Ready for my Next Self Display: A Spoken Text.
Asta Nielsen is not only a silent movie star but also a queen of melodrama. Like her, I started as a stage actress before I went in front of a film camera.
I want to talk about why Asta Nielsen has been important for my own performance work. It’s not just about me. I hope to open up to a broader consideration of performance in experimental film and theater.
For me, there are two enemies of film and theater:
1. The quest for absolute authenticity. What I hate is when a director (a bad or a lazy one) gives the direction, “Be yourself.” I hate this director’s order, which demands the so-called authentic feeling on stage or set. I have never understood this stupid request and have always answered with Mae West’s response: “Be yourself.” “But which one?”
2. Transitions from one of the character’s decisions to the next that are prepared, explained, and psychological. I have always believed in Gilles Deleuze’s idea that a scene should start in the middle – like a racing car at full speed – not with gentle preparation or post-processing.
Silent movies and melodrama have often helped me to develop an aesthetics for stage and film, one which allows me to come up with my own useable or suitable translation of Bertolt Brecht’s notion of epic theater. The intertitles in silent movies remind me of an early strategy in epic theater. Brecht lent intertitles an epic function in order to reduce the suspense at the level of content. The goal was to lead an audience not to desire narrative development in the play; he wanted to lead the audience’s interest more to the modality–meaning the manner or method– with which the action will be advanced.
I’ve always loved this, because I’ve never trusted the pure narrative as the only way of storytelling.
Furthermore, Brecht divorces or separates the word from the actor's movements. Silent movie divorces the word and language from the body, as well, and thereby separates the commonly merged units in the illusionistic stage, film, and artwork. Just like in silent movies, Brecht composes a theory of gestures, which is considerably based on disruption. (This is also the condition of cinematic montage). This disruption is in turn the heart of epic theater. In “Der Dreigroschenprozess” Brecht emphasizes that “the language does not matter. We have to separate the language from the gesture and the facial expression. Gesture and facial expression matters.”
The melodramatic gesture in itself – abstracted from its context – has always inspired me when I'm constructing a character. I was trained in theater in the GDR according to the Brechtian method and worked with a number of directors who made very strong aesthetic statements against the naturalistic use of language. I continued in this tradition in my own projects, as director and member of the artist collective CHEAP. But, strangely, it was very late – namely in 2007, when I was making a film with Bruce LaBruce where I played a silent movie star – that I came to understand how this division between word and gesture in silent movie had been and could be relevant for my work.
After shooting The Raspberry Reich with LaBruce in 2002, in which my character constantly shouts orders, delivers speeches, and just never shuts up, it was a wonderful private joke between him and me that he would amputate my voice and cast me as a silent movie character in his next film. While I was preparing for my part as Hella Bent in Otto, or Up With Dead People – my scenes were all shot on 16mm – I confronted the fact that my voice was not only separated from my body, but was subtracted from my performance. I was sitting at home, crying because I felt bereft of all the well-known, well trained, and dependable tools of my trade. After a while of wallowing in melodramatic despair, I slowly started to understand how this painful subtraction of my voice opened up other possibilities for performing.
“Subtraction,” with the prefix “sub” could suggest by association that we work “subcutaneously” – not that the result becomes smaller, but quite the opposite; it opens up more possibilities, it taps into different places.
As I have come to understand from the work of Italian film and theater director Carmelo Bene – who also worked with subtraction– something different happens: the body ultimately breaks through the text, the body expands beyond words.
The idea of a subtraction that results in an expansive body led me back to Asta Nielsen. I began to study her. I began to steal from her. I examined her rhythm almost mathematically. I tried to understand what the relationship was between her body and space. By watching her, I was also looking for my own body, my own gestures, and I realized what a very special relationship she had between casualness and inevitability. First of all, she takes so much space and time for her silent entrances, so that the statement she makes is not just supported by a gesture. No, even more, she transforms the entrance into an entire story of its own.
I love Asta Nielsen’s love of self-display.
Her performance opens up the classic feminist perspective, that the woman could only be visible in front of a camera as a spectacle and fetish object. Asta Nielsen proves that the woman in movement in front of the camera is – even though perhaps fetishized – definitely the agent of action. This kind of fetishization of the female body offers two possibilities of display: as a spectacle and as an agent of the action.
And yes, what could be more useful than the freedom of exhibitionistic performance in order to savor the glances one receives. The spectators sit in the audience precisely in order to see this exhibitionism; that’s the reason why they are there in the dark. Sexy.
Asta Nielsen’s body is – as many people have described it – truly an eroticized body. Her self-eroticized body is a self-confident body. She is the bearer of an idea and not just a bearer of her self or her shoes.
I realized that Asta Nielsen uses rhythm as a subtext. Pure rhythm is free from psychological interpretation. Just to explain a little bit: in acting schools in Germany – even in the former East Germany - they train you to develop a subtext, which is built out of the text. This text is primarily motivated by psychological reasons in order to direct and lend meaning to your actions on stage and to the transitions from one state or situation to the next. So the beauty of pure rhythm is lost.
But Asta Nielsen goes further than this: her rhythm is more than a rhythmification of the body in space, because she constitutes the body. So the body itself becomes the rhythm of the scene. The tempo of her movements is conducted like in a musical score. That also includes the desire to hold a pose or gesture for an extended period of time, not resembling real time.
I wanted to try some of these ideas out on set. And I found myself in a wonderful situation on the set of LaBruce’s Otto. Due to my voice being amputated, I – not the director and not the camera – could set the rhythm for the scene. It was the pure rhythm of, for example, counting three times a second until my eyes were ready to open after I lifted my head or the pure rhythm of a pose held “too long” until I decide to “cut” to a quick unexpected movement. It felt as if I were conducting the camera, as if I were determining the montage. And because I had this feeling of control, I could extract from the camera a feeling of intimacy. A beautiful love affair.
I felt ready for my next self-display, whether on stage or screen.
Note: The images are my reworking of stills from Bruce LaBruce's Otto, or Up With Dead People (2008)