Underviewed, Undervalued, Underground

Performative Mode

Exemplary artists include:

Buster Keaton

Charlie Chaplin

Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers

John Cassavetes

Jean-Pierre and Luc Dardenne

Chantal Akerman

Andrew Bujalski

Mike Leigh

Jacques Tati

Jean Renoir

The filmmaker’s imagination is relational.  Though clear about his own narrative trajectory, he often relies on his actors to create beats, tones and negotiable, provisional meanings.  Truth is disclosed not by the actors but between the actors.  These movies show behavior, whether it is exaggerated by comedians or dancers or delivered naturalistically by actors.

When we use the word “performance” we do so to show the opposite side of the coin from discursivity.  The performative mode places the locus of experience and ultimately of meaning in the body, in the relationships between bodies.  This is subtler than the popular connotation of “performance” as defined by histrionics and exaggeration, and in fact we generally mean precisely the opposite.  It is the shrug of a shoulder, a flickering eyelid, the corner of a mouth suddenly turned down or a barely perceptible change in tone of voice.

Cassavetes, Leigh, Bujalski, Renoir and the Dardennes show us human behavior.  In most films, we see dress-up and pretend-time that is not at all like behavior, though we have become accustomed to its standardized forms.

In Keaton, Chaplin, Tati, Fred and Ginger and Akerman it is not behavior that we see, but behavior abstracted.  Keaton, Chaplin and Fred and Ginger tend to abstract with exaggeration, while Akerman and Tati do it through repetition of small, simple gestures.

These artists are the great cinematic explorers of the romantic desires of men and women.  Even Fred and Ginger is about power struggle, about who leads and who follows, whose turn is it to show off, and then ultimately about harmony, about learning to move together in complimentary ways.

There is nothing so unimportant as plot in a musical.  Story is just an excuse for Fred and Ginger to dance.  The real meaning is in the bodily interaction.  Similarly, the meaning of Keaton and Chaplin is found in their movements, which do not need cinematic means to exist, but the fact that they are preserved by the medium shows us a cinematic potentiality.

There is a tendency to think of the core artists here as not necessarily filmic.   It is a reasonable objection, for they could exist without the movie camera.  Yet they give the Cinema something it did not have before.  They highlight the cinematic potential for observing the human body.



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