November 4, 2010

What does it mean to be human?

What does it mean to be human?

An essay in the Arts section of the Unte Reader blog, titled “A New Way to Act,” by David Doody, tells us that acting/performing has moved beyond the Method method to something new because what it means to be human isn’t now what it was.

It’s a weird essay on the face of it: A declaration that being human has changed, yet that provocative statement is sublimated to the idea that acting must now be done differently.

Acting as it is, and shouldn’t be, declares Doody, is one of mimicry. A performance like that of Marlon Brando in Streetcar Named Desire is [quoting Sheila Heti],
… a version of the human as a deeply individual, emotionally rooted being, with psychological depth, continuity of self, and a past that profoundly affects present behaviour and relationships
Doody tells us, citing Heti, that humans today
… have moved from the Freudian era toward cognitive behavioral therapy, meaning that “we are not determined by our past experiences….We are now in an age in which to be human means, in part, to be able to choose what sort of human one wants to be.” As Heti sees it, our actors have not followed the trend, but rather are still attempting to act the way Brando did. Even the best of this acting, Heti sees as bad, as it is only “high mimicry.”
So, is Doody [really, Heti] right? Has the nature of being human changed because of the new trend? Was the old Army ad perhaps wrong then, but right, now? We can “be all you we want to be?” Or do we still drag the ball-and-chain of our prior conditioning in a continuity of self?

At the end of his essay, Doody fully bails on Heti, who is inspired by sight of the next leap in how acting should be.
So what, exactly, would Heti want to see replace the form of acting so commonly used today? She gives one example: the artist Ryan Trecartin’s videos. The characters in these videos have “no personality at the core” and “[t]here is no sense that [they] have what we consider an emotional history, or have lived days and years prior to the moment they are currently living on screen before us.” Other than that, she pretty much offers only a call to duty for screenwriters and actors to discover what the next stage of acting will be.
It’s all very odd, but surely there is some truth to the idea that human society/relationships/'senses or self' go through radical changes over the course of ages [and maybe, now, decades] that we find hard to fathom.

The acting in the 20s and 30s seems wholly artificial to us. While it can be pleasurable to watch an old Bette Davis movie, her performance doesn’t fell like it is representative of a real person. Ditto Marlon Brando; he’s archly theatrical and emotionally unstable. His performance seems like “acting,” not being real.

I know from reading books about how people used to think in ages past that the sense of ‘what being human is’ changes. Living in a “world” that is really only just within a few miles of where you were born is profoundly different than knowing the news of what goes on everywhere on the planet. Reading the newspapers or going online makes us different, and that difference isn’t necessarily better or ‘more knowing.’

Before the Renaissance period [say, befor 1450AD], people had no real conception of history. Things changed so slowly that people didn’t think in terms of change. They thought everything was very much like it had always been. History was recorded in a jumble; there was no timeline. There was no sequence of events to tell a story of advancement or change or 'reason why/how things changed or could change.'

What meaning life had was necessarily found in religion, since there was little else. Whereas today we can see the planet being in a world of dangers [global warming; terrorism] and adventures [longer lifespans; new technological gizmos; constant profound and surprising scientific discoveries], in the past, life was almost wholly one of duty.

But how are we today? WHO are we today?

Maybe we’re journeying to a place where living vicariously in the movies is feeling phony. Maybe we’re benumbed by not knowing who we are or what we’re supposed to be.

Maybe the prior paragraph in this blogpost is phony. Maybe I don’t know what to think or write to conclude things, here. Maybe it’s annoying that I’m getting all postmodern about now, losing my seriousness and thinking more about what I want for lunch rather than being respectful of all you blog readers. [Hmmm. Hannah’s Deli!? Mmmmm.]


Nagarjuna said...

You raise a fascinating issue that strikes me as being not only about acting but about art in general. What is art in general and acting in particular SUPPOSED to do? Is it supposed to "mimic" or mirror the "real world," or is it supposed to convey the artist's subjective impression or, perhaps, ideal of the world?

I don't know the answer to this, but when it comes to acting, I confess that I tend to favor larger-than-life, idealized characters who radiate masterful theatricality. For some reason, I never "got" Brando's greatness, but I loved actors like George C. Scott, Laurence Olivier, Katharine Hepburn, and Jack Klugman. Different kinds of actors to be sure, but all, in many if not most of their roles, powerfully transcend typical human emotional depth and expressiveness and intellectual acuity and eloquence.

Since you and I are interested in Wilberian integral theory, it would be interesting to speculate on what the integral ideal would be for an actor. I suppose it would be someone who is AQAL-aware, cognizant of where he or she falls along the various lines, states, and types, and well-developed along several of the more prominent developmental lines including the emotional, cognitive, and interpersonal ones.

Tom Armstrong said...

Thanks for your comment, Nagarjuna.

Unhappily, it takes a subscription to read Sheila Heti's essay. I should have foreseen your point and tried to address it in the blogpost. I guess this is what I think:

I think Heti [and Doody] are talking about acting that is supposed to represent reality, the way people actually are.

I don't think that acting tried to do that a lot prior to the 1950s, say. But most often, thereafter, it gets 'spiked' with artistic intent (which is false to what's real).

Maybe "A Man and a Woman," The 400 Blows" and "The Subject was Roses" are examples of reality-based movies. "The 400 Blows" was, famously, the first of the New Wave, christened "cinema verite' ", it was dramatic, as a movie should be, yet felt like evesdropping.

It is probably very very rare for there to be a movie that tries to be 'real,' like evesdropping. Thinking about what movies I've ever seen, they all hop on the falseness wagon, somehow.

So, maybe I'm missing the point. I don't think that A Streetcar Named Desire was ever non-arty. It, too, was hyped in its time.

Sheila Heti said...
This comment has been removed by a blog administrator.
Sheila Heti said...

Tom, send me your email address and I'll send you a copy of the essay. Nagarjuna, you as well, if you'd like. I find this discussion really interesting.