Film Performance: From Achievement to Appreciation

Andrew Klevan,
Film Performance: From Achievement to Appreciation. (Short Cuts series)
London and New York: Wallflower Press, 2005.
ISBN: 1 904764 24 X
£12.99 (pb)
(Review copy supplied by Wallflower Press)

We may well be rewarded for concentrating on a performer as they merely turn a street corner, sit in a chair, touch a wall, move around a bedroom or carry a bunch of flowers. Fresh aspects of even familiar films emerge when we attend to gestures, postures, expressions and voice – and how they are situated. Interpretations unfold and complicate with our moment-by-moment experience of viewing the performer’s activity. [1]

The Short Cuts series is an impressive publishing initiative from Wallflower Press and it continues to bring us many interesting and useful books. Described as a “modular approach to film studies”, each book provides a detailed introduction to a singular aspect of film studies. Topics range from the musical, teen cinema, new German cinema, the western, psychoanalysis, mise-en-scène, editing and music, to name just a few. Despite the obvious constraints imposed by the guidelines of a series such as this, there are some books that not only fulfil their brief of offering introductory material that is useful for teaching, but they also provoke our thinking and offer engaged and energised writing. Andrew Klevan’s book on Film Performance is precisely this kind of book.

Klevan is interested in the many nuances of film performance, in “gestures, postures, expressions and voice – and how they are situated.”[2]  He is also interested in issues of interpretation as well as the challenges of writing in thoughtful, developed, and evocative ways about performers in films. There has been some exciting recent work on film performance by Nicole Brenez, Adrian Martin, George Kouvaros and Lesley Stern that has opened up this field of study in illuminating ways. However, the study of film performers is an area of film scholarship that has often been regarded as difficult and, therefore, marginalised. Klevan begins by acknowledging these difficulties as well as describing the two main approaches that have dominated discussions in the past. The first approach is one that has been concerned with performers as ‘stars’ and the various contexts and cultures of “fandom, economics, technology, studio strategy and publicity.”[3] The second approach has been interested in ‘acting’ and the influence of different techniques such as the “Melodramatic, Vaudeville (or Music Hall), Continental Cabaret, Stanislavsky or Method…”[4] For Klevan, the problem with these kinds of approaches is that they have focussed mainly on “external evidence” rather than looking at a “performer’s internal relationships within a film”.[5] What he proposes to do instead is to look more closely at the films themselves and at the way that performers function in these films. For him this involves treating “…performance as an internal element of style in synthesis with other aspects of film style.”[6]

The films that Klevan has chosen to study are classics from the Golden Age of Hollywood. They include City Lights (US 1931), The Music Box (US 1932), Sons of the Desert (US 1932), The Scarlet Empress (US 1934), The Awful Truth (US 1937), The Philadelphia Story (US 1940), There’s Always Tomorrow (US 1956), Cobweb (US 1955) and Shadow of a Doubt (US 1943). Klevan tells us that he is drawn to films from this period in film history because of how they so seamlessly and consistently achieve “an expressive rapport between performer and surroundings”. His other reason for selecting these films is his interest in the writing of Stanley Cavell, V.F. Perkins, William Rothman and George M. Wilson and their specific work on the “Golden Age” of Hollywood films. Klevan highlights the work of these great writers because he says that they invite us to look at films in new and surprising ways and also because they challenge and complicate the ways we might think about the question of interpretation.

Klevan’s book is structured around his interest in the “place of performance within a network of relationships”. The three main chapters look at different aspects of this network of relationships. In the first chapter it is “position and perspective” which involves looking at the relationship of the performer to the camera, and their position within the shot. The second chapter is about “place” and the relationship of the performer to location, décor, furniture and objects. The third chapter is focussed on plot and the relationship of the performer to narrative developments. Each analysis of a specific sequence offers its own kinds of insights and can be read on its own, but when these different analyses are read collectively the complexities of film performance really start to become apparent.

What most impressed me about this book is Klevan’s interest in the practice of writing and the importance he attaches to writing about film performance in an engaged way. In order to do this he has chosen to focus on individual scenes and sequences from the films that he is studying. He argues that attending to the moment by moment movement of performers in individual films is a far better approach than one which attempts to cover a performer’s entire career. Focussing on individual sequences allows him to be “responsive to their unfolding” and “savor the delight of their rhythms and rhymes, the flow of their contours” (7). It also allows him to use a good deal of “description”. In doing this he continues the earlier work of George Kouvaros and Lesley Stern, particularly the anthology on film performance that they edited, Falling For You: Essays on Cinema and Performance. Klevan quotes at length from their introduction to this anthology where they talk about the importance of “description” in a discussion of performance. For Stern and Kouvaros:

description is seen as something far from self-evident, or simple, but central to critical practice…description is a question of how to bring into existence, how, in the course of analysis, to evoke for a reader that lost object… [7] (15)

Klevan reiterates that it is through description that we are able to “recover or conjure a sense of ‘corporeal presence’ and ‘mobility'” (16).

He also goes on to say that it is a method that “requires that we slow down, stop, and dwell, so that we can savour the intensity of an interaction, an intonation or an expression” (103). There are many passages in this book that reveal Klevan’s attentive, engaged and inquiring approach that I could cite as illustration, but here is his description of that moment when Barbara Stanwyck appears at the door to greet Fred MacMurray in There’s Always Tomorrow after such a long time:

Clifford opens the door, and a woman stands a few yards back from the entrance; she faces away from the doorway, and as the door is opening, she is turning. That we see her first from inside the house, and have not been privy to her approach, or her preparations, directs and controls our curiousity. Has she stepped back from the door (if the door opens, I mustn’t be too close, too soon)? Is she leaving and not waiting long enough (I’m having second thoughts)? Is she feigning casualness (I’ve just dropped round, if he’s in he’s in)? She steps out of a shadow and into the light coming from the interior and her sudden appearance at the door suggest a magical visitation, with the puff-of-smoke already dispersed. (Was the house emptied before her visit by ethereal powers? Has Clifford unconsciously summoned her during a reverie in the kitchen?) Yet, despite them, Barbara Stanwyck refrains from wilful mysteriousness, and instead keeps her character’s upresence delicately suggestive. The suggestiveness is ordinary, gentle and carefully directed; she keeps her head still while her eyes scan his face with an appreciative inquisitiveness (the film holds them both in shot at a medium distance so that to catch the movement of her eyes we must match the sensitivity of her survey). (59)

Klevan’s book shows us the kind of analysis and writing that is possible when we look closely at the movement and place of performers on screen. It is a great addition to the Short Cuts series and a book that I will definitely use in my teaching in the future.

Anna Dzenis
La Trobe University, Australia.


[1] Preface.
[2]  ibid.
[3] ibid.
[4] ibid.
[5] ibid.
[6] ibid.
[7]Stern, L. & Kouvaros, G (eds) Falling for You: Essays on Cinema and Performance Sydney: Power Publications. 1999. pp. 7-9.

Created on: Friday, 8 December 2006

About the Author

Anna Dzenis

About the Author

Anna Dzenis

Anna Dzenis is a Screen Studies lecturer and researcher who has taught at La Trobe University, Victorian College of the Arts and RMIT. She teaches screen literacy, screen criticism, world cinema, film history and theories of visuality. She is a scholar of photography and cinema and brings these two disciplines together in her teaching and research. She is co-editor of the online journal Screening the Past, and has published essays in Senses of Cinema, Screening the Past, Lola, Real Time, Metro, The Conversation, 24 Frames: Australia and New Zealand, The Oxford Companion to Australian Film, and The Routledge Encyclopaedia of Films.View all posts by Anna Dzenis →