Sunday, 24 March 2013

How does the idea of freedom in Sartrean philosophy relate to the concept of the actor?

What is an actor?

In this essay, I will argue that one concept that is of particular importance when attempting to analyse cinema in relation to Sartrean philosophy, is freedom. It is decidedly useful when considering the concept of an actor.  ‘For Sartre we are all actors trying to be an audience towards ourselves. Thinking along these lines, he diminishes as self-deception any apparent being overcome by an emotion. One is not made sad by an event; one decides to greet it with an assumption of sadness.’1 Based on this assumption, I decided to explore the concept of an actor, rather than the definition of an actor. An actor to most, by definition, is simply one who acts on stage, in films or on television. Yet this actor is a human being and as a human being they may behave in a way that is not genuine, a way of protecting themselves or others, a human being who behaves in such a way, is an actor. As all human beings will behave in this way, influenced by their surroundings, we are all actors.

According to Sartre there are two kinds of freedom, a freedom we are born with, so freedom in its purest form and a freedom we are unable to achieve through no fault of our own, a freedom in which we are restricted by situation. However, without this situation we wish to break free from, we are not free, we just exist in a given freedom, stifled and frustrated by the potential monotony of life.

Movies exercise a hold on us, a hold that, drawing on our innermost desires and fears, we participate in creating. To know films objectively, we have to know the hold they have upon us. To know the hold films have on us, we have to know ourselves objectively. And to know ourselves objectively, we have to know the impact of films on our lives. No study of film can claim intellectual authority if it is not rooted in self-knowledge, our knowledge of our own subjectivity. In the serious study of film, in other words, criticism must work hand in hand with the perspective of self-reflection that only philosophy is capable of providing.2

Films enable us to live out the situations we lack in our own lives through the lives of actors, we emphasise with their freedom, restricted by the screen, restricted by their characters. The actor on screen or on stage is also living out the situations that may not exist in their own lives, enabling them too, as the audience does to engage in the freedom of another, to commit themselves to a false reality they will eventually (when the play or film ends) escape. So, bearing this in mind, we as the viewer are actors and the actors are actors, so when viewing a play or a film we are all actors, acting. What of those not viewing a film, or those not actors by definition, by profession? They may being living out the freedom of another through literature, literature that may one day become a play or a film, they may be living out the freedom of another through television, radio programmes, music, newspaper articles, celebrities, magazines, gossip, hear say, the world is full of actors, imagining themselves in another’s shoes. The media holds us, captive, prisoners to ourselves. Prisoners content to live through the freedom of others while we as humans, are ‘condemned to be free.’3 

In relation to Sartre’s two kinds of freedom, I wanted to mention that there are two kinds of definition and that ‘a concept has a real definition as an attribute. Every concept must have a real definition - otherwise it would not be a concept.4 There are two kinds of definition, real and nominal; a real definition states the essence of a thing, what it is to be a thing of that kind. A nominal definition gives the meaning of a word. In a lecture on ‘defining art’ by James Grant he gave a good example of the differences between nominal and real definitions. He stated that the claim that water is something with the chemical structure H2O is the case of stating the essence of water. Saying what it is for something to be water but it is not a definition of the word ‘water’. The word ‘water’ does not mean the same as ‘has the chemical structure H2O’ because people have understood and can understand the word water without knowing it’s chemical structure, with no concept of hydrogen or oxygen etc.’5

Now let us compare this to the concept of an actor, we do not have to know whether or not an actor is an actor on the stage, or if he is a film actor but when we see an individual acting in a manner perceived as different to themselves, in the surroundings most suited to their role, we know this is an actor and not the behaviour of an individual who is not acting. We may recognise the individual from media appearances, we may not know what they do but we may presume they are an actor. The essence of the actor is one of behavioural traits, picked up from birth, picked up once our ontological freedom is disturbed by the influence of our parents or those around us. We do as we are taught to do, we are acting to the scripts given to us in life; we are directed by those who brought us up to recite the lines and live roles assigned to us, by them.

The following thought experiment will help us explore the fundamental differences between a film actor and a theatre actor further using the idea of the variable: With respect to science, things that have an effect on an experiment are called variables. The dependent variable is the variable that is being observed, which changes in response to the independent variable. The independent variable is the variable you change on purpose. An actor wakes up in the morning; he is to appear in a film that afternoon. He eats a piece of toast and spends the day reading through his script. He arrives on set and recites his lines to the camera.  The director is pleased and tells the actor he has enough footage. The actor goes home, he is no longer required.

An actor wakes up in the morning; he is to appear in a play that afternoon. He eats a piece of toast and spends the day reading through his script. He arrives on stage and recites his lines to the audience.  The director is pleased and tells the actor he'll see him tomorrow afternoon. The actor goes home. He then wakes up every day for as long as the play lasts, eating a different breakfast every morning, on one of the days, he misses breakfast. The dependent variable is the concept of the actor, the actor is being observed, regardless of whether the actor is one of film or theatre. The independent variable is the breakfast; it is purposefully changed in order to understand how the actor is affected.

On the day the theatre actor misses breakfast; his performance may be subpar in comparison to previous performances. He may trip, become distracted or forget a line and need to be prompted. His freedom to choose what he had for breakfast has completely altered the viewing experience, the audience notice because for the sake of this experiment, they remain the same, the audience recognise the differences between his performance without breakfast and his performance with breakfast but they are unaware that this is the independent variable. The film actor ate a piece of toast for breakfast, he made no mistakes the day of the shoot, the footage, the mise-en-scene, everything will remain the same, perpetually suspended in time, the viewing experience is predictable, continuous and without exception. The audience could watch the same film night after night and the actor’s performance will not change.

Existentialist Ideas and Directors

The existentialist position sees ‘the man who makes art as one who offers a challenge to the rest of society and at the same time accepts a kind of bet with existence.’6 This idea promoted a general feeling of isolation, a detachment from belief systems, and the creator must reinvent art from the very beginning as he is to find salvation in nothing but art. By this I am referring to film as art, we as actors, as viewers, find solace in film, we are influenced by film, it infringes on our lives, on our decisions, by existing through a directors ability to challenge what we know to be reality. 
In Jean Paul Sartre’s existentialist terms, the fact that ‘every person makes himself what he is and is condemned to be free’7 shows us that we have a choice as actors. If an actor truly believes in themselves and their work, then there is no reason for them not to progress; if they do not, they will not as they have already made this decision by ignoring their own freedom and remaining oppressed by their own thoughts. Sartre was not the only philosopher to touch upon the idea of self, for example Nietzsche allows us to gain a sense of liberation, to convince us what it is to feel free and how to achieve such freedom through his writing: Be your own source of experience! Throw off your discontent about your nature; forgive yourself your own self, for you have in it a ladder with a hundred rungs, on which you can climb to knowledge.8 You have it in your power to merge everything you have lived through – attempts, false starts, errors, delusions, passions, your love and your hope – into your goal, with nothing left over.9 

Sartre believed that personal freedom was often threatened by other people; in his play ‘No Exit’ this idea can be clearly observed. The play is a depiction of the afterlife in which three deceased characters are punished by being locked into a room together for eternity, and is the source of one of Sartre's most famous quotations, ‘l'enfer, c'est les autres’ or ‘hell is other people’.10 Personal freedom is important when it comes to creating film as without it we are not being true to ourselves and therefore not able to create true works of art as actors, writers, directors or viewers. The French director Robert Bresson, thought of actors as models, he used amateurs he felt could be manipulated easily, he used them the way a puppeteer might use a marionette, pulling their strings, attempting to simulate the illusion of reality. This illusion is never true to reality as once a film is finished, each frame exists briefly, each sound and movement, specific to that moment. A film, unlike a play, can be watched again with exactly the same precision, each sound and movement once again specific to that moment. Bresson’s extreme position on actors was not as extreme as most might believe; his opinions influenced a number of directors, including Andrey Tarkovsky. According to Tarkovsky ‘it is for the director to build up the role, thus giving the actor total freedom in each separate section – a freedom that cannot happen in theatre. If the film actor constructs his own role, he loses the opportunity for spontaneous and involuntary playing within the terms laid down by the plan and purpose of the film.’11 

Freedom of Thought

So, what is it about a movie that infringes on our freedom, allows us to become so engaged, so consumed by what we see. Is it the direction or the actors? Are Bresson’s actors the reason why his films possess such a thematic, spiritual quality? Does their lack of acting ability, allow us to take on the characters role more easily, to empathise with the character, regardless of gender? Or is it in fact the repetitive direction, the routine forced upon the actor by Bresson that perfects each performance, thus making the films seem effortless. The actors of Bresson have reverted to simply performing as they would in reality, off-screen, in their own environments, they know where everything is on set as one does in their own home, they are no longer free of the routines of life as they have become an almost role less character in a new life.

Our own freedom of thought, for the entirety of the film is usually dominated by what we see on the screen, if we aren't imaging what it’s like to be that character, or if we aren't expressing emotions in relation to how good or bad the film is, we are just watching, mindlessly, absorbed by the imaginary. For, even if the film is based on actual events, what is portrayed in front of the camera will never exist in our reality as the characters exist in an imaginary, predetermined reality. Such a reality is free from decisions as the original story has already happened and for any gaps that need filling, there is a director, the actor is trapped in a subtle version of reality where his condemned freedom has managed to leak into our own through the use of film. Bresson implements bad faith that makes for great cinematic films. It is his ability to exercise freedom in a way which is negative that allows us as the viewer to make this judgement upon the actors he chooses to use. The actors are no longer able to maintain the situation necessary to continue a false freedom, Bresson is enforcing self-denial upon his actors, they are no longer doing what they are told for the sake of a film but because they can, subconsciously, just get on with it the way one would normally, consistently and with the utmost precision. One could argue that it is beneficial for an actor to be directed in such a way, rather than being true to themselves playing a role, they become the role.  This to some could hinder the quality of the actors performance, yet we know this not to be true when viewing the raw, realistic nature of Bresson’s films.

It is often the case that we, as actors, are left, without direction, without guidance with which to control our freedom, in cases such as this we turn to other people or in many cases, the idea of God. Some form of ‘other’ that seems to give us the strength to continue doing what it is we do. For actors by definition rather than by concept, they are free as they have direction, they are aware of what their every move should be as they are living freely through the story of another. They are free from their own reality. Actors as a concept are never free from their own reality, we are never really free but we are content not to be free, for what is life without rules, boundaries, direction? What is existence if not an exploration of the freedom, of others? What are actors if not people, with the ability and imagination to choose whose freedom it is they would rather live? ‘Freedom thus needs to be asserted in the face of other people, who continually threaten to undermine it, to steal it from us. At the same time it remains the case for Sartre that no matter how oppressive or constraining our social circumstances, we are always free to rise above them, to exercise our capacity for self-determination.’12 

No matter how oppressed an actor may feel, no matter how constrained their social circumstances, they will always be able to overcome situations in which they question their freedom, our personal freedom is not a freedom controlled by others, although influenced by others, we have the ability to change it. The definition of an actor, is an individual unable to choose their freedom, on screen or on stage, this is a decision made for them by others. To some extend one may reject certain roles but even through rejection, one has chosen something deemed ‘the right role’ by others, including themselves. The concept or essence of an actor who is considered free, could be described as any individual who with disregard to social constrains or some form of ‘other’, chooses their own path, be it a new role, a new set of lines, one who attempts to return to his ontological state of freedom, uninfluenced, uncompromised, willing to make his own choices despite any form of direction.

1. Sprigge, T. L. S., Theories of Existence (England: Penguin Books, 1984) 138.
2. Rothman, William, Keane , Marian , Reading Cavell's The World Viewed: A Philosophical Perspective on Film (Michigan: Wayne State University Press, 2000) 17.
3. Sartre, Jean-Paul, Existentialism and Humanism (UK: Methuen Publishing Ltd, 2007)
4. (Accessed 1st January 2013)
5. (Accessed 1st January 2013)
6. Lucie-Smith, Edward, Movements in art since 1945, New Revised Edition (London: Thames and Hudson, 1984) 9.
7. Ashton, Dore, The New York School: A Cultural Reckoning (London: Penguin, 1972) 181.
8. Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm, Human, All Too Human (U of  Nebraska Press, 1996) 174.
9. Nietzsche, Friedrich Wilhelm, Human, All Too Human (U of  Nebraska Press, 1996) 175.
10. (Accessed 5th November 2011)
11. Tarkovsky, Andrey, Sculpting in Time (USA: University of Texas Press, 1989)
12. Boule, Jean-Pierre, McCaffrey, Edna, Existentialism and Contemporary Cinema: A Sartrean Perspective (US: Berghahn Books, 2011)