Saturday, February 12, 2011


Remarking on the costuming controversy regarding the film Black Swan, my brother writes
In movies like that realism is key, and the better the costumes, the more invisible they will be. They have to act subliminally. You have to make a conscious effort to notice details like clothes that seem to be slept in, or one character wearing slightly different things than another in a way that communicates subtle differences in class or taste, but these are exactly the things that call for the greatest skill for a costume designer.

But everyone notices wild extravagant costumes, or elaborately distressed and filthified costumes, in period pieces or sci-fi. And in a movie like Black Swan, everyone notices the ballet costumes. They’re “pieces”, separated from the world we know, and they announce themselves as costumes

I'm not educated on the specific question of costuming, but it's clear that there are some obvious issues here that reflect on the broader issues of movies, art, and realism. (Or, if you prefer, "realism.") Oscar season is a time for perpetual consideration of whether the role of filmmakers is to reflect reality as closely as possible or to make reality more outsized in order to entertain and make artistic statements. Obviously, here, I'm not so much interested in grand spectacles like Avatar, although it's interesting to think of what a movie like that thinks of as being more "real" as it pursues ever more advance 3-D, computer graphics, and visuals. I think the real question is in the world of drama, and movies that are trying to more or less portray events, characters, and places that could exist in the real world.

Is the regard for Daniel Day-Lewis a product of his ability to disappear into a character and show us what real life is like? Or is he a beloved ham, who wins the plaudits he does because he gives us the thrill of the scenery chewing we secretly love? It's the old "presentational/representational" school, if I'm getting those terms correctly. It's often discussed when considering the divide between British and American acting-- you hear the line sometimes that Britain makes actors, America makes stars. Embedded in that, I think, is both an acknowledgement that good acting should in some sense be antithetical to a star system, but also that what people pay for, being entertained, often involves transcending being a realistic depiction of life. Of course, Oscar has long ago thrown in his lot with capital-A, showy acting; the Academy seems like it will always prefer bravura, meaty performances like Sean Penn in Mystic River over quieter, naturalistic performances like Ryan Gosling in Half Nelson.

I shouldn't pretend that I'm neutral on this score; I tend to prefer the more sublimated style of acting where the actor seems to disappear into the character. It says a lot to me that Heath Ledger was rewarded by the Oscars not for his quiet, wounded, and complex portrayal of Ennis del Mar but for his madcap turn as the Joker. (Of course, Ledger's death probably has something to do with this too.) It's not that I'm asking a Batman movie to showcase restrained character portraits. It just seems to me that while the Joker portrayal is more fun for the actor and has more obvious, look-at-me-moments, the performance in Brokeback Mountain is a great accomplishment.

However, there is something that complicates my feelings on this issue: I like almost the opposite in fiction. Obviously, there's a world of difference between realism in writing and realism in acting. But I've always preferred novels and fiction that were unafraid to move beyond the cramped definition of realism. One of the many virtues of Ben Marcus's notorious takedown of a certain absurdly narrow definition of good fiction is that it called into question the basic assumptions of what "realism" really means in the first place. It's an interesting challenge to myself: why do I want fiction to transcend traditional form, but movie acting to remain a matter of representing real life in a reductive sense? I imagine it's because of my dedication to the avant garde, and my natural, somewhat silly resistance to what is commercial. In fiction, what is prized as realistic in a narrow sense is also what most people buy and what publishers and the literary critical establishment insists is the only true way to write a great novel. In the movies, it's the quieter, more nuanced performances that are seen as belonging to an indie, art-house culture.


Leah said...
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Leah said...

Costumers can have two different roles, and it's not clear which one awards shows ought to honor or do honor.

In shows that we think of as 'realist' the costume is supposed to fade into the background because it meshes so well with the character.

But the more elaborate, unusual costumes of scifi aren't always supposed to announce themselves as costumes. They're worldbuilding elements, just like the sets and the starships. It feels jarring because scifi and fantasy films are really period pieces for a period we're not familiar with.

I don't think there's any way around that sensation of otherness for at least part of the film if the world really is supposed to be at a disjoint with ours. The costumes in these films mesh with the characters and the social structure the same way as realist costumes do, but we're not yet familiar enough with the world to recognize the way all the pieces fit together.

In a two hour movie, we may never get to that point (think of the elaborate show bibles full of details that are never explicitly referenced on screen), so the costumer’s work never feels as subtle as it may be. It’s the same sensation I have when I see Chinese opera. There’s a language of expression in the garish makeup I don’t understand, so everything seems too showy. (For me, frankly, the same goes for ballet).

I have no idea how award show judges reliably distinguish between realism, poorly executed worldbuilding that is mere spectacle, and worldbuilding that feels showy due toculture shock, so I think their awards will always be a bit hit or miss.

Leah said...

Personally, when I choose costume crews to work on at college, I pick showier ones, but that's because I'm only a pair of hands. I do construction, not conceptualization, so my main chance to learn and be creative is to pick up new techniques.

Of course, as the butchest girl in the costume shop, my main chance for invention comes in my role as unconventional materials and tools girl. I'm the only one with an hammer and a c-clamp in my sewing kit.