Sunday, March 4, 2018

How can you tell a good actor from a bad one?

A director answers that question in this 2014 article. Excerpt:

First, for me, an actor is good if he makes me believe he's actually going through whatever his character is going through. I'm talking somewhat about physical stuff (“He really is getting shot!” “He really is jumping off a moving train!”) but mostly about psychological stuff (“He really is scared!” “He really is in love!”). If an actor seems to be faking it, he's not doing his job.

Second, the actor has to surprise me. This is the most nebulous requirement, but it's important. Except for really small parts that aren't supposed to call attention to themselves (e.g., a bank teller who just cashes the hero's checks), it's not enough for actors to just seem real. Seeming real is a requirement, but a second requirement is that I can't predict their every reaction before they have them. Think of how someone might react if his or her significant other ends the relationship. There are many, many truthful ways—ways that would seem like a human being reacting and not like a space alien behaving in some bizarre, unbelievable way. An actor's job is to know the breadth of human possibility and the depths of his or her own possibilities. He or she must pull from this well and surprise us. Otherwise, the actor becomes boring and predictable. . . .

I don't hate Tom Cruise the way some people do. To me, he's believable most of the time. He's just not very interesting. He rarely surprises me, and he doesn't seem to dig deep into a anything raw or vulnerable inside him. He seems guarded. The must vulnerable I've seen him is in Eyes Wide Shut, in which he did some good work. But it wasn't brilliant, and it's not his norm.

Keep in mind that many people . . . aren't very clear on what an actor contributes to a film. It's not necessary for most audiences members to understand who does what during production. Lots of people think an actor is great if they like his or her character. But that's often a function of good writing more that good acting. Or they think she's good if she pulls off some impressive effect, such as gaining or losing a lot of weight or pretending to be handicapped. Those are impressive stunts, but they aren't the core of what actors do. . . .

Some people think acting is good if they like the movie. Keanu Reeves, in my mind, is a horrible actor—mostly because he's wooden and fake. It often seems as if he's reading from cue cards rather than saying words that are his. There is a difference between playing an undemonstrative person and being a wooden actor. In fact, playing someone who is reserved is very difficult (because you have to act without showing very much), and the actors who pull it off are brilliant. I would point you to Anthony Hopkins in Remains of the Day, Tommy Lee Jones in many of his roles, and even Clint Eastwood in Dirty Harry. These actors manage to convey the sense that although they have stony exteriors there's much going on underneath.

To me, Reeves conveys an actor who is showing up and saying his lines. Having auditioned many actors, I'm used to hearing ones that can take any writer's lines and make it sound like their own words. And I'm also used to less experienced (or less gifted) ones who sound uncomfortable with words that aren't their own. They sounds as if they're are reciting or reading something. They sounds scripted. Listen to Reeves in this clip, especially at around 10 seconds in, when he says, “I have offended you with my ignorance, Count.” Many of his line-readings sound like that to me: He has not fully lifted them off the page and into his own mind and body. I don't believe much else is going on underneath except maybe nervousness. I don't know if you can see a difference between Reeves, above, and Tommy Lee Jones here. They are both pretty deadpan. The difference, for me, is that Jones seems to be speaking his own words, even though they are just as scripted as the ones Reeves speaks. Jones is just much more comfortable in his skin and much more able to “own” his lines.
I agree that Keanu Reeves is a bad actor. Not just bad, but cringe-inducing. There’s a lot more to acting than line reading, but good line readings are necessary, and he just doesn’t know how to say a line convincingly. He seems more focused on producing a vocal timbre that’s pleasing to the ear, than on saying the line how a real person in the character’s situation would actually say it. By contrast, Steve Buscemi is a much better actor even though he seems unconcerned with whether his voice is enjoyable to listen to.

Using the factors listed by this director, I value an actor’s being realistic much more than being surprising, whereas the author seems to weight them about equally. For instance, he seems to think Tom Cruise is not terrible but not that great because he’s realistic but not very surprising or deep. But I think Cruise is a great actor who does have a lot of depth, and it’s OK with me if he’s not that surprising.

If most actors are regularly trying to be surprising, I’ll be surprised by the actor who focuses only on realism and not on being surprising.

As another example, the author seems to like Dustin Hoffman, but I think he’s an unbelievable actor, which is the worst thing I could say about an actor: I can’t believe him. When I’m watching him, I feel that I’m observing an actor making decisions about how to act. And I think that might be why some people think he’s a good actor — because they’re impressed with all the acting they’re seeing!

A good actor should create the illusion that you aren’t seeing any acting. I suspect that some of the best actors are severely underappreciated by audiences because they’ve done that job so well.

Wednesday, January 10, 2018

The problem with telling privileged people to shut up and listen to marginalized people

Whether or not you completely buy into the leftist framing and wording of this blog post, it effectively makes the case that trying to enforce a rule for privileged people of, “Shut up and listen to marginalized people,” cannot possibly work and actually prevents marginalized people from being listened to. (That quote is the blogger's paraphrase of something that's rarely said in those exact words — but is often said more euphemistically.)


The formal social justice rules say something like this:

• You should listen to marginalized people.
• When a marginalized person calls you out, don’t argue.
• Believe them, apologize, and don’t do it again.
• When you see others doing what you were called out for doing, call them out.

Those rules . . . don’t actually work. It is impossible to follow them literally, in part because:

• Marginalized people are not a monolith.
• Marginalized people have the same range of opinions as privileged people.
• When two marginalized people tell you logically incompatible things, it is impossible to act on both sets of instructions.
• For instance, some women believe that abortion is a human right foundational human right for women. Some women believe that abortion is murder and an attack on women and girls.
• “Listen to women” doesn’t tell you who to believe, what policy to support, or how to talk about abortion.
• For instance, some women believe that religious rules about clothing liberate women from sexual objectification, other women believe that religious rules about clothing sexually objectify women. . . .
• Narrowing it to “listen to women of minority faiths” doesn’t help, because women disagree about this within every faith.
• When “listen to marginalized people” means “adopt a particular position”, marginalized people are treated as rhetorical props rather than real people.
• Objectifying marginalized people does not create justice.

Since the rule is literally impossible to follow, no one is actually succeeding at following it. What usually ends up happening when people try is that:

• One opinion gets lifted up as “the position of marginalized people”
• Agreeing with that opinion is called “listen[ing] to marginalized people”
• Disagreeing with that opinion is called “talking over marginalized people”
• Marginalized people who disagree with that opinion are called out by privileged people for “talking over marginalized people”.
• This results in a lot of fights over who is the true voice of the marginalized people.
• We need an approach that is more conducive to real listening and learning. . . .

The rule also lacks intersectionality:

• No one experiences every form of oppression or every form of privilege.
• Call-outs often involve people who are marginalized in different ways. . . .
• For instance, black men have male privilege and white women have white privilege.
• If a white woman calls a black man out for sexism and he responds by calling her out for racism (or vice versa), “listened to marginalized people” isn’t a very helpful rule because they’re both marginalized.
• These conversations tend to degenerate into an argument about which form of marginalization is most significant.
• This prevents people involved from actually listening to each other.
• In conflicts like this, it’s often the case that both sides have a legitimate point. (In ways that are often not immediately obvious.)
• We need to be able to work through these conflicts without expecting simplistic rules to resolve them in advance.

Tuesday, November 14, 2017

Now can we take Bill Clinton's alleged sex offenses seriously?

In an article for the Atlantic called "Bill Clinton: A Reckoning," Caitlin Flanagan writes:

let us not forget the sex crimes of which the younger, stronger Bill Clinton was very credibly accused in the 1990s.

Juanita Broaddrick reported that when she was a volunteer on one of his gubernatorial campaigns, she had arranged to meet him in a hotel coffee shop. At the last minute, he had changed the location to her room in the hotel, where she says he very violently raped her. She said she fought against Clinton throughout a rape that left her bloodied.

At a different Arkansas hotel, he caught sight of a minor state employee named Paula Jones, and, Jones says, he sent a couple of state troopers to invite her to his suite, where he exposed his penis to her and told her to kiss it.

Kathleen Willey said that she met him in the Oval Office for personal and professional advice and that he groped her, rubbed his erect penis on her, and pushed her hand to his crotch.

It was a pattern of behavior; it included an alleged violent assault; the women involved had far more credible evidence than many of the most notorious accusations that have come to light in the past five weeks. But Clinton was not left to the swift and pitiless justice that today’s accused men have experienced. . . .

The notorious 1998 New York Times op-ed by Gloria Steinem must surely stand as one of the most regretted public actions of her life. It slut-shamed, victim-blamed, and age-shamed; it urged compassion for and gratitude to the man the women accused. Moreover (never write an op-ed in a hurry; you’ll accidentally say what you really believe), it characterized contemporary feminism as a weaponized auxiliary of the Democratic Party.

Called “Feminists and the Clinton Question,” it was written in March of 1998, when Paula Jones’s harassment claim was working its way through court. It was printed seven days after Kathleen Willey’s blockbuster 60 Minutes interview with Ed Bradley. If all the various allegations were true, wrote Steinem, Bill Clinton was “a candidate for sex addiction therapy.” To her mind, the most “credible” accusations were those of Willey, whom she noted was “old enough to be Monica Lewinsky’s mother.” And then she wrote the fatal sentences that invalidated the new understanding of workplace sexual harassment as a moral and legal wrong: “Even if the allegations are true, the President is not guilty of sexual harassment. He is accused of having made a gross, dumb, and reckless pass at a supporter during a low point in her life. She pushed him away, she said, and it never happened again. In other words, President Clinton took ‘no’ for an answer.”

Steinem said the same was true of Paula Jones. These were not crimes; they were “passes.” Broaddrick was left out by Steinem. . . .

The widespread liberal response to the sex crime accusations against Bill Clinton found their natural consequence 20 years later in the behavior of Harvey Weinstein: Stay loudly and publicly and extravagantly on the side of signal leftist causes and you can do what you want in the privacy of your offices and hotel rooms. . . .

The Democratic Party needs to make its own reckoning of the way it protected Bill Clinton. The party needs to come to terms with the fact that it was so enraptured by their brilliant, Big Dog president . . . that it abandoned some of its central principles. The party was on the wrong side of history and there are consequences for that.
I'm inclined to agree with all that. And yet, this article seems oddly incomplete: it talks a lot about "Democrats" and "feminists" . . . but says nothing about the media as a whole. The media is making a bigger story of a movie producer's sex offenses than the media ever made out of the 42nd President's sex offenses! The vast majority of articles I've read that mention Bill Clinton's sexual misconduct use relatively benign-sounding terms like "personal life," or "affairs," or "peccadilloes." A "peccadillo" means "a slight offense." I've seen the media use that kind of language to describe what Bill Clinton has done far more often than I've seen terms like "sexual harassment," "sex offenses," "sex crimes," "sexual violence," "sexual assault," or "rape."

Saturday, July 29, 2017

Charlie Christian

Charlie Christian, who played guitar in Benny Goodman's band, would have turned 101 today. He died of tuberculosis in 1942, at age 25.

If you were asked to quickly write up a list of the most influential guitarists off the top of your head, you’d have to include Chuck Berry and Jimi Hendrix. You might also say Keith Richards, George Harrison, Jimmy Page, Eric Clapton, Eddie van Halen.

But would you think of Charlie Christian?

The great jazz guitarist Jim Hall said that when he started playing guitar, listening to a recording of Charlie Christian and Benny Goodman was his “spiritual awakening.” He also influenced Thelonious Monk and Miles Davis.

But in “Waiting for Benny,” we hear Charlie Christian in 1941 playing licks not far from what Chuck Berry would start playing in the mid-‘50s. (See the first comment.)

That recording is on the Charlie Christian album appropriately titled The Genius of the Electric Guitar, which I can't recommend enough.

This is a poor-quality recording which unfortunately has a few seconds where the volume goes way down, but you can hear the influence of Chuck Berry even more clearly here.

From an NPR profile on him:

Charlie Christian was the single-greatest influence on the signature 20th century instrument, the electric guitar, even though he died at age 25 and did all his recording in under two years. He made most of his records in Benny Goodman's sextet, where he competed for space with other good soloists. In that band, he took beautifully crafted 30-second improvisations, serving up fresh variations on every take of a tune. . . .

Amplified slide guitarists in white western swing bands showed Christian how electric guitar could project. He wasn't the first electric picker who played on the frets. He dug Chicago pioneer George Barnes. But Christian had the most imposing sound.

Charlie Christian's timing was impeccable. His heavy, front-loaded attack underlined his aggressive beat and inspired untold jazz, blues, and rock-guitar players. Benny Goodman loved him but begged him to turn his amplifier down. Christian once explained, I like to hear myself. Like other great lead players, He was an adept rhythm guitarist - strumming like mad, riffing with precision or cutting against the grain. . . .

He died in hospital the following spring before he could hear the new music of bebop come to fruition and long before electric guitar conquered popular music and the full impact of his playing could be felt. Charlie Christian has left his mark on many thousands of musicians who never knew his name. That's about as influential as you can get.
My favorite solo by him is in "Rose Room" starting at 1:00. Not his most technically impressive, but every note is perfectly chosen.

By today’s standards, his facility with the electric guitar is fine but not outstanding. But he’s widely regarded as the most enduring of the instrument’s original pioneers. For his influence on both jazz and rock music, I’d rank Charlie Christian among the most important guitarists of all time. And certainly one of the most tragic losses.

Monday, June 12, 2017

The Diary of Anne Frank

75 years ago today, in 1942, Anne Frank received a blank book for her 13th birthday, and soon started writing her diary in it.

From a 2014 article about Anne Frank's living relatives (which I've previously blogged):

Eva Schloss, a playmate of Anne Frank’s in Amsterdam whose mother later married Anne’s father, recalls an 11-year-old who hopscotched, shot marbles, gossiped and talked so much her friends nicknamed her “Miss Quack Quack.”

Anne also had an intense interest in clothing, boys and Hollywood stars like Deanna Durbin.

“When I told her I had an older brother, she said: ‘Oooh. I must come to your apartment and meet him.’ ”

Anne was a lively girl who could be something of “a busybody,” Monica Smith said about her young second cousin — and she often had ink stains on her slender fingers. . . .

The memories, unremarkable as they may seem, are about a girl whose diary and death from typhus in the Bergen-Belsen concentration camp at 15 have made her perhaps the Holocaust’s foremost symbol of slaughtered innocence. People are fascinated or moved by the slimmest morsel of information about her. When watershed Holocaust dates come up on the calendar, like the anniversary of Kristallnacht, the pogrom in Germany and Austria on Nov. 9 and 10 in 1938, Anne’s surviving relatives and friends are invited to share tidbits as well as tell their own often harrowing stories. . . .

Mrs. Smith’s parents put her on the Kindertransport to Holland that rescued 2,000 German-Jewish children, though one-third did not survive the Nazi occupation. Mrs. Smith, who was about 15, spent weeks quarantined in a barracks sleeping on a mattress on the floor, was taken to a more rural camp, and then to the Burgerweeshuis, an orphanage housing 75 refugee children.

Anne and her father, by then living in Amsterdam, visited the orphanage a dozen times, sometimes bringing treats. Mrs. Smith also saw Anne’s older sister, Margot, who was “totally different” — quiet and demure. Mrs. Smith remembers staying in the Franks’ modern apartment block on the Merwedeplein square and visiting Otto Frank’s spice-company offices on Prinsengracht — where he was to arrange for “the secret annex” that his family hid in for two years. And she remembers how engaged Anne and her father were with each other.

“The two of them were very close,” she said. . . .

Eva Schloss, 85, is an elegant, articulate woman who worked as a photographer, ran an antiques shop, raised three daughters and wrote a 1988 book, “Eva’s Story: A Survivor’s Tale by the Stepsister of Anne Frank.” She was born Eva Geiringer in Vienna on May 11, 1929, a month before Anne. Hers was an assimilated family that owned a shoe factory. In school, children were separated for religious classes.

“Everybody knew who was a Jew,” she said. “So after the Nazis came, we were immediately attacked and beaten up and the teachers were watching it and not doing anything.”

Her family ended up in Amsterdam, also living in the Merwedeplein apartments across from the Franks. The two girls were in a loose gang that played together in the square. Anne, she said, had a leader’s personality; she was a “big know-it-all,” occasionally “domineering,” who demanded attention.

When the Nazis occupied Holland in May 1940, Jews were forbidden, among other things, to go to movies.

“They showed the Disney film ‘Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs,’ and the Christian children talked about it,” Mrs. Schloss recalled. “For us it was already a tragedy.”

In July 1942, when the Nazis began calling up Jews like Margot and Eva’s brother, Heinz, for work assignments in Germany, the Frank and Geiringer families went into hiding, with the Geiringers splitting up among a succession of Dutch resistance families. In May 1944, Mrs. Schloss’s family was betrayed and wound up in Auschwitz. Only she and her mother survived.

Otto Frank, knowing his wife had died, was also liberated at Auschwitz and returned to Amsterdam to await news about his daughters. Mrs. Schloss’s mother and Otto became friends and eventually lovers.

“He looked like a ghost,” she said. “One day he came to us with a little parcel. It was a diary.

“It took him three weeks to read it,” she remembered, and “he said, ‘I didn’t really know my own child.’ ”

Sunday, June 4, 2017

The war on breasts

(Full disclosure: I'm friends with Sarah Siskind, one of the writers and editors of this Reason video.)

Thursday, June 1, 2017

Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band

It was 50 years ago today!

The Beatles released their seminal concept album, Sgt. Pepper’s Lonely Hearts Club Band, on June 1, 1967. (Well, that's what many sources say, although Wikipedia says it was released on May 26 in the UK and June 2 in the US.)

Comments on some of my favorite songs from the album:

With a Little Help From My Friends” has one of my favorite bass lines ever. Part of what’s great about it is that it’s so simple, so easy to play. This band wasn’t about showing off the individual members' ability to play their instruments; it was about them coming together to bring us a seemingly endless stream of ideas (musical and otherwise), and allowing us to bring our minds in tune with theirs. Ringo Starr gave what many would call his finest vocal performances on this song; his usually modest baritone suddenly switches to a triumphantly soaring tenor high note at the end. One nice thing about Beatles songs sung by Ringo is that he had great backing vocalists in John Lennon and Paul McCartney.

She’s Leaving Home” might seem overly sentimental or corny, but I don't mind that. The lyrics are wonderfully detailed; someone (Elvis Costello?) remarked that you don't normally hear the word "clutching" on a rock album. I love the interaction between Paul and John in the chorus, representing the main character's mother and father, respectively: Paul sings the title in falsetto, while John adds his distraught questions/comments in a lower register. I also love how a line that would seem prosaic on paper, “Waiting to keep the appointment she made,” becomes wound up with an exciting sense of possibilities as a result of the quivering vibrato of the strings. (Unusually for the Beatles, the orchestral instrumentation was arranged not by George Martin but by Mike Leander.) The wordplay of the father's hapless line, "We gave her everything money could buy/Bye bye," brings back the theme of the early Beatles hit "Can't Buy Me Love," while showing how much the band has matured since then.

"Being for the Benefit of Mr. Kite!" is a strange John song based on a 19th-century poster, which switches midway into a waltz overlaid with kaleidoscopic calliope music, thanks to George Martin carrying out John's instructions to conjure up a circus so vividly you can “smell the sawdust.”

The album's only song by George Harrison, “Within You Without You," is the spiritual centerpiece of the album — a beautiful merger of Indian and Western classical music. (Cultural appropriation? Yes please!)

After the reprise of the album's title song, which would feel to someone hearing the album for the first time like it must be the last song, the sound of the audience fades out as the band starts playing an encore, "A Day in the Life" — the artistic pinnacle of this album if not the whole band. It starts in a dream-like state as John sings about disconcerting imagery (with outstanding drumming by Ringo), before being interrupted by an orchestra with each instrument chaotically sliding from a low, quiet note to a high, loud note. That crescendo segues into a more relaxed, upbeat section in which Paul sings about the details of everyday life, using a melody that has some resemblance to John’s but in a different key and more choppy (staccato) and repetitive, which is appropriate to talking about such ordinary details (“woke up... drank a cup...”) — in contrast with John’s melody, with its legato, drawn-out quality that's more evocative of dreaming. One seemingly mundane detail in Paul's section is that he “had a smoke,” which at first calls to mind a man having his first cigarette of the day as he sets out in the morning, but then takes on a druggy meaning when he says he “went into a dream.” At that point, Paul sings in a more legato, John-like style over a disorienting sequence of chords, during which we have a hard time telling what key we're in (this is effective regardless of whether the listener knows music theory), eventually leading to John repeating the first line of the song ("I read the news today..." — which now feels like one more detail about an ordinary morning as in Paul's section). After John's last line (one of the defining statements of '60s rock: "I'd love to turn you on"), the orchestral crescendo happens again, and the song abruptly ends on a very loud and sustained piano chord in the same key as Paul’s section, seemingly closing the album by bringing us firmly back to reality. But there's one more surprise . . . before we're left to contemplate the genius we just heard.

Wednesday, May 24, 2017

My 20 favorite Soundgarden songs

In the week since the death of Chris Cornell, the great singer/songwriter/guitarist of Soundgarden, I’ve listened to the band’s last four albums straight through: Badmotorfinger (1991), Superunknown (1994), Down on the Upside (1996), and King Animal (2012).

I knew I’d be reminded of old favorites and hits, and that I’d rediscover some more obscure songs I’d forgotten. And yet I still felt overwhelmed by the ocean of extraordinary material — relentlessly innovative and challenging, often jagged and angular, mostly heavy and dark, occasionally with gentle or bright spots, but never tranquil, always disturbed and searching for something better.

So here are my 20 favorite Soundgarden songs, with the first letter of the album each song is from in parentheses, e.g. Badmotorfinger = (B). (And yes, I did listen to some of their other songs, but I found that all their highlights are from these four albums; their earlier work feels unripe, not like the band we love.)

I have to say, this makes a pretty great playlist — the equivalent of a double album, with the two discs being 1-10 and 11-20.

1. Outshined (B)

2. The Day I Tried to Live (S)

3. Spoonman (S)

4. Black Hole Sun (S)

5. Somewhere (B)

6. Fell on Black Days (S)

7. Slaves and Bulldozers (B)

8. Burden in My Hand (D)

9. My Wave (S)

10. Bones of Birds (K)

11. Superunknown (S)

12. Mind Riot (B)

13. Rusty Cage (B)

14. Been Away Too Long (K)

15. Pretty Noose (D)

16. Jesus Christ Pose (B)

17. Dusty (D)

18. Head Down (S)

19. Taree (K)

20. Black Saturday (K)

“I’ve always liked depressing music because a lot of times listening to it when you’re down can actually make you feel less depressed.” — Chris Cornell

(Photo of Chris Cornell by Marina Coelho.)