“I get impatient when I hear dialogue that’s just too natural. I write what people would really say and then I artificialize just enough so it becomes a beautiful object”. – Hal Hartley
For anyone not familiar with Hartley’s work, the dialogue is very distinctive, it’s precise and rhythmical (the clip above will give you a taster), critic Jason Wood even described the characters as speaking in inverted commas. Hartley doesn’t disguise the fact that what we hear is scripted dialogue. An attempt to create “naturalistic” dialogue, is an attempt to convince the viewer that what he is hearing is real – which of course it isn’t.
“Naturalistic” acting then, is a style which the actor applies to his performance in order to convince the viewer that what he is doing is not acting but real, and hopefully, the viewer will buy into the fiction of the film as a result. However, whether a film seems real or not, is irrelevant – The Fox And The Hound is no more nor less real than Casablanca – what counts is whether the film is true or false. When the work is true, the viewer will accept that a talking fox and a talking dog can be friends, and the viewer will accept that Humphrey Bogart is in love with Ingrid Bergman – the viewer uses his own imagination. In the theatre, it is more obvious: the actor stands on a bare stage, and, speaking in verse, informs the audience that he is stood in a castle, and the audience will create the castle for themselves, in their own minds.
Artificial means consciously creating something which serves a specific function within the overall piece, creating it with a specific intention, which gives it a specific meaning – this is very different from adding extraneous details to masque a lie. And so with acting; having a specific intention for the scene, for the performance, organises it, gives it definition, rhythm and force. Talking of Casablanca, a quick comparison of American acting from that era, where nothing was included which wasn’t serving the film, with the “naturalistic” performances of contemporary American acting, reveals how trivial and tight-fisted the vast majority of modern actors are. An attempt to naturalise our performance, is the attempt to remove from it all beauty, as if ashamed, but the actor needn’t be ashamed: cut out the feeble-minded irrelevance, find an intention and stick to it with an iron will.
I leave you with that maestro of acting, Charles Laughton:
“Great acting is like painting. In the great masters of fine art one can see and recognise the small gesture of a finger, the turn of a head, the vitriolic stare, the glazed eye, the pompous mouth, the back bending under a fearful load. In every swerve and stroke of a painter’s brush, there is an ambundance of life. Great artists reveal the god in man; every character an actor plays must be this sort of creation. Not imitation – that is mere caricature – and any fool can be a mimic. But creation is a secret. The better – the truer – the creation, the more it will resemble a great painter’s immortal work.”