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Acting In A Space

It began with a comment from Jo on my previous post, Acting In Space:

"Did you see Dogville?"

No, I had not. Now, I have.

There is so much to say. First, for those unfamiliar with the film, two things that you will want to know about it before you see it: (1) it is three hours long, and (2) it takes place entirely on one large, nearly (but not quite completely) bare stage.

My earlier post, the one to which Jo posted her question, was about Episode III of Star Wars. It was about how I thought the computer-generated sets made crappy actors out of a group of people who had otherwise and otherwhere shown themselves to be talented and skilled.

I said:

I want actors acting in spaces that are real to them. And after all, isn't it getting harder and harder for the visuals to really impress us? I'd trade some of the gee-whiz visuals for actors acting in real spaces. No matter where all these characters go, whether it's the galactic core or the outer rim, it's the people we ultimately have to care about. You can't take people out of the places where they are supposed to be and still have those people be believable and worth caring about.

People exist in spaces. Good actors know that precisely. The spaces people are in matter.

Readers of both this post and my previous one will notice the slight change I made in the title to this one. Dogville is not acting in space; it's acting in a space -- a specific place, a specific set that, while sketched in with a floor plan of the town and dotted with some set pieces and a few necessary pieces of furniture, is nevertheless as real in the actor's mind (and eventually in the viewer's mind) as any space you will ever see in any movie anywhere.

At first I thought Jo's query was a sort of challenge to my original thesis. After all, the first distinguishing thing I learned about the film when I researched what had been written about it was that it had been "shot exclusively in studio with a minimum of props". When I put the DVD in the player and fired up the movie, the first thing I noticed was the resemblance of the Dogville space to the spaces I knew the Star Wars actors were forced to act in -- both large and essentially empty.

Of course, that's where the resemblance ended -- both in reality and in my own mind. Dogville exists; the places in Star Wars do not -- at least not until post-production and even then, only visually. The difference is the town of Dogville exists as a solid -- despite the sparse set -- in the actor's minds. They live in Dogville and because of that, they "sell" its existence to the rest of us.

I should mention here that this is my kind of film in the sense that it is one of those films that people seem to either love (for some value of love) or hate (for just about every value of hate).

Stephen Holden is one of those who hated it and his review in the New York Times is one of the stupidest pieces of writing about a film I've seen in a long time. The usually reliable Roger Ebert also hated it. His review makes a mess of things, too.

Part of it may be that the film was made in 2003 and released in the U.S. sometime in early 2004 (I think). The story takes place in a small town in the Rocky Mountains during the Great Depression. Given the times we live in, and given the dark vision we get of this small town, I think many Americans, including many critics, in their typically self-centered way assumed this was some sort of vile and unfair criticism of Small Town America. Well, if it was that, I cannot say the criticism -- harsh though it may be -- is necessarily unjustified. I've seen people acting this way, at least in miniature. I think most people have. And it's not as if we haven't seen, in film or literature, this sort of criticism of Small Town America before. I guess the rule is, if you are an American, you can get away with it. If you are not an American, if you are a film director from Denmark who has (Ebert helpfully points out) never been to America, then you are viciously Anti-American.

Get over it. Americans aren't the entirety of the human race. This film is far more D├╝rrenmatt's The Visit than it is Wilder's Our Town. Small Town America is not the only place where human beings behave in ways that would make herds of dogs perish from shame.

Look, I know that -- in general -- it is absurd to compare Star Wars and a film like Dogville. In specific, though, it is not absurd when considering the question of how actors act in space. There's no question that the script and most of the scenes in Star Wars are dopey and overblown. But I will bet you one whole American dollar (because there's no way I can either win or lose the bet) that if the actors had been given a solid version of the fantastic places their characters purportedly lived in, they would have pulled off, or nearly pulled off, some of the crap lines and scenes they had been given.

The story of Star Wars first existed in a mind where the characters actually lived in these fantastic places. Their lives were actually filled with these fantastic plots and events. I'll bet it all worked just fine in the mind of The Creator. The characters filled the fantastic places in which they lived, and under such circumstances fantastic characters, fantastic behaviors, fantastic emotions, fantastic lines and scenes are not just allowed, they are required. You can't expect actors acting in blank, nondescript, green-painted, green-lit empty spaces to rise to such occasions.

In Dogville, the town is painted on the floor. The various houses of the good people of Dogville are marked out specifically, and furnished with necessary items. None of this stuff is added-in later (though some sound effects are). The characters operate imaginary doors that are as real as they will ever get. They will not be added in later with the help of machines. If the actor doesn't make it real at that moment, it will never be real. And so they sell it. Various similar sales are made by the actors throughout the film, and in that manner the town of Dogville becomes real.

The actors in Dogvillle know their characters exist in a space, and they know it is up to them to create it. The actors in Star Wars similarly know their characters exist somewhere, but they are forbidden to make any part of the void they are acting in real in their own minds. Adding in a computer-generated door over the top of an actor making an imaginary door seem real would look absurd.

It makes a difference.

And by the way, just in case I didn't make it clear, I think this movie is brilliant. It's one of those films that energizes, despite the emotional brutality of its subject matter. If you think your taste in movies runs something along the lines of mine, set aside three hours sometime and watch this thing.

[Netflix, B & N, ]


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It just seemed like an immediate counter-example to your theatrical example, because in Dogville there are those lines on the floor.

I thought it was brilliant too, though emotionally exhausting, and I thought it was emotionally tighter and somehow more real because it wasn't in that weird space. If it had been in a town, if there had been trees and mountains and windows and walls, I don't think they would have been as real. There are conventions of stage acting that make imaginary doors real, and there are conventions of film that show you real things and twirl them away from you and cut from them to something else, but it's all still "real". I once saw a big musical number of "Paint Your Wagon" with the sound off and I realized that the thing was as stylised as a Noh play, that there are camera angles used to show that people are falling in love.

Dogville takes stage acting and movie acting and techniques and does something really peculiar and intense.

Acting with CGI to be filled in later is a different thing, I'm entirely in agreement about that.

A couple of years ago I happened to see the movie of The Importance of Being Ernest and a very traditional stage production of it a few months later. It seemed to me that they were both using very different standards of realism, and that they play came much closer to emotional naturalism while being much more artificial. In a film you have real grass, real crumpets, and emotions muted in a particular way... I keep thinking about this and about Dogville and thinking there's something there that I can't quite see, but if the street Nicole Kidman had been dragging that wheel down had been a three-dimensional street, I'm not sure I'd have believed in it as much.

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