I have learned more about myself from bad acting in movies and television programs than from almost any other source. The movies I saw growing up (and television programs, as well) had a wide range of acting styles. There was William Shatner in Star Trek II – Wrath of Khan; Richard Pryor in Superman III; Robert Duvall in Godfather I and II; Robert DeNiro in Taxi Driver; Ted Danson in Cheers. The overreactions that I saw, poor line readings, overacting and, especially in movies poor editing, all contributed to the way that I understood human communication in general and myself in particular. This was the case, I believe, because when actors play characters the constructed nature of the fiction forces the viewer to fill in more gaps than with a written or drawn narrative. My expectations as a child weren’t limited because I knew less; they were expanded because of my ability (like all kids) to make sense of something that we intuit isn’t quite correct on its own.
At a young age, it is hard to differentiate acting styles in what we take to be genres like realism, science fiction, horror, romantic comedy, etc. I didn’t get how different, how much more subtle the lessons understanding people was between the slow fadeout at the end of Godfather II with its silent, beautiful portrait of the guilty patriarch Michael Corleone and Ricardo Montalban’s protracted, comically drawn-out hatred for Captain Kirk in Star Trek II, the harmonic pinging of the doomsday Genesis device echoing in the backround. I simply filled in the gaps so that both made sense to me in terms of the style of the films. I posit that children learn more about the subtleties and intricacies of human interaction – in short they are better prepared to be introspective and also understanding of others – by being exposed to bad art rather than good art (categories of “high” and “low” be damned).
This is due to the fact that kids, intuitively brilliiant and hyperbolically unaware of the complications of real life are quite good at, as I am told by my friends who are teachers and parents, “spotting a phony.” The problem is that this ability is put to its best use in a subconsciously and deeply screwed up way through representation of narrative. Kids are great at empathizing with “childish” fairy tales and comic books. They are also frighteningly good at filling in the gaps between what would appear to an adult as “bad acting” and what looks to the kid like any other representation. Thus getting it wrong in a movie when you’re eleven can profoundly affect your understanding of yourself when you’re eighteen.
Now don’t get me wrong. I would have hated to be deprived of Harry Hamlin’s melodramatic gesturing in “Clash of the Titans” or Rae Dawn Chong’s almost-too-bad-to-be-believed “supposed to be funny because I’m in crisis so I throw a one-liner away” acting in Commando. But it didn’t occur to me until I grew up that what the actors missed (or how they were misled by their directors) or what the editors missed or the television censors missed contributed fundamentally to my understanding of what it meant to quip, joke, screw up my face in determination or let everything droop when I was disappointed. Did ABC really think their audience would buy that that Eddie Murphy’s cellmates in Trading Places had said to him, “When they brought you in here and busted you, you was crying like a baby.” Especially when the pronunciation of “baby” so clearly seemed to begin with a “p,” as in “pa-baby.” The word “pussy’ wasn’t okay with the censors, but “pa-baby” was fine. This became a running joke in my family, as much about the ineptitude of the networks as a defense of the poor actor who now looked neutered and shuttered by the idiots who felt that good comedy was less important than sanitizing a narrative. And to what end? The worse crime is to make-believe that people don’t swear, that they aren’t complicated, that life isn’t difficult.
So to make things worse, despite the big kick my siblings and I got out of these gaffes and silly editing decisions by the networks, I still wasn’t appreciably closer to understanding how people actually interacted in the fictional worlds of movies and television. I now feel let down that the constructedness, the perfection of movies and television was faulty. The televisual worlds of meaning that differed significantly from the comic books, fiction, and poetry I was consuming at the same time forced me to understand as a teenager that when you aren’t privy to the (im)possibilities of production, you form a stronger emotional relationship with a narrative representation. There were no “bad” performances in the latter types of narratives I was offered. Sure there was good art and bad art, but as a kid I was actually closer to understanding the melodrama qua style through early issues of The Uncanny X-Men than through the sitcoms or action movies of the 1980s.
I suppose my point here is that seeing people interact in movies and television allowed me to see the places where something should have been left out, or changed, or at least not been beholden to crappy craftsmanship. With non-televisual entertainment, the differentiation between good and bad was beside the point. I could easily discern that Marvel Comics had more “realistic” characters than D.C. comics did. Each offered me a different look at the human condition within narrative, and each introduced me to the fact that people-in-narratives was not a bad model for thinking about my own condition as a kid. Therefore I felt a strong kinship with C. Thomas Howell in Red Dawn because the story of being invaded by the Russians was a real fear that I harbored as a boy, and yet the sheer disbelief at just how evil the Cuban military was and its abrupt change in morality halfway through the film was sufficient to shatter my sympathy for the characters. Televisual epresentation alone presented fissures where, if I didn’t fill the gaps and efficiently suture together why C. Thomas Howell acted the way that he did with how I would act in a similar circumstance, the movie seemed “fake” in a way that my fiction and comic books (and Mad magazine) never did.
While Red Dawn affected me because the plot reminded me that I was afraid of war, and the subtext of the film is about children taking the law into their own hands and fighting the tyranny of their elders who have done everything poorly, the biggest lesson of the movie was that the “real world” was not as interesting as that of the film. My world was petty; it didn’t live up to the reality of the movie. But I wasn’t simply a naïve young kid. My life didn’t live up to the style of the film. My life didn’t seem worthy of being filmed. I had no narrative wherein to fight the system, assert myself by hiding out in the woods and falling in love with Lea Thompson. In real life I had bullies that no one seemed to care were bothering me. In real life friends came and went for no real reason. Comics didn’t seem to make such a promise of verisimilitude (or at worst simple representation). Therefore my fantasies were always connected to the written and drawn word, never to film or television.
These last few thoughts are fairly obvious conclusions for a young person to draw, I’m sure. My larger point is that my real life wasn’t being watched by anyone. As a kid who watched movies and television a lot, the biggest upset was that my life had no mediated content. What I’ve come to realize is that movies and television allowed me to understand that things were made up as stories, often poorly, and that therefore my own life was in need of strong characters, judicious editing, and a storyline that was familiar and also strange and new. What a bizarre and terrible burden.