April Newsletter: On Personal Space and Actors’ Private Lives

Photos: Classiq Journal

 
 
I have watched Nomadland this week. Fern, Frances McDormand, moves around country with the weather and with the work. After the economic collapse of her working-class town, Fern, a former substitute teacher and a widow in her sixties, hits the road with her van, joining a group of older itinerant workers, real-life nomads in fact who play some version of themselves in the film. This is a great American road movie and Fern is a pioneer, this independent spirit breaking with the standard of modern day society. The road becomes her space to pause, to think, to being, to keep going and searching. It is a quiet performance, but one that goes so deep and one that bestows such power on the viewer. I am not sure if the word “performance” is the right word. It’s raw, naked emotion, intensely human and which might change, or at least challenge, the way you think about your own life. It is a very intimate, ineffable portrait that seems to connect you not just with the character, but maybe with Frances McDormand a little, too, who has long been so adamant about keeping much of her private life to herself. And with that, she has also kept that mystery that I personally find very difficult to rediscover in the work of so many actors who are always in the public’s eye. She brings her own search for truth in performance to the screen.

“I made a very conscious effort not to do press and publicity for 10 years in what other people would think would be a very dangerous moment in a female actor’s career, but it paid off for exactly the reasons I wanted it to,” Frances McDormand said in The New York Times about her decision for staying away from the public’s eyes. “It gave me a mystery back to who I was, and then in the roles I performed, I could take an audience to a place where someone who sold watches or perfume and magazines couldn’t.”

Did you know that trees need personal space, too? In an edition of Ernest Journal, they write how “crown shyness is a naturally occurring phenomenon observed in forests where the crowns of trees avoid touching each other, creating a stunning visual effect akin to a network of cracks in the canopy.” The exact explanation is not yet fully known, “but the most popular theory is that it’s a preventative measure against shading; to optimise the tree’s exposure to light and maximise photosynthesis.” In other words, trees need room to breathe and thrive and grow, they need room in order to live.

I believe that is true for every individual and it is true for every actor. An actor must carve out some personal space, as much further from the public as possible in order to breathe new life into each role.

I do like to read about my favourite actors from time to time. I think I mostly enjoy the long-form written interviews in magazines, the kind that take time to research and to prepare and to write and to go back to, because I love a good conversation. But I do not care for knowing about what actors do in their day-to-day lives, and I don’t particularly care for them to stare at me from behind an advertising campaign. Leave something to the imagination, leave room for your audience to think where your vulnerability or strength you display on screen comes from. Where is the mystique? What is fascinating about an actor who makes himself/herself so publicly available?

The actor’s face gives you a perspective into the character’s story. What can you see new in a face that you see seven days a week on social media when it appears before you on the big screen? And now that we have been away from the movie theater for more than a year, the line between that real face and a character face, on a screen that becomes smaller and smaller, becomes even more blurry.

The world of film today is certainly also a product of our modern-day society, a society governed by advertisers, marketers and the media, all of whom use celebrity culture as a weapon of mass distraction. And it’s such a shame that actors are willingly part of it. I keep thinking of François Truffaut’s tribute words to Gloria Grahame: “The beautiful eyes of Gloria Grahame make you die of love, then wait a little longer, until another movie is released.” That kind of screen magnetism is lost today. Not only that, but even before the pandemic, the media machine had made it impossible to look forward to a promising film without already knowing the smallest details about the production. As for films that linger on in your memory for years, performances that impress you in the way a classic actor held the screen, a genuine moment that makes you feel as if something special is created in front of you? That is something much more difficult to attain with new than with old movies.

Listening to the archives of one of my favourite podcasts (there are not many), Desert Island Discs, from the days when Kirsty Young was the host, I came across the episode with Christopher Nolan, where she recalled how he had once said that he didn’t want people to know much about him personally because he wanted people to remain interested in his films, and they wouldn’t show the same interest if he were to put himself out there all the time. I dug up that interview, it was for The Hollywood Reporter, and this is what he said: “No, I don’t want people to know anything about me. I mean, I’m not being facetious. The more you know about somebody who makes the films, the less you can just watch the movies — that’s my feeling — which is why doing these things [interviews] always feels a bit like — (laughs) I mean, you have to do a certain amount of promotion for the film, you have to put yourself out there, but I actually don’t want people to have me in mind at all when they’re watching the films, genuinely.” Well, I am one of those people, and I don’t think I am the only one.

During a festival I attended three or four years ago, I had the chance to meet a few filmmakers and actors and take part in Q&A’s with some of them. Lynne Ramsay and Joaquin Phoenix, who had just released their film You Were Never Really Here, were among them. And I simply rejoice every time I think of that film because these two creative outsiders (Phoenix and Ramsay are both known for their no-bullshit attitudes when it comes to the Hollywood system and its promotional games) united to make this film together. Because not only did they break away from the system, but they broke the form of the crime genre, too. But I also can not forget Joaquin’s unease when someone asked him a stupid personal question. I was embarrassed for having to be present in that moment. We were there because these two people had made a great film, and one of the reasons for this was that their integrity had allowed them to remain creative and have a heavy word to say in the world of cinema today. And for whoever doesn’t get that, for whoever is nourished on celebrity rubbish and Instagram feeds, watching movies, watching that kind of film, is a useless exercise*.
 

Left: Photo by Classiq Journal
Right: “Above the Rooftops at Sunrise in Venice” by David C. Phillips, photographic print available in the shop.

 
 
The Classiq Journal newsletter goes out the first Sunday of each month. It’s a culture trip.
 
Reading

“I was an alien there (ed. note: in Hollywood). I loved solitude.” One of the most distinctive actors of the silent era, Louise Brooks, could write, too. Her book Lulu in Hollywood gathers her essays on Gish and Garbo, Bogart, Chaplin, W.C. Fields, G.W. Pabst, the one who cast her in Pandora’s Box and Diary of a Lost Girl, “essays striking in their evenhandedness and insight,” Lotte H. Eisner writes in her afterward to the book. I have read countless books and essays on classic Hollywood, but Louise Brooks’ writing about Hollywood and its stars is such a unique point of view that it’s made me realise how very few writers search for truth, observe and see with their own eyes. Although her writings draw from her own encounters and personal observations on cinema from her life in the movies, this is not a memoir book, because she didn’t care to write her memoirs. “In writing the history of a life I believe absolutely that the reader cannot understand the character and deeds of the subject unless he is given a basic understanding of that person’s sexual lives and hates and conflicts. It is the only way he reader can make sense out of innumerable apparently senseless actions.” And she didn’t want to get that personal. Talk about personal space. And she would stop writing altogether, too, because, as she wrote to Lotte once, “I shall write no more. Writing the truth for readers nourished on publicity rubbish is a useless exercise.” – *It’s Louise Brooks’ words that I adapted in the paragraph above.

Kenneth Grahame’s The Wind in the Willows. For children and adults alike. There are not enough books celebrating magical worlds, for either children or adults. This is an anniversary edition released last year by Egmont books, but I prefer this one (pictured further down) because of the cover. Both editions feature the original illustrations by E.H. Shepard.

Mark Harris’ Pictures at a Revolution, where he tells five stories at a time, about the making of five movies at a pivotal moment for the future of the American cinema, in the 1960s, and the birth of the New Hollywood, is a great account of making movies. I am therefore enthusiastic about his new book, Mike Nichols: A Life.

A long-form written interview is my favourite kind of interview. In this interview with Rui Nogueira, Gloria Swanson reflects on her life spent as one of the greatest stars of Hollywood’s Golden Era, a time before the pictures got small. And the screens even smaller.
 
 

Photos: Classiq Journal. Image to the right, from the book Lulu in Hollywood.
“I did not possess the appeal of a child star, but I possessed a more powerful attraction: a pupil’s total attention.” Louise Brooks

 
 
Viewing

Micki and Maude (1984), directed by Blake Edwards. Good comedies are hard to come by, especially today. And nobody has the guts to make truly funny comedies nowadays.

Jean-Jacques Beineix’s Diva (released 40 years ago this March) is the kind of film where style overrides content, a striking triumph of an electrifying, dark aesthetic that draws more from pop culture than from the cinema itself. The images guide you rather than the plot. And I like that. Beinoix is interested in telling his story visually, vibrantly and dynamically, independent of any kind of form. It transports you.

La ligne de démarcation (1966). It’s Claude Chabrol, and it’s Jean Seberg and Maurice Ronet in different roles than how I had seen them before, her different from the sensuous tomboy with a pixie-cut and “a glint of boyish malice” (again Truffaut) in her eyes in Bonjour tristesse (1958) or again the girl with a pixie-cut, all light and cool and mischief, in Breathless (1960), him different from his leisurely and good-looking characters rivaling Alain Delon in both Plein soleil (1960) and La piscine (1969).

Hillbilly Ellegy, directed by Ron Howard. If only for Glenn Close alone and this film would be worth watching.

Chasing Childhood. Let the children play and give them freedom and just carry them through.
 
 
Listening

Alec Baldwin’s Here’s The Thing is part of my Regulars (see the end of this newsletter), but I still like to highlight particular episodes, like the one with Sam Wasson, where they talk about Wasson’s book about the making of Chinatown, especially that they talk about the thing that I may appreciate the most about the book, especially in these right or wrong times we are living, in a world that displays so little regard for preserving family and privacy, and fair and measured public scrutiny: and that’s the fact that the book does right by Roman Polanski. And I want to quote the author in the interview about his hoping to have written a “balanced but sympathetic” portrait of Polanski: “We live in such an extreme yes or no culture, there is no grey area and Roman is the definition of grey, the way every great character is. Every great character is.”

The other Here’s The Thing episode I want to point out is the one with Malcolm McDowell.

“I like not doing the obvious.” Mark Strong selects the eight soundtracks of his life for Desert Island Discs. Punk has a special place in there, because punk happened in a particular period in his life when he realised that music can give you your sense of self. Yes, that’s what good music does. And most of all I love that he chose Heroes from David Bowie. And I love it even more that he chose the German version, Helden, sung by Bowie himself, one I wasn’t even aware of. And he chose it because he speaks German and that’s why Helden has a special resonance to him. I love German, too, and I don’t speak it as much as I would like, but from now on I am going to listen to Helden.

The playlist.
 
 

 
 
Making

Each month I highlight one lifestyle/design brand that I believe in 100%. I love SAYA Designs for their products and their values, and because its founder, Victoria Jones, is an inspiration. About her own inspirations, Victoria told me: “I am inspired by many, many people, but especially artists like Georgia O’Keeffe and Barbara Hepworth, whose organic forms I love. Activists like Dian Fossey, who was an American Conservationist in 1966 who went out to live alone in the jungle to protect mountain gorillas. She was so brave and courageous, especially at a time that when hardly any people, let alone women, were doing what she way doing.”
 
 
Exploring

In a recent edition of Monocle, the magazine covers a beautiful story very dear to my heart. Kodomo Hon no Mori (Nakanoshima Children’s Book Forest) is a children’s library housing 18,000 books that has been gifted to Osaka by architect Tadao Ando, who calls the city home. “I wanted to execute the idea of creating a facility in which children can read as much as possible. Reading is an essential part of nurturing our abilities to judge, express and raise creativity,” says Ando. The library carries books that adults can also read, because “you cannot just tell children to read. But they’ll get into it if they see that their parents are into it.” That’s the kind of personal space that I understand.

 
The regulars: The interviews, newsletters and podcasts I turn to every week and/or every month because they are that good. Craig Mod’s newsletters, Roden, and Ridgeline, and Huh (yes, all three of them). Wes Del Val’s book-ish interviews. Soundtracking, with Edith Bowman. Here’s the Thing, with Alec Baldwin. Alicia Kennedy’s newsletter. Monocle magazine, in print.
 
 

 

“Spring was moving in the air above and in the earth below
and around him, penetrating even his dark and lowly little
house with its spirit of divine discontent and longing.”

The Wind in the Willows

 

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