The director Woody Allen has his favourites. Photo: Getty
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Why do some directors repeatedly use the same actors in their films?

Looking behind the preferred casts of directors throughout the history of cinema who always use the same actors.

A painting discovered in a basement at Yale University a few years back caught the attention of curator John Marciari, who suspected it might be an unattributed work of Diego Velázquez and not, as was previously thought, one of his studio or of his Spanish contemporaries.

After a long process of authentication, Marciari affirmed that The Education of the Virgin (a variation on a theme also treated by Georges de la Tour and Delacroix, among many others) was indeed painted by Velázquez and the picture is currently touring the world.

Among the references used to verify its authenticity was the appearance of an elderly bearded gentleman, who had already appeared in several other Velázquez tableaux. Like many painters throughout the ages, the Sevillian master made regular use of the same models – perhaps most famously in Man with a Wine Glass and Democritus, where Pablo de Valladolid, a famous jester (and actor) at Philip IV’s court and subject of a third famous Velázquez painting, morphs from bon vivant in the former, earlier painting to a more pious embodiment of civic spirit in the latter.

His expression is largely the same in each, yet, in what amounts to a sort of forerunner of the Kuleshov Effect, the paintings tell us very different things. As well as the obvious mastery of his craft, Velázquez had an inimitable control of his subjects. The shared model of the two paintings make it easy for either to be identified as a Velázquez but so does the way in which they are each different

One might imagine a scenario several hundred years in the future, however improbable, where cinema, long fallen out of fashion and the various formats for viewing it obsolete, is a distant footnote of art history. Say most of the DVDs, mp4s, Betamaxes, VHS and film reels that existed have withered away to nothing in basements or landfill, unnoticed by all but a tiny handful of humanity.

Imagine Scorsese, Bergman, Kurosawa or Hitchcock being known only to a select few, who cherish the half-a-dozen or so extant films by each of those cineastes and who pine for the lost classics they know only by name, in much the same way as cinephiles today regret the lost films of Mizoguchi and Ozu.

And imagine one day a few minutes of film reel are discovered, shorn of opening credits or other contextual information, but which looks familiar to the trained eye.

From today’s vantage point, detecting the style of most of the great filmmakers of the 20th century might appear to be a simple matter for someone in the know, but the passing of time may have greatly complicated that facility for our descendants.

Maybe a Martin Scorsese film will be identifiable not by a long steadicam shot, a scattershot voiceover or the Rolling Stones on the soundtrack but by the presence of some vaguely recognisable face – Robert de Niro, Leonardo di Caprio, or maybe even Joe Pesci or Frank Vincent.

Joe Pesci and Frank Vincent in Raging Bull (1980)

The repetition of actors in films by certain directors is often noticeable but can also go unremarked even by more attentive viewers. They also, with every repeat appearance, add another layer of texture, of meaning, of biographical nuance to the film.

An actor throughout their career is a constantly updated palimpsest of his or herself; when reappearing in the films of the same director, they become part of the fabric, weft in the film’s tapestry, an echo of earlier work that binds the world of the film together. 

One needn’t wonder why directors use the same actors again and again – the comfort of working with people you know is evident. Most great directors have had their acteurs fétiches – Toshiro Mifune for Kurosawa, Chishu Ryu and Setsuko Hara for Ozu, Klaus Kinski for Herzog, Monica Vitti for Antonioni, De Niro and now DiCaprio for Scorsese.

Other directors have doggedly stood by one actor and filmed their evolution over time – Jean-Pierre Léaud in François Truffaut’s Antoine Doinel films, starting with The 400 Blows in 1959 and Lee Kang-Sheng in practically all of Tsai Ming-Liang’s films. A rarer privilege for filmmakers is getting to use a group of their favourite actors repeatedly, though some have managed it.

In the Hollywood studio era, actors did the bidding of the studio so troupes of this sort were rare enough – John Ford was one of the few to have a regular gaggle of actors to hand: John Wayne, Ward Bond and Victor McLaglen were almost ever-present in Ford films for a decade or more and formed a reactionary clique around the backlots (Bond once famously goaded a young Orson Welles in a restaurant and cut off his tie).

Elsewhere, troupes of actors associated with directors emerged from theatrical troupes, as with Ingmar Bergman, who established himself as a stage director in Sweden before gaining international renown. Numerous actors made ten or more films with him: Liv Ullmann, Bibi Andersson, Max von Sydow, Erland Josephson, Ingrid Thulin, Harriet Andersson and Gunnar Björnstrand.

The tightness of the group gave an extra heft and tension to Bergman’s family dramas but there were also films that directly replicated the travelling troupe, such as The Virgin SpringThe Magician and Sawdust and Tinsel. It was as if Bergman was mining the offstage dynamics of his circle for fictional ends.

The Virgin Spring (1960)

Other directors whose work has straddled stage and screen have operated in a similar vein with their groups of actors. Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s life and work blurred almost imperceptibly into one another, to such an extent that he directed an astounding 42 films (and numerous stage productions) in the 14 years before his death at the age of 37.

Fassbinder and his actors were often inseparable, plaguing international film festivals with their bad behaviour and making films on the fly, like the 1971 Western Whity, filmed in Spain in a week and financed using the producer’s credit card.

Fassbinder cast his Moroccan lover El Hedi ben Salem in several of his films, particularly Fear Eats the Soul (1974). Many of his associates went on to international fame, such as cinematographer Michael Ballhaus and actors Hanna Schygulla and Barbara Sukowa, but they have always appeared exiled in other people’s films, so indelibly linked to Fassbinder were they.

In Fox and his Friends (1975), the titular Fox, played by the director himself, is exploited and ultimately ruined by his circle of friends after he wins the lottery. The knowledge that those friends were played by people who were not only regulars in his films but people he hung out with in real life only sharpens the discomfort you feel watching the film.

Fox and his Friends (1975)

Mike Leigh has made regular use of the same group of actors, such as Timothy Spall, Phil Davis, Ruth Sheen, Lesley Manville, the late Katrin Cartlidge, Alison Steadman, Jim Broadbent and Sally Hawkins, not to mention a few lesser known names.

As a director who is famous for his intense and thorough workshopped rehearsals, it is not surprising he calls upon the same people time and time again. Like Bergman and Fassbinder, Leigh’s films are often ensemble dramas that call for a finely calibrated pitch and tone.

The actor’s familiarity with one another facilitates this in much the same way as a central midfielder might instinctively place a pass onto the right wing knowing his full-back will be there to charge forward with the ball.

Leigh has seldom covered theatre in his films, the notable exception being Topsy Turvy (1999), his biopic of Gilbert and Sullivan. The scenes in the film in which the cast members of The Mikado rehearse for the show’s opening night are a reflection of the long rehearsals Leigh puts his actors through, raising the intriguing question of how one rehearses actors to perform a rehearsal.

Topsy Turvy (1999)

For directors that use their preferred actors whenever they can (sometimes they are stymied by availability) the actors are as indelibly part of the directorial "brand" or look as they themselves are. A John Cassavetes film without any of Gena Rowlands, Peter Falk, Ben Gazzara or Seymour Cassel would look incomplete. Arnaud Desplechin hardly ever makes a film without Mathieu Amalric or the Dardenne brothers without Olivier Gourmet and Fabrizio Rongione; almost every film by Jia Zhangke features his wife Zhao Tao.

There sometimes come breaks between actors and director: Alison Steadman disappeared from Mike Leigh’s films and Mia Farrow from Woody Allen’s after their respective relationships ended. Martin Scorsese has not used Robert de Niro for two decades, presumably because the cultural weight of their earlier collaborations would risk unbalancing a film. Werner Herzog’s films are very different since Klaus Kinski’s death (indeed he has almost entirely devoted himself to documentary since then).

One of the most moving instances of a collaboration cut short was the sudden death of Finnish actor Matti Pellonpää in 1995. Pellonpää had appeared in most of Aki Kaurismäki’s films until then (as well as those by Kaurismäki’s brother Mika). For his 1996 film Drifting Clouds, Kaurismäki ensured his old friend would be present, in the shape of a smiling childhood portrait, sitting on the dresser in the apartment belonging to unemployed couple Illona and Lauri. There is no reference to a child in the film but it is implied the couple, played by Kati Outinen and Kari Vänäänen (themselves regular Kaurismäki players) once had a son. It’s a subtle but fond farewell for a man whose absence from Kaurismäki’s films has been palpable.

Matti Pellonpää and Kati Outinen in Drifting Clouds (1996)

Oliver Farry is an Irish writer, journalist and translator living in Paris.

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Why can't we stop for death?

The Black Mirror and The Worm at the Core reveal the human obsession with, and denial of, our mortality.

When he was entering what he knew would be the final stage of his terminal illness, Bob Monkhouse used to joke that the terrible thing about dying was how stiff it left you feeling the next day. There is something pleasantly cavalier in the comedian’s quip. Why make a tragedy of something that will happen to us all? Perhaps we’d be wiser if we didn’t think of death at all, but instead – as the philosopher Spinoza recommended – only of life. But that kind of wisdom seems to be beyond our capacity. The human preoccupation with death is pervasive and universal, and every society offers remedies for the anxiety that the fact of mortality evokes.

Religions have their afterlives, while secular faiths offer continuity with some larger entity – nations, political projects, the human species, a process of cosmic evolution – to stave off the painful certainty of oblivion. In their own lives, human beings struggle to create an image of themselves that they can project into the world. Careers and families prolong the sense of self beyond the grave. Acts of exceptional heroism and death-defying extreme sports serve a similar impulse. By leaving a mark, we can feel we are not just fleeting individuals who will soon be dead and then forgotten.

Against this background, it might seem that the whole of human culture is an exercise in death denial. This is the message of Stephen Cave’s thoughtful and beautifully clear Immortality: the Quest to Live For Ever and How It Drives Civilisation (2012). A more vividly personal but no less compelling study of our denial of death is presented in Caitlin Doughty’s Smoke Gets in Your Eyes: and Other Lessons from the Crematorium (2015), in which the author uses her experience of working at a Californian funeral parlour to show how contemporary mortuary practice – removing the corpse as quickly as possible, then prettifying it so that it almost seems alive – serves to expel the fact of death from our lives.

Both books cite the work of the cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker. In The Denial of Death (1973) Becker, whose work is now undergoing something of a revival, suggested that flight from death is the driving force of civilisation. Many of humanity’s greatest achievements, as well as its worst crimes, can be understood as attempts to ward off mortality.

Becker’s work is the avowed inspiration of the latest book in this growing canon, The Worm at the Core, co-authored by three American social psychologists. They begin with a story:

On a rainy, grey day in December 1973, philosopher Sam Keen, writing for Psychology Today, trundled down the halls of a hospital in Burnaby, British

Columbia, to interview a terminally ill cancer patient who doctors said had just days to live. When Keen entered the room, the dying man told him, with a touch of mortal irony: “You are catching me in extremis. This is a test of everything I’ve written about death. And I’ve got a chance to show how one dies . . .”

The dying man was Ernest Becker. Talking to Keen, he summarised the theory that others are now taking up and developing: “We build character and culture in order to shield ourselves from the devastating awareness of our underlying helplessness and the terror of our inevitable death.”

Becker’s career had not been easy. Born in 1924, he joined the army at the age of 18 and served in an infantry battalion that liberated a Nazi death camp. After a period working at the American embassy in Paris he decided to become an anthropologist and entered academic life. Drifting from one university to another, he was popular with students (who at one point offered to pay his salary when his contract was terminated) but failed to make much of an impression on his colleagues. In another irony, his book The Denial of Death was awarded the Pulitzer Prize two months after he died in 1974.

Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg and Tom Pyszczynski chanced upon Becker’s writings in the early 1980s. “Like the Rosetta Stone, they were to us a revelation . . . Becker explained how the fear of death guided human behaviour.” Filled with enthusiasm, the three young psychologists tried to share his ideas at the 1984 meeting of the Society for Experimental Psychology. But the audience started drifting away when they mentioned that their work was influenced by psychoanalysis and existential philosophy; when they went on to cite the ideas of Marx, Kierkegaard and Freud, “renowned psychologists were storming the conference room exits”. The authors then submitted a paper to a flagship academic journal. Some months later, they received a one-line review: “I have no doubt that this paper would be of no interest to any psychologist, living or dead.” ­Somehow, one suspects that Becker would not have been surprised by this response.

Undaunted, the authors then did 25 years of research to test their ideas. Melding existential thinking with the findings of empirical social science, they argue that terror of death infuses a wide range of human behaviours – from obsessive-compulsive disorders and the anxious pursuit of sex through to the search for self-esteem and the use of violence to harm those who challenge our beliefs. The Worm at the Core is the most comprehensive and well-evidenced account to date of the idea that fending off the awareness of death is the prime mover of the human condition. It’s a considerable achievement, showing up the bigotry and timidity of the initial academic reaction to the authors’ ideas.

At the same time, like other such accounts – including Becker’s – The Worm at the Core suffers from neglecting the conflicting impulses that have shaped the human response to death. They are right to suggest that it is awareness of death, more than anything else, which differentiates human beings from other animals. They are also right to argue that denial of death is one of the most powerful forces in human life. Where they go astray is in passing over how, on the contrary, many human beings have welcomed their mortality.

To start with, religions aren’t always immortality cults. A preoccupation with death may be universally human, and attempts to escape from it are found in many cultures and traditions – including, as the authors show, Chinese alchemy. But a longing for everlasting life has been at its strongest in societies and individuals whose values are shaped by monotheism, more particularly by Christianity. (Belief in an afterlife hasn’t been central in most currents of Judaism.) In ancient Greek polytheism, it was believed that the gods envied people their mortality; everlasting life might be a curse – an eternity of boredom. In many of their forms, Hinduism and Buddhism express a search for mortality, the project of releasing human beings from the unending life that comes with the cycle of transmigration and rebirth.

For the poets and philosophers of pre-Christian Europe, death was by no means always an evil. The Roman Stoic Seneca had no compunction in writing to a young disciple that he should not be afraid to consider suicide if he had already tasted most of life’s pleasures. Even more boldly, the Greek poet Theognis, writing some time in the 6th century BC, declared: “Best for all for mortal beings is never to have been born at all” – a line that Nietzsche used in his analysis of ancient Greek culture. In his poem “Tess’s Lament”, Thomas Hardy has the heroine of Tess of the D’Urbervilles give voice to a similar sentiment: “I cannot bear my life as writ,/I’d have my life unbe;/Would turn my memory to a blot/. . . And gone all trace of me!” What Tess wants is not just to cease to exist, but to “unbe” – never to have been born. Hardy’s character illustrates the power of Freud’s insight that human beings can be moved as much by a longing for complete extinction as by the urge to live.

In The Black Mirror Raymond Tallis, trained as a doctor and for much of his life an expert in geriatric medicine, writes as a philosopher. He writes in his overture to this strange, bold, and courageous book, “If to be a philosopher is to be an onlooker, the vantage point of death is the ultra ne plus of the philosophical viewpoint: you look upon your life from the virtual position of one who has outlived it.” As he observes, his book is an implicit rejoinder to Spinoza’s injunction that a free human being should think only of life: “The free man (and woman) who is preparing for life may think more deeply and, indeed, more freely by thinking about death. In order to live like a philosopher, it is necessary to die like one – that is, to die in thought and in imagination before you die in body.”

It’s an observation that encapsulates the central paradox of the book. It may be necessary, if you want to live as a philosopher, to think of yourself as already dead, but it is also impossible given that, as Tallis admits, what comes when life ends is inconceivable to us. How can we envision non-existence? If we are tormented by the thought of death, one reason is that we can’t imagine what it means to be dead. It is hard to see how philosophy can help us here.

In The Black Mirror, Tallis explores the life that will be lost when he is gone. Although he discusses bereavement – for many people, a loss worse than the prospect of their own death – it is not a large part of the book. It is his own loss that chiefly concerns him. He refers to himself throughout in the third person:

 

Visitors paying their last respects will direct them to the capital of RT’s body, to the head with which they had been tête-à-tête for so long. It was here, more than any other part of his frame, that revealed his changing take on a changing world. Little of its meaning-packed anterior surface had been excused the duty to communicate: mouth, eyes, nose, forehead, cheeks, all had their say.

 

This third-person perspective is more than a stylistic device. It’s an attempt to achieve a point of view on one’s life that is outside oneself and yet not that of another living being. But unless you believe in some kind of divine mind, there is no such point of view. Tallis is a convinced atheist – not the all-too-familiar kind, typified by Dawkins, which rants on incessantly about the evils of religion, but the rarer, more intelligent variety that finds the very idea of God empty and incoherent. If the idea of God is devoid of meaning, however, so, too, is the idea that the world can be seen from the standpoint of someone who has died. After all, who – or what – is looking?

Tallis tries to adopt this standpoint because he wants to “live philosophically”. Having been imaginatively dead, he hopes to come back with his love of life re-energised. The Black Mirror, he tells us, “is, ultimately, a work of praise and gratitude”. It is true that the book contains many invocations of beauty and joy: “ploughlands bordered with bare hawthorn hedges scribbled on low dark and grey skies rifted with brilliance”; the simple pleasure in existing on a dull Wednesday afternoon. Overall, though, the mood is melancholy, heavy with regret for how much of the life that is gone was left unlived. Pursuing “some dream of changing the world (and of course his prospects in it) for the better”, the author “allowed himself to be indifferent to an April evening, glistening with dew and birdsong, that could have become itself in his consciousness”. Now it is getting late: “With age he had lost some of his singularity and become ‘Old Man’ or ‘Elderly Gentleman’ in the eyes of strangers – a sign of the de-differentiations to come.” Seeing life from the standpoint of death – “the philosophical viewpoint” – does not seem to have produced the hoped-for reinvigoration. By playing the corpse, dying “in thought and in imagination”, you may end up a fretful ghost.

If this remarkable book fails to deliver the uplift it aims to provide, the fault lies with the hopes the author has invested in philosophy. Like rationalists the world over, Tallis wants to believe that discordant impulses can be reconciled through a process of reflection. But the human response to mortality is intrinsically contradictory. We fear the  prospect of death and build up elaborate defences against it, yet at the same time yearn for the inconceivable transformation that death will bring.

It is unreasonable to look to philosophy for remedies for this quintessentially human self-division. Better take up a religion, or else accept and enjoy the short, uncertain life we are given. In the end, feeling stiff the next day is no big deal.

The Worm at the Core: on the Role of Death in Life by Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg and Tom Pyszczynski is published by Allen Lane
The Black Mirror: Fragments of an Obituary for Life by Raymond Tallis is published by Atlantic Books

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer

John Gray is the New Statesman’s lead book reviewer. His latest book is The Soul of the Marionette: A Short Enquiry into Human Freedom.

This article first appeared in the 27 August 2015 issue of the New Statesman, Isis and the new barbarism