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Follow-up: The influence of the actor and the part on the performance

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To briefly follow-up on my thoughts on actors and performances:

The 2020 Academy Awards have been awarded, with outcomes perfectly supporting my text.

Best actor: Joaquin Phoenix

Best actress: Renee Zellweger

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February 10, 2020 at 2:46 pm

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The influence of the actor and the part on the performance

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A few recent movies have brought me back to the question of when and to what degree a great acting performance is to be credited to the actor and when to the part (and/or, possibly, something else yet). Moreover, to what degree the accolades for the performance actually match the performance and to what degree they are influenced (a second time) by factors like the part.

An excellent (non-recent) example is Natalie Portman in “Black Swan”: Would she have won an Academy Award playing another part in another movie in that year, had she been cast in another lead? Could someone else have been found for the part in “Black Swan” and won in Portman’s stead? The answers are “probably not”* and “almost certainly”**, respectively.

*She is a legitimately good actress, and a bit of a personal favorite, but there are others as or more skilled that she would need to overcome. Also note that this currently remains her only Academy Award.

**There might not be many candidates, seeing that the average “waitress/actress” would be well out of her depth, that Judi Dench would have been too old and Jessica Alba too unskilled, etc. There would almost certainly be some, however. (I am too uninformed to judge who might or might not manage the ballet part, and refrain from specific suggestions.)

On other occasions, it might be a combination of actor and part. Consider Marlee Matlin: She won an Academy Award at 21, spectacularly young, and might have seemed destined for a great career. The problem? She won as a deaf woman playing a deaf woman … Her deafness might have been a major asset for this particular part and movie*, but more of a liability for most other parts. Actingwise, she does not appear to be anything special based on the few things that I have seen her in (including a recurring minor part on “My Name is Earl”)—decent, yes; special, no.

*“Children of a Lesser God”. Note that I have not seen this movie and cannot, myself, judge the quality of her performance.

Then again we might have performances that are highly overrated because of the part or the movie. Russel Crowe in “Gladiator” springs to mind: not a bad performance by any means, but it was not even the best performance of the (extremely well-cast) movie. Joaquin Phoenix, as his counter-part, did a better job in the second largest part; and, even off the top of my head, I would mention at least Richard Harris as better too. (Neither was, obviously, eligible to compete for “best actor”, but they did not win “best supporting actor” either.)

The recent performances, whose fate at this year’s Academy Awards will be interesting*:

*Note: The first draft of this text was written before nominations were available. Reading up on past winners (cf. below) I note that Sandler has not been nominated. Phoenix and Zellweger, however, are both in the respective short-list of five. Of the other movies involved, I have only seen “Once Upon a Time in Hollywood” and have no objections to DiCaprio’s nomination.

  1. Joaquin Phoenix* in “Joker”: A quite good performance, but not perfection. There are dozens of others who might have achieved a similar level, actingwise. Throw in the part and the overall movie, and this changes. This is, I suspect, a very strong victory candidate. (But see excursion.)

    *No, I am not a Phoenix fanatic (although I do consider him one of the best of the current actors). “Gladiator” was brought to my recollection because of Phoenix already being present in this text.

  2. Renee Zellweger in “Judy”: The performance is first rate. The movie is a weakish, but the topic (Judy Garland as a tragic figure) added weight to the performance and the “sentimentality bonus” that might play in with the judges could very well clinch the victory.
  3. Adam Sandler in “Uncut Gems”: A crappy performance by a (still) crappy actor—but one apparently lauded by many. Why? Most likely the part. (With e.g. Joaquin Phoenix or Gary Oldman, or any number of considerably better actors, even comedy rival Ben Stiller*, this might have been a strong victory candidate. Should Sandler win, I will be truly depressed.)

    *Who is strong both as a comedian and as an actor, while Sandler is only good at comedy (and possibly even just a certain type of low-brow comedy).

Excursion on “Joker”:
I remain somewhat skeptical to the movie as a whole, because it feels redundant: A lot of the ground that it covers has already been done better in “King of Comedy”, to the point that it felt partially like a weaker copy. At the same time, the whole “Batman” franchise, the Joker included, has been done to death at the movies (and elsewhere). In the choice of movies for a second viewing, I would definitely prefer “King of Comedy”.

Excursion on brilliant actors:
Of course, a brilliant actor might bring a brilliant performance to a less than brilliant part and a weaker actor might bungle the brilliant part. Daniel Day-Lewis seemed to be an Academy Award candidate almost by default, if in part because of his selectivity. Gary Oldman’s recent Academy Award was a big “finally” moment for me—he has been a threat for decades, with quite a few lesser winners before him. (The win was also personally satisfying to me, because I had called it immediately after watching the movie.)

Excursion on other Academy Award factors:
Sometimes, the Academy Awards seem like a game of pin-the-donkey, leaving me with the suspicion that other factors play in, e.g. personal relationships or a wish to push a movie. (Hardly controversial ideas, admittedly.) This particularly for “best picture”, which lost all credibility with me when a “Lord of the Rings” movie won. However, even the list of “Best Actor/Actress” seems odd at times.

Excursion on other examples:
I trail behind in my watchings of recent movies, especially of the “artsy” type. However, looking from 2010 and onward, the winning roles for male actor seem to support my hypothesis that the part is of great importance. Consider names like King George VI, Abraham Lincoln, Stephen Hawking, Winston Churchill, and Freddie Mercury—all important (within their respective field) historical characters, all house-hold names, all with an interesting story and strong “human interest” opportunity. To boot, at least two (Lincoln*, Mercury*) died highly prematurely and at least one another (Hawking) unusually/tragically. The lesser names involved include Hugh Glass and Ron Woodroof—lesser known, but otherwise of a similar character and both non-fictional. (The remaining two, George Valentin and Lee Chandler, are likely fictional. I have only a vague recollection of “The Artist” for Valentin and have not seen “Manchester by the Sea” for Chandler, so I will not make further statements.)

*Or is the true explanation some form of subtle product placement by Ford? A long term plan to build interest for the recent “Ford v Ferrari”?

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February 6, 2020 at 4:06 am

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“Star Wars” update

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Following my negative review of Episode VII and my skepticism-based-on-Wikipedia concerning Episode VIII, I just caught up with (the recently released) Episode IX on Wikipedia. If anything, my impression is even worse, and I will probably ignore any further efforts within this franchise entirely—as I have indeed ignored e.g. “Rogue One” and have watched nothing past Episode VII.

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January 4, 2020 at 3:19 pm

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Paul Carpenter’s further adventures / Follow-up: Identification and sympathy in fiction

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As a brief follow-up to an earlier text and its addendum:

I have by now finished re-reading the two* sequels of “The Portable Door”, and find myself a bit disappointed: I read a number of Holt’s books around the time when I encountered “The Portable Door”, and found most of them low quality—funny, imaginative, and good for a one-off read to keep me entertained on a train, yes; Pratchett-level and strong candidates for re-readings, no. (I briefly visited his Wikipedia page, and he appears to be high on quantity, which might explain the quality.) “The Portable Door” was an exception, a level or two above the others. The first sequel, “In Your Dreams” kept quality up reasonably, but was a little too exaggerated in places (a common fault with Holt). The second, “Earth, Air, Fire and Custard”**, was back to his more typical level, including pushing the Paul-dying-and-meeting-Mr-Dao joke too far, having custard*** as a fifth element, having an entire dimension made of custard, and fiddling with time-lines and in-book continuity in a manner that did not make much sense. To boot, the third book appears to close the lid on a series that could otherwise have been continued for another few books, had he been more dedicated to quality—I would have enjoyed seeing Paul’s (now terminated) career at J. W. Wells unfold.

*With reservation for books that I am not yet aware of.

**I am not clear on why “water” was left out of the title (or why the comma after “Fire” is missing”). I could see an angle of wanting to keep the name short, but leaving “water” out makes it very weird, and opting for some other name entirely would have been a better solution. (Going by the contents of the book, “Custardspace” would have been a candidate, but more thought might produce a better suggestion.)

***Strictly speaking, something almost custard, but the difference is barely interesting.

A particular issue was inter-book continuity, where book 1 shows Paul (and girl-friend/colleague Sophie) hired for some set of natural talents, book 2 describes him as a multi-generation breeding project by his Uncle Ernie to combat one of the partners of J. W. Wells for the safety of humanity (resulting in said talents and, consequently, J. W. Wells’ interest), and book 3 suddenly gives co-credit to a God-like being who engineers Paul and Sophie to combat another partner… To boot, it is hinted that this being is Paul’s biological father, which would make half of Uncle Ernie’s project invalid. (You see what I mean about quality—he sometimes reaches a point where a parody of his works would be less absurd than the works themselves.)

An interesting aspect, however, is that Paul’s engineering and education to a considerably degree deliberately included loserdom and ignorance—to the point that he was artificially put to sleep during many school lessons. This book 3 issue explains e.g his ignorance of Chekhov, which I commented upon in my first text. (Because I had only read book 3 once, many years ago, I had no recollection of this. Moreover, this could not affect the identification issue for a first-time reader of book 1.)

As an aside, my addendum claim “[…] giving someone something to hope for, but with little chance, is a good way to gain sympathies […]” lacks in generality, because it only holds one view-point. Fear and danger likely works even better, e.g. when someone has the sword of Damocles hanging over his head for an extended time.* (Also good for creating suspense.) Similarly, I suspect that e.g. despair can be used decently for the same purpose.

*Most or all of these can be rephrased in terms of hope, but doing so usually misses the point. For instance, a fear that Voldemort will rise again is a more natural and stimulating angle than the hope that he will not. (In contrast, the hope that Harry will defeat him, should he rise again, will often be more natural than the fear that Harry will not.)

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July 30, 2019 at 10:41 pm

Addendum: Identification and sympathy in fiction

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As I realized immediately after posting the previous text, I left out two important observations around Paul Carpenter.

Firstly, a reason why he comes across so negatively is what appears to be a deliberate portrayal as “loser”, for reasons of sympathy, especially with e.g. others who have trouble getting started in life. At the beginning of the first book, he has never had a serious job or girl-friend, has no higher education, has bad luck with his family*, etc.—and his prospects appear bleak in every area. The early scene with the job interview and its lead-up are clearly geared at displaying a feeling that he is out of his water.

*A possible injustice: his parents moved to the U.S. leaving him in London, poorly supported and having to forego university.

Secondly, giving someone something to hope for, but with little chance, is a good way to gain sympathies—have the reader hope with the protagonist. For instance, the early parts of the book already show him hoping for a job that he likely will not get and a girl that he likely will not get either. (But he does get both.) “Charlie and the Chocolate Factory” is possibly the paramount example of this with a hope for the impossible that is squashed, re-awakened, squashed, …, but ending with Charlie holding the Golden Ticket.

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July 25, 2019 at 11:14 pm

Identification and sympathy in fiction

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Re-reading Tom Holt’s “The Portable Door”, I ponder the benefits of having a protagonist that the reader can identify* and sympathize with—and how to best achieve them.

*In a stronger sense than a mere “I want the protagonist to succeed” or a superficial and generic “everyman” identification.

Here we have Paul Carpenter—a young man, making his first in-roads into working life and romance. So far, we have someone that most young men can readily identify with. Indeed, with minor modifications, so can many young women. Even the older generations can often look back and recognize certain situations, fears, naive mistakes, whatnot—especially, where romance is concerned.

However, over large stretches, I also find myself partially repulsed and repeatedly having thoughts like “How can he be that stupid!”—as I did even during my first reading as young-ish* man. Paul, at least by my standards, borders on being an idiot. The book is filled with examples of poor judgment, beyond what can be explained by e.g. stress and unusual situations**. To boot, he is horribly uneducated and ignorant, as exemplified by his being entirely unaware of Chekhov-the-playwright. No, I do not mean that he had failed to develop an educated opinion of Chekhov’s works,*** I mean that he genuinely had no idea that there was another Chekhov than Chekhov-from-Star-Trek … It is virtually impossible for me to truly identify with someone like that—and even having sympathies is often hard (but Paul overcame that obstacle).

*Going by a still present label on the cover, I likely bought the book in 2004, when I was 29.

**Note a number of in-roads that most young men do not encounter, including magic, goblins, and the eponymous portable door.

***Which was requested as part of a job interview—some questions of which were unreasonably tough and of dubious relevance to Paul’s application. For the record, I do not have such an opinion either: I read one or two of his works at a very young age, and have not gotten around to reading anything more in the thirty-or-so years since. Chekhov, however, remains one of the most influential and best known authors in the history of literature, and should be known by name by anyone past high school. (In fact, I have always assumed that Chekhov-from-Star-Trek was named as a joking reference to Chekhov-the-playwright.)

To boot, he is as assertive as a wet noodle, falls in love with and fails to pursue his closest co-worker, has more luck than skill, …

Still, I found myself enjoying the book immensely, even at what must be my forth or fifth reading. (But the last previous reading might be some ten years back, which lessens their impact.) This is not only a genuinely funny book, with dashes of excitement, romance, and whatnot—it also builds an interesting world, gives a depiction of office life that most of us can recognize in that simultaneously amusing and depressing Dilbert manner, and it left me starting on the sequel just a few hours after I had finished the first book.

This brings me to three more detailed questions (and at least partial answer attempts):

  1. How import are identification and sympathies?

    Certainly, they are beneficial, and there are some works that have left me cold because I not only failed to identify with the protagonist—I outright detested him.* However, mostly they are not necessary. In the case of some works (e.g. “Clockwork Orange”), the deviation might even be a positive, because it leaves the reader with more detachment and allows the exploration of actions and situations that are strange to the reader.

    *“Catcher in the Rye” is an excellent example—especially, because I have heard others base their enjoyment on how well they could identify with Holden. (Also see item 2.)

    If in doubt, I would likely go with sympathy over identification (as a priority for authors)—it could even be argued that the point of identification is to elicit sympathies. With Paul, e.g., I could see how his incompetence and weakness could create some amount of “pity sympathy”, and I have often made the observation that a character only took off after a tragedy/misfortune/injustice, as e.g. with Spike on “Buffy” after he (temporarily) ended up in a wheel-chair, saw Angelus take over his operation, became the butt of Angelus’ and Drusilla’s jokes, whatnot. Buffy, herself, serves as an example of sympathies-over-identification: a valley-girl with super powers—nothing like me.* Vice versa, too competent, successful, happy, whatnot characters often come across negatively, as with the “Mary Sue” type.

    *However, I did see considerable parallels with her mentor Giles, at least in his early portrayals. It should also be noted that there were some aspects of Buffy and her life that became more “identifiable” (for want of a better word) as the show and the character matured—if not to the point that identification could take place.

  2. If an author goes for identification (or, to a lesser degree, sympathy), what target reader should he imagine?

    For instance, I am very considerably above average in intelligence, and I have trouble identifying with stupid characters—but what about the readers who are less intelligent? Similarly: Will the jock and the bookworm see e.g. Harry Potter* and Hermione differently? What about those who liked “Catcher in the Rye” because they could identify with Holden? Will youthful naivete work as well on older readers as on younger?** Can the teenage reader feel for the old geezer? Etc.

    *I will use the “Harry Potter” books as my main source of examples, because they are sufficiently widely read (or the films watched) that the examples are likely to be recognized.

    **As a specific example, had I read “The Portable Door” at Paul’s age (20?), I would have sympathized very strongly with his romantic incompetence, because I was very similar at that age (“that is me”). Even at the time of the original reading, I had sufficient memories of those days that I could recognize the situations and really feel for him (“that was me”). Now, however, I mostly cringe (“I cannot believe that I once was like that”). Of course, the high-school studs might have reacted negatively from the beginning.

    The solution might be found in the ensemble, in that if a reader does not click with the one character, then there is a handful of other candidates. (Also note the boy-band principle of covering the bases sufficiently that every girl of 14 will fall in love with some member.) This can to some degree be applied to individual characters too, in that they have several aspects that allow at least a partial identification, e.g. in that someone is an orphan, a Quidditch star, and a hero. A more personal example is “Dexter”, where I was originally drawn to the series through the way Dexter has to put on a mask to blend in, something that I recognize very well from my own background (although the mask is different and I have gone to far less trouble, not having the need to appear normal to avoid murder charges). In contrast, I have very little sympathy for Dexter as a serial killer.

    Barring that, it might pay to “know the audience”, but I would likely recommend to just write something that the author, himself, would like to read (or would have liked to read at the right age).

    As an aside, it is not a given that an apparent good match will actually pan out. For instance, most portrayals of e.g. software developers tend to fail with me because I am a former software developer: I do not see another software developer in action—I see some acting caricature, clueless of real software development, often even of the basics of computers.

  3. What means are suitable?

    Some additions to what has already been implicitly covered:

    When you look for identification, make the protagonist a better version of the reader, the version of himself that the reader wants to be, the version that his younger self expected him to become, or similar. This because (a) most people view themselves as better than they are, (b) it is easier to mentally slip into a better version of something, (c) this opens a venue of “hopes and dreams” and “reality escape”. A particular trick is to make the hero good at something that the reader will not have encountered, where exposure to reality is a lesser threat (I would make a terrific Quidditch player and be great at magic, if someone just were to invite me to Hogwarts).

    Vice versa, when you look for sympathy, make him a lesser version, preferably one who is competent, intelligent, whatnot, but who has suffered a severe stroke of bad luck or, better, some great injustice, which has prevented the success that would otherwise have followed. However, even some personal deficits can be welcome, because it is easier to pity those that we can look down upon.

    Look for a means to get the reader into the protagonists shoes, even be it in just one aspect. For instance, as with Paul, a young person* who has problems with the opposite** sex through reasons like lack of self-esteem or the insight that said opposite also* has a very strong interest in finding partners—well that covers a major slice of the younger population, because it is a very familiar situation. Unjust treatment, again, is often a workable way, because even those who have not suffered the same treatment will almost always have (or imagined themselves to have) suffered some other major injustice—and even those who do not, can often picture themselves in the same situation, because it is not self-caused. (Harry Potter is a prime example, at various stages, including with his aunt and uncle, with Rita Skeeter, etc., but his situation might be over-the-top for an adult reader.)

    *Regardless of sex: The dual insight that many members of both sexes deal with similar problems and have a similarly strong interest in the area, is of fundamental importance to over-coming such issues.

    **I strongly suspect that the problems are lesser among homosexuals, both because they have a better understanding of the potential others, what they like and do not like, etc., and because a lack of reciprocated interest can often be written of as “is straight” instead of “does not like me, specifically”.

    Be aware* that strong opinions that deviate from the reader’s, actions that the reader would not take, and similar can be off-putting. Take particular care with politics, sexual acts, and the commitment of injustices. The latter, obviously, work both ways—they are good for the protagonist’s sympathy situation when they are committed against him, bad when they are committed by him.

    *Which is not to say that they should be avoided (especially, because keeping all the readers happy all the time would lead to extreme blandness)—just that the author should be aware of the risk and make a decision that takes the risk into consideration.

    Having someone strive for a second chance, redemption, forgiveness, or similar can be very helpful.* This too is a situation that many either know from own experience or can easily imagine themselves in. (Unlike unjust treatment, the situation is normally self-caused; however, there is always “I was mislead by others [who are to blame]”, “I am a different person now [blame the old me}”, whatnot.) Moreover, a reluctance by others to accept the attempts can be framed as an injustice.

    *But do not fall into the trap of making the enemy of yesterday the friend of tomorrow in a blanket manner. This even when it comes to popular-with-readers villains, because a good villain is a major asset.

Excursion on horror movies:
There is a stereotypical family of horror-movie reactions, e.g. “Why are you going out in the dark where the killer is?!?’, that are similar in principle to some of my reactions to some of Paul’s behaviors. Generally, horror movies contain a lot of stupid behavior that can sometimes get in the way of sympathies. For instance, if a protagonist has just managed to ambush the killer, has him on the ground, and could move in to finish the job with a baseball bat—why is the typical tactic to throw down the bat and run away, giving the killer time to recuperate? OK, if we are dealing with someone preternaturally resilient and dangerous, e.g. Michael Myers, I can see the point—but what about all those who are just someone with a knife? (Or those presumably just someone-with-a-knife, seeing that preternatural aspects are often only discovered through the course of the movie.)

Excursion on naive translations:
I recently observed that naive translations, use of synonyms, whatnot can be tricky. One of Holt’s books, likely the aforementioned sequel, contains an excellent example: One character is German and uses a lot of German words. At some point, she is (from context) supposed to say “third gear [of a car]” in German, which comes out as “drittes Pferdegeschirr”. The meaning of “Pferdegeschirr”, however, is the gear used on horses… Moreover, someone with even a basic grasp of German would not have made this mistake, because “Pferd” means “horse”. (The true translation would have bin “dritter Gang”.)

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July 25, 2019 at 10:53 pm

New vs. good and the difference between being new and being novel

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A note on an earlier discussion of new vs. good:

An aspect that I was not sufficiently explicit about is the difference between the newly made and the novel (the previously unknown/unseen/unheard of, whatnot). My text ultimately dealt with the difference between the newly made and the well made. (Where “made” might need a change depending on the exact items under discussion.) It does not oppose the novel, which is not only often a characteristic of quality products but can sometimes even legitimately trump quality.

A good example of the latter is my recent encounter with some works by Karl Kunz: Were his works among the greatest that I have ever seen? Did they make him worthy of being put on a level with the likes of Picasso, Monet, Rubens, …? No and no. They did, however, show me something that I had not seen before and they did open my eyes to some possibilities of imagery that were novel to me—thereby bringing me more value than spending the same amount of time on a few more Monets would have.

This also exemplifies that, from an individual perspective, the novelty of a work need not be global and that the novel is not necessarily newly made. (Kunz died in 1971, before my own birth.) Further, that novelty, by its nature, can be fleeting: later encounters with Kunz are unlikely to bring as strong a reaction—and even the works of the true greats loose in objective value over time, because their main impact on the development of art has already taken place and their global novelty is increasingly a thing of the past.

If we revisit my movie examples, there is rarely much novelty present. True, the special effects might be a little more spectacular and there might be some odd twist-and-turn not hitherto seen—but the rest is mostly the same thing over and over again. Indeed, looking at how the last one or two decades have been filled with re-makes, adaptions from other media, further installments of old franchises, whatnot, there might be more novelty to be found in older movies… Moreover, when it comes to just “seeing a movie that I have not seen before”, which is a valid wish, there are more older than newer movies to chose from. The reasonable conclusion is to go with quality over newness.

Looking at my own blogging (also discussed in the original text), I often do bring in something novel (compared to my own earlier writings). However, from the point of view of a random reader, any novelty in a text published today has no greater value than that of a text published ten years ago*—simply, because he is unlikely to be familiar with these earlier writings. Nevertheless, it is the new texts that get the most views—and often just for one or two days**. It is clear that newness is rewarded—not novelty.

*Indeed, with some topics recurring again and again, it is conceivable that I have grown less novel…

**The short interval of popularity (by my standards) also speaks against explanations like my potentially being a better writer today than ten years ago, or my writing about something more globally novel more often.

Remark on language: Due to the subject matter, I use “new”, “novel”, and their variations in strictly separated senses above. This is not necessarily the case in other texts.

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June 3, 2019 at 1:32 pm