What is (Affective) Film Performance?

In ‘The Work of Art in the Age of its Technological Reproducibility’, Benjamin (2008) makes the point that, ‘in the case of film, the fact that the actor represents someone else before the audience matters much less than the fact that he represents himself before the apparatus’ (31). This is essentially because in film, the element of semblance – the primary aspect of mimesis – has been ‘entirely displaced for the element of play’ (49). The direct automatism of photography renders the aspect of semblance secondary to the element of play – the unique possibility for experimentation to which the medium of film gives rise. Mersch (2012) expands on this notion by claiming that the film performer is ‘caught between being and seeming, the role and reality, figuration and embodiment or presence and re-presentation’ (448). This is because ‘the body marks the real as surplus that cannot be removed from the playing field’ (450). Del Río (2008) goes even further and identifies the cinema as a ‘privileged medium for the exhibition of bodies’ (10). In film, as Del Río specifies, ‘whatever happens to a body becomes instantly available to perception. Thus, the performing body presents itself as a shock wave of affect, the expression-event that makes affect a visible and palpable materiality’ (10). Del Rio considers performance to be the source of the real in cinema, the element that defies and disrupts film’s narrative and formal structuring principles: ‘as an event, performance is cut off from any preconceived, anterior scenario or reality. In its fundamental ontological sense, performance gives rise to the real’ (4). Del Rio sees affect as an intrusion of the new into repetitive and familiar structures in film, and the moving (performing) body – which is quite distinct from the subjectivity of the performer – as being the very source of this disruption, in this manner offsetting the ‘totalizing imposition of generic meaning’ (15).

The notion of unmasking through a radical presence can be related to Grotowski’s research and practice in theatre. As Salata (2013) states, ‘Grotowski searched for possibilities of the actor to accomplish a real deed of “self-unveiling”, and through it, meet others in a way that discards social performance’ (54). However, ‘to “reveal oneself” does not mean to claim a particular identity, but rather means a movement towards the renunciation of such claims’ (55). Salata continues to explain that ‘the territory of unveiling is the site of a dense flow of very delicate “offerings” and “receiving” – a subtle play of difference – that register for the viewer as a flow of life’ (55, emphasis in the original). This understanding of Grotowski’s approach is consistent with the experience of working with performers within the affective atmosphere, but also with the philosophical context in the theories of atmosphere and Deleuze and Guattari’s Body without Organs (see The Philosophical Context of Affective Atmosphere page).

On the stage there are two beings, and the being of the character assaults the being of the actor; the actor survives only by yielding. […] But the screen performer is essentially not an actor at all: he is the subject of study, and a study not his own. […] On a screen the study is projected; on a stage the actor is the projector. 

Stanley Cavell

The (photographic) presence of the human body in film (the ‘enhanced visibility, concurrent with a never-before-seen manifestation of the human body’ [Mersch 2012: 448]) makes film performance a radically different proposition to stage acting, which is defined by actual, though fleeting, presence, but also by semblance – the marked absence of what is being represented. Essentially, theatre is because it represents, while film represents because it is: traditional theatre differentiates itself from actuality by representing something outside the actual reality that it is a part of; film, on the other hand, is a phenomenological reality – absent and apart from the actual reality in which it is experienced – which has the potential to represent through the recognition of what is familiar or communicable in it.

Affective film performance – as defined and explored through my practice research – can be thought of as the removal, as much as possible, of the traits of the performer’s habitual character (their social masks, so to speak) through participating directly in the moment of performance: rather than consciously acting, representing a character, identifying with the self, or being self-aware, the performer simply is in the moment by allowing themself to be affected by everything that enters through their senses – being open and sensitive to their environment. By trying to bypass reason or habitual behaviour through focusing only on their senses, the performer’s mind becomes more involved with the movement of the situation, rather than with the symbolic stillness of thought and habit: they become closer to their own non-human becoming, their own basis and context in the real. In that sense, affective film performance is about ‘unmasking’ – removing all habitual masks and thus revealing affect, the non-human nature of the body – rather than putting on a mask, whether in a fictional or real-life context (embodying a habitual concept of a fictional character, or embodying the habitual self).

Film performance is as much about film as it is about performance, for the two are impossible to separate. While ‘framing and editing choices in the cinema do not mute the expressive power of performance but instead concentrate attention on the connotatively rich features of actors’ performances’ (Baron and Carnicke 2008: 58), those choices nevertheless also co-constitute that very performance: arguably, it is the aspect of play defined by Benjamin – the compatibility and radical selectivity of individual shots and performance takes – that defines film performance in both production and post-production. The expressive power is in the performance – similarly to any dramatic form – but it also is in the camera’s ability to reveal and capture the ‘non-human becoming’ of the performer, offering it to selection and subsequent re-construction through the editing process. Furthermore, this duality of film performance means that any human presence on film can possess expressive power, and perhaps the very notion of ‘expressive power’ is radically shifted by the ontological situation of film performance, and must mean something else, something inherently bound up with the (absolute, incorporeal) presence of the human body on the screen, even where the performance coincides with acting techniques, dramatic achievement, or narrative meaning that could be delivered by equal means on the stage. The affective approach to film performance then has to maximise the potential of this ‘expressive power’, by minimising or offsetting the traditional production of dramatic meaning, focusing instead on Benjamin’s aspect of ‘play’, and enhancing the visibility of the never-before-seen manifestation of the human body.