Thinking Through Acting: Performative Indices and Philosophical Assertions

Curator's Note

Bryn Hewko and Aaron Taylor

Actors are not puppets. They are not docile, plastic components of a film’s mise-en-scène, posed at a director’s whims. Nor are their projected bodies neutral images awaiting syntagmatic placement by an editor before they can signify. Nor are they passive sign-complexes that simply bear the meaning of condensed social contradictions. Actors can and do actively contribute to the meaningfulness of the works in which they appear. Within the last decade, performance theorists within Film Studies have made welcome corrections to the discipline’s historical tendency to overlook, minimize, or outright deny the creative agency of the film actor.[1] This scholarship acknowledges a very basic fact: that an actor’s performance makes possible specific ways of comprehending a film. Indeed, attending to acting – the expressive materiality of a performer’s body – allows us to apprehend a film’s intentions and significance.

Our video essay takes this notion a step further: we assert that actors actually make manifest specific lines of thought. That is, actors are able to articulate complex assertions via their performances. Further, one’s instinctive evaluation of acting can be understood as a tacit acknowledgement and appreciation of these embodied suppositions. With star acting in particular, we can identify the creative mobilization of various, recurring discursive clusters surrounding an actor’s work. These core principles can be referred to as performative indices. Not only can one appreciate an actor’s creative enactment of these performative indices, the more skilled actors use them to make assertions regarding broader concepts and notions that their performance and stardom dramatizes. To become cognizant of such underlying conceptual dimensions of screen acting, then, is to recognize that our interest in actors’ mimetic capacities and/or their cultural connotations as stars is neither axiomatic nor exclusive.

Thinking Through Acting repurposes material that I previously published in my contribution to the anthology Acting and Performance in Moving Image Culture (2012). While preparing a version of the essay for a conference presentation, however, I was struck by the fundamental shortcoming of print-based performance analysis: its reliance on static images. Charles Affron’s pioneering Star Acting is a case in point.[2] It features hundreds of frame enlargements – all painstakingly captured and reproduced before the advent of DVDs. Since the late 1970s, it has been a staple of close performance analysis to employ stills and frame captures in order to illustrate and clarify what the analyst describes in the most evocative language at her/his disposal. The problem, of course, is that a still is unable to convey precisely what it is that the analyst isolates: the meaningfulness of expressive action in motion. This is because “pinpointing any instance of meaning results in an insecure specification that seems disappointingly unrepresentative.”[3] What the still cannot show is the significant “fluency” of a performance, as one expression, gesture, or movement shifts gracefully and non-discretely into the next.[4]

In recent years, however, it has become significantly easier to circumvent this problem through creative, videographic means. The video essay is a form which allows the analyst the ability to represent an actor’s fluency graphically through a variety of techniques enabled by a robust editing platform. Consequently, the audience need not imagine the crucial physiological minutiae missing between stills as an actor shifts from one expression to the next. Nor does the viewer need to rely on the powers of recall to undertake a cognitive comparison between the analyst’s evocative verbal description of the action and her/his memory of its articulation. Indeed the analyst’s language attains a new level of vibrancy, immediacy, and clarity by virtue of its simultaneous articulation with the unfolding of an expressive moment. Through GIFs, slow-motion, split screens, freeze frames, pan and zoom effects, intercutting and other digitally-enabled manipulations of the original footage, one is able to reveal the particularities of an actor’s meaningfully expressive labor with a surprising degree of exactitude and vitality. Thinking Through Acting, then, remediates a previously text-based examination of Marilyn Monroe’s performative indices at work in Some Like It Hot. My collaborator, Bryn Hewko, and I offer an initial experiment in the videographic close analysis of a seminal star figure – one whose creative agency and thoughtful artistry tends to be unduly minimized in many critical accounts of her films. We hope that our video essay represents a novel way forward for performance studies scholars: a means of demonstrating the exquisite eloquence of actors’ work – activity that one may very well wish to call philosophy in motion.



The Authors

Bryn Hewko is a filmmaker and media artist specializing in digital cinema post-production. He is a graduate of the MFA New Media program at the University of Lethbridge, where he produced a short film for head-mounted displays. Bryn is also President and Creative Director of Output Media, which provides post-production services to the film and advertising industry. Thinking Through Acting is his first video essay.

Aaron Taylor is an Associate Professor of New Media at the University of Lethbridge. He is the editor of Theorizing Screen Acting (Routledge, 2012) and the author of numerous essays on film performance, which appear in Make Ours Marvel (2016), The Velvet Light Trap (2016), Millennial Masculinity (2013), Acting and Performance in Moving Image Culture (2012), Stages of Reality (2012),Quarterly Review of Film and Video (2012), and The Journal of Film and Video (2007). Thinking Through Acting is also his first video essay.

[1] Important essays and monographs in this vein have been produced by Cynthia Baron, Sharon Marie Carnicke, Andrew Klevan, Paul McDonald, and Murray Pomerance. Vital predecessors include studies by Charles Affron, James Naremore, and Carole Zucker.

[2] Charles Affron, Star Acting (New York: Dutton, 1977).

[3] Andrew Klevan, “Living Meaning: The Fluency of Film Performance,” in Theorizing Film Acting, ed. Aaron Taylor (New York: Routledge, 2012), 35.

[4] Ibid.


Daniel Massie's picture

Thanks for this essay! It’s

Thanks for this essay! It’s really fascinating, and gives language and criticality to things I think about often but haven’t been able to articulate. I find the voiceover to balance nicely with the visual sequences, making for a convincing + stimulating watch.