… yet there’s method in’t

On the Waterfront is another one of those films that are parodied so often (at least the “I coulda been a contender” scene) that you feel you’ve already seen it. At least I did – and boy, was I wrong.

I’d previously seen that other big Kazan flick starring Marlon Brando: A Streetcar Named Desire. The latter is definitely a great film, but I must admit that I sometimes find Tennessee Williams too much of a drama queen. I expected similar high-class melodrama from On the Waterfront but was startled by the movie’s stark realism, both in its writing and its acting. So often, films from the ’40s and ’50s, especially films featuring sexuality and violence, seem rather arch these days. Even when they’re supposed to be realistic, they feel somewhat stiff and stagey.

Not so with Waterfront. Even the child actors are convincing (which is rare enough). One thing that helps the film’s realistic feel is that so much of it is filmed on location. None of the fake sets and back projection that you get in most films of the time. In fact, the movie has an almost documentary feel to it.

All in all, there were only two things that didn’t quite work for me, pulling me out of the realistic atmosphere. The first of these was the ending; I couldn’t really buy the scene where the badly beaten Brando walks down the dock, his fractured ribs probably sticking in his lungs like so many splinters. That one wasn’t so bad, though; what struck me more was Brando’s ex-boxer makeup which made him look like a Neanderthal wearing heavy mascara.

Cromagnon out on the town

But is it what you would call ‘series acting’?

I like good acting. Not Oscar-winning acting, which I often think is mainly a case of “who’s best at manipulating the audience?”. That sort of acting tends to feel acutely self-aware, to the extent that I sit there, watching it, being painfully aware of the acting. (And I usually groan when someone says that this or that actor isn’t actually very good because he’s only got two facial expressions. Being able to produce a number of different grimaces doesn’t make for good acting. Watch Ulrich Mühe in The Lives of Others for a beautiful example of acting, based pretty much on the most subtle variations of one facial expression.) 

Ulrich Mühe

Strangely enough, TV series don’t necessarily need good acting to work. Of course, atrocious acting is as painful to watch in series as it is in movies, but limited actors can still work extremely well on television. The good thing about series in this respect is that after a season or so, deeply mediocre actors become the characters. Look at Jonathan Frakes who played Will Riker in Star Trek: The Next Generation. Definitely not a good actor by any standards, and most people would hesitate even to call him mediocre; but by season 3, he was Will Riker. Any wobbles in the performance could be attributed to the character – “Ah, it’s Riker being full of himself! It’s Riker being nervous at meeting the Axitraxian ambassador! It’s Riker having had too much cheese before going to bed!” And somehow, by season 5 or 6 good old Jonathan felt comfortable enough in the part to stretch himself and surprise me with an actual good performance (!) in an episode called “Frames of Mind”.

Watching those HBO series I keep harping on about – The Sopranos, Deadwood, Six Feet Under – I am constantly amazed at the high quality of acting. Thinking back to the series I watched, and loved, as a kid and as an adolescent, though… Most of them had fairly mediocre actors, for instance David Duchovny (although he does make for a great transvestite!). Yet somehow I never felt I was watching Duchovny being mediocre. I very quickly forgot about Duchovny and was simply watching Fox Mulder.

David “Nobody’s perfect” Duchovny

For me, Lost has that very same quality. Some of the acting in Lost is good – Terry O’Quinn comes to mind, for instance. But if you look at it critically, most of it is hackneyed character work. If the series is still remembered in ten, twenty years, it won’t be for the acting. And yet… Half an hour into the pilot, and I bought the characters. I don’t know whether that is a quality of the writing, or the directing, or simply a case of the actors being close enough to the characters not to have to act too much. Perhaps it’s also just chemistry between the cast members. I don’t know. But I know that it’s the characters I keep coming back for – even if Jack is a whiny bitch, Charlie is even more annoying than he was as a hobbit (Pippin at least had the benefit of a Scottish accent – here we’ve got Desmond for that), and Nikki and Paolo deserve a horrible death (preferably something out of E.A. Poe). (Note: We haven’t seen any episodes past “Every Man For Himself” in season 3.)

Two final comments for today: 1) Why is it that the Deadwood women keep ending up on the island? I’m waiting for Alma and Jewel to turn up… 2) Was it very noticeable this was a bit of a filler blog entry? If so, I apologise – and promise that tomorrow’s episode will be better. (In that respect, perhaps my blog is a bit like Lost: a long mid-season slump, but the “huh?!”-inducing revelations at the end of the season will keep all of you coming back. Mwhaha.)