IT’S HARD TO IMAGINE a more eclectic group of films sharing a single series than those being screened by the Film Society of Lincoln Center under the umbrella title “The Non-Actor.” From Sergei Eisenstein’s October: Ten Days That Shook the World (1928), F. W. Murnau’s Tabu: A Story of the South Seas (1931), and Roberto Rossellini’s Germany Year Zero (1948) to Shirley Clarke’s The Cool World (1963), Andy Warhol’s Vinyl (1965), Ousmane Sembene’s Black Girl (1966), Straub-Huillet’s Othon (1970), and Pedro Costa’s Colossal Youth (2006), the range is nothing if not bold. In addition to outright masterpieces like Satyajit Ray’s Pather Panchali (1955), Pier Paolo Pasolini’s The Gospel According to St. Matthew (1964), and Robert Bresson’s Au hasard Balthazar (1966), the series includes such rarely screened or unseen works as Spencer Williams’s Blood of Jesus (1941), Kent Mackenzie’s The Exiles (1961), and a trio of homegrown “movie queen” scenarios made by Margaret Cram in the 1930s that has me curious. Hands down, for the next two and a half weeks, this is the best cinema going in town.
The very diversity of the series is reflected in its title, which, depending on your point of view, might seem a bit too sweeping. If it embraces borderline documentaries such as Robert Flaherty’s Louisiana Story (1948) and Denis Cote’s Bestiaire (2012), why not the occasional Frederick Wiseman movie in which “nonactors” revel in the camera’s attention like movie stars? Jean Rouch’s Jaguar (1954, 1967) is one of the ethnographic filmmaker’s most rapturous works, but an odd choice here, since it’s composed of extraordinary footage of native Africans over which we hear a mostly offscreen verbal text describing a journey to the Gold Coast that forms whatever trajectory the film has. Few, if any, words discernibly emanate from the figures before us.
But such quibbling dissolves in light of the jewels on view. “The Non-Actor” is snappier and terser than “The Nonprofessional Actor,” but one assumes the programmers had the latter in mind—that is, untrained actors, people who did not perform before a camera for a living but whose presence in a particular film exerts a certain conviction within partly authentic, partly contrived circumstances as they behave in accordance with those circumstances, however minimally. Then there are those who follow the direction of the filmmaker, speak with feeling, and express themselves openly through facial and other gestures. This roughly describes the Italian neorealist cinema of Rossellini and Vittorio De Sica, as opposed to the Soviet cinema of the silent period. Whereas the latter constructed heroic human types through montage—that is, juxtaposing shots of people and images of their social context—the neorealist “nonactors” were free to convey emotions, phrase dialogue, and behave as professional actors do. The late critic Andrew Sarris once remarked that walking down any street in Naples was like being in a neorealist movie.
But times change. If the nonprofessionals in De Sica’s Umberto D. (1952) and Rossellini’s Germany Year Zero once seemed more credible than actors in mainstream cinema, it was largely because they were unfamiliar to viewers and closer to the social context in which they appeared. Today, it is arguable whether they affect us differently than performances by good professional actors of any period. In the final analysis, the impact of any performance, then and now, depends less on the status of the actor than on the overall aesthetic vision of the filmmaker. In a sense, both Umberto D. and Year Zero seem inextricably tied to their time, whereas Pasolini’s Gospel and Ray’s Panchali seem as powerful and timeless as ever.
Films that feature nonprofessional actors are one thing; those that repudiate acting altogether are another. It is precisely the latter that underlies Bresson’s approach. He not only insisted on untrained actors but discouraged his novices from mimicking actorly behavior. In so doing, he aimed at the very heart of all acting, professional or not—namely, the dramatic element that most mainstream cinema inherited from theater and that Bresson sought to eradicate as fundamentally false in the “art of the cinematograph.” He treated the actor not as the vehicle of a drama, but as an agent, one who executes actions within a context constructed by the framing, editing, dialogue, and rhythm of shots, no more or less important than these filmic elements. It is the reason that in his films, hands and parts of the body are no less signifying or important than faces and voices. Given his stress on precision, economy, and de-dramatization, it becomes clearer that such later and varied filmmakers as Agnes Varda, Ermanno Olmi, Abbas Kiarostami, Maurice Pialat, Alberto Serra, and Costa—all represented in this series—were all influenced by Bresson.
Not even Warhol’s movies are free of the demeanors, looks, and vocal techniques associated with movie stars, although no airtight label entirely describes what “performers” in a Warhol movie are doing. The flamboyance of personalities in The Chelsea Girls (1966), My Hustler (1965), and Vinyl, for example, seems another phenomenon entirely, a campy send-up of acting clichés conveniently masking a more personal acting-out of inner psychic states. This resulted in something both artificial and unwittingly, sometimes painfully, revelatory.
Acting is often tied to the question of realism, itself a shifting, ambiguous category unfixed at any point in film or art history. For theorist Siegfried Kracauer, the “realist” tendency of the medium, initially embodied in the work of Auguste and Louis Lumière, was about the camera’s sheer capacity to record people, places, and events, in contrast to its ability to distort reality through animation, reverse motion, dissolves, and superimpositions. But neither tendency precluded the presence of actors. The renowned critic André Bazin judged long takes and deep-focus cinematography the hallmarks of greater realism, even though this realism often referred to the spatiotemporal integrity of a shot—not to any psychological, political, or social phenomenon. From this perspective, the uninterrupted shot of Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers dancing the Piccolino at the end of Top Hat (1935) is just as realistic as the long takes in Flaherty’s Louisiana Story.
In short, the presence of nonactors is not the determinant feature in assessing a film’s realism, since the latter is itself rife with ambiguity and subject to the whims of time. The real value of a series like the one at Lincoln Center is that it provides us with so many diverse samples of the breed as to place the category itself into question. Indeed, just as the notion of what is real becomes dated (and method school acting now seems, to many of us, more contrived than the instinctive behavior of good Hollywood actors), the work of nonactors across the board is also subject to changing conventions, times, and familiarity, no more or less persuasive and affecting than the work of professionals that has stood the test of time.
Understandably, then, independent and avant-garde filmmakers have a place in this series—as the inclusion of Lizzie Borden, George Kuchar, and Leslie Thornton testify. Even the prolific and demanding work of Stan Brakhage would have qualified. Is the artfully and rapidly edited footage of his wife and children any less responsive to the camera’s presence and thus as much a vehicle for the “nonactor” as Liu Jiayin’s witty, semi-autobiographical Oxhide (2005)? In Oxhide, one of the gems in the series, the filmmaker and her parents share an apartment in Beijing, its cramped quarters stressed by the pinched effect of her widescreen long takes. Often framing the midriff of the body or placed at the level of the low table where they eat, Liu’s camera makes even the existence of an offscreen space impossible to imagine. Here, they sit, argue, and sleep as the camera’s fixed, largely close-up, pedestrian angles record their lives with minimal means, reflecting the financial straits and palpable tensions of their everyday lives. As with many such films, it is virtually impossible to know what is “true,” that is, to discern any difference between the lives depicted and those of the “real” individuals who “enact” them. Oxhide is a revelation, demonstrating that just as it is often difficult in life to know when people are being sincere and when they are lying, the line between professional and nonprofessional acting is often effectively blurred.
“The Non-Actor” runs November 24 through December 10 at the Film Society of Lincoln Center in New York.