Thursday, December 27, 2007

A semiotics of hair

The two characters pictured on the right, Anton Chigurh (from No Country For Old Men, played by Javier Bardem) and Briony Tallis (from Atonement, played by Saoirse Ronan) each represent the destructive forces of their respective movies. The nature of their destructiveness may initially appear quite different -- one is based in violent amoriality, the other in classist jealousy. Helping this division along is their contrasting physicial presence. Where Chigurh is a physically imposing figure whose eyes, nose, and mouth are blunt and hard-edged, Briony is petite, almost weak-looking, and amazingly pale. Chigurh primarily wears dark clothes that fit him like a glove and are an extension of him, while Briony wears clothes that don't appear to be on her body at all. The differences are amazing, or at least they seem to be. But I think these performances --these characters-- are of the same material and bodily presence.

No two sets of eyes are more piercing and forceful than theirs; and each of their distinctly similar haircuts seem to drape over their stone faces - still, and as motionless as their eyes. While their inexpressive eyes and hair complement both characters' calm, non-chalant demeanor, the contrast of their bodily presence may seem to separate them, because Chigurh is physically intimidating (and destructive), and Briony is not. But don't be fooled by this apparent contrast of physical presence. They appear in different kinds of films and impose their will on others around them in wildly different ways, but what they are communicating with their faces, eyes, mouths, and hair is deadly similar.

Also, consider how each of these characters are framed within specific shots in such a way that highlights their lack of gesturing and overall control of the shot. Notice how each of these characters are framed within the visual scheme of each movie. They occupy the space of the shots in which they appear in intimidating, imposing, and sometimes disturbing ways. Although each is quiet and methodical in their methods, they occupy the space of their respective films' images incongruously to other characters. In some shots, they both appear to look directly into the camera, at the audience, with those lifeless stares. Other images envision them as enveloped by the larger, equally still world around them. Even when they move, the rest of the image remains strangely still.

I began thinking about this because I was thinking about how similarly evocative are their hair styles, particularly how their hair is both separate and apart of their existence. The more I considered this idea, and thought about the similarity of those styles, i.e. how their hair hugs their heads, embodies their stillness, and defines their existence in the world and their relation to the people whose lives are violently altered due to encounters with them.

As a pure aesthetic device, hair can define a performance and give it a life it would not otherwise have. And in this case, it has led me to re-evaluate screen presence and performance. It is a microcosm for the core of a truly great screen performance. It suggests the intangible, the untouchable, but also most importantly, the aesthetic aspects of the perception in a visual narrative.

There's something intangible about good film performances. It's not just about the level of one's acting craft. Actors can sometimes turn in very good performances that is right in all aspects of how we define good screen performances, but still lack that special something that makes it transcendant. Unlike the theater, acting for the screen involves more than just an actor, and moves well beyond body movement, facial expression, and voices. A strong performance is defined by how an actor builds a relationship between the "inner" character and her/his material and/or bodily surroundings, i.e. mise-en-scene, props, costumes, other actors; in other words how that actor jointly shares space with other elements of the image. Since the composition is often controlled by the director, a performance is never a single effort on the part of an actor. An inuitive director understands that great performances emerge in strange ways, and can come from average acting talent. It's all a matter of how that particular screen presence exists in relation to the totality of the image.

Beyond a literalist level of interpreting cinematic images, fine screen performances are a perpetual mystery and a constant discovery. Juxtaposing characters from movies as apparently different as Atonement and No Country For Old Men, two of the finest films of 2007, might seem ridiculous to a literalist, but actually reveals the level to which screen performances are deeply abstract works of motion, movement, and framing.

1 comment:

calgaryboilers said...

Javier Bardem is a very inspiring actor, he has his own character. very strange character plus the hair factor