The Material Poetry of Acting: "Objects of Attention," Performance Style, and Gender in the Shining and Eyes Wide Shut

By Carnicke, Sharon Marie | Journal of Film and Video, Spring 2006 | Go to article overview
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The Material Poetry of Acting: "Objects of Attention," Performance Style, and Gender in the Shining and Eyes Wide Shut


Carnicke, Sharon Marie, Journal of Film and Video


CINEMA SCHOLARS ARE NOW INTERROGATING the ways a film actor's use of body and voice within the frame can contribute to the aesthetics of a film. In 1988, lames Naremore laid the groundwork for such inquiry with Acting in the Cinema. More recently, in anthologies such as Screen Acting and More Than a Method, film scholars have continued the project of disentangling actors' work from their a priori status as stars. By turning attention away from star personae and toward acting as a discrete art form that collaborates with other cinematic arts in the production of a film, such studies promise a productive reassessment of the power of actors within mediated forms of performance.

The analysis of acting on screen as an observable series of physical and vocal gestures challenges Lev Kuleshov's influential 1935 stance that "apart from montage, nothing exists in cinema," that "the work of actors is absolutely irrelevant" (McDonald 24). As Paul McDonald demonstrates in his canny comparison of Gus Van Sant's 1998 remake of Psycho with Alfred Hitchcock's 1960 original, actors' physical and vocal choices matter in the audience's reception of a film and the legibility of characters' emotions. "It is only in the details of the actor's voice and body," McDonald concludes, "that the meaning and significance of acting's contribution to film can be found" (39-40). Close analyses of how screen actors gesture, move, control tempo and rhythm, use language and sound, and inflect and articulate their lines complement more traditional studies on the power of montage. Detailed and often tedious observation of acting can best be compared to close readings of poetry, in which the smallest details of usage culled from an otherwise quotidian language become key to a poet's unique artistry.

However, McDonald rightly cautions that "if film acting is to become an established aspect of film analysis, it must be because reading the uses of voice and body can inform a larger understanding of any film and of film in general" (26). I would add another caution as well, that reading actors' work only becomes widely persuasive when it avoids the all too predominant tendency toward subjective, impressionistic description. Those scholars, like McDonald himself, who succeed in their critical stance on acting do so because they utilize concrete aspects of acting to develop objective readings. This objectivity has largely relied upon a common-sense observation of the material elements in an actor's work. But the long history of acting and the many acting theories that have formed the basis for training can also offer objective modes of description and a professional terminology for analysis. Like established modes for the scansion of verse, theatrical terminology for acting stands at the ready to be mined in our efforts to understand how actors become "agents in a narrative" (Naremore 23), to describe the "physics of movement and gesture" (Naremore 34), and to evaluate acting within the frame.

By examining the work of Jack Nicholson and Shelley Duvall in The Shining (1980) and Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman in Eyes Wide Shut (1999), I contribute to the growing body of studies that use acting to illuminate films. Close readings of two scenes in these films demonstrate Stanley Kubrick's directorial strategy of refracting conflicts between husbands and wives, and between the genders more generally, as clashes of acting styles. Discussing The Shining in his 1994 study of Kubrick's films, Mario Falsetto first commented on Kubrick's propensity to seta nonrealistic male performance against a realistic female one. While "the film's narrative is played out at such a level of abstraction and unreality that the notion of character empathy is virtually impossible," Falset to observes, "the film contains not only an interesting mix of moods but also a real contrast in acting styles" (171). Nicholson's exaggerated performance is set against Duvall's "very convincing and naturalistic" one.

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