The Exploration of Intimate Space
If Marlon Brando remains one of the very greatest of screen actors, perhaps it lies in a paradox: that he was the actor who more successfully than anybody else suggested the intimacy of the stage whilst acting in front of a camera. Watching Brando on screen we often feel we are in the same room, and a smallish one at that. Many actors seem to adopt stage-craft to cinema and arrive at a performance that is emphatic, registered, theatrical. Actors like Orson Welles, Burt Lancaster, Laurence Olivier, John Gielgud and Charlton Heston, for example, give the impression that the cinema is a large theatrical space, where for Brando the stage should always be small, and thus cinema was a perfect medium in which to explore a performance through its capacity not for maximising space but for minimising it. Sure, on the one hand film could be seen as an expansive stage, as a space that could open up into a real world arena so much bigger and grander than the theatre; but on the other hand it could close itself up into a space much smaller than the conventional theatrical area by virtue of the closeness the camera could get to the actors - a closeness, of course, much greater than that of an audience to an actor on the stage.
Hence many of Brando's finest performances suggest a degree of confinement: A StreetcarNamed Desire, On the Waterfront, The Men, The Chase, Last Tango in Paris, and yes, even his emphatically tight, intimate portrait in Apocalypse Now. Frequently we hear anecdotes about Brando later in his career being embarrassed about his weight and insisting on body doubles for long shots, or insisting on close-up shots (on ApocalypseNow for example) because of his wide girth, but that is only half the story. The other half lies in Brando's genius for the close-up or medium shot. Everything lends itself well to intimacy: the mumbling voice, the sly irony in the eyes, the movement of the mouth. Even when he does something intensely athletic: like his impressive back flip in Last Tango inParis, director Bernardo Bertolucci doesn't film it in the type of shot that it would seem to demand: a longish shot that would take in Brando's whole body and the surrounding space. No, instead Bertolucci stays as close as he can whilst still registering Brando's athleticism. It is, we could say, an example of the intimate athleticism so at odds with the epic acrobatics we find in Heston and Lancaster, with the latter an athleticism that always seems to need to eat up more and more filmic space. Brando's athleticism usually works best in these confined spaces. One sees this particularly well in A Streetcar Named Desire, where his Stanley Kowalski seems to spend most of the film in the apartment he shares with his wife as if he's in confinement. Certainly, there are plenty of shots of the Brando torso on show, but this is a body that is at its most expressive invading a woman's space or offering his body up for admiration. In one scene in the film Kowalski tells Vivien Leigh's Blanche Du Bois that he's not one for offering compliments and we watch as he simultaneously self-aggrandizes in the smoothness of his own posturing body language, and also menacingly hovers as he insinuates that Blanche isn't as attractive as she thinks she is. When Du Bois realises Brando's not one for compliments, and looks hurt, Brando says "I don't go in for that stuff...compliments to women about their looks. I never met a dame yet didn't know she was good looking or not without being told. And I've met some of them who give themselves credit for more than they've got." Here Brando is framed mainly in medium close-up, at just the right distance for us to admire his physical beauty and to worry slightly about his brute physicality. Du Bois, delicate and slight, offers up his antithesis. Yet there is also tenderness to this Kowalski, and it rests in the as readily hurt as haughty expression in Brando's eyes, and in a voice that's none too deep, slightly hesitant, and suggestively wounded. There is a hypersensitivity contained within Brando's close-in brutality, and it's to the latter that Kazan would draw upon again and more obviously.
It is there for example in Kazan's next project with Brando, in 1952's Viva Zapata, where it's almost as if the film is caught between the epic subject matter and the intimate Brando portrayal of the titular Emiliano. On the one hand we have a film about the Mexican revolution that would suggest breadth and epic scope, but on the other we have Brando whose telling gestures in the film do not come in utilising space and movement to create History, but in, if you like, miniaturising the story. In one scene a fellow Mexican farmer says to Zapata that the corrupt former president Porfirio Diaz had just fled the country, and this major victory for Zapata and the people is signified in little more than a touch. Brando hugs the man firmly and closes his hand around the man's back through the bars of the house in which the man's sitting. Later in the film as Zapata angrily breaks a jug of wine his borderline alcoholic brother's been drinking - the brother who's supposed to be as purposefully involved in the people's freedom as Emiliano himself, but no sooner has the revolution been achieved, loses himself in debauchery - Zapata's hand caresses the wall he's just broken the jug against. It's this sensitivity and sensitiveness to the details that brings out the low key historical. In Kazan's On the Waterfront, the sensitivity is there more straightforwardly and practically. The famous scene in the back of the cab near the end of the film was shot in tighter close-up than was originally intended. Filmed in the studio, when the back projection failed to turn up, showing New York passing by, Kazan, according to Charles Higham in the biography Brando, was furious but pragmatic, and chose to shoot the scene in a close-up that brings out Brando's brilliance. Even though Kazan claimed Brando was one of the few geniuses he'd ever witnessed in acting , he wasn't always the best director to bring out that greatness, as we'll illustrate further in, for maybe Kazan was still a director of if not the old school of classic Hollywood, then still a school of generally strong narrative through-lines.
Critics and observers often talk about the high degree of sensitivity in Brando, a sensitivity that would seem to be lost in long shot or medium shot. Pauline Kael says in Reeling "His acting was so physical - so exploratory, tentative, wary - that we could sense with him, feel him pull back at the slightest hint of rebuff." Gillo Pontecorvo who directed him in Queimada/Burn, explains in Higham's book how he got a great scene out of him: "Since Brando is like an ultra-sensitive animal, he was so moved by the music [the Bach music Pontecorvo put on on the set] that he performed one of the most extraordinary scenes he ever played. The entire crew were reduced to tears." Norman Mailer insisted in an essay, 'Tango, Last Tango', that in Last Tango in Paris: "So we see Brando's face before us - it is that tragic angelic mask of incommunicable anguish which has spoken to us across the years of his uncharted heroic depths."
With Brando there is a sense that a film is never an illustrated narrative; it's an exploratory search for the essence of a thing, which he himself expressed well in an interview he gave to L'Europeo at the time of Last Tango in Paris. "This was a true film. I'll add that it is humane and poetic. In our daily life almost everything is squalid, scandalous or odious. Things which are true always give us a sense of annoyance, of nausea, and this film is true." Of his director, Bernardo Bertolucci, he said: "He appeared to me as a man who is capable of extracting from an actor the best of himself and also teaching him something. A man capable of doing something new, of tearing away all conventions, of overturning psychologies and renewing them, like a psychoanalyst." Taking into account Brando's first comment, maybe it's better to say it's not so much the truth that annoys, per se, but the search for it, the sense of the non-givenness of truth. Truth isn't a narrative through line, but a tender, intimate epistemology. For Brando it is "an absolute vulnerability" as Kazan once described it in Kazan on Kazan. What was perhaps so annoying for many in Brando's performances, and his Paul in Last Tango in Paris the ultimate expression of it, was this vague, indefinable, revelatory quest. He was an actor around whom narratives could never really develop, and this connects to our first point about Brando's intimacy and restricted athleticism, and leads us into another, the degree to which Brando was always a "figural" as opposed to a "figurative" actor.
These are terms originally from Jean-Francois Lyotard, and borrowed by Gilles Deleuze on his book on Francis Bacon: The Logic of Sensation. Here Deleuze talks about Bacon's refusal to create the figurative, and instead opts for the figural. "The figurative (representation) implies the relationship of an image to an object that it is supposed to illustrate; but it also implies the relationship of an image to other images in a composite whole which assigns a specific object to each of them. Narration is the correlate of illustration." Most actors are figurative rather than figural, they further narrative event, and their characters are usually protagonists, antagonists, or supporting players to the drama to hand. When we talked earlier about the way Olivier (in Henry V, or Hamlet), or Burt Lancaster (in The Crimson Pirate obviously but even in The Swimmer) open up cinematic space where Brando closes it down, it is because of their strong figurative element. Sure, they would often play, especially later in life, more physically restricted characters characters - like Olivier in Sleuth, or Lancaster in Conversation Piece - but their body language lends itself to the broad gesture, the grand movement, Brando's figural element often demands touches that somehow slow the film down and closes the space off. We can think of his work for Coppola in both The Godfather and ApocalypseNow. Both are ostensibly epic films but Brando's purpose is almost to shrink the epic element, to hint at the intimate within the dramatic and the epic. We can see this for example as he strokes a cat sitting in his lap in The Godfather. Brando's dialogue suggests the epic - he's talking to someone who's asking him for a favour, someone Don Corleone insists has shown him no respect up to this point - but Brando's primary concern seems to be with the cat writhing on his lap. In Apocalypse Now, Brando's character has created a worshipful community in the middle of the jungle, but Brando insistently mumbles and meditates inside his hut when Martin Sheen's character finally catches up with him. Sheen's quest through the jungle (to find Brando's Kurtz, and to kill him) could have led to an exciting encounter between Sheen and Brando, utilising the jungle locale for a game of hide and seek. Instead Brando sits waiting for Sheen to kill him: he's more interested in exploring his own thoughts with Sheen than trying to save his own life. When Brando talks about the true giving us a sense of annoyance, maybe we could say it is the figural that creates the annoyance, a figural state that sees little need for creating figurative actions.
If we can claim Last Tango in Paris as one of Brando's finest films, it lies in Bertolucci's acceptance that Brando is a figural actor. Interestingly utilising Francis Bacon images during the titles, the film's opening is a crane shot swooping down towards Brando's ear as he lets out a yowl of existential pain. Bertolucci's approach is partly an exemplary study of directorial patience towards an actor's being, but also a visual exercise in trying to find a correlative style that nevertheless works as counterpoint to the actor's relative stillness. Bertolucci's camera is thoroughly active, constantly tracking laterally against vertical images (bars, grates, pillars) to bring out a vertiginous sense of movement. If the director had worked too closely from Brando's being, from his stillness, the acting and directing might have arrived at stasis: at a thespian/cinematic weld that would have cancelled out the performance and the direction. An example of this in the hyperbolic sense is Clint Eastwood's Mystic River, where Sean Penn realises his daughter lies dead in a park and histrionically mourns her passing as he tries to break through the crowds and the police to get close to the body. At the same time Eastwood's direction mimics Penn's loss with an emphatic camera style that cranes over Penn's head and looks skyward. What Eastwood does is find the most conventionally melodramatic way to express and reiterate Penn's pain. Bertolucci finds instead a correlative style rather than a mimetic style. He offers a melancholically moody, visual nonchalence that captures but in no way imitates the immediate emotional intensity of Brando's performance. Even in the opening shot where Bertolucci zeroes in on that existential yowl, in a moment that would appear to resemble Eastwood's empathy with Penn, the director wants less to re-present the emotion (creating a sort of emotional pleonasm, la Eastwood) than to enquire into it. What, Bertolucci asks, is this strange gesture of despair taking place in the middle of a Parisian street?
Thus Bertolucci doesn't want to register Brando's pain narratively, figuratively, but sees the camera as sympathetic to the nature of hesitant enquiry as Brando's performances have always tried to be, but directors have rarely shown themselves in sympathy with. We can take as a couple of examples of this incomprehension films by obviously impressive, generally thoughtful filmmakers: Elia Kazan's aforementioned Viva Zapata, and Charlie Chaplin's The Countess from Hong Kong. Even though Kazan insisted when asked whether Brando's performance in the film was based on clear, directorial objectives and insisted that just happened to be Brando's talent, and later adds in Kazan on Kazan "I gave the actors no direction whatsoever. Not one word," that might be true, but there is still the camera in relation to the performance. If Brando more or less created the character as he wished, nevertheless did Kazan find a visual correlative for that performance?
It isn't enough to allow Brando to improvise, find his own character, or change the dialogue - which could be exasperating enough for any filmmaker - but the director perhaps must also find a visual style to accommodate that performance. When Bertolucci allows, in a scene where Brando talks about his childhood, the light to play off Brando's face so that one moment he half disappears into shadow and then, a moment later, appears in the light as his co-star moves away from the window, we again find the correlative aesthetic. It's as if Bertolucci knows that as Brando tells his truth (reputedly based on experience), the camera has to become slightly, aesthetically removed. The camera holds to a close-up that so suits Brando's style, but it is a subtly distancing close-up by virtue of the camera's correlative approach. In Kazan's movie it is as though Brando understands that a film about Viva Zapata should be based on the historically miniature, which would minimise narrative, but Kazan still demanded a film that respects narrative event. When Kazan insists in Kazan on Kazan that the film isn't especially psychological, and that he wanted the characters to "play out their emotions", we still have the problem of whether the emotions are intimate or expansionist, exemplified in the very different acting styles of the film's two leads, Brando and Anthony Quinn. Where we feel Brando always wants to pull the edges of the frame towards him, creating a smaller space, Quinn has a Samsonian need to stretch the image, to turn a standard ratio into a wide screen shot with just sheer expansionist energy.
In the former approach we have the gesture; in the latter, the action. A film that gains its meaning from a Quinn performance would lend itself well to the action and the epic; from a Brando display something else. But it's this something else the film never quite finds; because though Kazan is seen as one of the great directors of Method actors, Brando was, finally, more than a Method actor. He was first and foremost a gestural actor. That is, he wasn't seeking the motivation that would push the narrative along, but looking for the gesture that would almost grind the film to a halt, that would make us reflect on the gesture and not anticipate the story. Now when another Method actor, James Dean in Rebel Without a Cause, argues with another teenager, we know the argument will lead to another narrative event, and we anticipate the next action more than we reflect on the present behaviour. Brando's gestural style, though, lends itself to reflection over anticipation, illustrated in that moment where he strokes his hand against the wall in VivaZapata. In this gesture there is not the singularity of meaning relevant to an action, but the multiplicit meaning of the gesture. What does this gesture signify? It suggests firstly, of course, that Brando is disappointed with his brother, but that he is also disappointed with himself because he has just angrily broken an object, and that this gesture somehow signifies the moment of revolutionary failure. His brother finally wants to carouse, womanize, and appropriate property just like the very people they're trying to overcome, and Zapata's frustration with his brother's weaknesses results in a minor action of irritation, leading to a gesture of sorrow in the wake of it. Thus unlike the Method, the 'gestural' does not require the motivational leading to the narratively driven; it demands the minute action leading to the multiply, yet never determinedly, significant. If Stanislavski can say "only artists of genius are capable of the emotional experience of a superobjective, the complete absorption into themselves of the soul of the play", Brando's genius resides in an interesting reversal: as if he sacrifices the superobjective (the overall purpose of the production), to the exploration of minutiae.
If Brando is such a disaster in what most critics believe is a disastrous film, The Countessfrom Hong Kong, it is because Brando has no opportunity to practise the gestural. His performance is all medium shot and long shot, and Brando's caught in the antithesis of what he does best. The film, basically a farce, has all sorts of plot contrivances that demands Brando's ambassador and Sophia Loren's impoverished countess must come to love each other because of initial attraction, certainly, but most of all because of force of circumstance. Loren stows away in Brando's cabin apartment in Hong Kong. A series of embarrassing moments ensue as Brando tries to keep Loren out of sight as he attends to various chores, duties and obligations from his apartment base. Undeniably, there is an aspect here central to a number of his best films, the enclosed environment that we mentioned earlier, but this isn't enclosed intimacy but enclosed farce. The space isn't closed off to generate tenderness, but often to point up hypocrisy, absurdity and the sense of one being hemmed in and constantly being found out. The Cambridge Guide to Theatretalks about farce concerning the "inventive manipulation of incident and character", and that "characters were rudimentary, but sets and props were elaborate".
Taking into account our comments on Brando's figural aspect, is there an actor less suitable to the farce? In his biography on the actor, Higham says "Marlon increasingly resented the way Chaplin treated him as though he were an inexperienced beginner." Yet Chaplin was probably right, and though that great critic of actors, David Thomson, claimed in Uncut DVD "the worst thing is that Brando's reputation for drama eclipsed his natural humour", this humorousness is rather different from the sort of humour Chaplin demanded. Brando's is improvisatory absurdity; Chaplin's is controlled presentation. Brando would like you to half-notice a joke; Chaplin would insist on its telegraphing. As Gilberto Perez remarks in The Material Ghost, "Chaplin's practise of shooting in the studio, and in sets at least slightly stylized, partly accounts for this feeling of confinement; but the studio can be made to yield the illusion of a much larger area, and Chaplin's sets feel nearly as confined as stage sets." Certainly both Brando and Chaplin were interested in enclosed spaces, but for Brando this was chiefly about the generation of intimacy; for Chaplin, control. It made sense that Chaplin wanted to dictate Brando's performance, but it didn't make an awful lot of sense that Brando had taken the role in the first place.
But then if you're a Hollywood star in a country whose cinema is based on the opposite of one's instincts, then is it inevitable that many choices made are going to seem absurd? If Brando thought acting wasn't for grown ups, maybe this lay in the problem of acting as opposed to being, that cinema still demanded too much action for an actor who was given to the relative stillness of the gesture. And yet there's a curious appropriateness to this for a critic looking to make sense of Brando's work. We're left not searching out the narrative arc of a great career, but the various details and touches throughout that career that wouldn't insist on Last Tango in Paris being a highpoint, per se, but instead a useful starting point. It is a way into what makes Brando so interesting a researcher in human behaviour: other filmmakers could look at the Brando performance and Bertolucci's direction, and to see how gestural acting allows itself to be revealed.
So it might be useful to ignore in some ways Brando's films, ignore them as part of a filmography, despite great movies like One Eyes Jacks and Mutiny on the Bounty that have been overlooked, and instead fish out the gestures and touches that add up to something closer to a philosophy than a career. There are some actors who've had exemplary oeuvres - actors like Cary Grant, James Stewart, Katharine Hepburn, Bette Davis, and in Europe, Marcello Mastroianni, Jeanne Moreau, Michel Piccoli - and who have produced a body of work equal to whatever talent they've possessed. But that wouldn't be so obviously true of Brando. However, neither would it simply be correct to say that this was because of Brando's self-destructive nature. Would it not be fairer to say that he got caught in a cinema of narrative over a cinema of gesture, and that Brando's take on the Method would have expanded it way beyond the conventions to which it was generally applied? Now supposedly Kazan believed that it was important to generate tension out of social, absorbent events as readily as obviously antagonistic ones, so that the tension generated would be so much greater come its release. One of the examples Kazan gives, and that Deleuze invokes in Cinema 1:The Movement Image, is of having characters eat together - out of this apparent conviviality a wariness can sit underneath the scene and create more antagonistic depth than could be achieved in a more straightforward move towards a duel. It was in this area, and perhaps this area alone, that Brando could give himself over to narrative, to the figurative, without a sense of bad faith; perhaps because the motive could sit so deeply that it required a minimising and not a maximising of action to work.
A brilliant example of this, in fact, comes in the one film Brando directed, One Eyed Jacks: a revenge-western loosely based on the Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid story. It runs to almost two and a half hours, though Brando's desired cut was originally to be well over four. Here Brando plays Rio who is let down by his best friend (Karl Malden) at the beginning of the film. With the pair of them on the run, Malden takes the money they've made from a robbery and goes looking to find a decent horse in return for the old nag they've been riding out of town on, while Brando waits to keep an eye out for the sheriff and his posse. But Malden never comes back; Brando gets caught and spends five years mouldering in jail. When he's released the one thing on his mind is to get revenge. Yet the rest of the film is as much a slow-burn attempt by the central character to understand himself as a move towards vengeance. It's as though each stage of the film contains a certain loss of narrative momentum for a gain in internal momentum. Higham claimed "it was a slow, halting, and awkward movie that lacked rhythm and momentum." Higham bolsters his take on the film not by analytic enquiry, but casual anecdote, saying there was one scene Brando was shooting that took all day. "Marlon began filming a sequence in which his character was to sit on a rock gazing out at the surf. It was to be shot silent, without dialogue. Rosenberg [the film's producer] took off to Carmel to buy some gifts for his children, and when he returned he was astonished to see that Marlon was still seated on the rock and cameraman Charles Lang, Jr, had not been able to complete the shot." When Rosenberg asked Marlon what he was doing, he replied, according to Higham, "I'm waiting for the right wave." This is seen by Higham to sum up the film's problems, but it could just as readily be used, with analytic bolstering, to help explain how One Eyed Jacksis a film about waiting and thinking.
After all, at this stage in the film, as Rio waits with his gang until his broken hand becomes strong enough to handle a gun as proficiently as it once did, he's weighing up the variables to see what he should do. Sure he wants revenge, but he dislikes members of his own gang almost as much as Malden, he's fallen in love with Malden's step-daughter who insists they should escape together and that Brando should ignore his feelings of vengefulness, and, anyway, his hand may never be fully functional again. This is a revenge western that takes into account the possibility of both not taking revenge and deciding when to take it if a character is to take it at all. Earlier in the film, when Brando rides up to Malden's ranch, and sees Malden for the first time in five years, he doesn't immediately kill him, he waits to hear Malden's version of events. Even as he knows Malden's lying, he still decides to wait. It's as if he's waiting to see just how much Malden's changed in the intervening years as he's become a sheriff and a family man. There is always this sense in Brando's Rio of a thinking man over a doing man, and so it makes perfect sense that Rio would sit and wait for the perfect wave, just as Brando waited to film it.
We might once again think of Brando's comment about truth and annoyance, and see how in this the figural connects to a certain kind of truth. In many ways Brando's character here and his characters in many other films are consistent ostensibly with the Method as Deleuze defines it when saying "now it is clear that the actor is very neutral, and never stationary. When he is not bursting out he is being permeated and never remains tranquil. For the actor as for the character, the basic neurosis is hysteria." But has Brando always in this sense been more than a Method actor? Let us look back again to that moment in VivaZapata when he brushes the wall with the palm of his hand. This is a gesture that can work wonderfully well within the realm of a kind of Methodical calm before the storm, where the casual gesture is really a precursor to the determined gesture: a sort of dress rehearsal in different garb but serving the same purpose. The imminent act of violence. But in Brando's work the violence has usually been more masochistic than inevitable: frequently we feel he gets himself into masochistic situations that could have been avoided had he acted when he'd received enough information to do so. For example when Malden in OneEyed Jacks clearly lies to him about what happened five years previously, Brando has enough information to hand, and enough resentment built up inside, to act, but instead he waits, and seems almost to wait for another opportunity to take his aggression out on someone else in a bar instead. This leads Malden and his assistants shortly afterwards to surround Brando and then have him promptly whipped. This masochism is there in TheChase as well, where Brando gets a severe beating in prison, and in Reflections in a GoldenEye, where Brando takes a series of light whippings across the face from his wife. We also see it in The Wild One, where Brando seems all but ready to take responsibility for a murder that was an accident caused by the violence done to Brando by another. Someone throws an object at Brando as he zooms past on his bike: he's thrown off the bike and the bike collides into an old man who's instantly killed.
There is this sense in Brando of not just the Method actor looking for justifiable reasons in which to act the action, but a perverse need to live the gesture come what may. If we take into account Deleuze's notion of the Method, where he talks about two poles, the vegetative (which absorbs) and the animal (which acts), there is a side of Brando that goes beyond these two poles and into the gestural. The gestural neither first and foremost absorbs, nor acts, but manages to be in the moment and in the gesture. When Brando passes his hand along the wall in Viva Zapata, or looks out to the sea in One Eyed Jacks, we can see these as spongy gestures of absorption, but we can just as readily see them, in the figural sense, as about the moment. That it's just as much about the texture of a wall, or the sound of crashing waves, as about anything else. If the Method slowed American cinema down to suggest not just the action but the importance of absorbing the world around the character before the act, then Brando pushes this slowness even further into the inexplicable, the multiply motivated or sometimes the so unmotivated that we're left with just the immediacy of the gesture.
So in conclusion, Brando's genius still hasn't quite fully been registered in American cinema. While many actors have been very usefully influenced by him (De Niro, Nicholson, Penn) there is still this air of inexplicablity, this capacity for the tender, unmotivated gesture that hasn't entirely been tapped. Maybe, even with Brando, it would have required a director strongly given to both the haptic and the phenomenalist, to a cinema that would have allowed Brando his sense of touch allied to a visual schema that would register that capacity visually. Last Tango in Paris, based so obviously around Brando's needs and desires, and One Eyed Jacks, which of course Brando himself directed, are probably the closest the actor got to realizing a cinema beyond the Method, a type of cinema that is a figural, gestural exploration of being not entirely to the detriment of narrative, but certainly one that constantly stalls it.
© Tony McKibbin