Like many others, I was shocked and saddened by the news of Philip Seymour Hoffman’s passing. Also like many others, I didn’t know him personally. (A couple of acquaintances of mine had the pleasure of working with him.)
It’s always the case that, whatever demons someone is wrestling, no matter what sorts of static the social chatter happens to produce around gossip, speculation, and sordid details, the fact remains—a life was lived, and so many are the better for it.
Hoffman’s passing made me remember all the times I saw him in movies and thought, “Philip Seymour Hoffman is so good.” From Boogie Nights to Happiness, to The Talented Mr. Ripley or Magnolia or Almost Famous or Capote or The Savages—such a long list!—Hoffman was always true to form and utterly brilliant.
His passing also made me reflect on the takeaways; not just the often-cited reasons for staying away from drugs or seeking help when it’s needed, but what we can learn about craft from unwitting mentors like Hoffman, and how it can give us pause to focus on our own lives. As an indie film director, I’ve taken time to think back on all the lessons I’ve learned about the big screen, my own successes and failures, and I’ve come up with a few things I know about what Hoffman loved and spent so much time doing—acting.
- It’s the Method. This is not to knock techniques like Alexander, Viewpoints, or others. If anything, these augment and support Method acting. But think of the greats: Hoffman (Philip Seymour and Dustin), Brando, De Niro, Pacino, etc.—and it becomes clear that there’s something really effective about listening, staying focused on the moment at hand, and making use of affective memory. I know, Anthony Hopkins—you think method actors are a “pain in the ass.” Well, you played a black man passing as white. That was a pain in the ass.
- Homework works. There are folkloric stories like Hillary Swank living as a man and Daniel Day Lewis’ extreme character makeovers. In my own short films, I’ve created little assignments like having someone write a love letter to an ex-partner, sending two characters out on a date, and discussing the experience of one actor’s digging her own grave for a part. Similar to mindfulness meditation, the best way to observe behavior (aside from studying actual human behavior) is going out and doing it yourself and seeing what arises. According to Hoffman’s long-time acting teacher, Tony Greco, a main drive of Hoffman’s was wanting to get to the truth of the part. One of the best ways to do this is through homework.
- Acting is a fragile profession. All publicity stunts and Shia LaBeouf aside, actors can be brittle people, and I would argue, need more love and attention than most. After all, they’re opening themselves up to complicated and difficult emotions, without the assistance of a trained therapist (other than the director!). Sidney Lumet’s anecdote of Marlon Brando nailing the emotion on a 34th take in The Fugitive Kind speaks to allowing an actor to overcome an emotional block, no matter how long it takes. Such interior moments are, by their nature, contained and delicate; a director has to treat them accordingly.
- Bigger isn’t always better. Orson Welles once said, “The famous difference between stage acting and acting for the camera? It’s all nonsense, you know. There’s just good acting and bad.” Of course, acting for the screen in cinema’s Golden Age was very different from today’s oft-muted, “character study” performances in indie films. Bigger might have been better at one point, and at times it still is. But, the prevalence of unforgiving close-ups and hyperrealism call for smaller, not larger. Oh, and good acting helps, too.
- We’ll always have actor heroes. In 1951, legendary gossip columnist Hedda Hopper interviewed Preston Sturges about “the future of motion pictures” given the advent of television. He predicted that movies and the industry would simply change to keep pace, since people will always need stories and entertainment. We’ll also need people to act for us, to mirror back our hopes, fears, aspirations, nightmares, triumphs, failures, and everything in between. Gossip columns notwithstanding, we’ll always have and need actor heroes, and the more stories we continue to create, the more diverse these heroes will be.
Thank you, Mr. Hoffman. Godspeed.
A lofty thing, the future. Or time, for that matter. I can barely remember what I did last week and I can’t say with certainty what tomorrow or next week or next year will bring. The future of queer film is no different. I do know, however, that we’ll eventually experience another New Queer Cinema, and the next round will be even more groundbreaking than the first.
This time around, the focus will be less on theme, or technical prowess, or even having sexuality be incidental to the story. The incidentally queer trend will continue but will be overpowered by the old-school, time-tested traditions of character and story. As for technology, we have so many inexpensive ways of creating movies now. Plus, there’s either a film school or online source to teach anyone any aspect of the moving image—it’s unacceptable for a film to lack in production values. Audiences are no longer so willing to forgive bad sound or a poor editing job.
Someone’s always asking about the future of queer cinema; there are many web pages devoted to this question and it’s bound to periodically show up in a film festival interview or panel. So, short of making any further, concrete predictions, what would Cinemulatto like to see in a future queer film landscape? Here are a few things that stand out in our mind.
- Kick-ass stories. I don’t mean stories that simply haven’t been told before. (Although, this is important and we’ll get to it in a moment.) I mean going back to basics and studying the lessons of 1970s cinema, particularly the focus on character, story, and predicament, and on original and complex situations. I’d love for someone to map out a queer film as narratively elaborate as The Sting. I want us to keep things moving and tense. I want us to rely less on dialogue than story, but when we do use dialogue to forward a story, I want it to be powerful and memorable (“Attica! Attica!”).
- Some movies that are mainstream, others that aren’t. In the mainstream versus not mainstream debate, I argue we need both: Movies like Brokeback Mountain and The Kids Are All Right serve the purpose of making our stories more accepted by a larger number of people, which in the end is a victory for queer rights. Films are even taking hold in the corporate world, as Chipotle wows us with its animated short on sustainable farming and Salesforce.com posts a job opening for a “Film Director”. Visual storytelling is in. Why? These companies understand the importance of creating characters and stories that resonate with a wide audience. An underground movement will always exist to breed the next generation of filmic illuminati. So, there’s no reason to not have both the mainstream and underground.
- A transgender revolution. With the TV show Orange is the New Black, this is already happening. Transamerica meant well but there’s way more room for hearing original stories told from the perspectives of those who are actually transgender.
- Continued historical accounts of important stories. We love documentaries, especially those that bring untold stories to life. And speaking of the transgender revolution: more works like MAJOR! a new documentary film should be made. There are so many queer people with significant histories, so we have decades and decades worth of material to draw from. (While you’re at it, check out A Christmas Wishlist for the Future of Queer Cinema.)
- Adaptations sensitively told. We also love a good adaptation. Bugcrush deserved to win best short at Sundance 2011, which was based on a story by Scott Treleaven. Mysterious Skin was a great rendition of Scott Heim’s novel. What about The Well of Loneliness done as a comedy? Who’s down for digging into some Jeanette Winterson or Rita Mae Brown? Any Zami in the house?
- New stories and new “household names”. Like documentaries, we have decades worth of opportunity to dramatize our personal stories and to create memorable roles. I want to see characters whose names are as culturally prominent as Ratso Rizzo, R.P. McMurphy, or Annie Hall. The quirky and quotable shouldn’t be reserved for Napoleon Dynamite. We want more queer bad guys and renegade lesbians. There’s a Bonnie and Clyde out there that crosses genders, I just know it.
- Great acting. How about developing stories with the actors, and rehearsing on camera until it’s perfect and not overdone? We need to spend as much time on training actors as we do on mastering cinematography (unless you can afford to hire Annette Bening). Go Fish was a trailblazing movie but I think we can all agree (can’t we?) that the acting sucked. That was almost 20 years ago so we should know better now. Let’s take the time to really study the acting greats—I’m talking Pacino and De Niro, or Blanchett and Streep—and learn from them. It’s not a sin to appropriate the traditions of classic films and actors.
- Technology. Just because I need to mention this one. Yes, let’s keep on top of new, inexpensive technologies, but never at the expense of character and story.
Away we go to make important films!