If there is one way of starting a film article that I never want to read again, it's the 'beginning from zero' reflex that invariably opens treatises on a. sound in cinema, and b. acting in cinema. Basically, these introductions always say the same thing: sound or acting have never really been properly analysed before, because it's really hard to come to grips with such slippery elements of the cinematic medium. Therefore, the author heroically rides in to fill this breach with a few systematic propositions... But since 'critical mass' is so rarely reached, the whole process defaults back to zero and we start over again.
The literature — of a not inconsiderable amount — on sound and acting is therefore full of promising preliminary sketches and opening salvos. Nobody much bothers to add it all up or try to synthesise it, which is a pity, and a loss. And the obstacles to true knowledge that are invariably toted up are valid, to a point: yes, our image-centric culture effectively deafens us to the work of sound; and yes, reflex auteurism makes it hard for us to hypothetically disentangle what the director has guided from what the actor has contributed.
But let's stop crying about how hard it is, please, and just get down to work. The precedents, the models, the exemplars, the case studies are there: it's time to gather and use them. Just because there isn't one, decent, all-encompassing textbook on these matters doesn't mean the tools are not available. Scattered across diverse times, places and languages, but available.
These matters have been on my mind lately, particularly as regards screen acting. A moment in Jean-Luc Godard's Alphaville (1965), a 30-second Jean-Pierre Léaud cameo, offers a subtle but sublime meshing of an actor's style with a director's form. Shot 1: JPL as bellboy enters hotel room, wheeling in a food tray; camera pans with him until he begins to perform the swift, neurotic motion of replacing the poetry book in Anna Karina's hands with a State-approved tome. Shot 2: from a different angle, completion of the gesture. But this is no ordinary 'cut on action' because, in the second shot/take, JPL's action is noticeably slower. The montage effect is electric, and the split-second deceleration offers an analogue preview of the digital effect now known as 'speed ramping'.
Best of all in this scene is the appreciation, deep within it, that JLG clearly has of JPL's unpredictable, always volatised performance mode: rather than smooth out the discrepancies in JPL's repetitions from one take to the next, JLG builds his editing upon them: the mechanical dispositif of film pays homage to the (post)human dispositif of an extraordinary actor.
The Internet is not a bad place to go fishing for material appreciations of the craft of acting, and how that craft meshes in with cinematic strategies. There is nothing particularly mystical, indefinable or elusive about it, finally: an actor moves or speaks, and the film builds ways to frame, edit, record and mix those bodily and vocal actions. Kent Jones has recently offered a sensitive tribute to Robert Ryan (mubi.com/notebook/posts/lonelyheart). Kimberly Lindbergs uncovers the secret of Geneviève Bujold's role in the long-forgotten Canadian film Isabel (1968) (moviemorlocks.com/2011/07/14/genevieve-bujold-is-isabel-1968/). And many YouTube collages of actors' mannerisms — JPL himself is a popular subject — make us realise that our study of performance in cinema may not need to reset itself to Zeroville (or Béla Balázs' 1924 Visible Man) any longer.