seems to be the polar opposite: one based upon selfish cowardice. It is only the Pawnee and Arikara in the film whose ability to withstand such hardship feels inherently assured.

To be sure, the message of The Revenant is complicated and not without flaws. It admittedly does feel rather White Man’s Burden, throughout. The magical realism of the film being tied exclusively to the portrayal of First Nations people, who at the end of the film step in to perform a naratologically necessary act that white morality will not allow Glass to perform, is less than ideal. One cannot help but feel The Revenant would also have been served better by having Glass’ late Pawnee wife (Grace Dove)- even if she did have to remain within the bonds of memory – were able to do something other than act as a levitating source of support in troubling times, repeating the same monologue over and over again. On a more basic level – a complaint that seems to be a reoccurring theme – Tom Hardy’s accent whilst playing Fitzgerald could have been considerably more intelligible.

However, the lack of Fitzgerald’s intelligibility does add a certain 3-dimensionality to the role. I can say that, beyond Bronson, Bane or Ronnie Kray, there is a certain something in Hardy’s portrayal of Fitzgerald that makes this his scariest role. Perhaps it comes down to the relative absence of formalism in the portrayal. Though two of the three aforementioned roles were real people, it would be quite reasonable to suggest the performances were not. Caricatured accent aside, little scenery is chewed in Fitzgerald’s portrayal. We see an antagonist who is calculating, yes, but no more than he deems necessary for survival. He is a proletarian figure of world-weary cynicism who, when challenged on valuing money over his life, brilliantly responds “What life? Ain’t got no life. All I got’s a living.” Indeed, what is scariest about Fitzgerald is his position as an icon of how reasonable an executive decision burying a man alive, after having just killed his son, could in fact seem. It is impossible not to feel a degree of empathy and respect for every character in this film for their endurance in making it alive even to the opening credits, let alone beyond them. Between the harshness of nature, the sharpness of arrows, and the exploitation at the hands of the bourgeoisie, it is entirely reasonable to assume a different set of moral codes exist in the perception of The Revenant‘s characters.

So, assuredly, The Revenant‘s greatness does not lie in its originality. Rather, it lies in its honest-to-God attempt to lift up the blockbuster to a status to which audiences in 2016 never expect to see films on a Hollywood budget held. Hopefully, it may encourage audiences to seek out a Tarkovsky or a Viacil, but even if it doesn’t, I’m glad their money will have been spent on a truly cinematic experience local multiplexes have not been built to host in a long, long time. And, for that, I am gratified.

****

Legend (Brian Helgeland, 2015)

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Legend is either a truly fantastic star vehicle, or a fairly by-the-numbers gangland biopic. I prefer to think of it as the former, though the Sunset Boulevard-esque narration from Frances (Emily Browning), existing as it does on a see-saw between unnecessary and obnoxious, does rather coerce me at points to see it as the latter. Strong performances from pretty much all involved, inevitably overshadowed by Tom Hardy’s exhilarating, if slightly cartoonish, twofer performance (I also cannot shake comparisons from my mind between his Ronnie Kray and Peter O’Hanara-hanrahan from The Day Today), although I believe that Paul Bettany’s role in the film is perhaps all the more transformative.

A lot of very nice direction and cinematography, though not much of it original – many shots felt directly lifted from GoodFellas and The Long Good Friday – both of which are films that strike me as having considerably more re-watch value – Legend is a standard 3-star film that, when I first reviewed it, gained an extra half on the basis of  the aesthetic positives of Hardy’s attractiveness. However, as I remember just how pointlessly drawn out the final act was, and the ripeness of Browning’s narration, I feel inclined to remove it.

***