BY David Levine in Opinion | 15 DEC 17

Act Natural

Why do we love to watch people who can’t act?

BY David Levine in Opinion | 15 DEC 17

There’s this thing they always tell theatre actors in preparation for ‘on-camera’ work: pull it back, don’t overdo it, take what you’d do in a theatre – all that projection, all that emoting – and pare it back 90 percent. The camera doesn’t care about any of that. The camera’s not looking for it. The camera magnifies even the tiniest gesture, so the camera just wants you to be natural. Just don’t act. Be yourself and say the lines, and let the camera do its work.

Totally persuasive film actors often make terrible stage actors – you can’t ‘just be yourself’ in a theatre and expect to convince anyone: they wouldn’t be able to hear you in the seventh row, they wouldn’t be able to see your eyebrow arching in the balcony. In theatre, everything has to be bigger. But in front of a camera, the more professional an actor is, the less ‘acting’ you’ll see. A non-actor, in this setting, is simply someone who can’t relax under the lights, the boom, the cameras, the whole schmear. In other words, you can spot a non-actor by all the acting they’re doing, a feature on view again and again in ‘The Non-Actor’, a film festival organized by Light Industry’s Thomas Beard and the New York Film Festival’s Dennis Lim this fall at New York’s Lincoln Center.

Kent Mackenzie, The Exiles, 1961, film still. Courtesy: Milestone Films

The non-actor is always the one who disturbs the storytelling. Kent Mackenzie’s 1961 film The Exiles, which captures the everyday life of a crew of Native American twenty-somethings in LA’s Bunker Hill, is humming along fine and suddenly the otherwise magnetic Tom Reynolds shakes someone’s hand too enthusiastically, or oversells the line ‘What say, Ursula-Anne? You working hard tonight, baby?’. In Floyd Mutrux’s Dusty and Sweets McGee (1971), you’re just about to be moved by the scene where real-life addicts Beverley and Mitch argue about their nonexistent sex life, and then Beverley audibly flubs a line, saying ‘All we can do is hold hands….Chicken, TV, crossword puzzles, and shitty m – … hotels.’

Lizzie Borden, Born in Flames, 1983, film still. Courtesy: Lizzie Borden and Anthology Film Achives

It’s hard to tell if this alienating effect is deliberate or not: these films use non-actors to add veracity to the storytelling, through a combination of sheer grit and embodied knowledge of their own milieu. But often, rather than deepening the authority of a narrative, the non-actor cancels it out. What we see in Shirley Clarke’s Cool World (1963) or Lizzie Borden’s Born in Flames (1983) is effectively two dramas: there’s the main narrative, and also the non-actors’ attempts to subsume themselves within it. The two stories work against each other, as the non-actor repeatedly trips up the narrative momentum, even as the narrative keeps constraining his or her ‘realness’. Why are we making these people speak lines? Why can’t we just watch them improvising for the camera, like Jason Holliday in Clarke’s Portrait of Jason (1967) or Victor Vikofsy in William Greaves’ Symbiopsychotaxiplasm (1968), glorying in the performance of their own idiosyncrasies?

George Kuchar, I, An Actress, 1977, film still. Courtesy: The Filmmakers Cooperative

That would be another festival. Although it included some documentaries and meta-docs, ‘The Non-Actor’ seemed concerned with the many ways a non-actor can jam up the narrative works, as well as the varying reasons why filmmakers would want to jam up these works—from a romance with failure (Andy Warhol’s relentless Vinyl (1965), George Kuchar’s sublime I, An Actress (1977)) to a Brechtian critique of power and spectacle (Peter Watkins’ awkward-but-effective 1971 mockumentary Punishment Park), to registering the chaos wrought by untamed affect (Ronald Brownstein’s Frownland (2007)).

Peter Watkins, Punishment Park, 1971, film still. Courtesy: the UCLA Film & Television Archive

‘The non-actor’ is an awkward moniker. Is this pursuit so unusual we can only define it negatively? In theatre, we sometimes called non-actors ‘civilians’. But the reason it’s so tricky to draw a line between actors and non-actors is that it’s not so much a professional distinction as a situational one: beyond vocation, location or union membership, an actor and a non-actor are persons in a predicament – the predicament of being watched. If they navigate the situation elegantly, if they blend in seamlessly with the narrative, then they’re actors. If they navigate it awkwardly, they’re non-. We’re compelled by non-actors because we want to see these people work, we want to see them struggle. In the end, that drama often proves more compelling than the drama in which they’ve been embedded, and which they are always in the process of undoing.

Main image: Kent Mackenzie, The Exiles, 1961, film still. Courtesy: Milestone Films

David Levine is an artist and former theatre director. His exhibition ‘Some of the People, None of the Time’, a project about fake crowds, will open at the Brooklyn Museum, New York, in May 2018.