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The Actor’s Heartbeat: The Cinephilia of Performance

Steven Rybin

The presence of the actor in contemporary cinephilia is elusive. While earlier theorists and critics of the cinema were not too shy to write with affection about movie stars, today the declaration of love for performance and actors carries tinges of embarrassment: cinephilia, after all, still largely distinguishes itself from other ways of writing about cinema via the figure of the director-auteur, while screen actors remain mostly associated with fashion and celebrity. In The Actor’s Heartbeat, Steven Rybin argues that cinephilia still has much to discover through close attention to the actors on the screen. This volume traces a fascination with film performance, opening up a poetic way of writing about gesture, movement and expression, and explores how the actor’s work develops relationships with the figural rhythms surrounding and structuring their screen presence. Rybin shows how actors, in tandem with the cinephile’s eye, create vivid onscreen subjectivities, and offers a model for how their memorable figurations might become incarnate again in writing on film.

A cinephile might become so taken with an actor, a human being recorded and projected through the medium of movies, that she forgets – for a moment, or for a string of several moments – that what is before the eye is not precisely a human being at all but rather a series of rapidly flickering representations of one who once stood in front of the camera. This experience is what we might call a momentary forgetting of our own absence to the actors we see on the screen. We seem present and alive in our viewing precisely because these performers seem so present and alive before us. In such moments, the actor’s performance (regardless of the actual shot distance used by the filmmaker) becomes like a kind of close-up in our mind’s eye, cherished there as the film flows ineluctably on. But it’s the very intensity of this fleeting attachment which also sometimes forms a kind of blockage to thinking through the very experience of performance. When an eye connects to an actor on the screen, a first tendency in preserving the meaning of these affects is to leap to psychological identification or abstract, narrative motivation – that is, “filling in” the meaning of this little moment of performance that has so captured our attention, a “filling in” that usually consists of character psychology and narrative detail. This is what haunts the opening sequence of Bernardo Bertolucci’s Luna: if all of that intense, gestural presence between mother and son at the beginning of the film is merely to become a building-block in a theme, or a narrative, then perhaps presence is always fated to become absence, to become engulfed by meaning (abstraction). This tendency threatens to obscure, almost as soon as it happens, that unique incarnation, that mode of presence, of both viewer and actor. What we are watching onscreen is not at any instance a fully formed “character” but rather an always-already fragmented arrangement of gestures and expressions, pieces of a larger fabric knitted together not through abstract concepts but rather through the whole glimpsed in a mind’s eye, a whole finally formed, a little differently for each of us, by a loving attention to performance.

Steven Rybin is assistant professor of film studies in the English department at Minnesota State University, Mankato. He is the author of Gestures of Love: Romancing Performance in Classical Hollywood Cinema and editor of The Cinema of Hal Hartley: Flirting with Formalism.