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Reviewed by:
  • Reframing Screen Performance
  • David J. Wright
Reframing Screen Performance. By Cynthia Baron and Sharon Marie Carnicke. Ann Arbor: University of Michigan Press, 2008; pp. 310. $70.00 cloth, $25.95 paper.

The cross-fertilization of theatrical and cinematic techniques has attracted scholarly dialogue from a variety of perspectives. Recent examinations of the literary exchange between the two performance forms have provenance in theories propounded by Bazin and Pudovkin, among other early film theorists. Further, these theorists advocated certain ontological distinctions between theatre and film that have fueled discussions of “liveness” and the visual and aural techniques shared by the two art forms. Perhaps these proposed ontological distinctions are what led Walter Benjamin to argue that great film performances are created in the editing room—that film actors provide images that acquire meaning only under the director’s hand.

Baron and Carnicke set out to disprove Benjamin’s claim. Their approach to the issue revisits the theatre/ film intersection via a road less traveled: audience reception of film acting. Applying theories of theatrical acting to film acting, they demonstrate that gestures and expressions made by film actors shape audience reception. Outlining the book’s program, Baron and Carnicke identify two related though distinct concerns. First, they challenge the extensive scholarship that discounts film acting, including Soviet filmmaker Lev Kuleshov’s pseudo-scientific editing experiments. And second, the authors issue a well-argued caution against ignoring the commonsense view that screen actors make significant contributions to film. Alternately confident and anxious, methodic and convoluted, the flow of their argument is at times unclear, but a careful reader will discover a persuasive argument for the theoretical coincidence of theatre and film acting.

The authors divide the book into three sections, each containing three chapters. The first section addresses the perceived hindrances to appreciating screen actors’ physical and vocal gestures and expressions. Chapter 1 identifies the common misperception that film acting is merely a mechanical reproduction of “natural” behavior that lacks the sophisticated craft of live performance. Examples from popular magazines from the 1930s through the 1950s illustrate how film actors were portrayed as deeply “authentic” people whose natural behavior could be captured on film and manipulated into moving performances. Baron and Carnicke argue that this popular perception was reinforced by the influence of Lee Strasberg’s method acting.

Chapter 2 examines the Kuleshov experiments and concludes that the Soviet desire to defend cinema as a unique art form led to an incorrect interpretation of those experiments, while Kuleshov himself identified ways in which actors’ work often dominates the cinematic effect. Instead of negating the contribution of actors, Kuleshov’s experiments demonstrate how landscapes are artificially created, how photographic images in sequence differ from isolated images, and, most importantly, how a skilled performance can reduce the need for extensive editing, and how directors who work poorly with actors must rely heavily on montage. The authors then analyze scenes from three films, examining aesthetic and studio influences, genre, framing, editing, and a number of other nonperformance filmic elements to argue that actors’ gestures and expressions operate in a reciprocal relation to cinematic effects. [End Page 658]

In the third chapter, Baron and Carnicke employ a taxonomy created by Stephen Heath that delineates how audiences perceive the presence of characters, actors, star images, and other elements of the cinema industry. Heath’s taxonomy is applied to scenes from four films to show how cinematic elements and an actor’s expressive gestures in tandem affect audience reception. Concomitant to this analysis, the authors seek to refute the idea that acting occurs only in live performance. Arguing that the difference between acting and not-acting depends on the degree of representation in the performance, they conclude that acting and not-acting occur in both stage and film performances.

The book’s second section defends the importance of film acting across diverse time periods and aesthetic forms. Chapter 4 lays the theoretical groundwork for the argument. Drawing particularly on the Prague school of semiotics, the authors employ the concept of “ostensive” (i.e., self-representative) signs in conjunction with indexical and iconic signs (respectively, having a causal link and a resemblance to the things they signify). The...


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pp. 658-659
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