The Black Dahlia, L.A. noir and a not-so-brief musing on period acting

luminous dahlia I'm a huge fan of period L.A.

Doesn't really matter what the period is: turn of the century, '20s, Depression era, Dragnet era, I love looking at how this crazy city-that's-not-really-a-city came together because to me (and hang on, Easterners), Los Angeles is the quintessentially American city. There has always been an element of frontier thinking here, an anything-goes, Wild West, winner-take-all mentality. It's a new place (like America), it's a brash, commercial place (like America), it's a wildly creative place (like America) with little-to-no sense of perspective or respect for history (like America), and it's filled with an insane variety of people from somewhere else (like...oh, hell, you get the picture).

I'm also a huge fan of Brian De Palma, whom I think is a killer (no pun intended) reteller of stories: Phantom of the Paradise; Carrie; Blow Out; Dressed to Kill.

So it stood to reason The Black Dahlia would kick ass, right? De Palma + post-war L.A. + James Ellroy noir-a-liciousness = tasty treat for eyes, ears and brain.

Unfortunately (or not, for those of us without a bajillion dollars to tell stories), a show is ultimately only as good as its storytelling, and the storytelling in this case was hugely hampered by, well, the story, which (in all fairness to De Palma) had to be hell to unsnarl and bring to the screen, and the acting, which was dreadfully out of context.

I never understood acting and context until I started taking acting classes myself. I always thought it was ridiculous when people defended the typically British, outside-in school of acting over the typically American, inside-out, un-school. And the value of stage training seemed lost on me as well: what the hell good was stage training when most of the theatrically-trained actors you saw in movies from the 30's, 40's, 50's and even 60's seemed hammy & over the top? It seemed to me their training made them less believable, not more.

But film actors in earlier days hadn't figured out the technical skillset that film acting required. They were as lazy or arrogant about learning the new medium as modern, mostly young and exclusively film actors are about learning the fundamentals of craft.

Film acting, the good kind anyway, requires both. It demands presence, which is incredibly difficult to teach (some would say impossible), and, on a sliding scale, technical skill, which is relatively easy to teach to a willing student.

Now, there are plenty of minimally skilled actors who can blow you away onscreen because of their ability to let their insides be seen...if nothing else is required of them. But the value of stage work (and outside-in work in general) is that it increases the vocabulary of the body exponentially and, when you throw in the presence thing, results in the kinds of performances that can both live in the world that the film is creating and rise above it. (Think Ellen Burstyn in Alice Doesn't Live Here Anymore or Meryl Streep in just about anything.)

Period work in film (or on stage, really) has its own set of challenges. Because of course, our idea of what is period-appropriate is shaped largely by the movies themselves, not too many of us were around for the original thing if it happened much before the 1950s. But morés were different, language (both high and low) was different, If nothing else, garments and furnishings and food and noise levels were different. Yes, people are people and feelings are feelings, but the actions of the people and expression of the feelings is shaped by the era (and sometimes the foundation garment...or sudden lack thereof).

I realized why I was so disappointed within the first five minutes of The Black Dahlia: I had expectations of greatness based on the trailer, which was fantastic. But you can cut around an awful lot in a trailer, and just show the good stuff, highly photogenic people, made up to look just right in period clothing; stunning backdrops and design; evocative music.

Unfortunately, when the tricks are stripped away, you're left with a bunch of rookie players who, in this case, were not up to the game. I hope they see this film and either go back to school or to playing within their comfort zone.

Of course, what I really hope is that someone in power will get a fresh look at one of the go-to players and put her in the opening lineup...

xxx c

Photo by *YourGuide via Flickr, used under a Creative Commons license