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Reviewed by:
  • Reframing Screen Performance by Cynthia Baron and Sharon Marie Carnicke
  • Dyrk Ashton
Reframing Screen Performance. Cynthia Baron and Sharon Marie Carnicke, University of Michigan Press, 2011, 301 pp.

With Reframing Screen Performance, Baron and Carnicke aim to revive and revitalize the study of performance in cinema, offering a well-reasoned and coherent rubric that is not only practical but also enlightening, valuable, flexible, and important. It is no secret that the serious study of screen performance has been subject to subtle evasion for decades. The reasons for this are numerous and understandable, as the authors explain. There is a long-standing and "influential view that performances are created in the editing room." Acting has often been separated from other aspects of film and is not generally considered uniquely cinematic. It can be just plain difficult to talk about an actor's performance, and there are always the questions as to whether a performance is "authentic" acting (whatever that might be defined to mean) or is something that a filmmaker created solely through the manipulation of mise-en-scène. Concrete ways to speak about performance in a film can seem elusive, and critical vocabularies with which to speak about screen performance have not been clearly expressed and coalesced into a single cohesive, constructive approach—until now.

In recent decades the analysis of performance has, for the most part, been left to film critics writing for popular media, where it is relegated to evaluation equivalent to the judging of performances as good, bad, or ambiguous (read: "quirky" or "off-beat," meaning no one is quite sure what to make of it). These evaluations rely on dualistic perceptions of a performance as realistic or unrealistic, appropriate or inappropriate, subtle or over-the-top. This approach is common even in more scholarly circles, as well as in our textbooks on film appreciation, elementary critical approaches, and film theory. We see serious scholarly studies that focus on stardom, audience reception, character analysis, or a discussion of actors' approaches to or methods of acting—where actors studied and with whom, what their motivations are, how they approach a role, and so on. These approaches are all valid and have their place, but they simply do not address performances themselves, how a performance affects the audience's perception of a film, or how performance is integral to the overall form of a film.

Baron and Carnicke claim that there is much more to be mined in the study of performance than current approaches are fit to handle, and they provide a method for doing it—what essentially comes down to an exhaustively researched, applied, and tested framework for the analysis of gestures and expressions, drawing ideas and terminology from sources such as the Prague Linguistic Circle and methods of the stage and then reviving, adapting, explaining, and providing fresh insights into each. The authors demonstrate the validity of their approach with numerous case studies of a variety of performance types, in a wide array of genres, all supported by still photographs of key frames from each performance. Along the way, they trace a valuable history of performance study in theater and cinema, providing descriptions of the various approaches to studying cinematic performance that have been utilized since the dawn of film.

Reframing Screen Performance is organized into three sections of three chapters each. With part 1, "Cinema's Varied Use of Gestures and Expressions," the authors lay the groundwork for their study and rubric. They explain why the study of screen performance still faces resistance and then stress the importance and validity of the serious study of screen performance and trace a history of performance study in chapters titled "Crafting, Not Capturing 'Natural Behavior' on Film," "Giving Performance Elements Their Due," and "Thinking Systematically about Acting." [End Page 58]

In part 2, titled "Performance Elements, Cinematic Conventions, and Cultural Traditions," a rubric for the study of performance by acting aspect is described, supported by applied case studies. Chapter 4, "Ostensive Signs and Performance Montage," includes a study of Chaplin's performance in City Lights (dir. Chaplin, 1931). Chapter 5, "Acting Choices and Changing Cinematic Conventions," concludes with analyses of performances in various screen adaptations...


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pp. 58-59
Launched on MUSE
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