March 25, 2014

Don't improvise in period movies

Got around to seeing American Hustle tonight, and liked it better than most new movies I see. One thing took me out of the moment several times, though -- the improv scenes.

In a period movie, actors should stick close to the script because they are unlikely to be able to improvise and maintain the period's authenticity on the fly. When the acting is more spur-of-the-moment, it will come from the actor's gut, which is tuned to the here-and-now.

There was a scene where Irving Rosenfeld asks "Really?" in a slightly flat and miffed voice, in response to someone else's ridiculous behavior. That's too specifically from the 2010s. At the end when Richie DiMaso does a mock performance of his namby-pamby boss, it's so over-the-top and laughing-at rather than laughing-with, that it felt more like a frat pack movie from the 21st century. Ditto the scene where DiMaso is trying to convince Edith to finally have sex, where the dialog sounds like it's from a doofus rom-com by Judd Apatow.

These and other scenes should have been in the outtakes -- wackiness ensues when the actors break character! When they're left in, it creates jarring shifts in tone, as though an actor who'd been speaking with an English accent switched to Noo Yawka for half a minute, then switched back to English (all for no apparent reason).

Improvising and wandering slightly outside of the character's range isn't that jarring. Like, maybe you're just seeing a slightly different and unexpected side of them in this scene. But anachronism is not so easy to suspend disbelief about -- it definitely does not belong to that period. If they turn on the radio in 1980 and it's playing Rihanna, that kills the verisimilitude.

It's even more baffling in American Hustle, where the costume, make-up, and production design has been so meticulously worked to make you believe you're looking in on a certain time and place. All it takes is a series of distinctively 21st-century improvs to throw that into doubt for the viewer.


  1. OT, on the slight chance you haven't seen this yet

    best moment: 2.55

  2. This post made me think. It's an interesting question what someone from a different era or culture would seem like in the First World in 2014, because he would have to be able to adapt to interact with these new people and integrate stimuli that are not prevalent in his era. Presumably, the closest thing to a 1980s cop personality etc. immersed in a 2014 milieu would be an emulation, underneath which some characteristic 2014 elements are retained.

  3. A lot of what is important is the illusion of period-accurate language. I write historical fiction and frequently have my editor and agent flag words and phrases that are authentic to the period, but feel modern. Other things, such as phrasing, that I know are modern, nobody seems to notice. My most recent book was set in 1676 Boston and of course you have to translate it into modern English. I wouldn't be capable of writing in that dialect, and it would be difficult reading if I did.

  4. yeah, that scene where Bradley Cooper pretends to hump the other guy doesn't seem like something you'd see in the 80s. Did guys back then go around pretending to be gay for laughs? I don't think they did, and would probably have been offended by it.

  5. I disagree. The obsession with getting period accurate details of clothing, physical settings, and vocabulary is a recent phenomenon.

    Most period pieces in Western literature and cinema were more concerned with aesthetics than historical accuracy. As far as I can tell, this fad took off in the 90's. In other words, in Agnostic's latest period of falling crime.

  6. > in the 80s. Did guys back then go around pretending to be gay for laughs?

    In South African high schools we did. 'Course mine was an all-boys school so we were freer to be crude.

  7. "that scene where Bradley Cooper pretends to hump the other guy doesn't seem like something you'd see in the 80s."

    That was another frat pack moment. Also took me out of it because he's a closeted homosexual in real life. (Why was there no chemistry between him and Amy Adams' character? That's why.)

    "Most period pieces in Western literature and cinema were more concerned with aesthetics than historical accuracy."

    What's aesthetic about Christian Bale improv-ing a miffed "Really?" or Bradley Cooper humping a dude? Nothing. In fact, these ad libs cause jarring disruptions in tone -- switching from the vibe circa 1980 to a totally alien one from circa 2010.

    Focus on what is said, not what allows you to fart off a dismissive internet comment. That was not the claim -- "Does, not, compute, details less than 100% a-cu-rate." No period piece will be totally accurate, because of language if nothing else.

    Rather, the claim was that when they shift from one period's style, tone, look-and-feel to that of another period, and then back again, and then back again, etc., it's hard for the brain to decide which period they're really going for. Is it supposed to be the original, or are they doing a contempo comedy/drama in period cosplay?

  8. Can you write about the following:

    -The increasing fascination with NCAA tournament bracket contests, with less attention being paid to the actual tournament. You're more likely to hear someone complain about making the wrong picks, than being disappointed that their favorite team lost.

    -The rise of the "fun run" in various forms: 5k races for a charity (or sometimes not) with some perversion such as costumes, mud, obstacles, paint, indoors in the dark, etc. Some of these don't even measure times, and everyone is a winner for participating. On one hand, I can see how this corresponds to the "special snowflake" syndrome, but on the other hand, these do seem like social, community bonding events, however silly.

    Also, you should watch and review the movie Her. The main character is a loser yet his romance with the AI is glorified. On the meta level, the movie is not very good (not original, realistic, or uplifting) and its popularity says a lot about modern day SWPLs.

  9. The running fad seems like it might be tied more inequality than cocooning - running took off in the 70s. "Face to Face" has equated it with cocooning, though - like using a stationary bike or weight machines, its obsessive, solitary activity.

  10. Specifically, I'm not sure why there has been an explosion, in the last year or so, of participation in 5ks. I'm don't know if this is a relevant factor or not, but most of the races are rather expensive - $50-100.

  11. Anonymous, your first point sounds a lot like the "fantasy" sports as well. Like, caring more about what your fantasy team is doing than your actual favorite team. Speaking of which, my fantasy baseball draft is tomorrow night...

  12. "cosplay" ---I hadn't heard of this word until a couple years ago, now I see it more frequently. Just looked it up...I see it's short for "costume play."

  13. "Did guys back then go around pretending to be gay for laughs? I don't think they did, and would probably have been offended by it."

    I don't see how that scene is much different than Bugs Bunny always humiliating Elmer Fudd by kissing him on the mouth (John Lennon also does that in Hard Day's Night). I asked a friend who went to high school in the 1970s, and he said that the Cooper/C.K. scene was recognizable rowdy behavior for that time. (Wolf of Wall Street has similar scenes for the 1980s)


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