Very occasionally throughout my career I have taken small roles to attempt to stay in touch with the task of acting, and found it utterly confounding and deeply, deeply difficult to relax into.
As a man with scoliosis, I know body tension. If I even mention a certain stressful teacher I had in high school and then reach for a high shelf, blam, there’s an icepick in my back. When I teach or direct actors, I can often see with the naked eye that there are imbalances in tension all over their bodies. It’s as if the transverse muscle, in the pit of the gut, is where all the emotion comes from and it’s got to get past three check points on its way out: the stomach, the shoulders and the jaw. And if an actor is clenching one of those (like I do) for reasons beyond his control or awareness, perhaps in a very understandable attempt to remain civilized and control the emotions trying to blast their way out of him, you can bet he’s got an energy leak somewhere else, like blinking too much, or shifting his weight, or over-endowing props. Which then leads to unwanted, undirected energy belying his performance.
On the witnessing side, as human beings, and as audience members, there are a million languages of the face we don’t realize we already speak. When an actor blinks too much, or blinks not in a way that the character would blink given his dialogue, something bugs us, and we decide we don’t believe them. When an actor acts like he’s listening, rather than truly picturing the imagery of what is being said to him, we see his face tense into handsome listening face, and we stop rooting for him. And finally, given that (I believe) we think in images, not words, if an actor has not connected deeply with the images within his own dialogue, and is not using his tongue as a paintbrush to paint these images onto the mind-canvas of the listener, we hydroplane along with him, over his moments, unaffected.
To combat this, I have devised, over the years, the above handy-dandy diagram of the human body while acting. A treacherous landscape of tension-moguls forming and releasing. Blocking the path of the emotional truth as it emerges from its home in the pit of the gut, where our weakest muscles are, that are only deployed when we cry. Beginning with the imagination, and working counter-clockwise, I will attempt to double-click on the human body, that it might be deployed in its entirety to our artistic ends.
A long layover afforded us a constitutional in the neighborhood surrounding Benito Juarez Airport. Benito Juarez was the first full-blooded indigenous president of Mexico. There has yet to be a full-blooded indigenous president of the United States. Advantage: Mexico.
It is here that I discovered not only do my shoes match the buildings and trucks, but the donuts are the best in the world.
Photos: Emily Topper née Topper.
Spending the week at the American Film Market, and watching $800 million worth of narrative morsels whiz around the beaches of Santa Monica, can make you think many cynical things about what makes a movie popular. It reminded me of this old graph I created five or six years ago to try to encapsulate all human consciousness on one piece of paper. Here's my stand-up performance in Wellfleet on August 28, 2010 discussing it: It seems like we all start within the A ring, the story you tell yourself about you, or, The Ring of the Narcissist: your mirror face, your hopes for the future, circumstances that you assure yourself are not your fault, your memories, and the impact you notice yourself having on a room. Then we enter the B ring — the story you tell the world about you, or, The Ring of the Braggadocio — your photo face, what you choose what to wear, the angle you hold your spine, your behavior in traffic, how long you take to answer questions, and how many stories you tell in which you are the hero or the victim. The C ring — the story the world tells you about you, or, The Ring of the Consumer — is all advertising, movies, magazines, and media. You are the center of the universe, it all tells us, and you are going to need equipment. Like toothpaste. The D ring — the story the world tells itself about you, or, The Ring of the Paranoiac — feels like a cage if you focus on it too long: your credit score, gossip about you, photography of you that you don't like, your nation. The D ring feels so much like a cage in fact, that very few people venture past it to the glorious E ring — the story you tell the world about the world, or, The Ring of the Participant — the art you make, your carbon footprint, how you will participate in the world, and what you give away. It's all about where you put most of your preoccupations. When I put on clothes in the morning, are they to assure myself I'm okay looking? To assure others I'm successful? To sport the latest brands? To give the finger? To not get fired? Or to keep me warm while I tend my planet? The truth is, I think, if you focus on the story you tell the world about the world, it will influence all the others, and your life will inevitably improve. But if you get trapped in the psycho-emotional rat's nest of the inner circles of self-consciousness, and spend all of your time pursuing sensations (e.g. the sensation of being famous, or being correct, or mighty), you will have missed out on incredible opportunities to contribute a verse to the great human experiment. When I get caught up in the movie of my life—and start to dwell on what people might think—I try to remember... No one is watching. The cinema is empty. And it is such a relief. Oh, and the oomphalos (Greek for navel) is the unknowable belly button of existence. That's the one in the middle. The actual you enshrouded by all this narrative tomfoolery. The you anyone would fall in love with, if only they could see it. And download a pdf of the above chart here.
I had a Spanish teacher in high school who wore tight, tailored suits and had a shiny dome. He was as short as many of us sophomores (not me), and full of vim and vigor. "¡Ganas!" he used to implore us, as we passed his classroom in other parts of the day. "Desire." He would squeeze his fist hard like the Cobra-Kei Sen-sei instructing us to sweep the leg."¡Ganas, Señor Hughes!" It made me feel like an international spy. What I didn't grasp then is that in adult life desire is indeed manufactured. And for things that could be deemed as arbitrary as homework. To be driven, he told us with one Spanish word, is an active choice we must make everyday. This man from a 1976 Russian Television Spectacular is so driven to delight us that despite (according to the video's comments) the actual lyrics being blocked by the government of the Soviet Union, he can dig down past what might feel goofy to do, and release the magma of delight contained in the notes of the song. And, paradoxically, delight us twice as much. Take that, censorship. This man, and his total commitment to his act, has the ¡Ganas!
Jeffrey Dinsmore. Gentleman. Office-mate. America’s protagonist.
Certain stories have an eerie power over an audience. And the reason is not just what the stories are about, but how they are told. The imagination of an audience can be abducted and toyed with when a director recognizes the relationship between the function of their storytelling, and the form of the story they are telling.
The highest form of dramatic art, if you ask me, is when there is a visceral echo between the protagonist and the audience. The creator of the experience intentionally creates some sort of scarcity for the audience within the story—of understanding, of action, of a particular feeling—and uses this to force the audience into willing certain things to be. The protagonist is lonely, and we are made to feel alone by the storytelling. The protagonist is scared, so we too are scared by sudden horrible things.
In the 2001 movie Memento, for instance, our hero, played by Guy Pearce, has an aphasia of the mind wherein he can't make new memories and thus every twenty minutes or so, he suddenly has no idea where he is. Jonathan and Christopher Nolan create a similar scarcity of understanding in the mind of the audience member by telling the story backwards. Ergo, through the storytelling, they give the audience the very same disease suffered by the protagonist. For my money, this flick, made in 2000, rang us like a clarion bell into the new millennium, heralding a new kind of storytelling for a smarter kind of audience.
When discussing 2009's Where the Wild Things Are with cinematographer Emily Topper, we were mutually reminded of what it was actually like to be nine (horribly upsetting, traumatizingly emotional, an almost non-stop bummer, but for brief periods of exhilarating fort-building), which Spike Jonze captured by telling a story about an irrational person irrationally. The structure of that movie—let's do this, now let's do this, now I'm upset, now I'm psyched—transfers to us the viscera of childhood.
This is the final and oft-forgot piece of the puzzle in our craft: the use of the style and structure of the storytelling to mainline the story's emotional plasma into the bloodstream of the audience. If the main character feels impatient, make us impatient with your storytelling. And don't wimp out. Make us actually impatient with the story. in the best storytelling events, function IS form.
And it's an old idea. Virgil and Ovid were no slouches with the quill (chisel?). Virgil once wrote Quadrupedante putrem sonitu quatit ungula campum or “The horses' hooves with four-fold beat did shake the crumbling plain.” Now, say the Latin out loud (Latin is kind of like Spanish, you pronounce it how it's spelled... so just sound it out... Oh, and there's a hard G in "ungula"). Repeat it a couple of times until you can say it well and at an even pace. Do you hear them? Say it in a James Earl Jones voice. Hear them now? It's the horses hooves on the plain! They're embedded in the consonants of the words themselves. The image of the poetry is embedded in the way you say it. It's so exquisite!
It makes me shiver. It makes me want to find a production of Waiting for Godot.
My father, Patrick Hughes, left the priesthood in 1972 on the same day he married my mother. Then he became a documentarian, producing slideshows that exposed corporate greed, drove down stock prices of the most egregious multinational conglomerates and generally drew the ire of tall buildings and Wall Street.