How Roman Polanski and Jonathan Demme Blur the Line Between Fiction and Reality

Two New Movies Celebrate the Art of Acting

Foregrounding a Vision: Emmanuelle Seigner and Mathieu Almaric in Roman Polanski’s ‘Venus in Fur.’
Courtesy of guy ferrandis
Foregrounding a Vision: Emmanuelle Seigner and Mathieu Almaric in Roman Polanski’s ‘Venus in Fur.’

By Ezra Glinter

Published August 10, 2014, issue of August 15, 2014.

(page 2 of 6)

You can probably understand Shandling’s confusion, and at this point might share it yourself. Here is one actor (Shandling) playing a fictionalized version of himself (Larry), interviewing another actor (Duchovny), who actually is playing himself. The setting is fictional, but it is also a fiction of a fiction, since the talk show situation it represents is also a performed routine. When Duchovny says that his joke was unscripted, is he breaking character or is this something he would say on a late-night show? When he starts to laugh, is he laughing as the actor playing a character on a sitcom or is he laughing as David Duchovny, a celebrity guest? The distinctions are never clear.

The scene, which didn’t air, wasn’t the show’s finest. Conversation drags, jokes fall flat and there’s a lot of awkwardness between Larry and his guest. Yet it’s uncanny to watch the exchange as it was shot, before it could be condensed into the funniest snippets. In a few minutes you see a fictional scenario come to life and then flicker in and out of existence as the actors fall in and out of character. The fragility of it makes the contrivance oddly visible, like a hallucination you know isn’t there but that you can see nonetheless. The talk show could pass for reality — and in a sense it’s as real as any late-night talk show might be — but it’s also invented, a reality conjured into existence out of thin air.

For actors, I imagine, such experiences must be commonplace. Their art is to transform themselves into fictional characters and to convince audiences of those characters’ reality. But for those of us who experience such metamorphoses only once they’re complete, viewing them in action reveals the sorcery we usually take for granted. Mostly we see the final product, and extra-fictional aspects stay outside the frame. Even in “The Larry Sanders Show” these moments are apparent only in deleted scenes and outtakes, not within the actual sitcom. But there are a few artists who make these kinds of transformations the subject of the work itself. When it’s done well it can be magical and also, sometimes, horrific.

In the 1981 movie “My Dinner With Andre,” directed by Louis Malle, Andre Gregory tells a story to his dinner partner, Wallace Shawn, about an acting workshop he led in Poland at the invitation of experimental theater director Jerzy Grotowski. At that time, Gregory was burned out and disillusioned with the theater: “Exercises meant nothing to me anymore; working on scenes from plays seemed ridiculous.” But he told Grotowski that if he could find “40 Jewish women who speak neither English nor French… and if these women could all play the trumpet or the harp, and if I could work in a forest, I’d come!”

Grotowski couldn’t find 40 Jewish women who all played the trumpet or the harp, but he did find 40 women and a few men who were all questioning the theater, played a musical instrument, and didn’t speak English. Also, he found a forest.

“Technically, the situation is a very interesting one,” Gregory tells Shawn. “Because if you find yourself in a forest with 40 people who don’t speak your language, then all your moorings are gone.” He continues:

What we’d do is just sit there and wait for someone to have an impulse to do something. Now in a way, that’s something like a theatrical improvisation… Except that in this type of improvisation… the theme is oneself. So you follow the same law of improvisation, which is to do whatever your impulse as the character tells you to do, but in this case, you are the character. So there’s no imaginary situation to hide behind, and there’s no other person to hide behind.

In other words, as Shakespeare once put it, life is the most important play of all.

While this kind of exercise may have had its roots in theater, it was also a means of introspection and self-knowledge — that is, a spiritual practice. In the 2013 documentary “Andre Gregory: Before and After Dinner,” directed by Gregory’s wife, Cindy Klein, Gregory compares Grotowski’s physical acting exercises to the breast-beating found in Jewish prayer, and he describes Grotowski’s goal as “trying to find the theater of God.” In “My Dinner With Andre” he tells Shawn that the experience resembled a return to childhood — an attempt to “play” as a child plays, without any pretext. Such para-theatrical exercises stressed the idea that the “self” is as much a construct as a fictional character, and they forced participants to reassemble that self from scratch. When we remove ourselves from our usual surroundings, who are we really, and whom might we become?

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