Putting The Man In Manipulation.

Posted December 19th, 2018 by Ben

Most of last year’s Weinstein inspired fury focused on abhorrent and often criminal behaviour off camera. However the revolt against filmmaking’s abusive culture also resurrected the grim controversy surrounding Bertolucci’s “Last Tango In Paris” and Maria Schneider’s story of how the famous sex scene between her and Marlon Brando was sprung on her unscripted and left her feeling humiliated. Bertolucci later defended himself by saying “I wanted Maria to feel, not to act” a statement that sits uncomfortably besides Schneider’s claim that “…even though what Marlon was doing wasn’t real, I was crying real tears.”

Later, after Schneider and Brando had both died, Bertolucci, who himself passed away last month, claimed that the only unscripted element was the infamous use of butter and that Schneider had been aware of the scene’s inherent violence. Whatever the lived or remembered truth might have been, the joining together of a fictional rape and a performer’s lack of consent makes the ethics of the situation horribly clear.

But what of the story of Ridley Scott surprising the cast of “Alien” by hurling animal guts at them when filming the chest burster scene? Or Kubrick’s intransigent bullying of Shelley Duvall in making “The Shining”?

I’ve avoided names in these recent posts as I’m not looking to apportion blame. I don’t know how true any of these stories are and neither do you. My intention is to question the behaviours we all share, or aspire to. Behaviours that have come to seem inherent in the act of filmmaking. As ever though, what matters in film is the legend. These legends are just some of the directorial exploits that have been cited to me (and occasionally by me) to explain how great directors get great performances by artfully manipulating their cast into giving something more real, more truthful than mere performance. So deep runs this idea that I’ve had inexperienced actors ask me to withhold aspects of a scene so they can be genuinely startled. I’ve also made this mistake myself, making films as a teenager and assuming that making a performer angry was the best way to capture her character’s fury. It wasn’t. It isn’t.

Bad acting is easy to define as that which doesn’t seem real. Therefore, good acting must be that which does seem real. Therefore, the best acting must be reality itself? It’s easy to see how you get there but its nonsense. Good acting, like good dialogue, like all good art, is about truth, not reality. Many of cinema’s greatest performances have no reality to them at all. No one has ever really been like Brando in “The Godfather” but that performance expresses a truth about a certain type of total bastard that we do recognise. Truth offers us insight whilst realism simply extends our incomprehension.

Filmmaking naturally attracts messy personalities. Vulnerable, controlling, anxious, scared, needy, uncalm, these are often amongst the best qualities of both directors and actors, the livid source of their most compelling and inquiring work. But this can have a downside. The common misunderstanding of the relationship between truth and reality offers such personalities a dangerous excuse. The myth of the genius director moulding, goading and tricking their cast into delivering is artistically barren and morally reprehensible.

Rather than celebrating those moments of reality caught on camera, like Duvall’s screams or Veronica Cartwright’s blood splattered revulsion, we should instead see these as a director’s failures. Unable to help their cast create anything more powerful they instead had to fall back on flat reality. These events break the illusion of the story just like a bad effect or wobbly set might. Schneider’s tears are only ever hers, they belong not Jeanne and are not expressive of her fear or pain, they are only the tears of a scared and humiliated actress having a horrible day at work. Bullying is not a necessary part of filmmaking and whilst many of us choose to suffer for our art, no one has the right to make their art out of your suffering.

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