Thursday, June 28, 2018

"Improv Improvement"

Prompted by a bykenlevine post (June 1, 2018)…

When I watch actors, I take note of their efforts to make memorized dialogue sound believably real. Truth be told, I never thought about that when I acted at camp or in the two films I appeared in, the more respectable one being Cannibal Girls.  

I was just trying to deliver the lines.  (Which I immediately forgot, and if they needed a “re-take”, it felt like I had never seen them before.  It’s like, once out of my mouth, they flew out of my brain.  Call it “Celluloid Amnesia.”)

Even if I knew how to replicate reality – recalling a critique by a UCLA drama teacher – “You have a certain quality, but I wouldn’t call it acting.” – a recent blog post describes why I never pursued acting, which I have no regrets about whatsoever. 

Except that I never became one.  

(One regret.  That’s almost no regrets at all.)

This is a subjective survey – but what here isn’t?– but other than Spencer Tracy and Clark Gable, and those fast-talking women I mush together as “Carole Lombard”, most actors sound, to me, like they’re acting, delivering dialogue like it was written by somebody else – which  it invariably was – their designated duty, being verbally accurate and sufficiently able to be heard.    

By detectable contrast – he says, embarking on an extraneous side-trip – foreign language performances feel authentically natural, the characters’ dialogue emerging excitingly “hot of the presses.”  The actors feel like they are actually talking to each other.  “Regular people”, conversing on the street.

Simulated Examples  (Emerging in credible torrents):

FRENCH:  “Je ve zen de-mon de-bon de-von zavazon…”  

ITALIAN:  “Peen-ta pun-ta poon-ta bada-ben bada-bean…”

SPANISH:  “Kerada kelada konada menada kenada…”

It sounds like they actually mean it.

Filling the “Credibility Vacuum”, actors in this language resort to conventional “tricks” to enliven the dialogue.  The herky-jerky hesitation, the (mock) stammer, the random “Um’s” and “I mean’s.”  

Actors (unnecessarily) clear their throats, rub their (unitchy) chins, tug on their earlobes, a move that, outside Carol Burnett, I have never experienced in actual life. All to convey, with varying degrees of persuasiveness, “Forget it’s onscreen.  This is actual people talking.”

Thanks for the message. We thought it was totally real.

Which brings us to the Ken Levine-inspired issue of “improvisation.”  (Quotes to be clarified forthwith.)

Improvisation occurs mostly in comedies, though I recall something about Marlon Brando and “a glove” in On The Waterfront.  (Quotes for no reason at all.)  

To a question on the ubiquitous improvising in movies – notably in Judd Apatow movies – Ken responded (in part):

“Sometimes the improvisation adds a sparkle the screenplay didn’t have…But it also results in loose narratives and it’s not a coincidence that Apatow’s movies, although generally very funny, are also too long.”

I agree, and I agree. 

Even during unhappy times at Apatow movies – See:  Superbad – I always marvel at his films’ refreshing spontaneity, his actors delivering “lived-in” performances no other director seems able to elicit.  It’s like the characters are naturally interacting.  

And they are doing it in English!

I also agree that Apatow’s movies, especially those he writes himself, are self-inflictingly too long.

Here’s where I split off, however.

One – editing is still editing. Not all improvised quips are equally “golden.”  The less hilarious ones, along with the extraneous “story points” – making room for “Improvisational Expansion” – can still be judiciously scissored.  (It takes truly memorable punch lines to atone for a third hour of parking.)

Also – clarifying the above-designated quotation marks – 

What Apatow does is not – in the classical sense – improvisation.

True improvisation involves a comedic ensemble, unfolding a suggested notion in front of an audience with no prepared script to fall back on.

This is clever comedians, pitching “alternate jokes.”  (And then leaving them all – or at least too many of them – in.)

Yes, they are spontaneous in both cases.  But one style is a respected comedic art form, and the other is “high-wire” shpritzing in front of the camera, the comedic actor, in subsequent “takes”, competing essentially against themselves.

I am always for “The best joke wins”, whether it’s in the script, or derives spontaneously from the stage.  (Especially if it’s not myscript.  And if it is, you have to demonstrate that the “replacement version” is better, and not just a “sideways” alternative, exciting not because it’s actually funnier but because, “Oh, my God!  Look what just happened!”)

The final intention, however achieved, is to make the sometimes not most scintillating joke or line of dialogue sound believably “alive.”  

It’s like they say about sincerity.

“If you can fake that, you’ve got it made.” 
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Troublemakers Unwelcome.

Thank you.

Earl Pomerantz

(Sole Proprietor) 

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