When I began my research for this post, I managed to dig out my worn copy of Turning Points in Film History by Andrew J. Rausch (a book I recommend, but one that was out of print and difficult to acquire when I purchased it for a college course 8 years ago. Happy hunting!). The history of film is rich and strange. From the revelation of the Magua Catoptrica or “Magic Lantern” in 1646 to the mysterious disappearance of La Prince and his recently-perfected motion camera and projector from a Paris-bound train (he was never seen again) in 1890 to the blockbuster craze that began with Jaws in 1975 and was reinforced by Star Wars in 1977, the medium of film has always held a certain magic or mystery for viewers. “Movie magic” is a real and powerful thing.
In 1817, this handsome devil (Samuel Taylor Coleridge) coined the phrase “willing suspension of disbelief”:
Coleridge was referring to the burden of the writer of poetry or fictional prose to create a realistic enough world, however fantastic, that readers could step outside of their own disbelief in order to fully engage in the story. This burden shifted at some point in the 20th century, putting partial responsibility on the reader to willingly suspend his or her own disbelief when approaching a work. It is this latter definition that my college professor applied to the study of film. Her point was that film-goers actively engage in this “willful suspension” to heighten our own enjoyment of a film. And that a poorly made or acted movie can fail to please an audience when its own shortcomings prevent this suspension from being maintainable. But what happens at the other extreme?
My older brother sent me a text a few weeks ago that said, “Joaquin Phoenix is slightly unnerving to watch.” He had just watched The Master and was referring to a conversation we have had many times over the years about our responses to certain actors. He continued, “He is so convincing, but it’s like he IS the person.” Therein, I think, lies the rub. As the title of this blog post suggests, it all comes down to the strings.
As with marionette dolls (you know, the creepy doll-puppets that are attached to a system of strings and are controlled from above), there are basically three options when it comes to an actor and his/her strings, with only one being truly ideal: either 1) you can clearly see the strings (can see that the actor is acting), 2) you cannot see the strings themselves, but merely their shadows (the acting is almost too seamless; offers a slightly idealized version of human behavior/emotion), or 3) there are no strings (cue horror movie soundtrack). Just as the thought of a doll coming to life and running around of its own accord is upsetting, so too is an actor who isn’t acting but simply IS. It’s like we, as the audience, don’t want to see the strings, but we want to know they’re there, for comfort’s sake. However, with certain actors, there are no strings, and it’s a little disturbing because it makes the distance required for the enjoyment of difficult stories impossible to achieve. The suspension of disbelief stops being willing, and that’s uncomfortable.
Aside from Joaquin Phoenix in approximately 98% of his roles, other actors who have this effect on me (and my older brother, apparently) are the late Philip Seymour Hoffman (always), Daniel Day-Lewis (yeah, pretty much always), Forest Whitaker in The Last King of Scotland, and the late Heath Ledger as the Joker. And I’m quite sure there are others that I can’t think of right now.
I should note that in spite (or perhaps because) of the unsettling sensation I experience when watching these actors BE their characters, they are among my most favourite performers. Because somehow, some way, these artists have harnessed pure story-telling magic.
**This post was originally published on August 18, 2014**
What about you? Do you agree about actors and their strings? Disagree? Is your list different from mine? Leave a comment below and let me know!