Friday, January 21, 2011

I, An Actress

I, An Actress is a short film made as a kind of screen test for one of filmmaker George Kuchar's acting students during a filmmaking workshop. The student, Barbara Lapsley, is given a page from a ludicrously melodramatic script, set opposite a dummy draped in a coat with a curly wig to represent her husband, and then set loose to read her lines. The whole thing quickly degenerates, however, as Kuchar himself steps into the frame as the director, instructing his actress in how to read her lines and how to act, constantly urging her further and further over the top, towards more and more outrageous behaviors and line readings. Kuchar, nebbishy and overwrought as he careens into the frame after virtually every line from the actress, encourages her to caress her breasts as she acts, or to fall on the floor and kick into the air, or to throw her arms spastically around the dummy and kiss its "shoulder."

He is driving her towards a performance of sheer camp awfulness, in other words, and she's all too eager to go along with it, laughing uproariously, slurring her lines through clenched teeth with a cigarette sticking out from between her lips like a whistle, spitting out the script's hilarious melodramatics with mock venom. "When I cheat it's not for sex, it's for revenge," she sneers, then can't help but giggle. Later, as she falls down at the dummy's "knees," she's even goofier as she barely manages to snarl, "aren't you used to women on their knees, Harold, or are you only used to women on their backs?" It's glorious fun, especially whenever Kuchar's on camera, coaching the girl by acting out her part himself, showing her how to pose seductively, how to fall on the floor, how to eke out every bit of fun from this role. As an actor's workshop, its main message seems to be not to take things too seriously, not to actually worry about talent or believability. Instead, Kuchar keeps casually disrupting whatever hint of artifice there might be in this scene, never allowing the actress to get into the part; she probably doesn't ever get to deliver more than two uninterrupted lines in a row throughout the whole scene. He races around the small set, acting things out, guiding the actress, shouting instructions to the camera operator. The whole thing quickly becomes less a screen test for Lapsley, gaping and giggling at all this chaos, and more a demonstration of the sheer joy of moviemaking, the hands-on fun of the director in dictating what happens on a movie set.

To that end, the cinematography dances and bounces along with Kuchar's frenzied improvisations and instructions. At one point, he tells the camera operator to move in on Lapsley, and the camera frantically zooms in, at first seeming like it's going to center on the actress' bust until the cameraman perhaps realizes, belatedly, that Kuchar meant her face. It's one of many funny, absurd little touches that add a bit of sexual frisson to the film's crude pseudo-documentary aesthetics. Of course, part of Kuchar's coaching is to continually urge his actress into sexually compromising positions, like kneeling beneath the dummy, her head buried in its coat, so that as the camera probes in the composition makes it look like she's giving the dummy a blowjob. Later, the obvious subtext of Kuchar's continued insistence that she lie on the floor and kick up at her husband in anger is that this position will cause her skirt to ride up and her underwear to show. It's all completely ambiguous: is Kuchar exploiting a student, or is she in on the joke, contributing to a sly satire of the ways in which filmmaking is a sexual power struggle in which male directors control and dominate female performers? Certainly, the film's flippant tone, and Kuchar's habit of stepping into the female role himself, posing flamboyantly and feeling up his imaginary breasts, suggests that the latter is the case.

Either way, of course, I, An Actress is a fun, frequently hilarious short spoof, a ridiculous parody of Hollywood moviemaking that turns melodrama into farce, reveling in the nuances that can be suggested through supposedly "bad" acting.


DavidEhrenstein said...

Calling George "nebbishy and overwrought" is rather like observing that water is wet. Nebbishy and overwrought is the heart of George's styel. has been for decades. His twin brother Mike, by contrast, is weetness and sincerity itself.

George's greatest performance is in Thundercrack (1974), an "Old Dark House" jamboree (with actual sex acts performed by an enthusiastic cast) climaxed by George making love to a gorilla.

Well at least someone in a gorilla suit.

George's ex-boyfriend Curt McDowell directed this Midnight Movie classic from George's script. Seek it out. You won't be sorry.

Ed Howard said...

And a fun style it is; he's a joy to watch in this short. The film you recommend sounds great, too. I've only seen a few Kuchar brother films and they're all certainly fun.