Analyzing Performance and Meaning in Film

By Baron, Cynthia; Carson, Diane | Journal of Film and Video, Spring 2006 | Go to article overview

Analyzing Performance and Meaning in Film


Baron, Cynthia, Carson, Diane, Journal of Film and Video


THE IDEA FOR THIS SPECIAL ISSUE of the journal of Film and Video evolved over the past few years from stimulating interaction at formal presentations and panels, as well as from exciting informal conversations. Our desire to advance the analysis and understanding of screen acting, to help build vocabularies for analyzing performance, and to explore integral connections between framing, editing, sound design, and performance elements led to the anthology More Than a Method: Trends and Traditions in Contemporary Film Performance (Wayne State, 2004), coedited with Frank P. Tomasulo. In launching that endeavor, we found a vibrant area of study underrepresented in academic discourse, despite the impressive contributions found in books by lames Naremore (1988), Roberta Pearson (1992), and Virginia Wright Wexman (1995). In addition, we took inspiration from the productive work on screen performance that has appeared in chapters of comprehensive studies such as Theatre to Cinema (1997) and Hollywood Cinema (2003). Developments in the scholarship on film acting are also reflected in a collection of articles published in The Velvet Light Trap (1972), Sight and Sound (1973), Screen (1978,1985, and 1999), Quarterly Review of Film and Video (1979), Cinema Journal (1980), Wide Angle (1984), PostScript (1993), and anthologies from the 19905 edited by Carole Zucker, Jeremy Butler, and Alan Lovell and Peter Krerner. We set out to build on this foundation and to encourage film scholars' sustained inquiry into screen performance.

Our belief that a number of scholars were pursuing valuable work on film acting was confirmed by the many exceptional essays submitted for peer review. The eight articles selected consistently consider the potential meaning-producing function of gestures, intonations, movements, inflections, poses, etc., and in so doing they help to refute the view that screen performance is uniquely resistant to, or unworthy of, careful analysis. These articles challenge conventional views of film acting, bridge the gap between theory and practice, and overcome artificial divisions between film and theater studies.

In "The Problem of the Divo: New Models for Analyzing Silent-Rim Performance," Rebecca Swender notes that "Because silent-film performance is so remote from modern sensibilities about acting, its analysis must be approached with a high degree of specificity and a sensitivity to stylistic conventions no longer in common practice." seeking to analyze "the purpose, function, and operation of poses in specific dramatic contexts," Swender describes screen performances "without relying on 'histrionic' and Verisimilar' as analytic categories." Focusing on a "comparative study of male performances," Swender uses examples from the German film The Indian Tomb (1919) to examine posing "not simply in terms of its ostensiveness but also in terms of its motivation and patterning." She concludes by suggesting that additional analyses of male performance in silent films will "yield an appreciation for the nuance, specificity, and richness of silent-film acting and for the particular skill of those performers worthy of the title 'Divo.'"

In "The Material Poetry of Acting: Objects of Attention,' Performance Style, and Gender in The Shining and Eyes Wide Shut," Sharon Marie Carnicke turns "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." In so doing, she advances analysis of gesture in film, proving that "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." Carnicke's analogy with "close readings of poetry" rings true as she compares and contrasts the performances of Jack Nicholson and Shelly Duvall in The Shining (1980) with Tom Cruise and Nicole Kidman in Eyes Wide Shut (1999). …

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