Film studies poetics continues to grapple with the difficulties posed by the nature of screen performance. Performance analysis offers a unique challenge to the development of a robust poetics of the moving image. Andrew Klevan has attributed this difficulty to the performer’s achievement of fluency: 'as each action flows fluidly into the next or as one move integrates with another, they make it difficult for us to isolate or crystallize meaning' (35). How best to illuminate the accomplishments of a captivating performance when the object of analysis is in a constant state of flux – the performing body outwardly shifting from moment to moment in a dynamic, expressive process?
Along with Klevan, James Naremore, Cynthia Baron, and Sharon Carnicke have pioneered excellent and influential analytical methodologies in their respective monographs. As an alternative to these text-based methods, though, scholarly videographic criticism has more recently offered innovative new means of revealing the expressive accomplishments of the performing body on screen. Such methods are arguably more suited to the unveiling of actors’ fluency as they immediately magnify and accentuate this achievement through visible means. Pamela Wojcik offers an instructive example: adopting an alphabetic exercise – in which a work’s individual qualities are identified, itemized, and elaborated upon – to a forensic, visual breakdown of Bette Davis’ persona, behavioural tics, systemic methods, and associational connotations. In light of the particular challenges that complex, close performance analysis entails, then, this video posits potentially helpful strategies available to burgeoning video essayists interested in this method of moving image poetics.
Our co-authored video essay treats on live-action, filmic representations of the comic book villain, the Joker. This captivating character has been embodied five times between 1966 and 2019: by Cesar Romero, Jack Nicholson, Heath Ledger, Jared Leto, and Joaquin Phoenix. These five instantiations of the same adapted character provide analysts with an opportunity to closely catalogue and compare expressive strategies of physical instantiation. By contrasting performance choices as the actors showcase their own distinctive versions of the same character, the video essayist can develop a conceptual vocabulary. In this way, an actor’s creative contribution to a film’s broader aesthetics and significance is readily noted.
In addition, the essay considers the oppositions between, and paradoxical pairings of, two divergent performance styles – both arising from distinctive theatre traditions. On the one hand, performing the Joker is an occasion to incorporate presentational or anti-realist tactics – literal clowning, even. Clowning techniques are readily explicable through some of the carefully systemized techniques associated with practitioner-theorists like Jacques Lecoq and subject to semiotic notation via the careful, formalist work of Paul Bouissac. On the other hand, the Joker has invited actorly labour of an immersive, or realist bent – at times involving 'extreme' forms of physical transformational, psychological absorption, or disturbing methods of 'living through the role' (Krasner 5). However, given the Joker’s anti-psychological nature as a character (in the comics, his canonical origins and underlying motivations remain obscure), some of the more radical efforts to embody the role might seem counterintuitive. While certain performers have been drawn to the Method, and others to more ostensive techniques, the performance of the character also permits a layered, oscillating approach. Uniquely, then, the performative adaptations of this comic book cipher prompt considerations of an actor’s basic, twinned impulses: (1) to envision an unreal subjectivity, and then (2) bring this imaginary being into a concretized form through specific, memorably embodied means.
Baron, Cynthia and Sharon Carnicke. 2008. Reframing Screen Performance. U of Michigan Press.
Bouissac, Paul. 2015. The Semiotics of Clowning. Bloomsbury.
Klevan, Andrew. 2012. 'Living Meaning: The Fluency of Film Performance'. Theorizing Film Acting, edited by Aaron Taylor, Routledge, pp. 33-46.
Krasner, David. 2000. 'I Hate Strasberg: Method Bashing in the Academy'. Method Acting Reconsidered, ed. David Krasner, Palgrave Macmillan, pp. 3-39.
Lecoq, Jacques. 2000 The Moving Body. Translated by David Bradby, Bloomsbury.
Naremore, James. 1988. Acting in the Cinema. U of California Press.
Wojcik, Pamela. 2019. 'The ABCs of Bette Davis'. [in]Transition: Journal of. Videographic Film & Moving Image Studies, vol. 6, no. 3, 2019. http://mediacommons.org/intransition/abcs-bette-davis.
Aaron Taylor is a Board of Governor’s Research Chair at the University of Lethbridge. He is the editor of Theorizing Film Acting (2012), co-editor of Screening Characters (2019), and is the Associate Editor of Projections: The Journal for Movies and Mind. His essays on performance and on comics and cinema have been published in numerous journals and anthologies.
C. Blake Evernden is an award-winning independent filmmaker, commercial illustrator, makeup fx artist, and film, illustration and design lecturer. His second feature, Prairie Dog, played at twenty festivals worldwide, winning six awards and being distributed internationally. His films and poster artwork have been selected at over 120 worldwide film festivals, winning 42 awards between them.
Ryan Harper-Brown is an Instructor at the University of Lethbridge in the Department of New Media. He also works with local community groups on French-language film and web series projects in Southern Alberta.
Bryn Hewko is a media artist specializing in video post-production services. Outside of academia, Bryn owns and operates Output––a small media and communications company in Lethbridge Alberta.
1. This video essay was produced and reviewed prior to the release of The Batman (Matt Reeves, 2022), which features yet another Joker, played by Barry Keoghan. Therefore, his performance will not be considered explicitly… but do stick around for the video’s post-credit stinger, which briefly acknowledges this latest Clown Prince of Crime.