A Question of ‘Dischord’
In a Sight and Sound interview discussing Amour, Michael Haneke talks of the problem of bum notes, saying "either one has an 'ear' or one doesn't. It's the same in film. You need to have an 'ear' in relation to the actors." Yet sometimes it is hard to say whether a bum note isn't an original approach to the form, and one recalls Pauline Kael's comments on Marlon Brando. On seeing a performance on the stage by the young actor, Kael wondered whether he was suffering a seizure, then realized that a new type of performance was being created. Three contemporary films that seems full of bum notes are Olivier Assayas's Boarding Gate, Arnaud Desplechin's Esther Kahn and Abel Ferrara's 4:44, but we also find hints of it in the work of directors fascinated by performance: John Cassavetes, Robert Altman and Mike Leigh.
In Ferrara's 4:44 the bum note would appear literal: at one moment in the film Willem Dafoe's central character walks out of his top floor apartment and onto the roof and there is an expanse of flesh between his jumper and his jeans. There is in the style the suggestion of a young man, but in the body the unavoidable presence of an older one. Dafoe is still lean, with a head of thick hair and only a few barely noticeable traces of grey, but at this moment Ferrara exposes his age, and the flesh around his bottom indicates a classic example of mutton dressed as lamb. Now many a film presenting an older character would hide elements that would expose his age, or expose it in a manner pertinent to narrative revelation. If for example the same flash of flesh was accompanied by dialogue where Dafoe's character acknowledges he is no longer so young, that his jeans might be new and fashionable, but his body is aging and, no matter his leanness, the flesh is no longer tight, the note would be incorporated into self-critique. Equally, if Ferrara wanted to show Dafoe as an unequivocally attractive man in his mid-fifties, he would have proposed he pull his jumper down over his jeans. The moment is awkwardly ambivalent, like a joke that at a dinner party people don't quite know how to take, or indeed like moments in Rafi Pitts' documentary on Ferrara where Pitts is walking along the street with the American filmmaker and people aren't sure how to react to his outr behaviour.
This suggests it isn't a failure of craft on Ferrara's part (though it might be), but that he is interested in the spaces between social convention and social disintegration, as if society at any moment can collapse not only through the ecological disaster that frames 4:44 as it explores the last hours on earth, but the social catastrophe that constantly threatens daily life. One scene shows Cisco (Willem Dafoe) speaking to his daughter and then his ex-wife on Skype. He tells the latter he still loves her and his lover gets hysterical as she overhears the conversation. The scene creates raw emotion within messy dramaturgy. But this is perhaps what Ferarra seeks, saying, at a Cannes press conference for The Go Go Girls, "my job is not to create that woman, my job is to capture the woman she is going to create." This is overstated cinema determined to register the raw in life through the raw in aesthetics. It allows for what we can punningly call a 'dischord' - a series of bum notes that indicate that space between convention and disintegration
If the understated is so often admired it is because the opposite is the case. Whether it is Anthony Hopkins as Stevens in Remains of the Day achingly in love with a work colleague but unable and unwilling to express it; or the wife in Truffaut's marvellous Soft Skin, absorbing her husband's infidelity until the final moments, the films offer the possibility of sub-text: of actions presented and feelings withheld. In his great admiration for Truffaut, Desplechin justifies the importance of Truffaut very well. "For so long I hadn't seen the brulant [burning] side of him, thinking of him instead as tiede [lukewarm] - which is an adjective people applied to Truffaut - but he's just the opposite. All his characters burn with a very, very strong passion. It's ironic because now, for me, the so-called new realism, feels tired. I find some of those films good, but the feelings are tepid and the characters don't go to their limit." (Cineaste, XXXVIII No.1) Here it is not the sub-text that Desplechin admires but the feelings that by refusing readily to rise to the surface get blocked, shut off, and can help explain the final, extreme actions in Truffaut's films: Catherine's suicide in Jules et Jim, the wife murdering her husband at the end of Soft Skin, the melancholy obsession of Leaud's character in Anne and Muriel, the mourning in The Green Room. In Truffaut's work there is frequently the emotional equivalent of internal bleeding; where in more superficially emotionally intense work the ready emotional release makes for quicker recovery.
From such an angle, sub-text is worth defending, but it is never worth fetishizing, and when critics attack filmmakers like Ferrara, Cassavetes, Harmony Korine, Lars von Trier and others who are interested in 'dischordant' film, are they simply in love with literary notions of sub-text more than the improvisatory possibilities of cinema? When Asia Argento talks of working with Ferrara in Go Go Tales, she says: "For me Abel is like going to film school for an actor to observe and work, because he gives you elements and forces you to move within this climate and create your own thing. If you do the take twice the same way, he's like, 'I got that. You don't need to do the same thing again.' And I learned to have fun with acting..." If we inherit notions of quality from fiction concerning beliefs about a well-told story and a carefully controlled release of emotion, that might make some sort of sense when there is only one voice shaping the material,; however cinema, no matter if many of its best films are made by its best filmmakers, is, not so much a collaborative art, but a multiply creative one. A book is a collaborative effort, with editors and designers, but its creative dimension is usually quite singular. One may admire the cover design on Kundera's novels by Andrzej Klimowski, Ralph Mannheim's translations of Handke, Andrew Wylie's skills in getting a half million advance for Martin Amis and pushing Bolano's books, and Gordon Lish's editing of Carver's work, but the collaborative dimension is much lower than in film. When we think of Gordon Willis's camerawork on The Godfather films, Chris Doyle's on Wong Kar-wai's, Robby Muller's on Wim Wenders', Schrader's scriptwriting contributions to Taxi Driver, Raging Bull and The Passion of the Christ, I. A. L. Diamond's to Billy Wilder's work, we recognize strong collaborators. And what about John Wayne in John Ford's films, Anna Karina in Godard's Monica Vitti's in Antonioni's, and composers like Nino Rota's significance in Fellini's oeuvre, Ennio Morricone in Leone's, and Michael Nyman in Greenaway's? The directors here are king, but there are also queens and princes, lords and ladies - an aristocracy of talent; not serfs and servants of prosaic collaboration.
Film pulls in so many different directions because it possesses this aristocracy of talent impacting visibly on the material, but it also illustrates the dangers of such visibility. Robert Altman would talk of firing Wenders' first-class cameraman, the aforementioned Robby Muller on Fool For Love. Eric Stoltz was originally lined up to play Marty McFly in Back to the Future but was replaced by Michael J. Fox after numerous scenes were shot. In each instance these firings wouldn't be examples of professional incompetence, more aesthetic inappropriateness. Muller was removed because his compositional sense was too precise for Altman's liking, while Stoltz was too serious for Robert Zemeckis's purpose. It isn't a question of professionalism, but one of aesthetics: what would suit the material? In each instance - in Muller's and Stoltz's - the decision has a compliment within the ostensible insult: their contribution was so significant that they had to be removed when it didn't fit the vision of the overall project. To have retained them would have been to create potentially bum notes: a sense that the intention didn't match the result, and we can all think of examples of very good actors, composers and cinematographers, imagine them working on a different film and sense the mismatch. Imagine Gerard Depardieu playing Daniel Auteuil's role in Hidden, Juliette Binoche in La belle noiseuse, Robert De Niro inThe Way We Were. It isn't that one actor is better than the other (though they might be), but that the configuration of elements would have been thrown out of balance with one major change.
Yet perhaps for some filmmakers this reconfiguration contains its own imp of perversity, with the director changing an aspect all the better to produce notes that are off key. If for example Brad Pitt at the age he was in Fight Club happened to be the man whose midriff was exposed from behind in 4:44, this would have been unproblematic, and equally if, in one curiously provocative scene in Ferrara's The Funeral, the woman we see Vincent Gallo kissing hadn't been an old woman three times his age but someone his own, the scene would have been smoothly incorporated into the diegesis. The former is an obvious example and the latter an extreme one, but the point is that cinema might not be all in the casting, but the various elements are impactful, and often conspicuously so. When an editor moves from one publisher to another so that a writer's work no longer has the same person editing it, this is usually quite invisible: when a filmmaker moves from one actor to another, even one composer to another, it is usually very apparent. What often happens is that film aims nevertheless to hide these elements in the astuteness of its choices. But what happens when a filmmaker makes what looks like a bad decision?
An interesting example is Desplechin's Esther Kahn. Here he casts Summer Phoenix as a young English woman with a passion for the theatre, and who determines to become a success. Andrew Sarris in the New York Observer reckoned Ms. Phoenix is "completely lacking in charm and charisma, and is unable to project either Esther's initial anomie or her eventual awakening". In The New York Times A O Scott reckoned "It is also possible that the problem lies not with Mr. Desplechin but with Ms. Phoenix. Her Esther is a fascinating mixture of passivity and ferocity, but it's not clear that she has the range to show both sides of the character. Her best scenes, and those that convey some of the risk and difficulty of the artistic process, are with Nathan (Ian Holm), a second-rate actor who becomes Esther's teacher." Summer Phoenix is part of the Phoenix family, and unlike River and Joaquin seems an accidental actress, someone who fell into the industry more than actively pushed her way into it. In an Observer interview with Polly Vernon, Vernon says "Summer refers to herself, cheerfully, as a C-list actress. 'That's exactly what I am! There's the big lines and the little lines...'And to get the big lines, you have to be a bit more grasping?'I think you must. Either that, or it's like the turtle that wins the race. And that's what I'd like to see myself as.'" Ambition, therefore, doesn't really come into it. "It's not precisely that I'm not ambitious," she continues. "I love what I do, and I love doing it, and I love getting better at it. I just am not willing to risk... much... to go on to the next level. I don't want to risk my personal sanity or happiness..." The character of Esther Kahn is full of ambition, and is willing to risk everything to make her way in the theatre. Why cast someone who seems to lack that drive? There are numerous moments in the film where Phoenix delivers her lines flatly and without emphasis, and we can see this as a failure or a different type of success. Phoenix plays the role with the push and shove of intention in the dialogue, but with almost no intention in dramatic intensity. When Esther insists after Ian Holm's second-rate thesp says she wants to be an actress, that "I'm not good enough", we have a strange mismatch where a first-class actor playing second-rate acts opposite someone determined to become first-rate but played by someone who clearly is not. If Holm wants to convince her that she has the talent he doesn't possess, the film is caught in the non-diegetic realization on the viewer's part that he offers the line with the gravity of a brilliant actor, undermining the scene and creating a self-reflexivity beyond it. Is this intentional on Desplechin's part, or was he simply caught with an actor he couldn't easily get rid off?
But can't we think here of other films where similar problems seemed to be at work? Think of Breathless and reports that the film was amateurishly made and haphazardly put together: a film so incoherent in its shooting that Jean-Paul Belmondo didn't fear for his career simply because he was sure the film would never get released (Everything is Cinema). It was as if Belmondo believed the director had been 'miscast'. Such errors in the shoot, disastrous choices, can retrospectively generate a new form or feeling. What is interesting about Esther Kahn is that Phoenix is cast scenically more than dramatically: she is an object in cinematic space rather than an actor generating a character. From this point of view the problem isn't with Phoenix but more with Holm - an unequivocally fine actor who gives to the film a substance missing from the other key roles. Where the whole affair between Esther and the critic possesses inverted commas, as if neither actor was allowed to master their role and instead had to echo it, Holm embodies his and gives it a gravity that leaves him adrift in an otherwise arch piece of filmmaking. Even the melodramatic moment where Esther chews on glass after the critic leaves her, and Esther's initial refusal to go on stage knowing that the critic and his new lover will be in the audience, contains little dramatic impetus. As everybody around Esther gets in a fluster, so Phoenix still delivers her lines with a flat tone. Whether this is intentional or not, it creates a Brechtian sense of gest, with the viewer unable to identify with Esther's situation because we are struck by the monotone delivery. In a conventionally impressive performance we would not use the term a bum note; but equally in a moment of Brechtian theatre we wouldn't use the term either. The bum note comes about in the gap between our indecision concerning the quality of the acting and the intentionality of the directing in relation to it. It is as if the director seeks out not the through-line of the story with the acting serving the narrative, but behaviour that gets expressed through the story told.
To help us further, we might think of Robert Altman talking of casting Gwen Welles in the role of an ambitious singer in Nashville who has a terrible voice, and Altman insisted he didn't want her character to sing terribly - but for Welles to sing as well as she could, as she took singing lessons from the film's musical director Richard Baskin. "You've got to be the best you can". Her failure was necessary to the story, it needs to be acknowledged, but Altman wanted the awkward behaviour of someone who was trying very hard to sing well (and thus relevant to both actress and character). As the audience in the club where the character performs responds by telling her how terrible she is, so the viewer watches - less smugly amused than empathically concerned. As the audience in the club then asks her to stop singing and start stripping, so Altman goes for the bum note of the actress removing her clothes and the audience listening to the character's awful voice. The scene isn't 'bad' in the sense of failed thespian technique some will insist they find in Esther Kahn, nor failed dramatic technique some might claim is evident in 4:44, but it has the ambivalence of the troubling, a sense of the viewer feeling implicated in the actor exposed, rather as we are embarrassed for Dafoe and his spare piece of flesh. If one knew that Gwen Welles was playing someone who so obviously couldn't sing, and that the film cut away as she was taking her clothes off, Altman would have utilized the actor for her thespian properties and not also her behavioural ones. When Keith Carradine in an interview about McCabe and Mrs Miller said that for Altman eighty five per cent of film was about casting, he added that Altman was always looking for behaviour. Thus casting the actor was about exploring certain behavioural characteristics. Any professional qualities the actor possessed was matched, even surpassed, by their behavioural dimension. In casting Summer Phoenix in Esther Kahn, Desplechin gets not only an actress playing the role of an actress, but also an actress in the role who seems a half-hearted actress playing a full-hearted one. It creates an unusual mismatch - a bum note.
A director who seems often interested in the 'dischordant' in film is Mike Leigh, and he shares with Cassavetes and with Altman a fascination with an actor's behavioural possibilities and not only their professional duties. It is true that David Thewlis has, in his other roles, never been as tic-ridden, twisty-mouthed and ripe for argument as he is in Naked, but Leigh wants to push the characteristics of an actor's persona into caricature, and we use the term un-pejoratively. A caricature after all is an exaggeration of the normal features: someone has a biggish nose and it can become enormous; someone has a small mole on their cheek and it takes up a much larger area of their face, the teeth are large in the mouth and they end up resembling a horse's. Often filmmakers will create this caricature through camera angles, like the Coen brothers in Raising Arizona, or through costume, as Coppola does with Nicolas Cage in Peggy Sue Got Married, but our interest is chiefly in performance, the area in which Leigh allows it to present itself. Leigh generates self-caricature rather than imposed caricature; he wants the actor fundamentally to discover the caricatural dimension in their role; not impose it upon the actor chiefly through the formal means externally. In a film like Mark Herman's Little Voice, there is a friend of the central character's mum who is crammed into a dress several sizes too small for her and the fatty folds exaggerate her plump bulk, but the performance itself is almost non-existent. It is a caricatural cameo for easy audience mirth. In Leigh's work it is rather different. Whether it is Alison Steadman in Abigail's Party, Thewlis in Naked, Timothy Spall in Life is Sweet, Ewen Bremner in Naked, Jane Horracks in Life is Sweet or Mark Benton in Career Girls, the roles are found rather than presented. Leigh is famous for his method of creating characterization before narrative content, as he creates a script out of the improvisatory performances he sets up in a rehearsal stage.
In an amusing anecdote Leigh captures well his method on Naked in Leigh on Leigh. "One day, in the summer of 1992, there was a late-afternoon rehearsal with David and Ewen. I suggested we go out and they do an improvisation in the street. They went off, so I did as I always do, which is to clock what's happening by keeping close to the actors but out of sight. I'd organized it so that David was sitting on the steps of a church in Marylebone, and Ewen showed up. They were talking, every so often Ewen would yell "Maggie!"He kept shouting at passers-by. All that manic behaviour was going on. Somebody at an upstairs window asked him to stop shouting; he told them to fuck off." With no camera present as Leigh allowed the actors to search for their characters, so people were understandably confused as to what was going on. Where in Little Voice Herman seems to film an instant caricature, Leigh interestingly finds the caricature in the inner reaches of the performance meeting the outer reaches: the actor almost Method-like finds their character, and then pitches it broadly in the film. Leigh performances are rarely understated; even when a character is folded up in on themselves, as in most of the leading characters in Bleak Moments or in Nuts in May, the aim is to show the residual consequences of that tightness. When Brian in the latter lectures someone on the volume of the person's radio at the camping site, the performance is delivered as though by Tannoy. Brian doesn't raise his voice, but talks as if there is no direct person to whom he is talking. The tone is imperious because the other person is hardly recognized. As the young man pokes his head out of his tent and responds with a surly defensiveness, Leigh is interested in the dynamic contrast between these types.
The bum notes one often hears in Leigh's films are the clanging of the social piano keys. The yuppie character in Naked exaggerates the traits of entitlement and power, wandering around at one moment in a small pair of briefs. He might look ridiculous, but it doesn't stop him lording it over others, as if there is almost nothing that could reduce his power base. In Life is Sweet, Timothy Spall opens an upmarket restaurant as if trying to pull himself up by the social bootstraps, only to get entangled in the mess of his own class insecurities. The bum notes are those of discordant characters reflecting a discordant social system.
One might often wonder whether it is often the nature of the director as ensemble improviser that leads to these bum notes, as if there is something in the character finding a performance that might grate against what the narrative is trying to do, and that this creates the off-key. Yet though critics of John Cassavetes have often commented on the "rough edges and raw nerve endings" (Sarris in The Village Voice on Faces), and aesthetic conservatives like Stanley Kauffmann sees the director, in Woman Under the Influence, doing no more than putting "his camera in real houses and he gives his actors things to say as lifelike as he can make them and he even puts some non-actors in the cast and he lets the camera run and run" (The New Republic), it is now established that Cassavetes wasn't an improvisatory director - everything was scripted. It is more the impression of improvisation that the film leaves us with, and we might wonder why this happens to be so, rather than looking for evidence in production histories, however useful such histories can sometimes be.
If we look at Olivier Assayas's Boarding Gate and see bum notes, many of them rest on the expression of feeling offered by the leading characters played by Asia Argento and Michael Madsen. They offer expression as exposition, with the comments on their relationship giving us an emotional back story, but this is delivered in a manner that would be problematic enough as dialogue about a bomb that is likely to explode, or information about an attack that is about to take place. It is much more so when divulging personal information. When for example Madsen says there is a reason why Argento was never allowed in his office before now, she ask whether it was because she played escort girl for his clients, and the dialogue wants to convey narrative information but at the same time the complexity of the emotions between the two of them. When she says "I did it because I loved you", he replies "does that mean you don't any longer", before suddenly, with Argento in focus in the foreground and Madsen out of focus in the background, he starts shouting that he could have picked up a two dollar hooker just as easily. The bum note comes in the film failing to find implicit ways in delineating the past history of the relationship. They seem to be talking not only to each other, but for the benefit of a third party listener. When Argento goes over and looks at pictures of his kids this makes sense, since this the first time she has seen the photos, but we might wonder if a woman who would have done anything for her man, as she says, wouldn't know a little about these children already. It isn't as if his marital life has been a secret, and wouldn't the degree of intimacy generated suggest that this would have been a topic of discussion? There is a sense here that the relationship is taking place in several different registers: they act at the same time as if they hardly know each other and also know each other well; as if they are talking intimately between themselves but also as though they are doing so for the purposes of someone else in the scene who isn't actually there.
However, if we're only concerned with the conventions of narrative plausibility and notions of authentic dialogue, then perhaps we are missing out on other elements that make the scene distinctive within its ineptitude. Argento is one of cinema's more exploratory actors as a body within the frame, whether it happens to be in her own film, The Heart is Deceitful Above All Things or work by Ferrara, Assayas or even Michael Radford (B. Monkey). At one moment there is a surprising cut with Argento's character no longer seated on the couch, but sexually offering herself on the desk, her legs slightly spread and her panties showing. If we focus not on the dialogue exchange but instead on the specifics of the body and the form, the film isn't so uninteresting after all. Here we have Madsen, the proverbial bloated capitalist given physical mass, a figure in film who's never been fat, but always lumbering: a broad, heavy presence, with a back like a marble slab. In contrast we have one of the lithest bodies in film, someone who can arch and bend with the supple form of a gymnast allied to the emotional shape-shifting of a seductress. The cut would have been less pronounced if, in a shot a moment earlier in this shot/counter-shot exchange between the two characters, we had seen what Argento has been doing with her skirt. As we see the top half of her body seated on Madsen's desk, she offers a hand movement at the bottom of the frame that looks like it might be the straightening of her skirt, only for us to realize in the next shot that she has hiked it up and is stroking herself through her underwear. As she says, when Madsen reckons she enjoyed the kinky sexual games they would play, that she was numb, that she was taking lots of drugs, so the dialogue is predictable but the situation novel. Any number of actresses could have delivered Argento's dialogue, but only a few could capture well the bodily configurations that allow us to imagine the erotic life the pair of them shared. Too much emphasis on the dialogue would play-up the bum notes, but the observation of the geometry of the bodies might make us see something more interesting.
One often hears how film is a visual medium, yet it is often through the issue of sound, more specifically of course dialogue, that a film's mediocrity is announced. But if we comment only on the dialogue in the scene from Boarding Gate we are ignoring the choreography that surrounds it, because it is much easier to notice weak dialogue than weak mise-en-scene. Asia Argento might not deliver dialogue like Judi Dench, but Judi Dench doesn't exactly move through space like Asia Argento. And lest one sees this simply as an issue of age, aren't actresses like Charlotte Rampling and Isabelle Huppert very physical cinematic presences despite Rampling being in her mid-sixties and Huppert now in her late fifties? Rampling and Huppert can move through space a little like Argento, and so it is not simply about age but also of plasticity - Dench might be great with dialogue but plastically she has never been of very much interest. Argento is very much the opposite - but consequently perhaps, a more cinematic actress than Dench. The difference is that where Dench tends to be play understated and refuses to show her limitations as she moves minimally through space, Argento exposes those limitations through dialogue that tends to be overblown and delivered without much nuance or feeling - these subtleties are often reserved for the body.
The bum note is often an opportunity for a critic, or an audience, to show their understanding of the medium: to judge and laugh at elements of the film and suggest the filmmaker or the actor doesn't know what they are doing. But can it not also be an opportunity to create the space for a question rather than a superior assumption? What we often find is not especially (or certainly not only) a failure of craft in films possessed of the bum note, but elements that remind us that we are involved in manifold film: a medium combining numerous elements from the camera to the sound, from production design to direction, from acting to musical composition. Cinema may usually be at its best when director led, but it is of course one of the most collaborative of mediums, and one of the few that so openly acknowledges this dimension by virtue of usually possessing a credit sequence. To narrow film down to a well-crafted story is to ignore the different sensibilities at work in the cinema experience, an experience that ought, surely, to be able to incorporate the bum note without easy mirth but a quiet sense of inquiry.
© Tony McKibbin