Wednesday, March 4, 2015

Documentaries are Taking Over the World!

We’ve seen how documentaries have, literally since their beginning, adopted the techniques of fictional filmmaking. 

In the twenty-first century, though, fictional movie-makers have adopted the techniques of documentarians, so as to present their subject-matter in a “realistic” manner. 

© Corbis.  All Rights Reserved.
This is seen in part, with the prominence of the mockumentary – a fictional story presented as though it were documenting actual events.  It’s generally believed that the first movie of this type was This is Spinal Tap, directed by Rob Reiner in 1984, about a down-and-out heavy-metal rock group.  However, Real Life, from Albert Brooks a few years earlier, is probably the first theatrical mockumentary. 

Years later, some of the Spinal Tap cast- and crew-members made a series of mockumentaries, lampooning amateur theatre, pet shows, and folk music

The mockumentary didn’t become mainstream until the early two-thousands, however, with the success of the Office TV program in Britain and the U.S.  It spawned several other comedy-mockumentaries, notably Parks and Recreation and Modern Family.  Canada had its own obscene Trailer Park Boys, a big hit here in spite of its initially limited broadcast availability.   

Not gratuitous.  Really

Around the same time, the box-office smash Borat arrived at cinemas – a mockumentary that skirted the line between reality and fiction.  The title character, played by Sacha Baron Cohen, was a fictional creation, a Kazakhstani reporter visiting the U.S. who was also apparently in complete ignorance of American social customs.  But the Americans with whom he interacted were unaware of Cohen’s real identity, and so their shocked and embarrassed reactions to “Borat’s” misbehaviour appeared to be genuine.  In effect, everyone but the star of Borat were real people who became part of a fictional narrative (though I noticed some staging of scenes in the film).

Not all mockumentaries have been comedies.  In 1999, the Blair Witch Project initiated the “found-footage” genre, supposedly depicting a group of young friends and their ill-fated attempt to videotape supernatural events in the woods.  Marketed initially as a “true story”, the film went on to be a smash, and was followed a few years later by Cloverfield and Chronicle

The more significant part of this trend, however, is how the documentary “effect” has been incorporated into mainstream filmmaking.  The 2009 South African film District Nine, is initially presented as a “investigative” TV documentary about the appearance of an alien spacecraft over Cape Town.  As the movie progresses, however, the narrative incorporates scenes that couldn't be a part of a documentary – yet the documentary effects (handheld-cameras, subjects momentarily going out of focus, and the notorious lens glare) are maintained throughout. 

It is almost uncommon nowadays to see a mainstream feature that doesn't include at least some of these documentary touches.  It is common enough on TV as well. In the remake of the Battlestar Galactica sci-fi series, insert shots of the fleet moving through space, are presented as though the camera operator is zooming back and forth over the spacecraft. The images are computer-generated, of course, and so this seemingly haphazard camera-work is as contrived as the space-ships themselves. 

TV commercials similarly employ the shaky, out-of-focus, lens-glare contrivances to convey the “authenticity” of their subjects. 

Stay Real, Man
www.instructables.com

The irony, of course, as that the widespread use of the handheld camera is dependent upon movie-technology – the Steadicam – a shock-absorbing mechanism that prevents nauseating flutter in the images. The technology of movie-making has now advanced to the extent that films and programs can be made to seem convincingly makeshift. 


These effects have been imported into movies less so due to successful documentary features such as the Thin Blue Line or even Ken Burns’ Civil War (which applied fiction and theatricality to factual subject-matter).  It was instead due to the influence of cable-news and the consequence omnipresence of “on-the-spot” reporting.  These resultant images, captured by handheld or even amateur videographers, were inevitably shaky, out-of-focus and glary.  Subliminally it seems, prolonged exposure to such imagery has conditioned audiences to view the well-composed and relatively static cinematography of past times, as insufficiently realistic.  The irony there is that making a fictional movie seem like a documentary, is more artificial still.  

Tuesday, March 3, 2015

The Pioneers of Reality TV

The unreality of so-called reality television is by now legendary

Fake already (pagesix.com)

But Heidi and Spencer, the people who foisted them upon the public, less betrayed the legacy of documentary filmmaking, as they did take it to its logical conclusion. 

The Errol Morris documentary, Gates of Heaven, from 1978, won the Academy Award for best documentary, and it has been highly-praised down the years.  It shows the contrasting fates of two California pet cemeteries.   One scene in particular caught my attention, as an example of the fictionalizing that goes into documentary filmmaking.
  

The owner of one of the pet cemeteries is shown at grave-side with a couple who have recently lost their dog (image below).  At first all three are presented in a wider shot, but when the owner removes a piece of paper from his pocket to read a few words of remembrance, the frame cuts to over his shoulder.  By necessity, then, this required the dismantling and restaging of the camera, a process that would take at least several minutes to accomplish.  Meanwhile, the couple who were laying their pet to rest, would’ve had to pause their grief, as it were, and then restart it when the cameras were ready to roll again.  It is inevitable, thus, that some form of performance or acting must have been introduced into the “real” scene.

Morris seems to otherwise manipulate the photoplay more cunningly through editing.  At one point the elder son of the owner is interviewed, he apparently just having rejoined the family business after starting a career and marrying elsewhere.  He describes how is hard the job of selling graveyard space for animals - and does so at least one too many times not to be laughed at.  But I think the man’s apparent dwelling on this point, is an artefact either of skilful editing or prompting by the unseen interviewer (presumably, Morris himself).  A chief strength of Morris as a filmmaker, has not to do directly with the mechanics of the craft itself. 

It is his ability to get his subjects to relax, forget they are being filmed, and thus reveal things they wouldn’t otherwise.  For example, interviews with the founder of the bankrupt pet-cemetery owner, are inter-cut with footage of the head of an animal-rendering plant, where euthanised pets are taken for to have their remains turned into other products.  It isn’t entirely clear what is the link between the two men, other than their contrasting  uses for dead pets.  But at one point, the rendering man states that his company has “a running deal” with the local veterinarians to bring deceased animals to the plant. He goes on advise, however, that this is “just between us”, as though what he says isn’t being filmed.  Morris shares this ability to put his subjects at ease with Ken Burns.  In fact, Errol Morris has gone a step further and invented a camera device which allows those he interviews to be looking directly at him, whilst also seeming to look right into the lens (and thus, the viewer) when they speak.

This is in evidence in Morris’ later documentary, the Thin Blue Line, which was key in getting a wrongly-convicted man released from death-row in Texas (the exonerated man, Randall Adams, later sued Morris).  A key point is when the detectives responsible for railing Adams to the death house, also openly admit that one of their own did a poor job of policing at the scene of the crime.  Evidently, Morris gave no clue as where to his actual sympathies lay, and the detectives obliged by revealing lapses in the investigation. 

Morris also uses re-enactments of the event in question, and its aftermath.  He may well have thus become one of the first documentarians to introduce drama into non-fiction.  This is commonplace now, but I’m certain these segments (in which actors portraying the principals in the investigation) are partly responsible for the film becoming a mainstream success (that is, for a documentary feature).  The musical score of the Thin Blue Line, provided by the “new age” composer Philip Glass, establishes the appropriate emotional tone for what is occurring onscreen, just as in any scripted film. 

Yet, what he presents in the re-enactments must be fictional: for they include the prosecution scenarios, as well as the version of events that Morris believes actually occurred.   One of these cannot be true.  In another re-enactment, the actor playing Adams is sitting in an interrogation room.  As the actual Adams describes in voice-over what he claims happened to him, an actor playing a detective points his revolver at the suspect, to get him to sign a confession. 

Certainly, no independent evidence supports this version of events.  But their very depiction as true, lends power to Adams’ case. 

Ross McElwee came to prominence in the 1980s with Sherman’s March, which was supposed to be a documentary tracing the devastation wreaked by U.S. Civil War General Tecumseh Sherman on wide areas of the Confederacy in the closing months of the conflict.  However, it is instead largely a chronicle of McElwee’s search for love after being dumped by his girlfriend prior to filming.

The filmmaker apparently had a camera with him at all times, even in situations that seem inappropriate, such as going on a date (at one point McElwee’s former teacher upbraids him for using the film-camera as a means of dividing himself from the world).  It’s all very entertaining enough, but I’ve wondered subsequently whether or not McElwee did in fact carefully retrace Sherman’s march through Georgia, but found the footage he shot about himself and the various women he courts, more interesting still. 

A more recent film, Photographic Memory,from 2011, is initially about the filmmaker’s relationship with his nearly-grown son.  Throwing aside any pretense by now that his films are about anything than himself, McElwee travels to France to hunt down an old flame, as well as the wedding photographer who hired the young American when the latter quit college and moved to Europe during the 1970s. 

Neither relationship ended well, and McElwee claims to want answers to questions that have haunted him for years, as well as to regain some understanding of his own wayward youth to get through to his increasingly alienated son.  If this journey is pleasant enough, I couldn’t help but to believe that the audience was being taken for a ride.  The title of the film is ironic.  The “photographic memory” that McElwee seems to refer to is how reminiscence is distorted by both traditional photography, and the newer digital imagery that is ubiquitous in the younger McElwee’s life. 

During the film, McElwee is shown looking over the prints that the filmmaker had taken while living in France, but he claims too incredibly not to remember very much about any of them.  More remarkably, McElwee the shutterbug seems to have taken only three pictures of his French paramour, named Maud, and just one or two of his former employer, Maurice. 

He claims that, upon returning to France to make his documentary, his lodgings were located across a square from the film shop and studio in the Bretagne town where he'd stayed as a youth, but he simply had forgotten this. 

Surely this couldn’t be true.  But it was more interesting for McElwee to go with his camera and inquire with the locals as to where this Maurice the wedding photographer might be now (even more incredibly, McElwee claims not to have remembered either his or Maud’s surname).  I think all of this forgetting on McElwee’s part is simply a way of making his film more interesting, and to make a philosophical point about the malleability of reminiscence.



Perhaps I am saying too much here.  I don’t accuse either McElwee or Morris of being dishonest, in the sense that they present things as knowingly untrue.  But what they and other documentary filmmakers definitely engage is fictionalization – the sort known to authors of what is called “literary fiction.”  In contrast to “genre” novels, literature is supposed to be about things that, even if they didn’t happen as described, could well have occurred in the “real world”.  And, very often novelists write about things that actually did happen, to themselves, or to others they know.  In the same way, documentary filmmakers take “real-life” as their subject matter, but then very often depict things as they didn’t actually occur at all.

Monday, March 2, 2015

The Fiction in Documentaries

I've been watching several documentaries presented on the Nova program on American public television.  One was called Decoding Neanderthals, which featured scientists reconstructing the DNA of the extinct hominid.  Another segment was on Utzie the "ice-man", the 5,000-year-old mummy discovered in the Alps during the 1990s (and who, it turns out, is the world's earliest known homicide victim).

Howdy cousin.
https://genographic.nationalgeographic.com/neanderthal/
But as an Anatomist of Culture, I couldn't help but to focus on the form, as well as the content of the Nova programs.  They brought forward thoughts I had previously on what I call the theatrical or even fictional aspects of the documentary.

For example, each Nova episode contains edited footage that was obviously shot weeks, months or even years in the past.  However, the narration is in the present tense, as though they were some kind of live event.  Thus, in the Decoding the Neanderthals segment, the narrator says something like, "Now Dr. Smith will compare human DNA with the newly-constructed Neanderthal genetic code, to see if the two species have shared ancestry."  The researcher in question is then seen performing work on the laboratory, and then examining the results, before making his announcement.  However, the results were known long before the show was broadcast.  The show is engaging in fiction by presenting this as though it were not the case.  

There is also the narration itself.  The Nova iceman episode voice-over was provided by Jay O. Sanders, an actor with many supporting credits (and some starring roles in minor productions) to his name, but nevertheless no scientific expert on the matter in question.  The program on the fate of the Neanderthals, is also narrated by Sanders. Saunders does a very effective job at assuming authoritative voice that lay-people would expect from an actual expert in the field.  Which is to say, he brings to bear the acting talents that might be used to assume the role of a lawyer, doctor or indeed, a scientist, in any fictional television show or movie.  

As a rule, actors and actresses are employed to narrate science and other academic documentaries, simply because the producers know that they will have more impact on audiences, than what most actual scientists and academics can manage.  


Other fictionalizing aspects are common to the documentary - quite aside from how, throughout the history of the form, film-makers themselves have been known to employ deception in the telling of their "stories."  What is recognized as the first documentary, Nanook of the North, from 1922, is really a fictional story, in which the "Eskimos" therein played roles based on their selves.  

(He later shot it with his gun)
http://www.terdav.com/festival-objectif-aventure/festival-2013/vendredi/nanook-of-the-north
I would assume that the Nova and other contemporary documentaries are not being similarly deceptive, but they literally become drama in, for example, in their liberal use of re-enactments.  The programme on Neanderthals contained footage of actors made up to appear like Homo sapiens neanderthalis, variously running through grasslands, making fire, even pioneering a gelling process from an estimated two hundred thousand years ago.  These are interspersed with scenes of other actors, playing Homo sapiens who lived at the same time as the Neanderthals.  

To illustrate the belief once common among paleontologists that Neanderthals died out as a result of modern humans invading their nordic habitats, the two groups are shown involved in (tamely-depicted) confrontation and violence.  Comparing it with the DNA sequencing of modern human populations, it turns out that in fact the Neanderthals were substantially absorbed into the human family, and traces of their genes are especially evident in those of southern European descent (the regions in which Neanderthal humans were centred).  

This revelation is followed by scenes in which a single female Neanderthal approaches the encampment of a solitary modern human male.  The man rises suspiciously, weapon in hand.  But seeing the Neanderthal woman emerge from behind a tree, he relaxes and comes forth.  They examine each other=s half-naked bodies amorously before the scene cuts away (starting at about 47:20 in linked clip), leaving the rest to the imagination.  A heartwarming prehistoric Romeo and Juliet, it would seem.  

This is, of course, a complete writer=s embellishment.  The raw fact of the existence of Neanderthal DNA within the human genome, gives us no information as to just how it got there.  The remains of Neanderthal settlements have always been discovered separately from those of Homo sapiens, and this is what led paleontologists to believe that the two groups of humans did not interbreed.  The actual process by which this took place, could well have been much more non-consensual.  

There is thus a dual-fiction taking place in these re-enactments, both in how Neanderthals and sapiens are shown at war (according to the traditional understanding of their relationship), and how they apparently made love (as per the new genetic information).  The Nova show on Utzie the iceman, similarly has actors re-enacting the hypothesized cause of death, and in fact, re-enactments have long been a part of TV Anews-magazine@ reporting, as well. 


Ken Burns= documentaries do not contain re-enactments.  They are unusual just for this.  But this doesn=t mean they have no element of dramaturgy.  The Civil War and other Burns programmes employ actors of respect and renown reading the words from letters, diaries or published sources, of the participants of the events being profiled.  To hear Tom Hanks, Jeremy Irons or Sam Waterston in recitation thereby, is an essential part of the entertainment of a Burns documentary.  

The Real McCoy, indeed
http://www.amtraq.com
Waterston, who in 1990 was years away from his famed role as D.A. McCoy on the Law and Order series, provided the voice of Abe Lincoln in the Civil War program.

Waterston's voice is quite distinct, though not unpleasant, and its cadence lends a certain nobility to Lincoln's impassioned declarations that the war had to be won, and that black slaves must be freed.  Lincoln's challenger in the 1864 general election, in which he won a second term in a landslide, was George McClellan.  The latter had been commander of the Union forces early in the war, when he clashed with the president over strategy, and didn't seem interested in fighting at all (at least according to the Civil War program). McClellan's voice is provided by Terry Courier, who may not be a professional actor, for this is his only credit at the Internet Movie Database.  It is haughty-sounding, in keeping with the "character" Courier is playing for the show.  Burns further ensures our antipathy by quoting McClellan describe Lincoln as a "monkey."  Perhaps this is an accurate rendition of how McClellan actually spoke.  But likely as not, Burns selected Courier for being able to articulate himself in a way that would be off-putting to most anyone who saw the program. 

There is the musical score of Burns' documentaries.  Famously, each episode of the Civil War is introduced by the Ashokan Farewell, a very melodic and haunting waltz performed by Jay Ungar, originally recorded in 1982.  As beautiful and appropriate as this instrumental seemed, it was composed several years before the Civil War programme was made, and has nothing to do with it at all.  Except, by later association, Appalachian Farewell is identified only with the American Awar between the states.@  

Generally, the musical soundtrack in a Burns documentary is understated and contemporary to the events in question.  In the Civil War, the score consists entirely (except during the intro) of simple piano music that would have been familiar to the combatants in that war: John Brown=s Body, I Wish I Was in Dixie, and so on.  But generally, the musical score of even Aserious@ PBS documentaries are quite a bit more dramatic, as is the case with both the Neanderthal and Utzie shows.  

Sunday, March 1, 2015

United Federation of Planets, be damned

The actual death of Mr. Spock, reminded me of my very favourite episode of the original series: Mirror Mirror, in which Capt. Kirk, Mr. Scott, Lt. Uhuru and Dr. McCoy are thrown into an alternate, "evil" universe (famously encountering Mr. Spock's cool goatee).

I always cheered for the goatee (en.memory-alpha.org)
I haven't watched Star Trek programs or movies in many years.  Quite frankly, I didn't like the Next Generation very much, and that being that case, I didn't believe any of the subsequent series or movies were worth checking out.

In the original series, at least, the viewing audience doesn't get to know very much about the constitution of the United Federation of Planets, the interstellar entity served by the U.S.S. Enterprise.  The latter, in turn, is a member of Starfleet, which according to the Trekkie web site, Memory Alpha, is a "deep-space exploratory and defense service maintained by the United Federation of Planets. Its principal functions included the advancement of Federation knowledge about the galaxy and its inhabitants, the advancement of Federation science and technology, the military defense of the Federation, and the practice of Federation diplomacy."

It occurred to me that the Starfleet as presented in the original TV series, and in subsequent shows and films as well, serves not a 
"federation" at all, but an empire.  
According to Memory Alpha, the political entity of the Mirror Mirror alternative universe, is a "repressive interstellar government dominated by the Terrans from Earth in the mirror universe. The Empire ruled by terror, with its Imperial Starfleet acting as its iron fist."

But isn't the "actual" Starfleet in the original TV series at least, 
an almost entirely human enterprise?  Sure, there are a few token extraterrestrials serving (such as the Vulcan Mr. Spock, or the Klingon Mr. Whorf in the sequel program).  

Still, if the United Federation of Planets, were an actual federal polity, wouldn
t it be expected that non-humans would play a major role in the Federation’s military?  Vulcans, for example, are shown not only to be much more "logical" but more knowledgeable and physically stronger than humans.  Why aren't there more them on the Enterprise or any other starship, for that matter?  No doubt, someone has provided an explanation for this from "within the cannon."  (The actual reason being that it is too expensive to have too many actors in "alien" make-up, especially supporting actors and extras, whose on-screen exposure is very limited.  Leonard Nimoy, for example, would spend hours each day before filming having the relatively simple Spock ears and brows make-up being applied).

Even so, for a TV show that promotes the values of liberty, equality and fraternity 
among all creeds and races, the crew-members of Star Trek in all its many variants seem predominantly human.  Even Starfleet headquarters is situated on earth.
The obvious inference is that the "Federation" is an empire dominated by the people of earth, and its alleged commitment to "peace" is part of a propaganda war to sway the inhabitants of the galaxy to accept Terran hegemony, in favour of domination by the Klingons or the Romulans.  

Think of the Enterprise and its famed "five-year mission...  to explore strange new worlds, to seek out new life and new civilizations, to boldly go where no man has gone before..."


The Enterprise is in fact the scouting party for the extension of the human galactic empire.  Otherwise, why send a warship on an allegedly "scientific" mission?  Why else would this ship have a "science officer" who also is able to kick-ass like no human ever could?  Humans of the twenty-third and twenty-fourth centuries are said to have given up their earlier war-like behaviour; but the Federation clearly expects trouble as it explores galactica incognito, and thus that is why the "mightiest ship in the fleet" (able to destroy an entire planet) was sent on the mission...

The United "Federation" of Planets' actions are thus consistent with empire-building as witnessed throughout human history.  The state, be in republican, monarchical, or tyrannical, exists so long as it can stake a requisite claim on territory.  This is the meaning of "sovereignty", and a sovereign without territory is a mere pretender to the crown, or a government-in-exile.  A sovereign (be it a legislature, oligarchy or monarch) is considered legitimate, in turn, when it can monopolize armed force within a given territory.

When any state encounters others of its own type - other armed claimants to sovereign territory - the ultimate result has always been war.  Not that states have always been at war.  But the extension of territory by any one state is viewed as inherently threatening by its neighbours, whose sovereignty is thereby curtailed.  Throughout human history, states have colonized and conquered territory for the riches contained therein.  But interstate rivalry has also led sovereigns to claim territory without natural resources, just because not controlling it may lead to strategic disadvantage compared to an opponent polity.  The scramble to acquire resource-worthless but strategically-valuable territory has led to war in itself, and the purpose of war for any state, has been to achieve absolute sovereignty over all its rivals.  This is the political arrangement called "empire."

Klingons and Romulans.
(© PRISMA ARCHIVO / Alamy)

Thus the logic which led to the moonshot.  Having "lost" the space-race with the Soviet Union to claim the immediate boundaries of the New Frontier (that is, earth orbit), the United States was determined to stake a successful claim to the nearest territory to the earth: the moon.  Having planted the stars and stripes on the lunar surface on the timetable promised by president Kennedy in 1962, the Americans soon understood what the Soviets already determined by sending unmanned satellites to the moon: that the latter is an airless sphere of rock without any apparent commercial (or more importantly, strategic) value.  This the reason why, after going a few times, the U.S. hasn't bothered with the moon in more than forty years.
One giant stumble for empire
www.geoffreylandis.com

The original Star Trek series was conceived and produced during the exciting days of the space race.  It was a hypothetical (or really, fantastical) treatment of the New Frontier ideology to extend far into the Milky Way.  The Federation is a sovereign entity precisely because it controls so much territory: planets, and the outer space between them.  The Enterprise was sent into deep space to extend that territory, lest unknown planets fall to the imperium of the Klingons or Romulans (or, apparently, The Borg, The Dominion and the Cardassians in later series).

Of course, the United Federation of Planets has the Prime Directive, aka Starfleet General Order number 1.  This "prohibits Starfleet personnel from interfering with the internal development of alien civilizations."  For a military directive that is supposedly so primary, the various Trek crews violate it constantly.  Again, according to how the Prime Directive is treated by the Trek creators themselves, it is clear that it is part and parcel of "Federation" propaganda, a way to induce the alien civilizations the Enterprise encounter and then "accidentally" contaminate by breaking the Prime Directive, into joining the Terran empire, and not those of the Klingons and Romulans.  

The original Star Trek TV series, and its many sequels, conveyed the "Sixties" idealism of its creator, Gene Roddenberry, envisioning a future without war, racism, and hatred of any kind within the human family, and between people and many alien races.  However, the Mirror Mirror episode perhaps conveyed the fears of the Star Trek of what humanity actually would do, if it were to become equipped with impossible things like war drives, the transporter drive, artificial gravity, and so.

Friday, February 27, 2015

"Is It Safe?" The method of Method

Another effect of the functional specialization which is partly responsible for the segregation of music- and movie-making talent in modern entertainment, could be the adoption of the Method approach to acting.

Not gratuitous.  Really.
Traditionally, actors would assume a role as something apart from themselves and their “real” personalities.  This is conveyed in the common synonym for acting-role — that is, “part”.  In traditional theatre, the impersonation required for a part, was completed by the elaborate costuming and make-up typical of stage-performance throughout the ages.  

In classical Greek theatre, actors even donned large masks (the word “persona” is Latin for “mask”).  These and other forms of theatricality were necessary such that large crowds could see what was happening on-stage.  The motion picture, and especially television, rendered obsolete the exaggerated gestures and movements typical of theatre-acting.  Since the moving-image was almost always framed at intimate quarters to the actors on-screen, there was little need for such theatricality.  

More than this, though, the close-up especially served to reveal the artificiality of an acting role, even if unintentionally.  Expressive performance was seen as “over-acting”, but detailed exposure to the human face permitted the film and TV audiences to “see through” actors’ delivering their lines outside the proper emotional tenor.  In order for an actor to move beyond this inherent insincerity, after World War II many in Hollywood adopted techniques originating in nineteenth-century Russian theatre.  

Method acting exploits sensual or emotional memories so as to express authentically the very affects needed for a part.  Some of the most praised actors of recent times have taken this to extremes, by remaining “in part” even when no cameras are rolling, on-set or even at leisure.  This was reportedly done by Daniel Day Lewis, when he portrayed Abraham Lincoln in the Spielberg film of a couple of years ago; less pleasantly, he also kept up his on-screen persona as the villainous cad in the earlier ThereWill Be Blood.  During the first decades of film, when most performers originated on the stage, actors maintained the distinction between on-stage and private personae.  

Hoffman insisted on a real drill, too.
The disjunction between the method and traditional approaches, was illustrated by an on-set exchange alleged to have occurred between Sir Laurence Olivier and Dustin Hoffman during the making the Marathon Man, which was released theatrically in 1976.  Olivier, a star of the British stage before making it big in Hollywood, played a sadistic Nazi dentist who tortures a young grad student and marathon-runner (Hoffman) for information about jewels stolen from Holocaust victims.  Preparing for the part, Hoffman entered marathons and studied the subjects known to his character.  But when it came time to film the famous “Is it safe?” sequence, the young actor wondered as to what could be the “motivation” for having his root canal drilled into.  Olivier was said to have advised, “You should try acting.”  

As depicted in the recent movie My Week With Marilyn, Olivier’s patience was tried years earlier by method acting, when he filmed the Prince and the Showgirl in England during the 1950s.  His co-star, Marilyn Monroe, wanted to be taken seriously as an actress, and so studied vigilantly at the Actor’s Studio in New York city, American pioneers of the method approach.  This required lengthy delays in shooting, as Monroe constantly remained in her dressing room with an acting coach, looking to “get in character.”  As for Olivier, it appears he had no problem separating his stage personae from his real self.  According to one of his wives, the actress Joan Plowright, in spite of his dashing and debonair public image, Olivier was a “dullard” in his private life.


Method acting was but one example of the Modernist movement in the arts.  During the later nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, a cadre of innovators refused and refuted the traditional forms of artistic representation.  In painting, this entailed the progressive abandonment of perspective techniques that provided an illusion of real depth to a flat surface.  The resultant Impressionist works did not attempt photo-realism, but their method of representation was more authentic than in Renaissance-style works, for showing a scene as if in flux.  

Maybe the first actor to really live the part.
In theatre, though, the avant-garde sought for greater realism in drama, than was typical of the stage at the time.  Often with political or even revolutionary subtext, the new theatre attempted to dramatize the lives of the audience itself.  Professional dramaturgy had no choice but to affect a more naturalistic portrayal of ordinary folks, the very people whom the modernists wished to attract to the theatre.  Method was originally called “Stanislavski method”, after the co-founder of the Moscow Art Theatre in 1897 (which was originally called the “Public-Accessible” theatre).  

According to his Wikipedia page, Constantin Stanislavski’s “work was as important to the development of socialist realism in the Soviet Union as it was to that of psychological realism in the United States.  It draws on a wide range of influences and ideas, including his study of the modernist and avant‑garde developments of his time (naturalism, symbolism and Meyerhold's constructivism), Russian formalism, Yoga, Pavlovian behavioural psychology, James‑Lange (via Ribot) psychophysiology and the aesthetics of Pushkin, Gogol, and Tolstoy.  He described his approach as 'spiritual Realism'.”  The entry goes on, “increasingly interested in "living the part," Stanislavski experimented with the ability to maintain a characterization in real life, disguising himself as a tramp or drunk and visiting the railway station, or disguising himself as a fortune‑telling gypsy; he extended the experiment to the rest of the cast of a short comedy in which he performed in 1883, and as late as 1900 he amused holiday‑makers in Yalta by taking a walk each morning "in character"” (page last modified Feb 25, 2015).  Such “life-acting” could only have been realized within drama devoted to intense realism.  If an actor of the mannered and costumed Shakespearean or classical theatre attempted to remain “in character” at all times, the result would be more comical than revolutionary.  

Always the irony: an approach to acting that originated in left-wing politics, is now a key part of one of the greatest examples ever of free-market capitalism: Hollywood filmmaking.