Eschewing the hardening of the Persona
There is a passage in Andre Bazin’s essay ‘The Aesthetic of Reality’ that links up interestingly to some passages from Siegfried Kracauer in The Theory of Film. They concern the question of acting. In Bazin’s essay, the French writer says: “I propose to call [this] the law of amalgam. It is not the absence of professional actors that is, specifically the rejection of the star concept and the casual mixing of professionals and those who just act occasionally. It is important to avoid casting the professional in the role for which he is known. The audience should not be burdened with any preconceptions.” In his comments on acting, German theorist Kracauer talks of the emphasis on being. He quotes Rene Clair saying that “the slightest exaggeration of gesture and manner of speaking is captured by the merciless mechanism and amplified by the projection of the film.” Kracauer later adds: “the film actor’s performance, then, is true to the medium only if it does not assume the airs of a self-sufficient achievement but impresses us as an incident – one of the many possible incidents – of his character’s unstaged material existence.”
Bazin and Kracauer were realist theorists of course, and we might wonder whether there isn’t a type of stardom that lends itself well to myth rather than reality: the iconic figures in film from John Wayne to Marilyn Monroe, figures who exemplify rather than typify. We want from them the larger-than-life so that we can see types on screen with a capital letter: the Masculine, the Feminine. But just because we don’t entirely agree with Bazin and Kracauer, that isn’t the same thing as disagreeing with them either. Good thought doesn’t have to be argued against; often it is more useful to run with it: to see where it can take us.
When Bazin says this isn’t a realism that demands the absence of the professional actor but his incorporation into a mise en scene that denies their fame, we can think of directors of the sixties and seventies that were very interested in the ensemble: Fassbinder, Bergman, Altman and Cassavetes, for example. An actor might have celebrity, but he is utilised for his or her existential integrity. A star may not be able to register this quality, but then neither could the non-professional. If the star often performs a role, creating through his behaviour a larger-than-life persona, the non-professional frequently completes a series of tasks. This is why Kracauer can speak of the non-actor, and of films that “feature the environmental situation rather than the private affair.” There might be great differences between Battleship Potemkin and Paisa but, on this point, he sees a meeting place. The task may be evidenced in quick cutting or lengthy takes, but the emotional register is kept to a minimum.
Yet with the type of acting found in Bergman and others, the private affair is often vital, and it isn’t task specificity that counts, but the ability to register nuanced feeling. In an article in Life magazine by Richard Meryman, the writer says: “to Bergman, the atmosphere on the movie set is crucially important. The actors, a breed regularly haunted by self-doubts and paranoia, must feel completely secure and respected. It is somehow communicated that simply because he, Bergman, has chosen them for the roles, then there is no possibility that they will fail.” (Bergman Interviews) They cannot fail not only because the director has immense confidence in them, but because the question lies in authenticity of being over the actor remembering their lines or doing something well. What they have to do well is themselves. When someone goes off for a therapy session we are unlikely to tell them not to foul it up. It isn’t about achieving but exploring – about a revelation of the self. If an actor does it badly, it will reside in carefulness, concealment, emotional dishonesty. As Bergman says, in conversation with the American Film Institute: “The camera has to be the best friend of the actors, and the actors have to be secure with our handling of the camera. They must feel that we are taking care of them, because we who are the directors must never forget that we are behind the camera and that the actor is in front of the camera. He is nude, his soul is nude.” (Bergman Interviews). Now we never think of Bruce Willis’s soul being nude, nor many an action or comedy hero’s. Yet there is a type of acting that hints at Bazin’s amalgamation; that absorbs Kracauer’s emphasis on being. Now Bergman can be quite ambivalent on this point: he will talk about seeing art as a game and says “I believe that every seriously intended work of art must contain an element of play”, and then later says to Lars-Olof Lothwall that “at the bottom of everything there lies this abomination to which man is exposed, the world over: they club his head in, they scream at him, they assault him, they terrorize him.” (Bergman Interviews)
Yet perhaps one way of making sense of this apparent contradiction is to see that the form is ‘play’ and the acting ‘real’. In other words, the cinematic is acknowledged as style, but the acting searches out emotional verisimilitude. In Cries and Whispers, for example, the interior mise en scene is in a rich red that calls attention to the image, calling to mind painterly works by Munch. But the acting remains naturalistic. We might think of the moment where Liv Ullmann sits asleep on a chair, a blanket over her, and a book lying open. The curtains, the carpet, the walls are all red, even the piano looks of a reddish hue. We could also recall the scene where Ullmann talks directly to the camera against a red wall. The film is aware of itself, but the acting is not. The director wants to take responsibility for the image, but the acting must achieve its own authenticity. Bergman might say in relation to the form in Persona and Cries and Whispers that this is not a style: “…it’s a part of the whole decision. It’s not an intellectual decision. It comes out from the whole thing. It’s just natural. I think it’s difficult to talk about because you can call it a style if you want, but it’s not.” (Bergman Interviews) But perhaps Bergman refuses to see it as a style because the acting remains within the realm of the natural, and the mise en scene augments this, rather than a mise en scene that exaggerates the acting within it. Though he casts familiar Bergman faces Ingrid Thulin, Liv Ullmann, Harriet Andersson and Erland Josephson, he doesn’t expect from them a performance that will generate a frisson of acknowledgement from the audience. Whatever game is being played, it isn’t a knowing, self-reflexive one. The acting is consistent with the tenets of realism, with the actors moving freely. When they appear not to be, as when we see Ullmann addressing the camera directly, we feel this is due to the needs of self-exposure, not the camera’s self-reflexive dimension. The form is pronounced throughout Cries and Whispers, but not quite announced.
This is partly the difference between Bergman and Fassbinder. Like Bergman, the German director was drawn to ensemble casts, albeit much more extensive than Bergman’s and much more clearly neurotic. Bergman could say one reason he didn’t work again with certain actors was that he didn’t like working with people were so obviously neurosis-ridden. “They have to play neurotics” he would say to John Simon, “not be neurotics” (Bergman Interviews) Fassbinder, however, would often bring out the worst in his actors, and write characters that accentuated the most deplorable aspects of their personalities. Actor Kurt Raab noted on Beware of the Holy Whore: “he represented us all as egotistical, whining, selfish rabble…in the many roles we played for him, you could always find a piece of your own personality – but mostly one side – the uglier one, of course.” The quote comes from Love is Colder than Death, by Robert Katz and Peter Berling, an undeniably scurrilous account, yet with many contributing to their claims. Irm Herrmann, who had many leading roles in early Fassbinder films, says: “he put me through so many trials that I truly believed I was all weakness and evil. I tried suicide. Again and again I tried to leave him, but he would always come and fetch me and I would always return. “ (Love is Colder than Death)
Bergman was a director often interested in the soul of his characters; Fassbinder interested in the social environments in which his characters exist. They work hard and play hard; drink a great deal and abuse others as an extension of abusing themselves. How often do we find in a Fassbinder film one character haranguing another and then falling into a heap of self-disgust and exhaustion, often from overwork? People abuse and substance abuse are part of the same problem. Speaking of one Fassbinder film, Fassbinder biographer Christian Braad Thomsen says: “what attracted Fassbinder so much to this story is, of course, that it deals with a man who is a workaholic. He searches for identity through work and uses work as compensation for normal emotional relationships. When Fassbinder was asked in an interview why he worked so inhumanly hard, he admitted he couldn’t explain it, but added quite candidly that he considered it a symptom of a neurosis that had something to do with his childhood.” (Fassbinder)
Fassbinder’s famed abusiveness finds its correlative in the framing. If Bergman talks of the soul being nude, Fassbinder’s work suggests the self stripped bare – if Bergman sought revelation; Fassbinder frequently offers humiliation. We might think of the scene in Martha with the sunburnt titular character lying naked on the bed, her cruel husband’s hands on her body as he presses against the raw flesh. We can also think of the subtler abuse and condescension the working class Fox receives from his bourgeois boyfriend in Fox and his Friends. Watch how his boyfriend looks as Fox signs a cheque after announcing he is looking for the cheaper holiday. If Bergman is famous for his close-ups, suggesting intimacy, Fassbinder is well-known for his frames within frames and his aloof shooting. Fassbinder’s camera is an onlooker, often disdainfully aware of the foibles of the figures in front of the lens. In the scene from Martha our sympathies for the title character are commingled with our awareness that she is another Fassbinder masochist, another human being who in this instance doesn’t work like a slave but acts like one. As Fassbinder would say: “most men simply can’t oppress as perfectly as women would really like.” Yet lest this appear a misogynist remark, Fassbinder was equal opportunities when it came to showing characters doling out and receiving abuse. In The Merchant of the Four Seasons it is central character Hans who accepts the insults from his wife, a woman who also happens to take a lover.
Bergman was well-known for showing the ways in which characters could tear each other apart: the early scene between the central couple’s friends in Scenes from a Marriage, the daughter’s attacks on her mother in Autumn Sonata, Erland Josephson’s character judging Liv Ullmann’s in Cries and Whispers. Yet while his characters can be cruel, perhaps they are not quite vindictive. That astonishing scene in Martha where her husband deliberately allows her to sit in the sun hoping she will burn would be an anomaly in Bergman’s work yet seems an apotheosis of Fassbinder’s. Perhaps one way of looking at the difference between the cruel and the vindictive is to suggest that cruelty in Bergman’s work is a psychological mechanism, a means by which to ward off the mental threat of another, their psychic vampirism. If numerous Bergman films are claustrophobic, from Persona and The Passion of Anna to Shame and The Silence, it is to reveal all the better the hell that is other people in close confines. In Fassbinder’s films the characters are usually part of a much broader milieu, and so while the cruelty in Bergman often reveals itself in conflictual dialogue; in Fassbinder’s films it resides much more in harsh gossip. Think of the scene where the neighbours talk about Emmi in Fear Eats the Soul, for example, or a similar moment in The Merchant of Four Seasons, and several scenes in Katzelmacher. Even if the exchanges are much more direct, they still pass through a societal dimension that allows not for the individual judgement that Bergman so often practises, but the force of societal disapproval that leaves a character less in conflict with another, than defeated by the social will. In an interview in the bfi booklet Fassbinder, the director discusses the difference between the gangster and the police by saying that “both parties are doing their job, both jobs are dirty, and in a way the gangster’s work is the more sympathetic because he works for himself while the police have got insurance, unions and the whole of society behind them. That attitude was, for me, political.” The gangster might be cruel, we could say, but the police are more inclined to be vindictive: their actions are socially sanctioned and this is often where the vindictive manifests itself in Fassbinder’s work.
Yet how does this link up with the purpose of this essay, which is to look at the role of the actor in film? Let us think of the body language and framing in the directors’ work. We have mentioned the importance of the close up in Bergman’s cinema, the frames within frames in Fassbinder’s. We can go further and suggest that Bergman wants to get as existentially close to the actor as he can manage; Fassbinder wants to find the appropriate angle to show society’s judgement on the character. It is as if Fassbinder says we are being watched constantly by the society as it judges our actions, a Foucauldian internalisation of values that finds its form in the aloof: who it who is judging us? Perhaps nobody, but judgement is felt nevertheless. As Foucault says when talking of Panopticism: “generally speaking, it might be said that the disciplines are techniques for assuring the ordering of human multiplicities. It is true that there is nothing exceptional or even characteristic in this: every system of power is presented with the same problem.” (The Foucault Reader) Foucault discusses three societal aims in relation to power here: “first, to obtain the exercise of power at the lowest possible cost…second, to bring the effects of this social power to their maximum intensity and to extend them as far as possible…third, to link this “economic” growth of power with the output of the apparatuses (educational, military, industrial or medical) within which is it exercised: in short, to increase both the docility and the utility of all the elements of the system.” (The Foucault Reader) This is the disciplinary society, and while we see it is relatively absent in Bergman’s work; it seems vital to Fassbinder’s. Even if Fassbinder would often cast friends in key roles, even if he was drawing on German bohemia, on a culture of drink and drugs, he was nevertheless relying on society, albeit an alternative one. Like Warhol, he knew that just because you were an outsider that didn’t mean you couldn’t dictate who was part of your inner circle and who wasn’t. Actors would come and go in Fassbinder’s work, partly based on their relationship with him, and not simply on how well cast they might happen to be. We don’t want to suggest this is just an issue of directorial whim: film is a medium of the real – it usually works with real people and not daubs of colour or words on a page. Hence the anecdotal proves relevant, even if we have to approach it with a degree of epistemological scepticism, linking it tentatively to the work. Daniel Schmid says Fassbinder “believed himself to be a monster and so behaved like a monster.” (Love is Colder than Death) Another colleague would say “Rainer’s aggressiveness was implacable.” If Bergman needed to eschew the neurotic to produce the work; Fassbinder would even include his own to try and find the necessary mood of his films. He was a disciplinarian of a certain type: someone who flaunted his authority not as a figure of state power, but a societal power nevertheless. Perhaps he was a little like the gangster, with his actors flunkeys on hand to do his bidding.
We might have a problem with Fassbinder’s working methods, feeling that bullying your actors isn’t conducive to a decent ethical system, but we have to acknowledge that film isn’t too far removed from a work place where abuse can easily exist. Cinema is an art form of work practices and appropriate behaviour, quite distinct from the writer who can demand his words work eight hours a day without respite. We might resist too readily absorbing the anecdotal into the aesthetic, but cannot pretend that it isn’t a dimension of the work either. Fassbinder creates characters, of course, but he also would work at such a ferocious rate, with frequently the same people, that there is an aspect of documentary involved: in watching the actors evolve before our eyes, with someone like Hanna Schygulla moving from a supporting player just part of the mise en scene in Katzelmacher, to a star presence eight years later in The Marriage of Maria Braun. There is a sense that a star is born because Fassbinder approves of the individual: they have his favour, rather like at a royal court. Christian Braad Thomen says “Hanna Schygulla had not liked Fassbinder’s conception of Effi Briest. Effi had appeared too weak to her, too compliant towards men, too static and passive. Now Fassbinder gave her a role that was the complete opposite of Effi Briest.” (Fassbinder)
By contrast, Raab was seen as one of Fassbinder’s whipping boys, and would do what he was told. “Kurt claims he was virtually tortured and driven deeper into habitual drinking.” Later Raab was persuaded to play the main role in Bolweiser drugged on cocaine. “It marks the final appearance of Kurt Raab in a Fassbinder film”, with Raab saying: “it had become clear to me that in both big and small roles I was always playing the petty, petty bourgeois, the grubby wretched commoner.” (Love is Colder than Death) Our point isn’t to indicate the awfulness of Fassbinder; more that he didn’t easily separate his art from his social life, and that cinema is an art form that lends itself well to this blurring.
We see it again in a different form in Casavetes’ work. “In Husbands, the offscreen relationship between [Ben] Gazzara, [Peter] Falk and myself determined a lot of the scenes we created as we went along.” (Cassavetes on Cassavetes) It is the acknowledgement that film is an environment like no other art form. The artist might work in close proximity with his model, the theatre actors might see each other every night and have a drink after the show, and this suggests an aspect of cinema: the former the director with his actor; the latter the social milieu of the film set. Yet film frequently accepts the blurring between reality and fiction, and Cassavetes talks about a scene in Husbands where the lead characters start singing. Cassavetes shot the scene several different ways and put beer and whisky on the table and included a group of extras who could imbibe. For Cassavetes the scene would work not when it fitted neatly into the diegesis, but when it captured an authenticity of environment. “We know what we want out of those people, and they respond in kind – once they put in revealing themselves and exposing themselves in terms of really singing a song.” (Cassavetes on Cassavetes) It is close to Bazin’s ideas on amalgamation: the scene works when the professional actors are absorbed into the situation, and the amateurs act within the scene. If the gap remains large between the professional actors pushing the scene along, and the non-professionals passively caught in the sequence, then amalgamation hasn’t been achieved; Cassavetes’ scene would have failed. The blurring is what counts more than the furthering of the diegesis.
We often find this is the case in Cassavetes’ work, as though the rapt need for observation keeps refusing the possibilities of narrative many so demand. It is a prejudice offered by Stanley Kauffmann when reviewing A Woman Under the Influence. “He puts his camera in real houses and he gives his actors things to say as lifelike as he can make them and he lets the people improvise on their lines and he even puts some non-actors in the cast and he lets the camera run and run.” What more can we want, he asks, replying “just about everything”, before “regarding the film completely without interest or merit”. (Before My Eyes) He admits that no doubt there will be critics who see deep things in it, but he doesn’t buy it, and yet we might ask not whether the film is deep or shallow, whether it tells us something about madness and neurosis as it focuses on a woman with a couple of young kids, an inarticulate husband and a difficult mother-in-law, but whether it offers a sense of felt life in the Bazinian sense. If neurosis is a nervous condition, how well does Cassavetes capture the nerve ends of his characters; how well does he put people together into a scene and generates what we might call a static energy? One reason why most American characters are not neurotic resides in the active energy: the idea that the nervous system and the demands placed upon it, or the desires it has, can be met. Let us think for example of a standard Hollywood scene played statically rather than actively. The active one would be where a man walks into a bar and orders himself a beer and someone comes up to him and picks a fight. The man ignores it initially and keeps drinking, but the other figure won’t go away and keeps harassing him. In time, our hero reacts and knocks the man to the ground. Now even if our hero for one reason or another doesn’t initially react, we would still feel that the nervous energy is being stored: perhaps he is with a child and doesn’t want to create a scene, perhaps he can see a couple of flunkeys in the background ready to blow his brains out if he beats the villain up. No matter: what counts is that sooner or later this nervous energy, the active energy, will be dispelled, with the latter example all the better for the viewer because it gives us something to look forward to: the villain’s beating.
But what about a similar scene presented statically? Here a man might go into a bar, and he will be harassed by someone who is clearly physically much stronger than he is and he happens to be understandably terrified. He knows that if he fights he will get beaten, and the best he can hope for is to lose face without the breaking of his nose, the blacking of his eye, the bloodying of his lip. He takes the abuse and after a while the villain lets it drop and walks out of the bar. The man is left there alone, his hands shaking, his nerves temporarily shot. If the scene is done well the viewer will also share an aspect of this static energy; feeling their own nerves raw. Cassavetes’ work captures an element of this nervousness, so while Kauffmann sees a director who just shoots film; we are inclined to see a filmmaker who shoots shot nerves. This can seem like nothing partly because it is a negative apprehension of the violent, not a positive. In other words while Eastwood and John Wayne films present violence positively, actively, Cassavetes presents it negatively and statically. (Scorsese’s genius often resides in finding a place in between) This is why Cassavetes can say he finds gangsters and most gangster films dull. “It’s not really exciting is – is it? – an antagonism between people and guns. It’s really boring, and I persoanlly think that gangsters are really boring people. They make me uneasy, not because they intimidate me, but because they say nothing to me…what happens is too predictable; you meet somebody; he smiles at you; he tries to control you; he beats you. It’s boring! I Find it uninteresting.” (Cassavetes on Cassavetes)
What Cassavetes finds interesting is not the punctuated violence that is carefully controlled, but the energy that is constantly flowing through our bodies yet which is not easily released. What he wants are situations that generate and reveal this flow, and partly why professionals intermingled with amateurs work so well: as if he can’t entirely control the environment and the performances. The amalgamation in Cassavetes’ work resides in trying to find the nerve centre of the scene, not its dramatic revelation. This is why we can see that Pauline Kael is no less wrong-headed than Kauffmann when she says in Reeling: “he still prolongs shots to the point of embarrassment (and beyond). He does it deliberately, all right, but to what purpose? Acute discomfort sets in, and though some in the audience will once again accept what is going on as raw, anguishing truth, most people will – rightly I think – take their embarrassment as evidence of Cassavetes’ self-righteous ineptitude.” The word embarrassment is used here twice, but Kael doesn’t interrogate its meaning at all, and how it works in Cassavetes’ films. There are numerous moments that are embarrassing, which creates the sort of nervous discomfort that plays on our nerves rather than damaging our bodies. We can think again of how violent so many American films happen to be, but how they generate not nervous tension but plot tension. Cassavetes may be overly dismissive of great American films like The Godfather and Apocalypse Now, but he is making a useful point about his own work when he questions the latter, saying “the problem with Apocalypse Now is that Sheen and Duvall didn’t find any truth in their roles. They couldn’t justify them. You have to do that. If only Sheen had inserted some delays, he might have saved that script.” (Cassavetes on Cassavetes) We might believe Cassavetes has nothing to say about Coppola’s film here, but he does reveal an aspect of his own method. The delays, the hesitancies he is asking for, and that we frequently find in his own work, are one way in which to register the nervous effort in the face of other people. If in the type of film Cassavetes would be inclined to attack, people have motives, in Cassavetes’ films they have feelings. As he says “my films don’t have the form and convention. If anyone attacks me on the basis of fractured films and thinks like that, well, let them. I think the whole world is having a nervous breakdown. I don’t know anyone who is at ease, I don’t know anyone who is not aware that life is tough, impossible.” (Cassavetes on Cassavetes)
Cassavetes exaggerates his case to make his point, but unlike Kaufmann and Kael, who merely offer criticisms, he has one: a point about breakdowns in their various manifestations and that find their meaning through the nervous system. There are breakdowns in communication, in marriages, in more general familial relationships and between friends. In Cassavetes’ work there may be moments of actual and extreme violence (in Killing of the Chinese Bookie and Gloria) but usually the director seeks a feeling that means the viewer isn’t on the edge of their seats but that their nerves are on edge. This is the difference between the dead centre of plot suspense, and the nerve centres of human communication. Cassavetes takes Bazin’s notion of amalgamation and Kracauer’s ideas on being in cinema and fashions them through a very American idiom of the body. If Fassbinder’s figures often seem Teutonically exhausted, as if weighed down by the gravity of German’s recent past (Nazism is often invoked either as an aside in Fear East the Soul when the leading characters go to a former Hitler Eatery) or as a historical exploration (evident for example in The Marriage of Maria Braun), Cassavetes’ characters are restless and rubbing against each other. They are energetic laws unto themselves: “I believe that if an actor creates a character out of his emotions and experiences, he should so with that character what he wants. If what he is doing comes out of that, then it has to be meaningful.” (Cassavetes on Cassavetes) They are not professional actors conveying the script; they are ‘amateurs’ finding their part ion the process of the film’s making.
How does this play out in Robert Altman’s films? “The main artists for me are the actors, because they take this sketchy script and put three-dimensional life into it.” (Altman on Altman) Yet this doesn’t mean he improvises: “for me improvisation is a rehearsal tool. Once we go to shoot the film, everyone pretty much knows what’s going to happen.” But he also admits to looking for the surprising both in the story and in the actor. In terms of the story both the assassination and the suicide in his work remain mysteries. Discussing Nashville he says “I don’t feel responsible for anybody’s assassination. It defies logic.” Talking of the Lori Singer’s character’s suicide in Short Cuts he compares it to the moment in Nashville. People might insist her suicide doesn’t make sense, but that is Altman’s point. “Why did she commit suicide? Well I don’t know why anybody commits suicide, so I don’t want to explain it in a film.”(Projections 2) As far as he was concerned it was “exactly the same situation as in Nashville: why did Kenny shoot Barbara Jean?” (Projections 2) Altman even extends it to the problem of murder and culpability. In The Player he says “during the lovemaking scene between Griffin and June I didn’t want them just screwing.” Altman says he wanted Griffin to feel obliged to tell his girlfriend that he had killed someone, and the girlfriend didn’t want to hear it. “Some people are going to ask, “did she know or didn’t she?’” Altman insists, “I don’t know whether she did or not.” (Projections 2)
This ambiguity can extend to the actor’s performance, as though Altman were seeking various ways in which to avoid the viewer taking what they are watching for granted. For Nashville he employed various actors, some of whom could sing; others who couldn’t, in an interesting variation of amalgamation. Mixing professional singers with non-professionals who could sing and also actors who couldn’t sing at all, some songs that were ‘good’ songs and others that were ‘bad’, Altman searched out an audio aesthetic that kept wrong-footing the viewer. Some like Keith Carradine could sing but were known for their acting, others like Ronnee Blakley were known for their singing but who could act, and others like Gwen Welles could act but couldn’t sing. Now, of course, we shouldn’t exaggerate this: if Carradine couldn’t sing a lick the scene where he is in bar playing ‘I’m Easy’ with various lovers in the room it wouldn’t work: they are seduced by his voice and the charm evident in the song. If Welles could sing then the scene where she humiliatingly resorts to taking her clothes off, to keep the audience interested after singing appallingly, wouldn’t have worked either. Nevertheless, Altman wanted an equivocal atmosphere with the good and the bad in conjunction. In Altman on Altman, interviewer David Thompson says, “you got some criticism for letting your actors write and perform their songs.” Altman replies “Richard Baskin was the musical director, and he helped some of those people write their songs. He arranged all the music in the film, and it was all shot live.”
This is Altman pushing further the tenets of the realist musical: Cabaret three years earlier was well-received partly because it was a musical that integrated all the numbers into a realist diegesis: this wasn’t the cast bursting into song in a moment of exuberance, but a series of numbers performed on a stage with the emphasis on what was going on in Germany in the early thirties. Of course, there had been musicals in the past focusing on the stage – all those backstage movies of the thirties like 42nd Street. But as the American Film Institute noted, “Modern sources note that Fosse deliberately chose to “streamline” the musical and make it more “realistic” by having the songs sung only within the club. The songs often comment on the action preceding or following them, such as when Sally meets the rich Maximilian, and then sings “money” with the master of ceremonies.” Yet Altman’s film pushes this much further, creating a confusion between the professional and the amateur that combines elements of both Bazin’s ideas and Kracauer’s. As Bazin says: “it is important to avoid casting the professional in the role for which he is known; it suggests the importance of an aspect of the person that is not hardened into persona.” (‘An Aesthetic of Reality’) By casting various actors as singers in Nashville, Altman seeks from Carradine, Cristina Raines and others a fresh aspect of their being perhaps consistent with Kracauer’s remark. “the film actor’s performance, then, is true to the medium only if it does not assume the airs of a self-sufficient achievement but impresses us as an incident – one of many possible incidents – of his character’s unstaged material existence.” (Theory of Film)
If Altman seeks the ambiguous in narrative form as he asks us to wonder why a character takes their own life, or kills another, then he also wants it in thespian form too. He wants to surprise us with Carradine or Welles’s singing as we can’t readily predict in advance whether they can or cannot. That is missing in Liza Minnelli’s singing in Cabaret or New York, New York, and thus what is central to Altman’s aesthetic is the notion of risk. As he says, speaking of a 1984 project, Secret Honor, a play about Nixon that he turned into an ad hoc film: “most of the crew were graduate students, and the dailies were open to everyone. The music was composed by on of the professors and played by the student orchestra. The success of the piece exceeded all my hopes, but even if it hadn’t, I believe it was a worthwhile project.” (Altman on Altman) This is the director refusing the preconceived so he can search out the reconceived, but isn’t this vital to the sort of amalgamation we have been exploring here? That vital to Bergman, Fassbinder, Cassavetes and Altman is the notion that cinema is a risk undertaken partly because it wants to find in the complexity of being the possibilities in cinema. This is not at all a market-led notion of film that knows sequels and stardom can generate so many preconceptions and assumptions that the work itself becomes literally an after-thought. Indeed an extreme version of this reverse amalgamation is explored at the beginning of Mark Litwak’s Reel Power. “Twentieth Century Fox…was pleased to have Sylvester Stallone and Dolly Parton in one of their films. A Studio executive noted that with these two stars on the poster the movie should make £20 million the first week of release – so even if the film was awful the studio should be able to make its money before bad word of mouth could kill it.” Not only are the actors expected to play to their personas, then even if they do it very badly in a film that doesn’t work, money will already have been made. In contrast, amalgamation wonders how cinematic art can be made, often with the emphasis less on the money to be earned at the box-office than the lack of it in the production, and how the film can reflect back on life rather than escape from it. Bazin died in 1958 and Kracauer published Theory of Film in 1960, and they anticipated the work of the filmmakers we have explored. They remain important ideas for what cinema can be as an art form of the real; rather than a branch of commerce and entertainment evident in the Litwak remark. As Altman says, “I’m not trying to underscore the plot. I’m really interested in the behaviour of the people.” (Altman on Altman)