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Our Last 50 Referrers

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August 14, 2007


Michael Blowhard writes:

Dear Blowhards --

* You certainly can't say that he lacks conviction.

* Tyler Cowen reads what sounds like a remarkable book about poverty.

* Robert Sandall's survey of the collapse of the music CD business is essential recent-cultural-history reading. (Link thanks to ALD)

* Katie Hutchison enjoys a visit to the Berkshire Botanical Gardens.

* Irina thinks that cocaine can make people do stupid sexual things.

* George Borjas considers a study that looks at productivity and age among artists.

* French-Canadian Martine is just beginning to discover the glories of English-Canadian fiction.

* John Williams marvels at the Times' ultra-confrontational interviewer Deborah Solomon.

* Mencius tries to make some sense of anti-Americanism.

* Take that, undercover reporter-girl!

* Mark Barry writes about the fun of collaborating on a lithograph.

* The Derelict has been taking a re-look at some of the movies he loved as a kid.

* Randall Parker notices the difference that one sentence in an energy bill can make.

* Now we're supposed to worry about cholesterol levels that are too low ...

* Confirmed heterosexual Grumpy Old Bookman admires a collection of essays by John Preston, a successful homosexual writer of gay porn.

* Alias Clio would like to see a little more balance in discussions about the differences between girls and boys.

* Lester Hunt wonders what the difference between a "gourmet" and a "foodie" might be.

* Kirsten learns that there are 2500 different kinds of cicadas.

* MBlowhard Rewind: I took stock of Method acting.



posted by Michael at August 14, 2007


It seems to me that there are three schools of acting in the modern English-speaking world: the Method type of acting; the Old Hollywood type; and the English stage "acting is pretending" approach.

The Method approach involves feeling your way in to a character by trying to, well, feel the same feelings, live the same life. The Old Hollywood approach involves having publicists build a "persona" around an actor (via photos and selected stories) that allows him to play particular parts designed for that persona. And the English stage approach involves training actors to pay attention to words and physical placement, on stage or before the camera, above anything else.

There's something good to be said about all of these approaches, but my preference is for the English method, because its training and "philosophy" seem to produce the most versatile actors. Perhaps the reason for their versatility is that they're more talented, but that's unlikely, given the sheer numbers of American actors in comparison to English ones, and the fact that many of them seem not to know how to handle more than a limited variety of roles, no matter how much charisma they have.

It's easier to believe that the American approach, whether Method, or Hollywood, is too focussed on the actor's own personality - his ability to "identify" with particular performances, either by psychic imitation (the Method approach); or by encouraging the actor to cultivate his personality in a particular direction, and then offering him parts suited to that personality. These methods, although said to be antithetical, have more in common than you might think: both imply that the actor's own nature is of paramount importance, and that he can only play particular characters if he is somehow in synch with them. That's that old American obsession with authenticity. Perhaps y'all don't really believe in acting as a form of pretending?

Many American actors with some natural ability burn out because they rely too much on being able to feel their way into a character, and when this capacity for feeling begins to be exhausted, they have no training to support them and carry them through roles that don't inspire them with a sense of personal identification. I'm thinking here of the John Belushis, the Julia Robertses, the Ava Gardners and James Deans of American acting.

I think it was easier for the first generations of American film actors because they were more likely to have some form of stage training, and the parts they played were more word-oriented.

Some thoughts from a late-night, over-caffeinated Clio.

Posted by: alias clio on August 15, 2007 12:18 AM

alias clio: "That's that old American obsession with authenticity. Perhaps y'all don't really believe in acting as a form of pretending?"

I think we have problems believing in the deeper issue, that life is a form of pretending. Old World realpolitik of that kind conflicts with our wide-open corn-fed "a stranger is a friend I haven't met yet" positive-thinking Protestant midwestern glad-handing.

Now Shatner certainly knows how to do a put on, but maybe that's because he's Canadian.

Posted by: Brian on August 15, 2007 1:25 AM

RE: Tyler Cowen and the book..I forget which comedian said it, but he said it best: "Rich people have no idea how to help poor people. How could they? They have no concept of what it's like to be poor. Now, poor folk...they got their "rich life" all figured out..."I'm gonna have me a house made of chocolate..." You'll never hear a rich guy plannin' out his "poor life"..."I'm gonna ride me the bus to work everyday!""

Apologies to the comedian as I'm going from memory here. In any never ceases to amaze me the amount of hatred and loathing Americans have for the poor. The republicans embody most of the worst of it with their theories that people should just take care of if someone who's been through the public school system has the tools necessary to do so. Hell, they made it worse with their asinine "no child left behind plan"...they take funding away from schools with poor grades. Um? Hello? Who's the retarded, monkey-boy president that thought THAT was a good idea? Democrats pity the poor and want to coddle them and provide them with fish rather than teaching them to fish.

With the gradual elimination of the middle class in this country, I think people really need to rethink how we treat the impoverished since that will be the overwhelming majority in a few years.

Don't know which side you're on yet? There's a simple test to see if you're "poor" now: ask yourself the question "if I were to kill someone, would I go to jail?" If your answer isn't an immediate "Yeah, right"'re poor.

Posted by: Upstate Guy on August 15, 2007 9:47 AM

On Too Low Cholesterol

Consider the story of Zoe Brain. Back in March of 2005 Alan was put on Lipitor for high cholesterol. The Lipitor worked, Alan stopped producing testosterone because he had no cholesterol to make it with. The lack of testosterone led in turn to other changes, and by the her doctors figured out what was going on it was rather too late to reverse matters. She's now post-op, happy in her new life, and doing battle with some chowderheads in the Australian government all thanks to cholesterol levels that were too low.

Posted by: Alan Kellogg on August 15, 2007 10:05 AM

Re. Upstate Guy,'s point about poor people. I guess there are several major types of poor people in the U.S.

1) The working class / lower middle class: those who try to better their situation in life by marrying, working hard, living frugally, moving to areas with better job prospects, etc.

2) The Inert Lumps: somewhat analogous to a car with no fuel. You give it a battery-start, but the engine doesn't turn over. No amount of state-sponsored aid or Katrina trailers will givem the activation energy to improve their situation.

3) The Hard Luck cases: people whose material condition spiralled down as a result of a serious illness or other misfortune.

4) The Losers: drug addicts, alcoholics and others who ruined their own lives. Unfortunately they drag their families down with them.

UG's point above, alas, rehashes old cliches. In fact, the Democratic Party is no friend of the poor, particularly those in Category 1. Their "limousine liberal" wing, in fact, tends to despise these working class types. But they do love Category 2 poor for their votes in return for promises of more handouts.

Posted by: PA on August 15, 2007 11:14 AM

There have been quite a few non-method American actors. We call them character actors. Ned Beatty: never gave a bad performance. George C. Scott: think of his work in The Hustler and then his very different work in Patton. Also in The Hustler: Piper Laurie. Jo VanFleet: a never gave a bad performance actress. James Gandolfini: maybe the greatest recent example of sustained in depth character portrayal. The Brits don't have a monopoly on intelligent thought through acting.

Right Upstate Guy, Americans hate the poor, to the tune of how many TRILLIONS in wealth transfer? Of course, when the wealth has been transferred and the poor still remain defiantly poor, well, some Americans begin to have their doubts about how the poor wouldn't be poor any more if only they weren't put upon.

Posted by: ricpic on August 15, 2007 12:45 PM

Ah, yes, caffeine and late nights, the key to many a great burst of creativity. Seriously, thats an amazing analysis. You should put it up on your own blog. Its one of your best.

Posted by: Thursday on August 15, 2007 1:26 PM

RE: Age and artists

I recall a discussion of this between me and Michael here:
and here:

1. In his response to me, Michael makes the remark that lyric poets tend to burn out earliest. I'm not so sure about that; by any stretch Yeats, Hardy, and Robert Penn Warren were lyric poets and yet they were very productive late in life It is true that certain delicate, highly sensitive poets like Whitman, and Tennyson tend to burn out early. (Maybe Shelley and Keats, dead before they turned thirty, would have done the same, but we'll never know.) And it does seem that it is lyric poets with a rougher style who are most productive in old age: Browning, Hardy, Yeats, Frost, Warren. (How Wordsworth, burnt out before he turned 40, fits into all this I do not know; he shares with Tennyson and Whitman an intense focus on human suffering, but his style is often rough and Miltonic.)

2. As the commenters over at Borjas' blog have pointed out, it is hard to tell if the decreased productivity of rock stars is due the nature of their art or their ingestion of chemicals. Interestingly, the rock band with the most staying power has been the relatively clean living, quasi-Christian U2.

3. Energy matters. A lot of artists seem most productive from their late 20s to their early 40s. Even artists like U2 and Robert Frost, who manage to break out of the pattern somewhat, still seem to slow down later in life. U2 haven't reached the heights of The Joshua Tree or Achtung Baby, though each album since has had at least one amazing track: Stay, Staring at the Sun, Miss Sarajevo, Beautiful Day, Electrical Storm, Vertigo. Frost produced amazing work late in life, but his later collections do contain more padding than those of middle age.

4. Finally, something from Victor Hugo: "In the eyes of the young there is fire, but in the eyes of the old, illumination."

From "Boaz"

Posted by: Thursday on August 15, 2007 2:09 PM

Both Balzac and Proust used to stay up all night working hopped up on caffeine.

Posted by: Thursday on August 15, 2007 2:32 PM

ricpic & PA, it's obvious from your comments you've actually never bothered to get to know these people you denegrate so quickly. Try going out and working with the people and you'll see they'd be more than happy to change their lives for the better if they had the slightest clue how. It's all well and good, having had a good upbringing with a good education, to say you're better than other people, but that don't make it true.

Posted by: Upstate Guy on August 15, 2007 3:50 PM

About British actors not being big on Stanislavsky's Method: recently I was passing time with one of Ngiao Marsh's theatre detective novels (was it Vulcan? Dolphin? some mythological creature), and she makes specific mention that London theater productions were only considered hi-brow if they indeed employed the Method. The actor/producer in the novel gives numerous stage advices to the Co based on living into the role, prepping oneself to be transformed into the character a few hours in advance of stage appearance.
I tend to believe the writer in this case, she knew personally what she was writing about. But that was in the 50's, I guess the vogue passed.

Posted by: Tatyana on August 15, 2007 4:19 PM

Peter O'Toole went to RADA (I think) from 1952-54, and in his autobiography the methods by which he and his fellows were taught acting don't sound like the Method. Perhaps there were some actors who had learned the Method who despised the RADA approach? I wouldn't be surprised if that were true, especially since I suspect the Method was likely to be associated with intellectual aspirations and with people committed to left-wing thought.

The American Method was (according to Wikipedia; I don't know much about this) an outgrowth of the New York theatre in the 1930s (very left-wing at that time) and only somewhat resembled Stanislavsky's System. I don't know which of the two the English were likely to have followed, among those acting schools that followed it at all.

Posted by: alias clio on August 15, 2007 5:18 PM

PA, it's obvious from your comments you've actually never bothered to get to know these people you denegrate so quickly.

Upstate Guy, in my case I lived the working poor scenario, no.1 in my post above. My parents, several siblings and I came to the US from a communist country during the early 80s. We were poor as hell for a while but we made it through. We qualified for all kinds of state assistance but my (highly educated) parents preferred to put in overtime at menial jobs instead.

In my earlier post, I was quite sympathetic to the working poor but expressed contempt for people who refuse to help themselves and feel like they're owed something.

The Democratic party is invested in there always being a perception of poverty here. They'd go out of business otherwise. Hence all the talk about "the poor" as though we had Khartoum-like slums.

Posted by: PA on August 15, 2007 6:10 PM

Brits are known for their very technical, outside-in approach to acting while Americans tend to have an inside-out approach to it. Brits: "If I find the right hat for my character, it'll all fall in place." Americans: "If I can feel what my character is feeling, then it'll all fall in place."

Both have their advantages. Brits are often super-proficient, speak well, move well, and manage well on stage, where you use technique and energy to project to a big, live audience. Americans are often juicier, more full of personality, more magnetic, and do better on screen, where the camera tends to want to enter your soul. (Method acting was in part a response to the movies, which seemed to demand a moere intimate, close-in approach to acting. Method actors learn to let the camera in, where Brits tend to perform for the camera.) Americans sometimes flounder on stage; Brits sometimes look wooden and twitty on screen.

A nice thing that sometimes happens is when you get a performer who's full of soul yet who gets a British-style training -- Helen Mirren or Kate Nelligan, for instance. They've really got it all, the insides and the outside.

In recent years the Method monopoly has fallen apart, thank god, and for practical reasons - it just takes too damn long to work that way, and productions are having to move faster than that. Rehearsal times are short, movies and TV often don't even have rehearsals ... So American schools and workshops are now often teaching a barrage of techniques -- standup, improv, scene-study, movement, etc. They want their students to be able to function in contemporary circumstances, and rarin' to go.

As a consequence we've got an amazing number of really talented and well-trained actors around. It's a great time where American actors are concerned -- all those people who turn up on "Law and Order"? Nearly all of them are really first-rate and versatile actors.

Posted by: Michael Blowhard on August 15, 2007 6:13 PM

I don't mean to denigrate American actors, even the ones who've had limited training. The Julia Roberts or Ava Gardner approach can have wonderful results. I do think it's very hard on the performers themselves, though. Their training, whatever it may be, doesn't even now seem to make them very versatile, and when the fire of natural enthusiasm burns dim, they're often at a loss to know how to fake it, and may end up miserable.

Jack Nicolson, Al Pacino, and Robert de Niro made careers of playing the same person over and over, even when the roles and stories they appeared in were very different. The one exception I can think of from that generation is Robert Duvall, who really did/does always seem different, and sometimes unrecognisable, from role to role. The others dominate their characters rather than melting into them. Which makes the whole issue of stage versus screen training, and the different approaches they're supposed to take, a bit mysterious.

Among English actors who do a good job of transforming themselves, without the aid of much in the way of costuming, accents, and props, there's Alec Guinness, who managed to play charismatic characters with great conviction, without developing an off-screen charistmatic persona.

Posted by: alias clio on August 15, 2007 7:25 PM

Hasn't anyone else detected the truth about Deborah Solomon? She's fourteen years old and edits a junior-high-school newspaper somewhere on Lawn Gisland. At least that's how she comes across.

Funny, but "Upstate Guy" talks an awful lot like a downstate guy. I grew up in a state college town upstate, and his kind of comments always seemed to be spoken in "the accent". The reason the impoverished "will be the overwhelming majority in a few years" is because we are importing them because even the native-stock impoverished are too costly. At least about 17% of the Republicans running for president are opposed to a Brechtian replacement of the current population, which is 19.5% more than the other party offers. Come to think of it, with sensible folks like Michael and me leaving, the Brechting point upstate may already have been reached.

Posted by: Reg Cæsar on August 16, 2007 4:11 AM

As far as acting goes, the worst actress is better than the best actor, and the worst Brit better than the best Yank. Bloodyhell, just *being* British is putting on an act. (Bob Hope once said his family was English; they couldn't afford to be British.)

Posted by: Reg Cæsar on August 16, 2007 4:15 AM

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