Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Rachel Roberts and This Sporting Life: Fragments #1 and #2

During an interview with Films and Filming, Lindsay Anderson describes the process of making his 1963 film This Sporting Life. He begins by outlining what he thinks the film is not about. It is not a film about sport, he states. Nor is it ‘to be categorised as a ‘North Country working-class story’. In fact, as he continues:
I suppose that the film is primarily a study of temperament. It is a film about a man. A man of extraordinary power and aggressiveness, both temperamental and physical, but at the same time with a great innate sensitiveness and a need for love of which he is at first hardly aware.
Further, as Anderson continues:
Throughout This Sporting Life we were very aware that we were not making a film about anything representative: we were making a film about something unique. We were not making a film about a ‘worker’, but about an extraordinary (and therefore more deeply significant) man [...] [i]

Richard Harris’s performance of Frank Machin, Anderson’s extraordinary man, has a brutal noise about it, one made even louder and louder by the ‘gruelling’ and ‘claustrophobic’ spaces of the film. [ii] Indeed, the roaring gestures which characterise this performance, the shoves and the shrugs, the punches and the pulling, all work to ensure that Harris’s performance reaches and then nearly exceeds the upper limits of their physical amplitude, threatening, like the man himself, to destroy everything that aims to contain them.
Yet we need to remember here that these gestures would lose their volume and sink into the silence of an empty film were it not for the fact that these same spaces were also occupied by someone equal to this noise; Rachel Roberts as Margaret, the target (which is a far more appropriate word here than the usual object) of Frank’s affections. As Anderson explains:
This is a woman whose feelings, though fierce, are almost continually suppressed: the relationship deepens without self-explanation, without conventional avowals, through incessant conflict, with all the feelings between or under the lines. It called for an actress of exceptional ‘interior’ quality, with a real wildness within, as well as the capacity for an iron restraint. [iii]
Anderson is right. Roberts’s presence in this film does warrant this kind of praise. However, subsequent accounts of this film, tend not to fully explore Roberts’s contribution or capacity. Geoffrey MacNab, for example, notes what he calls a ‘rawness and vulnerability’[iv] but goes no further other than to suggest that her character is also ‘hardbitten and recalcitrant’.[v] Roberts fares no better with Robert Murphy when the best he can suggest is that her character is a ‘brooding, witchlike presence’ within the film. [vi]  Leonard Quart is more descriptive but equally less expansive when he notes that Margaret is ‘perceptive, sour, emotionally and sexually frozen’.[vii]
Perhaps we are falling victim here to the tendency towards summary, a reductive process as described by V. F. Perkins, one where all that is distinctive and interesting about the visual – whatever and all that that might mean – is reduced to simply a verbal statement.[viii] The limiting tendency of this approach – especially when applied to the  matter at hand, Roberts’s presence in This Sporting Life -   is tellingly evident when Manny Farber laments the fact that the criticism of acting ‘has always been quick to cover a performance with a blanket word.’[ix] In addition, as Robert Kolker outlines, a summative approach of this kind is indicative of a further problem. As he continues:
When critical attention is given to character in the particular film, the tendency is to fall into the trap of psychological realism [...] and begin discussing the character as if he or she had an existence rather than a function within the total narrative structure. Between these extremes fall the adjectives: such and such a player gave an ‘edgy’ or ‘nervous’ performance, was ‘brilliant’, was ‘absorbed’ in the role. And, that final refuge of unexamined assumptions, was ‘believable.’[x]

In his account, Stanley Kauffman does come closer to the complexity that I feel is in existence here when he writes:
From the start [Rachel Roberts] strikes notes of fierce resignation: glad she is through with the turmoil of love and sex, fearful of the young man, savagely defensive of her isolation. We see the man progressively affecting her, but this is no waking Sleeping Princess; it is sex that is being stirred, little else, and she doesn’t like it.[xi] 
Yet, when I watch the same film and the same performance I see the same things as the others I have described. However, I feel that I see much more. In fact, I believe that watching Roberts in this film allows me to come to understand how, to quote Andrew Klevan paraphrasing Stanley Cavell, ‘our disposition towards a narrative is not necessarily tied to our identification with character – however elegantly refined – but lies equally with appreciating the performer’s capacities for revealing and withholding aspects of the character’s sensibility.’ [xii] In keeping with Klevan’s project, and extending it beyond the range of his original intentions, I feel that I want to argue that Rachel Roberts ‘inhabits an appropriate place.’[xiii] But what does this mean?
          One possibility is to suggest that the credibility of (her) performance and hence the appropriateness of her place ‘is created out of coherence and harmony with the film’s environment – including the camera and other elements ‘outside’ the visible fictional world’.[xiv] Indeed, as Jean-Luc Godard has suggested elsewhere: ‘If destiny and death are the cinema’s pet themes, then there must be a definition of the human condition within the carefully controlled presentation which is mise en scène.’[xv] As Godard suggests:
Jealousy, contempt, all the doughty deeds of the heart must keep a watchful eye on sudden and nonchalant or slow and passionate gestures. The cinema makes reality specific. It would be useless for it to try to make more of the instant than the instant itself contains.[xvi]
Furthermore, as Klevan continues:
Attending to the moment-by-moment movement of performers [...] enhances our understanding of of film characterisation. It encourages us to attend to a character’s physical and aural detail and reminds us, because we are prone to forget in our literary moods, of their ontological particularity in the medium of film. A living human being embodies a film character.[xvii]
All of which echoes V.F. Perkins’s claim for an understanding of what he calls the ‘invisible effect’. Perkins is discussing the way in which Hitchcock’s Marnie offers an example of how action can be both ‘invisible’ and used to precise effect. Though he is also making claims for the recognition of Hitchcock’s contribution to the sequence he is describing it is the praise he reserves for Marnie’s movement that makes his argument so pertinent. As he explains:
The creation of significant gesture here serves to show what I mean by the ‘invisible’ effect. The spectator can understand the action of the sequence without becoming aware of the device as relevant comment. It does not demand interpretation. But if he does examine the device and relate it to his knowledge of the heroine the significance of the moment is enhanced.[xviii]
And I read Perkins’s use of significance here as meaning the way in which attention to Marnie’s movement allows the action evident on the screen to be imbued with something more than just the simple acknowledgement of motion. Rather than simply saying, ‘Look, she is moving her head.’ Or, ‘Look, she is moving her head again.’ Perkins is asking to us to ask, ‘What does it mean for Marnie to move her head at this particular moment in the film? Or, ‘There, Marnie moved her head again. I wonder what is interesting about about the repetition of the action?’ Perhaps,  Stanley Cavell is useful here for his thoughts on how the significance of a moment might be enhanced by the presence of a performer. As he writes:
One recalls the lists of stars of every magnitude who have provided the movie camera with human subjects – individuals capable of filling its need for individualities, whose individualities in turn, whose inflections of demeanor and disposition were given full play in its projection.[xix]
Indeed, this is exactly the sense that Manny Farber tries to convey when he writes that
The meat of any movie performance is in the suggestive material that circles the edges of a role: quirks of physiognomy, private thoughts of the actor about himself, misalliances where the body isn’t delineating the role, but is running on a tangent to it.[xx]

[i] Lindsay Anderson, ‘Sport, Life and Art’, Films and Filming (February 1963), pp. 16-17.
[ii] Anderson, pp. 16- 17.
[iii] Anderson, p. 17.
[iv] Geoffrey MacNab, Searching for Stars: Stardom and Screen Acting in British Cinema (London, Cassell, 2000), p. 191.
[v] MacNab, p. 206.
[vi] Robert Murphy, Sixties British Cinema (London, BFI Publishing, 1992), p. 28
[vii] Leonard Quart, ‘This Sporting Life’, Cineaste, March 1997, Vol. 22 Issue 4, p60, p. 1
[viii] V. F. Perkins, Film as Film (Harmondsworth, Penguin, 1972), p. 79.
[ix] Manny Farber, Negative Space: Manny Farber on the Movies, Expanded Edition (New York, Da Capo Press, 1998), p. 154.
[x] Robert Kolker, A Cinema of Loneliness: Penn, Stone, Kubrick, Scorsese, Spielberg, Altman (Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2000), p. 15.
[xi] Stanley Kauffman, A World on Film (New York, Dell Publishing Co., Inc, 1966), p. 211.
[xii] Andrew Klevan, Film Performance: From Achievement to Appreciation (London, Wallflower Press, 2005), p. 9.
[xiii] Klevan, p 3.
[xiv] Klevan, p. 5.
[xv] Jean-Luc Godard, Godard on Godard, Translated and Edited by Tom Milne, (New York, Da Capo Press, 1972), p. 21.
[xvi] Godard, p. 21.
[xvii] Klevan, p. 7.
[xviii] Perkins, p. 77.
[xix] Stanley Cavell, The World Viewed (Cambridge, Harvard University Press, 1979), p. 35.
[xx] Farber, p. 155.