John O. Thompson
At the moment, only those who oppose the semiotic study of the cinema seem to want to talk about screen acting. Since a good deal of the meaning of the fiction film is borne by its actors and their performances, this amounts to leaving an important territory in the hands of the enemy (to put it over-belligerently). And some of the standard doctrines and endlessly rediscovered 'truths' about actor and role, screen vs. stage and so on may be inhibiting not only critical but also creative practice in the cinema. Yet it is understandable why this gap in the semiotic programme remains. Performances seem ineffable, and thinking about them induces reverie rather than analysis.
In this chapter I want to propose the controlled extension to screen actors of the semiotic technique called the commutation test as a means of prompting a more methodical and reflexive discourse in this area.
To begin with, here is a quotation from a recent essay by David Thomson. The point the quotation first makes is a familiar one. Brecht, summing up a conversation with Adorno in his diary in 1942, asserted that 'the theatre's first advantage over the film is…in the division between play and performance', and continued 'the mechanical reproduction gives everything the character of a result: unfree and inalterable'. 1 Thomson says the same thing, and then manoeuvres around this apparent blockage at the heart of the cinema's 'nature':
Stage parts are like concertos-they are supple, lofty and impersonal enough to take on all comers. But parts in films live only briefly: like virginity, once taken, they are not there to be inhabited again. Before shooting, all manner of choices may perplex the film-makers and keep the part blurred: Kim Novak's part(s) in Vertigo were designed for Vera Miles; Shirley Temple was first choice to play Dorothy in The Wizard of Oz-imagine how 'Over the Rainbow'