Meryl Streep's flaw

The great actress's problem is that she shows you how she's doing it - there's no magic

This blog post has almost nothing at all to say about the Oscars. What can there be to grumble about when justice was done in most of the main categories? Best Picture (The Artist), Best Foreign Language Film (A Separation), Best Director (Michel Hazanavicius, The Artist), Best Actor (Jean Dujardin, The Artist), Best Supporting Actor (Christopher Plummer, Beginners) -- I'm happy. So happy that I'm not even going to demand a recount in the Best Original Screenplay category (where Midnight in Paris beat A Separation and Bridesmaids, if you can believe it).

I can't comment on the Best Actress award, which went to Meryl Streep, as I still haven't seen The Iron Lady. I'd attributed my oversight to various circumstances beyond my control (missing the early previews due to illness, followed by Douglas Hurd covering the movie in the NS). But having read Charles McNulty writing in the Los Angeles Times about what he calls his "Streep problem", I wonder if some symptoms of that disorder hadn't also influenced my own lack of urgency in seeing The Iron Lady.

McNulty says of Streep:

"Her performances are always marvels of technical virtuosity, and her mimicry can indeed be dazzling. One senses her own delight in capturing the likeness of another... But her characterizations are so well calculated that they call attention to their own artistry. The dancer is always distinguishable from the dance."

This is a common charge levelled at Streep. McNulty quotes from some of Pauline Kael's analyses of the actress as a master technician rather than an interpretive artist. Reviewing The House of the Spirits in the Independent in 1994, Adam Mars-Jones remarked that "you find yourself thinking, as so often with Streep, not how real or how right or how true, but how clever, how resourceful..." He returned to this theme the following year in a review of The Bridges of Madison County:

"Once or twice you think that what's inside Streep's head isn't 'I don't know what to do with my hands' or even 'I am a woman who doesn't know what to do with her hands' but 'My character is a woman who doesn't know what to do with her hands.' Streep's controlling intelligence would be even more impressive if she could make it invisible."

So the general complaint with Streep is that we can see what she's doing -- she's a magician who has allowed the skill of the trick to eclipse the trick itself. Even the most sophisticated among us ask to be immersed in film: we want to be told stories in an unforced manner that makes the suspension of disbelief no more strenuous than lifting a piece of popcorn to our lips. It's a lot that we ask of our stars, even those who are essentially character actors for whom celebrity is an unasked-for by-product: be as fine and insightful as you were in those performances that made us admire you, but attain that standard of excellence while also making us forget that it's you. An actor could go mad. (Daniel Day-Lewis in 2009: "People always ask me: 'Isn't it strange that you have to do this or that to prepare for the work?' But really: what could be stranger than the work itself?") Then again, so could a viewer.

The obvious answer to our impatience with actors whose skill gets in the way of our enjoyment is to do away with them altogether, to cast exclusively from non-professionals. Here is Lance Hammer, director of the exceptional Ballast, discussing the process of working with an inexperienced cast:

"It really wasn't about bringing something out; it was about preventing them from putting something out there that wasn't them. So my singular goal in the direction of actors, was to have the actors behave as they are at all times...I wanted them. This is straight out of Robert Bresson -- you cast people for them. It's not acting. I don't want them to act."

Ah, Bresson. Now we're talking. Here's his take on the role of the actor in his films:

"In a film, each shot is like a word, which means nothing by itself, or rather means so many things that in effect it is meaningless. But a word in a poem is transformed, its meaning made precise and unique, by its placing in relation to the words around it: in the same way a shot in a film is given its meaning by its context, and each shot modifies the meaning of the previous one until with the last shot a total, unparaphrasable meaning has been arrived at. Acting has nothing to do with that, it can only get in the way. Films can only be made by bypassing the will of those who appear in them; using not what they do, but what they are."

The Senegalese filmmaker Djibril Diop Mambéty, director of the visionary Touki Bouki and Hyènes, maintained that cinema was "magic in the service of dreams" and that the repeated use of an actor could only dispel that magic, stir us from that dream:

"The professional actor does not exist. Economically, yes, but basically, no. Professional actors break the magic of the dream and the magic of cinema. I say that as a creator and manipulator of character and event. I do not want to use an actor again once we have worked together. Once we have worked together, it seems to me that the actor has already given everything, because I have already asked everything of him or her. So we leave each other in the fullness of our first meeting. When I was young, when I went to the movies, I was always angry when I saw an actor who had died in one film appearing in another film alive. That broke the magic of cinema for me. It is very important to preserve the magic of cinema."

 

 

Ryan Gilbey is the New Statesman's film critic. He is also the author of It Don't Worry Me (Faber), about 1970s US cinema, and a study of Groundhog Day in the "Modern Classics" series (BFI Publishing). He was named reviewer of the year in the 2007 Press Gazette awards.

KEVIN C MOORE
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Notes from a small island: the fraught and colourful history of Sicily

Sicily: Culture and Conquest at the British Museum.

When a gun was fired a hundred metres or so from the Sicilian piazza where we were eating, my reaction was to freeze, fall to my knees, and then run for cover in a colonnade. As I peered back into the square from behind a column, I expected to see a tangle of overturned chairs and china but I watched instead as the freeze-frame melted into normality. I retrieved my shoe from the waiter.

I should not have been surprised by how coolly everyone else handled what I was inclined to call “the situation”. The Sicilians have had 4,000 years in which to perfect the art of coexistence, defusing conflict with what strikes outsiders as inexplicable ease, rendering Sicily one of the most culturally diverse but identifiable places on the planet. Still, having visited “Sicily: Culture and Conquest” at the British Museum, I feel vindicated. There may be no Cosa Nostra in this exhibition, which charts the island’s history from antiquity to the early 13th century, but that doesn’t mean there is no simmering conflict. Like Lawrence Durrell, who described Sicily as “thrown down almost in mid-channel like a concert grand” and as having “a sort of minatory, defensive air”, I felt the tension beneath the bliss that has characterised Sicily for many centuries.

The “barbarians”, wrote the Greek historian Thucydides, moved to Sicily from Iberia (Spain), Troy and Italy before the Phoenicians and Greeks settled there in the 8th century BC – the time of Homer, whose Odyssey provided a useful guide to some of the more threatening features of the landscape. The giant, sea-lying rocks off the east coast were the boulders that the one-eyed Polyphemus hurled at Odysseus’s ship; the phrase “between Scylla and Charybdis” referred to the Strait of Messina that divides Sicily from the mainland; Lake Pergusa, in the centre of the island, was the eerie spot whence Hades snatched Persephone and carried her down to the underworld.

It is a delight to behold the British Museum’s case full of terracotta figurines of Persephone, Demeter and their priestesses, some of thousands uncovered across Sicily, where the Greeks established the cult of these goddesses. The Phoenicians introduced their
own weather god, Baal Hammon, and the indigenous Sicilians seem to have accepted both, content that they honoured the same thing: the island’s remarkable fecundity.

The early Sicilians were nothing if not grateful for their agriculturally rich landscapes. As early as 2500 BC, they were finding ways to celebrate their vitality, the idea being that if the soil was fertile, so were they. On a stone from this period, intended as a doorway to a tomb, an artist has achieved the near impossible: the most consummate representation of the sexual act. Two spirals, two balls, a passage and something to fill it. The penis is barely worth mentioning. The ovaries are what dominate, swirling and just as huge as the testicles beneath them. We see the woman from both inside and out, poised on two nimble, straddling legs; the man barely figures at all.

Under the Greeks in the 5th century BC, it was a different story. Although many of Sicily’s tyrants were generous patrons of the arts and sciences, theirs was a discernibly more macho culture. The second room of the exhibition is like an ode to their sporting achievements: amid the terracotta busts of ecstatic horses and the vase paintings of wild ponies bolting over mounds (Sicily is exceptionally hilly) are more stately representations of horses drawing chariots. These Greek tyrants – or rather, their charioteers – achieved a remarkable number of victories in the Olympic and Pythian Games. Some of the most splendid and enigmatic poetry from the ancient world was written to celebrate their equestrian triumphs. “Water is best, but gold shines like gleaming fire at night, outstripping the wealth of a great man” – so begins a victory ode for Hiero I of Syracuse.

But what of the tensions? In 415BC, the Athenians responded to rivalries between Segesta and Syracuse by launching the Sic­ilian expedition. It was a disaster. The Athenians who survived were imprisoned and put to work in quarries; many died of disease contracted from the marshland near Syracuse. There is neither the space nor the inclination, in this relatively compact exhibition, to explore the incident in much depth. The clever thing about this show is that it leaves the historical conflicts largely between the lines by focusing on Sicily at its height, first under the Greeks, and then in the 11th century under the Normans – ostensibly “the collage years”, when one culture was interwoven so tightly with another that the seams as good as disappeared. It is up to us to decide how tightly those seams really were sewn.

Much is made of the multiculturalism and religious tolerance of the Normans but even before them we see precedents for fairly seamless relations between many different groups under the 9th-century Arab conquerors. Having shifted Sicily’s capital from Syracuse to Palermo, where it remains to this day, the Arabs lived cheek by jowl with Berbers, Lombards, Jews and Greek-Byzantine Sicilians. Some Christians converted to Islam so that they would be ­exempt from the jizya (a tax imposed on non-Muslims). But the discovery of part of an altar from a 9th-century church, displayed here, suggests that other Christians were able to continue practising their faith. The marble is exquisitely adorned with beady-eyed lions, frolicsome deer and lotus flowers surrounding the tree of life, only this tree is a date palm, introduced to Sicily – together with oranges, spinach and rice – by the Arabs.

Under Roger II, the first Norman king of Sicily, whose father took power from the Arabs, the situation was turned on its head. With the exception of the Palermo mosque (formerly a Byzantine church, and before that a Roman basilica), which had again become a church, mosques remained open, while conversion to Christianity was encouraged. Roger, who was proudly Catholic, looked to Constantinople and Fatimid Egypt, as well as Normandy, for his artistic ideas, adorning his new palace at Palermo and the splendidly named “Room of Roger” with exotic hunting mosaics, Byzantine-style motifs and inscriptions in Arabic script, including a red-and-green porphyry plaque that has travelled to London.

To which one’s immediate reaction is: Roger, what a man. Why aren’t we all doing this? But an appreciation for the arts of the Middle East isn’t the same thing as an understanding of the compatibilities and incompatibilities of religious faith. Nor is necessity the same as desire. Roger’s people – and, in particular, his army – were so religiously and culturally diverse that he had little choice but to make it work. The start of the Norman invasion under his father had incensed a number of Sicily’s Muslims. One poet had even likened Norman Sicily to Adam’s fall. And while Roger impressed many Muslims with his use of Arabic on coins and inscriptions, tensions were brewing outside the court walls between the
island’s various religious quarters. Roger’s death in 1154 marked the beginning of a deterioration in relations that would precipitate under his son and successor, William I, and his grandson William II. Over the following century and a half, Sicily became more or less latinised.

The objects from Norman Sicily that survive – the superb stone carvings and multilingual inscriptions, the robes and richly dressed ceiling designs – tell the story less of an experiment that failed than of beauty that came from necessity. Viewing Sicily against a background of more recent tensions – including Cosa Nostra’s “war” on migrants on an island where net migration remains low – it is perhaps no surprise that the island never lost its “defensive air”. Knowing the fractures out of which Sicily’s defensiveness grew makes this the most interesting thing about it. 

Daisy Dunn’s latest books are Catullus’ Bedspread and The Poems of Catullus (both published by William Collins)

“Sicily” at the British Museum runs until 14 August

This article first appeared in the 28 April 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The new fascism