Tuesday, October 26, 2010

The Tao of Caine

While we're on this Halloween jag, let's consider the modern urban horrors of the Michael Caine vehicle Harry Brown (2010). The film itself is not much, a minor variation on Death Wish -- the civilian vigilante. At least Caine's character has some military service to explain his inner toughness and his familiarity with guns. (Death Wish wanted us to believe Charles Bronson was an architect. I assume he designed bomb shelters and dojos for Chuck Norris.)

The film boasts gang members and dope addicts straight from RADA and is obviously shot on a housing complex slated for demolition as soon as shooting was over. Cinematography and music are by-the-numbers. You're not going to learn anything about cinema generally by seeing Harry Brown, except perhaps that once you've established that our hero has stumbled into a den of aggressive junkies and gun merchants you don't have to spend another ten minutes making the same point. But as a student or fan of film acting, this is another master class from Sir Michael.

Of course, he was born with those eyes. When he was young, the long lashes and thin eyebrow gave him an almost feminine look, an interesting contrast with the man-of-the-streets manner and Cockney accent. Then came the National Health glasses of Harry Palmer (parodied by Austin Powers) and the face could become a mask. Caine has often discussed the menacing air created by smiling with the mouth and not with the eyes. With big eyes like Caine, the threat could be devastating. As he has grown older, the glasses have come off and the eyes look puffy, almost as if they have grown callouses to protect themselves from the horrors they've seen. Robert Mitchum had those tired, puffy eyes, and they are an extraordinary tool for the older (male) actor. (Other than Simone Signoret and Jeanne Moreau, female actors have not gotten the same mileage from puffy eyes.) Puffy or not, the eyes are still a large canvas, and clearly register each thought as it passes behind it.

I've become a fan of the TV series Lie To Me. It's about an expert in facial expression and body language advising law enforcement as to whether people are lying. One of the neatest tricks in the show's bag is to cut from the end of a sequence, as the show goes to commercial, to photos of well-known people making the same face as the person at the end of the sequence; e.g., someone tells a big whopper, then you see O.J. Simpson, Bill Clinton or Richard Nixon making exactly the same face. What is remarkable about the show is not the photos--those are drawn from pre-existing research, but the demands on the actor to produce the exact expression required by the script. This is an area where ordinarily the actor and director have some latitude, but not in Lie To Me. They've got to hit it square on the money. (This is one of the reasons that I advise aspiring actors to spend more time watching fly-on-the-wall documentaries then on watching other actors. It's the same reason that journalism is a better training for writing than the study of literature--it's all about going straight to the source.)

Sir Michael would be right at home on Lie To Me. The accuracy and economy of his work is devastating. In fact, it has become more economical with the years. This would be only natural; one gets older, moves less quickly, moves less, period. For Caine it has become a matter of no longer dancing around the idea of the scene, but going straight for the center.

Caine of course, did teach a masterclass as part of a BBC series on acting. Nobody much has seen the episode on playing Restoration Comedy, but Caine's episode is well-known, even by the general public in Britain:

It is so well known, that comedian/impressionist Peter Serafinowicz parodied it:

This is the definition of inside baseball.

What Caine does could be called "How To Be A Brilliant Actor Without Being Caught Acting." At this point, I don't care much what he does, as long as he appears regularly. Viva Caine.

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