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1097 [In Progress]

February 5, 2014

I settled back to observe from the parking lot, waiting for events to perpetrate themselves. For a time, nothing happened. I continued to observe. The gallery was entirely still, like a murder scene after the killer has fled but before the police have arrived. Despite my devotion to duty and observation and chronicling, I began to grow a little restless. I was, in fact, bored. And I began to wonder if this might be the purpose of Restivo’s art. To teach us something about boredom. That it sucks.

Just then the artist himself suddenly appeared. He was bare-chested and I surmised that he had been performing cleansing ablutions at the sink. For a moment I could observe unobserved, objectively. But then he turned and caught sight of me. I quickly ducked out of view, to preserve the sanctity of my science, but not before I saw him raise his arm, as if to point in my direction. The poor man, in his terrible isolation, was probably astonished just to see another human being.

My purpose completed, I turned and quickly walked away.

–from “Restivo Watch Day One: Boredom Sets In” (2/5/11)

Is there anyone whose death would have been a greater loss to American film than Philip Seymour Hoffman? I have been thinking about this these past three days and am finding no obvious alternative. Certainly not among actors. I have no great feel for the actor’s craft, am not sure what lines separate badpassablegoodexcellent in acting, especially screen-acting (I have barely seen any stage-acting, a field in which Hoffman also, people say, reigned supreme) which is so mediated as to make you wonder what is the actual contribution of the person the light is being bounced off of. The career of Summer Phoenix has gone far to demonstrate that, unlike her more celebrated brothers, she cannot act. But I think she is enthralling in the title role of Esther Kahn, because a great director, Arnaud Desplechin, found a way to use her, casting her against type and contrary to reason to play a talented actress (it is a very strange movie and in loving it I am in the minority). And some of the best performances are by non-professionals: you cannot beat the monk who played Brother Ginepro in Rossellini’s The Flowers of St. Francis. For Bresson, acting proper had no place in cinema, it resulted in the filmed theater that was anathema to him. The people in his movies pretty much were just models to bounce light off of, except the word “just” slights the magic of that event. It is an extreme position but not without some sense, and he did pretty damn well with it.

I tend to take something of a Bressonian point of view, not necessarily toward the minimalism of action and expression — going big can be great, weird wonderful — but that actors are elements to be deployed by the director rather than self-deployed. One consequence of this perspective is that there is no shame in giving something like the same performance from picture to picture because if that performance was not what was wanted another actor would have been cast. Actors who always play “themselves” are good actors, if they are worth watching and fit the part.

But to consider Philip Seymour Hoffman pushes me in the other direction, toward an appreciation of the art of acting and the actor as auteur. He managed to let you see the actor’s craft and the character’s presence at the same time, fusing ends and means in a way that is the essence of art. I think it is close to obvious that no other actor would have been as big a loss as him, because he was both so prolific and so consistently excellent, so varied in expression and daring in exploration, that, given his age, we had every reason to expect a steady and brilliant stream of work from him for many years to come, in a way that no other actor promised. But I also surprise myself in thinking that maybe his loss is greater than that of any American director would be, at this point. He might have been a more reliable auteur than most of them. There are many directors that we can hope for great work from, but can we really expect it? From Hoffman we did, several times a year, and that is why his death was so shocking. Moviegoers had learned to take him for granted.

It was just last Saturday that I watched The Big Lebowski at the Paramount Theater here in Charlottesville. Strange to find, the very next day, among its cast, that Hoffman was dead while Flea gesticulated wildly with an unplugged bass on the Superbowl stage. I remember when Lebowski first came out, I remember seeing the trailer for it in the theater. My friends and I were very excited by this. Everyone was eager to see it. But somehow I missed the train on that one. A group went, another group went, but I was not among them, and I was left alone, with no one to see it with, which didn’t seem right for this movie, so I missed its theatrical run. Most people seemed to like it. There was something about a dick drawing that my friends thought to be particularly hilarious. But Nathaniel did not like it. I think he may have even hated it, the best I can recall. Which was strange because he was a big fan of the Coen brothers, someone who loved Raising Arizona.

Now Nathaniel’s opinions were always the ones that carried the greatest weight with me. He was my most esteemed colleague in life. His perceptions, tastes, judgments, discernments — they reached me deeply, held my imagination, and always got my careful consideration. No one influenced me in that way more, no one has since. So I would have been really interested in hearing what he thought about the movie, except I hadn’t seen it, so there was not much of a discussion to be had. And I never did get around to seeing it, not while he was still alive. And after he died, and the cult of Lebowski grew, I stubbornly resisted seeing it for several years, out of a sense of blind irrational sentimental heartbroken loyalty.

[this is the post promised today, so here it is, but unfinished… To Be Continued]

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