Friday, July 3, 2009

S-S-S-Steely Intensity

The following column is reprinted from the July issue of Providence Monthly (including the stuff my youthful editors somehow deem necessary to leave out)

I Am Christian, See Me Seethe
by Scott Duhamel

One of the sideways compliments actors are often given by film nitcrits like myself is that he or she was so nimble and affecting that he or she just blended (exquisitely, of course) into the director’s overall vision. Or, that said actor or actress managed to meld into the time, the space, the fictional world, the misc-en-scene of said film, never knocking the viewer’s gaze off course, sublimating all that acting charm, talent, charisma, and magical hoo-ha in order to better convey or propel the filmmaker’s overriding intentions. Ain’t no way around it, film has been and will forever be a director’s medium, and sure, there are certain movies that benefit from a modulated performance, even a thoroughly subtle one, but outside of those that purport to be docudramas or cinema verite styled slice-of-lifers, even the unshowiest of acting turns can still be eye-grabbing or emotionally gripping: a few tight and prodding close-ups, a shift of physicality, the merest change of expression, the barely perceived flicker of the eyes can pack quite a wallop even when embedded within a deeply focused and impeccably composed frame.

All of this sprung to mind as I watched the always intriguing and sometimes controversial Christian Bale, going hard and deep with another of his grimmest facades, in the clickety-clack, heavy metal thunder of Terminator Salvation. The movie, a bleak and gray video game substitute for a predictable amusement park ride, is all set design with a virtual digitalized narrative (robo-cinema), a wash-out of a movie dressed up in faux apocalyptic visuals, accompanied by the never ending, irritating sounds of machinery grinding, whizzing, stomping, and shifting. Bale, hardened and scarred, sadly leaves the acting behind (and this is the kind of cyber sci-fi that desperately needs the warm blood of any sorta thespian, albeit B-movie eye-winker, drooling character guy, or ham-on-rye matinee type) ---he‘s like a skull with eyes, lost in the sharp glare of gleaming metal and the din of pop-goes-the-weasel explosions. Face it, that’s just not the full metal Christian Bale jacket that general audiences or Bale cultists want to see.

As one wise guy film maven put it to me, if there’s one thing that Christian Bale does to perfection it is Steely Intensity, but is Steely Intensity the one and only thing that Christian Bale actually does? (Haveta admit, all the heavy duty eye-acting in Terminator Salvation is done with, well, pure Steely Intensity. Of course, yup, his infamous on-set tantrum, an Internet smash, which was delivered with more blood and guts gusto that anything that winds up onscreen in the finished movie, it was indeed a rant delivered with, umm, true Steely Intensity. ) Bale forms an unusual modern day branch of the Brando/DeNiro method acting tree, alongside accent-bending, waist-shifting, facial-hair sprouting brethren like Sean Penn, Little Johnny Depp, and Benicio Del Toro; unusual because he is a Welsh-born English actor, and, like his aforementioned playmates, seemingly more intrigued in finding his inner Lou Costello rather than donning that tights left behind by Lawrence Olivier.

Like the DeNiro of old, Bale is known to tackle a role with full-fledged immersion, losing 60 plus pounds for Brad Anderson’s hardcore psychological thriller The Machinist (2004), subjecting himself to all types of jungle location rigors in Werner Herzog’s finely drawn Rescue Down (2006), and most obviously, chiseling himself into a gleaming slab of man meat as Patrick Batemen in Mary Harron’s outrĂ©, and much debated, American Psycho (2000) and then re-bulking into the weirdly acrobatic stolidity (and weirdly real life comic book physical approximation) of Bruce Wayne/Batman in Christopher Nolan’s Batman Begins (2005) and The Dark Knight (2008). It goes without saying (but I gotta say it), the actor fully inhabited all of these characters, particularly the two he’s most associated with (Batemen-Batman), with an in-yer-veins, absolutely shimmering, positively otherworldly dose of, umm, Steely Intensity.

Before the emergence of the ever-seething, perpetually intense, fully- coiled grown-up Bale on-screen persona, he made a bit of mark as an adolescent actor of some charm in both Newsies (1992) and Swing Kids (1993), after making a truly lasting impression (and demonstrating a then still unformed ability to go to the dark side) as the thirteen-year-old star of Steven Spielberg’s vastly underrated coming-of-age Chinese wartime effort, Empire of the Sun (1987), somehow even holding his own with notorious scene-stealer John Malkovich. Bale’s also deserves credit for memorable turns in Velvet Goldmine (1998)--- fan boyishly intense, Shaft (2000)—villainously intense , The Prestige (2006)---Victorian intense, 3:10 to Yuma (2007)---cowboy intense, and as two of the many faces of Bob Dylan in I’m Not There (2007)---hipper-than-hip intense.

Is Christian Bale fish or fowl, a legitimately charismatic big screen chameleon or a one trick pony? His career is only at mid-stage, with plenty of room for more mad dog frothing, for more spotlight self-flagellation, for more raw seething and anguished perplexity, and maybe (just maybe) a go at comedy or a (gulp) non-meta romantic lead. It’s difficult not to admire a guy who can function as the just-below-the-title star in two separate blockbusting, audience-pleasing, yet slightly off-center, comic book knock-offs, and troll through both films with not much more than a hypnotizing whisper, blazing eyes, and the overall aura of a guy waking up from an extended bender. Next up for Bale? This month’s Michael Mann reinvented gangster ride, Public Enemies, playing the straight man role of dogged pursuer, G-Man Melvin Purvis, to Johnny Depp’s rock star/bad boy John Dillinger. Anyone wanna bet that Bale goes for, at the very least, sheesh,… Steely Intensity?

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for today's giggle! I saw Public Enemies today, wherein Mr Bale seems to go the opposite way, delivering a very constrained performance; so constrained, in fact, that it prompted my brother Mark to theorize that Bale hadn't actually been available to do the film, being busy with Terminator and all, so that they had simply used a cardboard cutout of him instead. Hee! I'd like to know what you think of Public Enemies, too, because I have some thoughts on the matter.