Thursday, August 17, 2017

On being small

Twice a year when I was a boy my mother would bounce me out of school for the morning and take me into Paris on the train to see an old man who would make me take all my clothes off and cup my dick and balls. My paediatrician (for this was the old man I humorously painted as a sex pervert in the previous sentence!), would run other tests besides: height, weight, and a series of X-rays designed to see if my bone age had increased at all since the last visit. My height and weight would then be tracked on a graph, where they ran comically under the average for a boy of my age, and the X-rays would be checked by the doctor just before the genital check-up. The cock and balls test - which took the form of a humiliating weighing-by-hand - was intended to see if my puberty was anywhere around the corner. (It never was.) The doctor would then ask me if I was eating enough, and my mother would ask him for a rough estimate as to what height I might reach as an adult; the doctor would then give a lugubrious assessment of my chances of attaining even a slightly normal height, and my mum would take me for a hot chocolate to cheer me up.

I was a preposterously, hilariously small child. When I started high school a couple of months short of my eleventh birthday, I weighed a little under 3 stone - or, to put it another way, twice what my son weighed when he was exactly two. I'm not sure I noticed that I was small until high school: until then, everyone had been small, as we were all children. In high school though, there were actual giants - kids of 14 or 15 who were wildly tall and gangly, who might come and steal your tennis ball at any minute and throw it onto the school roof - or who might, in the case of one not especially bright senior, come up to you roughly once a week and say, "Hey, uh [snigger], guess what - you've come to the wrong school... [guffaw] - the primary school's over the road!"

Being small is funny, because you forget you're small most of the time, and it's only other people who remind you. In this it's like being gay or having a spot on your nose. For you, it's completely routine to walk around at this height you know so well and have known since, let's face it, the age of five: your natural view of people is up their nostrils, and this is how things have always been. You know, factually speaking, that you are small - but it doesn't enter into your interactions with people to the extent that it enters theirs with you. That's why when people used to let slip how small I was, as if it were a terrible secret that everybody was keeping from me in a Henry James novella, it could be so bruising. My twin sister shot up one summer, and afterwards at term time a friend of the family said to her, in front of me, "Haven't you grown!" - and then, realising that I was right there and that something had to be said to me if only for the sake of conversational logic: "Not you obviously Caspar, you're still the same."

There was a weird sense behind people's comments that I had somehow, obscurely, disappointed them - or even, at times, that I was a little embarrassing. I think my smallness used to irk people when I was 14 or so, and fond of talking about books I had read, in my still very high-pitched voice. The fact that I was the opposite of shy probably contributed to that irritation: imagining a miniature, perky 14 year-old right now I shouldn't wonder if you too, dear reader, aren't somewhat annoyed.

Mostly I played the part, and the jokes and jabs I received about my height were meant and taken in good spirit. It was fine to acknowledge my smallness if you could get in a good uppercut. Once when I was 13 or so my pals and I were sitting around talking about mad stuff that we used to believe when we were much younger, the tooth fairy and all that. I said, "Yes, when I was little..." and a friend was so quick to interject, "Was?" and earn a well-deserved group laugh, that even as I went hot all over I couldn't deny him his moment. Nevertheless I did think that someone who had a more feeble constitution might have had a rougher time of it than me.

Some other humiliations, off the top of my head. For one term, in P.E., we did wrestling, and everyone had to pair up with a few people who were their own weight in order to fight. The boy who was put with me, who was a dear friend, was also small, but weighed close to a stone more than me. Once, when I was about 15 I think, a McDonalds employee gave me a balloon, while my brother and sister stifled howls of laughter. Had she thought I was actually 5? We returned to the same McDonalds a few months later, and I spotted the same woman doing her rounds, going about the restaurant and giving small children badges and toys. I hid in the bathroom until I was certain she had gone. On yet another occasion, I inadvertently made all my friends miss out on seeing the film Leon, because I couldn't get in: it was a 12 certificate and I was fifteen. Friends who had already paid for their ticket before I got denied kindly went back via the kiosk and got refunds, and we sat in the park for a couple of hours, pretending that our day hadn't been ruined.

That selflessness, the kindness I received on occasions like that, shows you that I got off lightly. Other children might have been tormented. Partly I was lucky to go to a school full of kind, thoughtful kids; partly, I think, I built up a character to fit the size, so that I was virtually unbulliable. No-one wants to hit someone radically smaller than them, to punch down quite literally. It was in my character that I got away with wise-cracks, and my acting-up was smiled upon. This is the aspect of my smallness that has stayed with me most - the clowning to be noticed; the way I made my weaknesses into sport. At parties I would slow-dance with the tallest girl in the class while standing on a chair.

Alongside all of this, I remember being afraid a lot of the time. I was always a timorous boy, but I think my size made me especially frightened of danger, of coming to some sort of harm, of being physically unable to defend or save myself. I still have that; it lives in your bones, that feeling that the world could crush you, that you are a miniature guest living at everyone else's pleasure; that you don't own or command anything. I believe I still defer to people, still entrust myself to them, blindly almost - and still seek friendships with protecting people, who are stronger and better able to cope. Twinned with this fragility I felt was surely my sexuality - which, given that puberty eventually deigned to visit me at the age of sixteen, I hadn't had much opportunity to explore. People say that you're born gay and I wouldn't want to contradict that in any way; but before I really considered my attraction to men I knew my difference, my sensitivity, and I sought the company of girls, not merely because of my sexuality and the common subject of boys, but because girls were so much more gentle and considerate, and I was often physically daunted by the boys in school. I believe that my sexuality was there from the start, yes, but was exacerbated by my smallness, which set me apart and made me devise strategies.

I deluded myself about my height. I developed a strange conviction, which helped me cope at times, that even though I was so small, my age could be read on my face; no-one who interacted with me could doubt that I was twelve. Now, looking at photos of me at twelve, I see a seven-year-old, and wonder how exactly I imagined that I conveyed my true age to people. The truth in my eyes? I must have been a little mad at times.

Being small stays with you. Even after you've grown - I'm hardly a giant now, but my height mostly goes unremarked upon - the sense of yourself as a small person remains, is part of your identity. Once, earlier this year, a person online was surprised to discover that I'm below the average height: he had thought from my behaviour, I suppose, that I was tall. This astonished me, because I feel everything I do conveys my tininess; I still have the sense of being dust in the world, floating about and landing here and there; still, I make the case for myself every day, striving to be noticed and heard, to turn my failures and oddity into something funny and recognisable. It's a question of perspective.

Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Directors' Cuts

On the popular social media website I mused yesterday that the hair of David Lynch deserves to earn more plaudits. If you look up reviews of his films, by such critics as Anthony Lane or Peter Bradshaw, you will note with bafflement that the subject of Lynch's perfectly coiffed locks is never addressed, when of course this is one of the most important things about him.

The comments soon drew a hitherto un-guessed-at swell of fervent replies from the denizens of Film Twitter, chiming in with their agreement about the wonders of Lynch's follicles. "It's like the sea, it's like ice cream," offered one tweeter on the subject of Lynch's hair. "He has damn rock star and I love it/want it," said another. "When he runs his fingers through his quiff in The Life of Art it doesn't even look sticky," swooned a third. "What *does* Lynch use in his hair," pondered a serious critic, adding: "It doesn't seem stiff at all, even with that structure."

Indeed. Lynch's hair has only got undeniably better with age, just as his later work as a film director has silenced those who might have deemed his earlier films somewhat sketchy. Here is the work of a master: rich, silky tresses that surely emanate a pleasingly peppery aroma; hair with direction, full of ideas; gorgeous locks with a magnificent silvery hue, tumbling elegantly into one another, giving the viewer so much to wonder at and feed on. Lynch's hair in his middle period, around the time of Wild At Heart, was certainly of a good quality - but he has only gone on to confirm that promise, and come good on everything of which he was capable.

What other directors have good hair, I wondered, unleashing yet more replies from critics and plebs alike, championing their favourite filmmaker barnets. This shows that there is a hunger for this subject to be discussed; it's frankly astonishing that we should have waited so long to shine a light on the matter.

In my original post I argued that Sofia Coppola and Ava DuVernay are contenders - Coppola for her elegant, understated, almost effortlessly beautiful hair, full of delicate texture; DuVernay for her distinctive braids, swept up into a magnificent nest that then cascades down around her, framing her face to give it real allure. Reconsidering these two, I will keep DuVernay for my top 10 but leave Coppola aside, purely because while her hair is undeniably classy, maybe not enough is happening there.

Agnes Varda and Jim Jarmusch drew the most write-ins on Twitter. "Iconic" is the word most used to describe Varda's work with her hair, both back in the day and now. Her style is affecting and lacking in belligerence: you recognise its quality because it simply is. Likewise, Jarmusch's hair is a statement: it speaks of rock music and poetry; it shouts out to Rimbaud and punk. Volume is key here, like Lynch except electrocuted.

I had to reject write-ins for Spike Lee (appealingly brash and bold but too dry), Cary Fukunaga (too slick) and George Lucas, whose distinctive shock of hair found one admirer and one passionate detractor ("It looks like a loaf of bread"). I also decided not to allow directors who were just as famous as actors, so Warren Beatty didn't make the cut, 'Shampoo' puns be damned.

I've decided to include Xavier Dolan, whose pioneering work in hair makes him the head of a new generation including such exciting directors as Katell Quillévéré. This new set of directors, which also includes Tomasz Waszilewski (who did not make the top ten but whose career we will continue to follow with great interest) draw on the work of their predecessors while showing exciting new directions for hair to go in.

Some more rejections: Michel Franco (too divisive); John Waters (original in its lankiness but ultimately unsettling); John Carpenter (scary). Among the gays, Almodovar's hair started out as a bold riot but has become gradually softer and more touching, and Lisa Cholodenko's is pleasingly shaggy and teenage - but neither break the top 10. Near-misses: Julie Dash, for her beautiful, totally underrated melee of golden curls, Kathryn Bigelow for her regal, sleek and rewarding style, and David Cronenberg, whose wonderful swish of grey completes the Jarmusch-Lynch trifecta of older American indie statesmen. I salute J.J. Abrams for the vigour and charm of his hairstyle, but what he produces is ultimately too mainstream to earn a place here.

Thomas Vinterberg earns a spot on the list for his surprisingly sunny hair, like a Californian dream; of all the directors, Vinterberg's is most at odds with his work, leading one to think he might make a delicious indie drama with Reese Witherspoon one day. Jane Campion was a popular candidate on Twitter, for her hair that, on the contrary, presents an encapsulation of her onscreen work: beautiful, brave, slightly weird, and long. Campion also gets points, as does Dolan, for filming hair so well: consider Whishaw in Bright Star, or Holly Hunter in Top of the Lake. This is a master.

We round off our list with Maya Deren - avant but warm and approachable - and Jean Cocteau, whose wonderfully rebellious hair must surely have influenced generations. Born a full 100 years before Dolan, he shows us that flair and ambition are everything.

The Top Ten

David Lynch

Related image

Agnes Varda

Jim Jarmusch

Xavier Dolan

Ava DuVernay

Jane Campion

Thomas Vinterberg

Katell Quillévéré

Maya Deren

Jean Cocteau

Wednesday, April 26, 2017

Things I Would Rather Do Than Go To The Cinema To Watch Kingsman 2

  • Follow Lin-Manuel Miranda on Twitter
  • Go to a meat restaurant and dare some male friends to order the big meat platter too if they're man enough, the one with all the ribs and wings
  • Sit my not-quite-3-year-old son down for a chat about how the world is actually quite a terrible and terrifying place, and I'm not sure what I'm doing, and he has to understand that I'm making it all up as I go along, and I don't have the answers, he can't rely on me, he has to question everything, do you hear me, everything
  • Have another crack at Infinite Jest
  • Do my work commute on my knees, arriving at 10.47 with bloodied trousers and a winning smile
  • Go on Carpool Karaoke and do Hotline Bling, and then find out that Drake is a surprise guest, and then do One Dance and high-five each other
  • See my complete Grindr interactions hacked and uploaded onto an easily accessible Tumblr with amusing captions for the photos
  • 100 press-ups in a London park, very early in the morning, above a dog turd, while a personal trainer who did a stint in the army shouts, "Push up, up, OK AND NOW DOWN, SMELL THE SHIT, DOWN, DOWN, SMELL IT, OK back up again mate"
  • Write a comment piece about how, even though I am of course leftwing myself, I find it impossible to vote for Labour because Jeremy Corbyn is unelectable
  • Re-enact my beating-up of 2010 for a BFI-sponsored short film 
  • Go on a lovely romantic date with Tyson Fury
  • Carve '4 real' into my arm with a razorblade for a Manic Street Preachers disco in Clapham
  • Meet Simon Amstell and tell him how much I enjoyed Carnage while chewing a Peperami, adding, "Want some? LOL. Do the bit from Buzzcocks where Preston walked out."
  • Watch every episode of Mrs Brown's Boys only for an editor at Vice to tell me that my article "I Watched Every Episode of Mrs Brown's Boys" has been bumped for a piece by Sam Kriss about why elderflower wine is Brexit. 
  • Ed Sheeran

Tuesday, February 7, 2017

Shantay, Bouvier

To say that Jackie is a camp classic in the making isn't to say that it's a bad film. It's even, at times, a very good film, particularly in its formal mastery which extends to the composition, camerawork, palette and score. But the qualities in Jackie are precisely what prevent it from being trash, thereby making it camp. The film's artifice and mannerisms, its purposeful vulgarity and body horror, its quotable bon mots, its impish delight in tearing down institutions, and last but not least the huge female performance at its centre, make it, at least in this viewer's eyes, a bona fide gay trip.

Jackie is a film about a woman struggling to keep alive her public image and uphold the carefully constructed idea of the American fairytale. Jackie Kennedy's turmoil in the days after the assassination of JFK, then, becomes almost a pretext for a revisionist disquisition on femininity, sexuality, motherhood. The film does not pretend to show the real woman: rather, in a series of fragmented vignettes, it shows us how the figure of Jackie Kennedy responds to a series of situations. This gives us a sense of a woman always on show, and banishes any attempt at psychological verisimilitude. Hand in hand with this, the institution that Jackie Kennedy was the smiling face of, the White House, is revisited as a sort of prison, with its cavernous rooms and impersonal fittings. This betrays on the part of the filmmakers a somewhat malicious streak, which takes an irreverent pleasure in revisiting and despoiling American iconography. This approach is a cousin to queer readings of history and womanhood, which have traditionally subverted positions of power.

The film's jittering, frantic rhythms, often accompanied by a feverish score by Mica Levi, augment the sense of unreality. Many of the edits between scenes cut off whole sentences as they jump to another scene merely seconds later: this presents us with a fragmented look at a character, and forbids us to see Jackie on a sincere, emotional level; the movie is not about interiority. Some of the editing is so sharp that it becomes almost funny, which makes the experience of watching it more pleasurable and again distances the viewer from an earnest reading of it.

Meanwhile, Jackie positively revels in blood and mud and body horror. Watching an ersatz Jackie Kennedy wipe blood off her face - and wipe it very badly, so that she is as much wiping blood over her face as she is removing it - is at once horrifying, and shriekingly camp, as it is very hard to take seriously. This is the blood and brains of the legendary president John F. Kennedy! The whole scene is bound up in an attempt to maintain image and promote her femininity: it is played as a grotesque reversal of another scene in which Jackie prepares for an event in front of the mirror. You could compare it to a defeated Glenn Close removing her make-up at the end of Les Liaisions Dangereuses, except it lurches into outright gore. Another scene of Jackie escaping a political retinue to charge through a muddy graveyard in her high heels plays on the same level, dirtying and dragging the pristine image until its ironies feel pointed and a little hysterical.

Natalie Portman's incarnation of Jackie Kennedy is straight-up drag, let's say it. A full-blown performance that isn't afraid to tip into badness and frequently does, it relies on some astoundingly expressionist tics and mannerisms, and gives us a voice absolutely crying out for drunken mimicry. There are many scenes in which Portman's deliciously over-the-top accent sounds exactly like the gay icon Little Edie, from the Maysles' brothers' camp classic Grey Gardens. Of course, Little Edie was a cousin of Jacqueline Bouvier, so Portman's accent could be spot-on, but the parallel once set is there to stay: and so the White House becomes a sort of grey garden for this woman whose best days are behind her and is struggling to show face to someone seeking to document her. This level of meta-textuality is, in the words of drag queen Latrice Royale, high drag, darling, high drag.

Portman's Jackie, with her wicked accent and her withering put-downs for the ages, joins a gallery of flawed but strong women seeking to control their image and at once be liberated, within the shackles of their gender. Little Edie, Judy Garland, Joan Crawford, Faye-Dunaway-as-Joan-Crawford: these are the points of reference for this studied, but certainly vampish performance. The scene where Portman takes a deep puff on a cigarette before saying "and I don't smoke", and another scene in which she elegantly slurs, "only crass and stupid people commit suicide", have all the lazy zing you could possibly require. Gays flock to this sort of performance because it reflects back to them an identity that is both a gift and a curse, something to dream of and fear: the idea of playing with identity like that is queer in the extreme. (The camp doesn't stop at Portman's performance: Peter Sarsgaard's reading of the line "we're just the beautiful people!" should become legendary if there is any justice, and Jackie's interior decoration adviser is played by Richard E. Grant for crying out loud.) The cherry on the cake is an extended central sequence in which Jackie tries on a succession of evening gowns while smoking, popping pills and getting wrecked, to the sound of the original Broadway recording of 'Camelot'. I searched for John Waters in the credits but he wasn't there.

Jackie isn't only these things. It is also an extremely pointed and timely decimation of the dream that America sells to the world, a critique of the supposed righteousness of the presidency. To see Jackie Kennedy talk about JFK's predecessors in the White House, for instance, is to be reminded of its current incumbent, who is set upon devaluing the presidency to a low never seen before. But the central quality of Jackie for this viewer at least and, I hope, for drag queens across the world for years to come, is the film's playfulness, its artifice, its some-time staleness, its vulgarity, its heightened performativity, in short its prevailing if inadvertent fabulousness. Grab a Martini and your loudest fag pal, and hie thee to a shriek-along Jackie extravaganza!

Thursday, January 12, 2017

Money Shot: Towards a Representation of the Male Orgasm Onscreen

Whereas the most famous female orgasm onscreen is a fake one (Meg Ryan, in When Harry Met Sally), arguably the most famous male orgasm in cinema is a joke one: Kevin Kline, in A Fish Called Wanda. It's hard to think of any representations of the male orgasm onscreen at all, meaning that Kline's preposterous cumface (which you can find on YouTube in a clip called "Funniest Orgasm Ever") takes the top spot. Kline plays Otto, a smug, vainglorious and aggressive buffoon, whose preposterous grimace at point of climax is mined for laughs and underlines his ridiculousness and self-importance.

It isn't that men don't orgasm in movies - I'm sure I recall various grunts and moans from male actors in all the sex scenes I've seen, indicating pleasure of sorts - but in most cases the camera is trained on the woman's face, to show her expression of all-consuming delight. In The Big Easy, for instance, Ellen Barkin is reduced to mush with a few minutes of fingering from Dennis Quaid, while in Rust and Bone, the camera stays on Marion Cotillard for the sex scene, playing an amputee who gets fucked back to life in a few cursory missionary thrusts from Matthias Schoenaerts. The implication, I think, is that to be shown at orgasm is to display your vulnerability: therefore, these scenes represent an act of power over the women by the men, who are able to find the key to their moment of powerlessness. To flip the switch would mean casting men as submissive, since to orgasm is to lose control, make yourself defenseless.

Supporting this idea: an interview of Xavier Dolan in December 2016 by Vulture magazine, in which he is asked about his lack of inhibition, for a sex scene in I Killed My Mother, in which he bottoms. This shows that sex is still rigidly coded, perceived as an act of dominance, of doer and done-to, and that to be marked as the receiver of pleasure is to be stripped of your power. One onscreen male orgasm, that of Louis Garrel in Bernardo Bertolucci's The Dreamers, backs this up. Garrel plays a teenager caught up in a game of sexual daredevil with his sister (Eva Green) and an American visitor (Michael Pitt); his orgasm comes when his sister browbeats him into masturbating in front of them, and the scene shows that she is using power over him, making him retreat into a private sphere and display his secret self.

In certain gay films this imbalance, this actually rather ludicrous and harmful misapplication of antiquated sexual roles, can be redressed, although as we saw with the Dolan interview, ideas of dominance cross over into homosexual representations. Stranger By The Lake is a rare film to show male orgasm, although the film does it in a couple of ways - once with an actual cumshot, and on another occasion with a discreetly lit shot of two men cumming together, silhouetted against the night as it falls around them. In Brokeback Mountain, whose lone sex scene (one less than Annie Proulx managed in her short story) I only dimly remember, I believe the act is shown as a succession of gestures, fumblings and thrusts, rather than dwelling on a facial expression of pleasure or surrendering of a body to throes. Again, this is a nonsense: in the original short story, the cowboys' connection is primal and deeply sexual, with Jake telling Ennis at one point how much better it is with him. When Proulx's cowboys rush off together, abandoning Ennis's wife, it's because they are overcome by their desire, and Proulx sweetly talks of them "jouncing" a bed together. Scenes depicting this joint surrender to ardour and pleasure together would give a better idea of what connects the men than the ludicrous scenes of them arguing by a river like two old queens. But again: showing that racking physical transport, the visual depiction of vulnerability, the complicity and sweet innocence of cumming, would mark these men out as not manly, and I don't think an actor in Hollywood would take the role.

The Spanish film 10.000 km by Carlos Marques-Marcet provides a thrilling counter-example, starting with a long and terrifically well acted and choreographed scene that culminates in sexual intercourse between the protagonists. The camera remains with the man and woman as they talk and gradually give over to sex, building up progressively to pleasure felt by both but an orgasm that conspicuously judders through the man, as his girlfriend rides him. It's a clearly intentional and feminist decision, which shows us in a realistic and warm way a man who is deeply connected to his partner, and - as couples are - willing to surrender to a moment in her company. Their smiles and laughter in the moments afterwards, as the camera stays on them, show the well-crafted authenticity of the moment, and establish a connection that will be of great emotional importance to the rest of the film, as their bond begins to crumble.

Plenty of other scenes from other films underline what an outlier this film is in cinema. Certainly in films depicting heterosexual intercourse, the man retains a facade of power throughout sex in most instances, and the exceptions are rare. The extraordinary rarity of cunnilingus on film, compared to its (as I understand it) common practice among heterosexual companies, corroborates this sense that films are unwilling to show men in a submissive role. In 2016, A Bigger Splash's best sex scene involved Matthias Schoenaerts going down on Tilda Swinton, which goes hand in hand with his easy sexuality, his depiction as a modern, fluid man. Before that, I recall The Cooler (which I admit I haven't seen) meeting with extraordinary reactions in 2003 for, apparently, including a scene where William H. Macy eats out Maria Bello. This sense that going down on a woman would represent a loss of face to a man crosses over to most sex scenes in Hollywood, or even in Europe, where women are constantly depicted taking pleasure from vaginal intercourse unpreceded by foreplay. Needless to say, cinema is replete with blowjobs, from Pretty Woman to Casino via The Man Who Wasn't There.

Paul Verhoeven's Elle, out in the UK this year, gives the lie to these ideas, in a sex scene that is gutsy and liberating, as Michele, played by Isabelle Huppert, is overcome by a kind of auto-delayed orgasm that she takes pleasure in on her own, after the act, away from the man, and whose seismic seizures freak out her abusive lover, turning the tables on his twisted acts. In this instant, we see that female pleasure is its own beast, is not submitted to or bound by male power. It's a sharp and beautiful retort.

Meanwhile, we're still waiting for a commensurate depiction of male sexual ecstasy onscreen, in not just one but several, many films, films which could show men divesting themselves of inhibitions, self-awareness, and hideous, defeating power roles. Films which might show kind, sexy, good men generously giving and happily receiving sexual gratification; willingly abandoning themselves to a moment of true defenselessness; charmingly and with no afterthought displaying the full expression of that gladly seized vulnerability.

Thursday, January 5, 2017

Newsletter 2: Sir Ian Sir Ian Sir Ian WIZARD YOU SHALL NOT PASS Sir Ian Sir Ian Sir Ian

(This is a reprint of the second newsletter I sent. You can subscribe to it here:

What do we mean by 'good' acting? It's a subject that you could write a whole book on, and PERHAPS I DAMN WILL, but in the meantime here are a few thoughts.

Acting is easy, and everyone can do it. It's obvious to say, but every time you tell a lie you are acting, and even your day to day behaviour, while truthful, contains elements of performance. You choose to heighten certain words, to pause, to exaggerate, to use your body language for emphasis, in order to make your character manifest. Once, when I was at school, a boy in my class changed his walk almost from one day to the next. He had a boyish walk and changed it to a perfectly ridiculous, would-be cool saunter, which came with a stride that was too long and stretched his legs to visibly preposterous effect. But I suppose he wanted to convey something.

This is to say that everyone makes a big fuss over acting, which seems a bit hilarious to me. A lot of people are confused about acting: is it good acting if you notice it? Is the acting good if it's visible and you can pick up on what the performer is doing? I'm reminded of boys who went to a single sex boarding school and spend years afterwards wondering what girls are like, what drives them, how they tick. They're the same as you, dummy!

When I used to act, as a kid, the most important thing you could do to help me play a scene was tell me where to stand and how loudly to talk. When I was 10 I played a scene too big and the director told me to take it down a level, and I said I was worried the camera wouldn't pick it up, and the whole crew laughed at me - a big roar, rippling from sound guy through to best boy. But actors need to be told what they're acting for: where to look, stand, how fast to move, and how the camera is picking all of these things up. Every actor should look through the lens before each scene, to see what space they are performing in, and what comes across, in order to modulate their tone.

Let's take it that these are the basics of acting; the ground zero of plausibility and simplicity: being heard, being seen, saying the lines correctly. On top of this, add a basic comfort with the costume you have been given and chemistry with your fellow actors. This is the least, a minimum requirement - what you might expect of someone like, say, Keira Knightley after years in the business. What then adds excellence to these considerations?

Seven out of the last ten Oscars for best actor have gone to actors playing people who really existed. 'Only' four out of the last ten Oscars for best actress have gone to imitations of real people. It's both obvious and a commonplace to observe that these performances are often easier to interpret than purely invented characters, so that people who are foxed by the idea of acting can measure them against a known grade of verisimilitude. In my view, this sort of acting is fine, and actually sort of fascinating in many ways, and the ability to do it well is rather extraordinary, as it bespeaks an ability to subsume your own character, and behave with a truly different set of tics and mannerisms. But Meryl Streep's performance as Margaret Thatcher is nobody's favourite Meryl Streep performance, and Cate Blanchett's Katharine Hepburn is fun but not a patch on her Meredith Logue in The Talented Mr Ripley. In that film, her way of pushing her hair back is so perfectly self-conscious, and her line readings walk such a fine line between naivety and archness: it's like seeing a grain of sand blown into a glass balloon.

Blanchett is plausible, but she also does something different, which is to play on another level, or in a different register. Sometimes this is called overacting. But some of my favourite actors do something different, seem to bring fizz or punch from somewhere, which occasionally whips a film into shape.

One of my favourite performances this year is by Michael Barbieri in the film Little Men. Playing Tony, a young Latino kid from a less privileged family who dreams of making it to acting school, Barbieri for some reason chooses to play it like a young De Niro, with some quite stupendous line readings that aren't afraid to tip into badness. What makes the performance so much fun is that it's set in a pristine, elegant, perfectly controlled little film, a comedy of manners, a social satire, so that Barbieri's purposefully slurred words, his slouch, his playfulness, are almost at odds with the movie. But Ira Sachs has chosen to let him play it up like this, and it gives the film a significant boost, by giving his character a chance that the script cannot allow him. The film knows that this boy, though bright and charming and good, will amount to little, and cannot summon the reserves of privilege that his young friend (played with gentle melancholy by Theo Taplitz) has at his disposal: but Barbieri and Sacks lift Tony out of this impasse, by giving him such chances to shine in the viewer's eyes, by making him the magnetic focal point also for the film's shy desires. And, most importantly, the performance gives us pleasure: it's exciting to see someone try something, use his energy, and be so reckless.

Isabelle Huppert exhibits this fearlessness in her career choices rather than in her acting, which is much more controlled and calibrated than Barbieri's. But even she, in her two standout performances this year, does things that surprise, and take the viewer out of their presuppositions. The biggest shock in Things To Come comes when she utters a big, dramatic "yoohoo!!" at her ex-husband, frustrated when he cannot understand something: it's so fresh and funny, because it's the language of children, waving at you sarcastically, shouting, "Hey, wake up, dum-dum!" - but with the added hilarity that Huppert's character is a philosophy teacher, very measured and articulate, whose understanding of language is key to her concept of the world. Huppert throws these things in (watch her, for instance, delicately overplay a scene of slipping in muddy sand on a deserted beach while trying to find a signal on her mobile phone) because she is trying to take us out of our routine, trying to give something else to her performance. These jolts, these little nuggets of comedy or shocks of truth, serve to keep the audience on its toes. And again, it provokes pleasure.

My favourite thing is to see actors doing things. Any actor can recite lines, but I love to see actors talking while doing stuff. My favourite things I've seen actors do include: playing catch (the cast of Friends), climb a tree (Belmondo in Pierrot Le Fou), do the washing up (Sabine Azema and Pierre Arditi in Same Old Song), put flowers in a vase (Meryl Streep in The Hours), and cook an omelette (Stanley Tucci in Big Night). The things they do can be simple, but I derive pleasure out of seeing someone do these things easily, simply, while being a character; and I think that the idea of doing stuff is impressive, and gives us a sense of spectacle. Alden Ehrenreich does things in Hail, Caesar! - things of a different order (watching him use a strand of spaghetti as a lasso is one of the greatest joys in my life), but the idea is the same: to make the ordinary interesting, bring elements out of the everyday to underline them, and create pleasure.

In a sense, the best actors do the washing up with their words, make a spectacle out of that simplicity: language that we use all the time is played with by the best actors, rolled around in their mouths for fun, joy, to create something different. Jean-Pierre Leaud, Katharine Hepburn, Marlon Brando, Cary Grant, Denis Lavant, to name just a few: these are people who can play with a sentence, whose way of making something standard unusual elevates them into a level above pure verisimilitude. I like acting that underlines itself, and I like acting that plays, both in the sense of playing a game and of manipulating us.

I think we need to move away from worthy, realistic, 'good' performances - or, rather, make space for other sorts of performances. For instance, the best performance of all time is, factually speaking, John Goodman in The Big Lebowski: what he does is true but also absurd and ridiculous; vital and satirical; collaboration and deceit. John Goodman has never won an Oscar, and perhaps he will one day, for playing, I don't know, Oliver Hardy: but Walter Sobchak is the one who hums with life, who does something so necessary and good and nourishing. We need actors like this, who will take a risk, and take us away from reality, the better to make us appreciate the lives we have.

Newsletter 1: #Huppert2017

(This is a reprint of the the first newsletter I sent out. You can subscribe to it here:

I grew up in the same town as Isabelle Huppert. Ville d'Avray is a serenely pretty, slightly colourless place in the Parisian suburbs, between Paris and the more rarefied Versailles. Ville d'Avray joins Versailles by a quiet road that wends past lakes and through the forest, finally opening out onto grand tree-lined boulevards that lead to the Chateau. To get to Paris from Ville d'Avray, you drive through the heights of St. Cloud, where Marine Le Pen grew up in a private residence, and wind down to where the Seine circumscribes the city. Ville d'Avray was memorialised in painting by Corot in the 1860s and on film by Serge Bourguignon in the 1960s, in his film Les dimanches de Ville d'Avray. The town is quiet, a little haven from the lights of Paris, and its inhabitants are wealthy, white, educated, bourgeois, presumably right-wing. Walking home from school I would go past enormous stone houses with big wrought-iron fences, such as the one Isabelle Huppert grew up in, and they felt mysterious and forbidding.

Huppert understands her privilege, and her body of work sets out with an almost calculating precision to needle at, defile, and destroy her bourgeoisie. In Claude Chabrol's Madame Bovary, she conveys perfectly the gnawing sense of being stuck in an almost-place. Although Emma Bovary is of lowly stock, her aspiration to be better, to live more, to get to Paris at last, chimes with Huppert's recurring theme of a frustrated life. And Huppert, not for the first time, plays the mistress of the house, a big, foreign, daunting house that imprisons her within its codes. She does this in The Piano Teacher, too, leaning more into the perversion behind class systems - what Huppert does is not so much open the gates to the big house, but open them upon a sham: she shows the cruelty, the anguish, the screaming pain of the humans inhabiting these roles. Elfriede Jelinek, author of The Piano Teacher, and Michael Haneke, director of the film, are keen to work over the dislocation of the upper classes, the sense that they represent a crumbling caste, a totally vulnerable sect in a modern world they no longer own - and Huppert's performance fits into this, but she plays something else too, which is the soul of a woman. In The Piano Teacher, Huppert uses her body in an almost sacrificial way to locate something truly lost and damaged: this literal stripping away of artifice shows her decoding the role of the bourgeoise.

What is stunning about Isabelle Huppert's work is its artistic coherence. Time and again, although she has never written or directed a film, her work returns to these tropes. In Patrice Chereau's Gabrielle, as a woman trapped in a loveless marriage, in one of her best, most fully incarnated performances, Huppert has no agency, and to see her so impassive and wan, flushed with tears and misery, is to see her again chipping away at the edifice of bourgeois roles: her tears are a rebuke, a hot embarrassment, and mark her resistance of sorts to the prison she finds herself in.

What are a woman's choices? Isabelle Huppert is thrillingly in control of her own career, being one of the only actors in the world to create projects, to reach out to directors, to suggest writers; but she also submits fully to a director's creation, molding herself into their story. This paradox plays out in the very characters she plays, who are shaped by the way they resist, the way they choose, or on the contrary are sometimes defeated by their lack of control. She flirts with this idea in Hong Sang-Soo's playful and delicious In Another Country, where she plays a sort of theory, a lost woman in a world that isn't her own, playing out a series of hypotheses set by her director; and she rams it home in Claude Chabrol's Story of Women, in which her wonderfully liberated, care-free, entrepreneurial backstreet abortionist is brought to her knees by a society of men who see her breaking free of her role as a wife and mother.

In her sensational brace of films this year, Things To Come and Elle, Huppert comes back to this. How she got the roles, how she made them what they are, is crucial. Things To Come was originally written as a far more maudlin work, about a woman whose husband leaves her after 25 years together, at a time when her mother is dying, leaving her to consider her own future, career, love life, solitude and mortality. Huppert elected early on to play the role with a far greater lightness of touch than the director, Mia Hansen-Love, had anticipated, finding something almost perversely skittish or amused in her character at times. (Quick aside: Hansen-Love is from the same sort of world as Huppert: bookish, bourgeois, liberated; her father taught philosophy in the school I attended) For Elle, Huppert made herself available for the film from the start, even at a time when Paul Verhoeven was looking to cast other, more famous actors in the role: she clung on in, making the film viable finally because of her suppleness, so that she could play this perverse CEO whose response to her rape is to entrap her rapist in a sexual game of cat-and-mouse. Verhoeven admits that the creation of the character belongs to Huppert, such as a scene where she screamingly evicts someone from her house and continues screaming long after they have left. What we have seen this year is Huppert's decisions, her choices, coming to frame the women she plays: this gives them an added depth, and something off-kilter.

You could not simply say that she is her own auteur now: but something of her accrued experience, of the stories that she has made it her career to choose for forty years, has come to wash off on two of her best, most complex, most playful performances.