How To Be A Good Actor - Cynema (Cinema with a Why?) - Acting Blog

Cynema (Or Cinema with a WHY?)

[I posted this entry in 2010, but the topic keeps smacking me in the face, so I thought it was worth revisiting with an edit, update and repost.]

It doesn’t quite work, because “Cynema” and “Cinema” are homonyms. Visually – okay. To the ear, it needs to be “Cynical Cinema.”

cynical, adj., 1. concerned only with one’s own interests and typically disregarding accepted or appropriate standards, 2. distrustful of human sincerity or integrity

cynema, n., filmmaking motivated by cynical inclinations as to what will move the creators’ careers forward, at the expense of coherence, humanity or passion; cynema is often characterized by slavish devotion to a style, it rarely demonstrates any devotion to a focused story, it is marked by poor craftsmanship, improvisation in lieu of writing, a desperate desire to be funny (often by imitating others’ humor), emphasis on the ‘mockumentary’ form, hitting visual punchlines, etc.

We’ve all had enough of it, right? How many invitations have we received to look at vimeo, youtube, whatever, to see the latest work by an acquaintance, and you want to throw heavy objects at your fragile computer? If I never see another stupid fucking unfunny mockumentary again in this lifetime or any lifetime to follow, it will be too soon. Stop it! If you aren’t going to be funnier than Spinal Tap or Waiting for Guffman (or that delicious Extras skit between Gervais and McKellen about acting), don’t do it! And trust me, you probably aren’t funnier than those films. Those are professionally funny people, and in this business if you haven’t been paid to be funny, there’s an awfully good chance that if you tried, you simply aren’t funny enough to be paid for it.

Each summer we assign the advanced classes at BHP to make their own short films – they get 8 weeks or so, and then we spend a night screening them and talking about the process. I’ve learned that I need explicitly and repeatedly to ban them from doing stupid comedies, mockumentaries, anything that relates to the industry at all, anything that has as its origination point, “Wouldn’t it be funny if….?”  And even with those stipulations, last year I had to give an entire class a failing grade and made them do the whole festival over, because almost everything submitted was still in the who-gives-a-shit, thrown-together, bad-sound, stupid-comedy genre.

Recently I screened The Lives of Others and Michael Haneke’s Caché for the classes – chosen because I think they are first-rate films, as foreign films they have probably been seen by fewer students, and they are refreshingly bereft of contemporary American filmmaking conventions that spoon-feed predictable plot and feel-good emotions. But the point in addition was they were about something. The filmmakers in each case were after something. They gave a shit. And that doesn’t mean there weren’t moments of humor in each, this is not a treatise against humor.

Even when these web-shorts generate a laugh or two, I find they’re cynical. They’re thrown together. There’s a nastiness underneath it, there’s a bitterness, and it resonates throughout like a stuck low note on a piano, its volume regenerated again and again because the hammer is not damped down. They’re trying too damned hard to be clever and to hit a tone. The subtext resonates: We don’t give a shit about this, really – we just hope it helps us become successful.  When these considerations  override commitment to story, you’re heading down the chute to irrelevance. Without story, in its place there is only aimless non-energy, no forward movement, the pace lags, and thus the only thing you have left to elicit a response is cleverness, and as result I start feeling ornery, as if I’m being commanded to laugh because…. Why? I don’t know. Because if I don’t, the poor specimen won’t make it onto www.funnyordie.com or some such thing.  Frankly, I think funnyordie.com should die. How about a site called itsaboutsomethingordie.com? itprovokesmemovesmemakesmethinkmakesmelaughorfuckingdie.com?

All this relentlessly glib, cute bullshit, the cleverness and cynicism, it frustrates the crap out of me because often I know the participants well and I know it is undercutting the real potentials of the talent involved. The question I always have, similar to that of my long ago post on Shit TheatreWhat else could this person have spent the time creating? A good  rhetorical question to actors: “If someone gave you $1M to make the movie you want for you to star in, what would that story be? And who would you play?” It’s kind of scary how few people have the answers. But I would guess that only a small number would answer, “I would take the $1M and make umpteen cynical mockumentary short films, plus one narrative film about how bad my agent is.” I think we’d start to experience a broader story arc, more in-depth character, more dramas would show up to balance out the comedy, the imagination would take flight, the actors would be challenged, etc.

Whatever passion and thoughtfulness would fuel the feature film you’d make for $1M or more, have the same fuel all that you do. Five minutes on the web should have the same effort towards quality across the board as would two hours on the big screen. Make it about something. A strong story, believed in by all who are making it, told with humor and compassion and humanity, or perhaps with an interesting concept that purposefully denies the audience those experiences, has far more potential to launch you than a slap-dash, cynical attempt to nail a tone or style that is popular.

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