Judging bodies and profiling actors

Finally, finally, I am writing another blog. So what thoughts have I had on my mind lately? My skin itches. Itches are funny things. If you have an itch, you have to scratch. Human skin itches and it’s a little, unpleasant sensation, sometimes intense and sometimes barely noticeable, that basically screams to your brain, “ITCH ME!” It wants y0u to drag your fingernails across it, or something sharp. An itch might be a kind of pain, or it might be a feeling below pain. It doesn’t quite hurt; it just requires action. Living in a human body is a strange experience overall. I’ve always felt as much. Everything reports back to your brain, but it took a long time for us to figure that out; we don’t experience our lives through our brains, but through our senses. I guess we perceive our selves as being localized around our eyeballs. Sight is our primary sense. So where does a blind person perceive themselves as being localized? I like looking into how the lives of the disabled are different from the lives of us – are we really the “abled”? The blind, the deaf, the mute, those with fewer limbs… it’s so fascinating to imagine seeing the world from a different body. I think a lot of movies manage that, giving us a brush with difference. And so, I was just thinking of a few either Oscar-nominated or well-recognized voiceless performances: Jane Wyman in Johnny Belinda (1948); Marlee Matlin (who’s actually deaf) in Children of a Lesser God (1986); Holly Hunter in The Piano (1993). Wikipedia reminds me: Patty Duke in The Miracle Worker (1962) and Samantha Morton in Sweet and Lowdown (1999). Which in turn reminds me – I was looking the other day for footage from Deliverance (1919), a movie produced by Helen Keller and based on her life. I didn’t find anything from that movie sadly, and I doubt I will in the near future, but I did find this great video:

I’ve also read about – and would love to see – Werner Herzog’s early documentary Land of Silence and Darkness (1971), which profiles a deaf-blind woman. My point is that film can be a powerful way to experiencing difference. Especially when you’re led through the magic of narrative to identify with a character, and thereby take on their attributes and disabilities to yourself. You recognize your own weaknesses in the protagonist, and you can be led without realizing it to get a deeper understanding of difficulties you’ve never personally had. This connects to what I’ve said about horror movies, too; being led to identify with Frankenstein’s Monster leads you to simultaneously recognize him as being the Other, but since he’s the protagonist, you see in him everything rejected or hated about yourself. It’s an interesting kind of tension in spectatorship that I’d like to investigate further.

I’d like to segue into crystallizing an idea I’ve talked about with Ashley many times. It’s been said before, but I’m going to repeat it. Basically, it’s this: You do not have the right to judge whether someone’s body is good or bad. You never have the right to determine absolutely whether or not someone has a valid, acceptable body. Not you nor your friends nor society nor anyone at all. Because every single human body is just that: a body. (And when a body meet a body coming through the rye…) Some bodies are big, some are small. Some short and some are tall. Some are fat and some are thin; some… well, I can’t sustain a rhyme, but you see what I mean. Some have big noses, others have little noses. Some have light skin, others have dark skin, and others still have dark skin with light parts, or light skin with dark parts. Every culture, every era, and every group of people have their own idea of what constitutes beautiful. I guess when it comes to fashion magazines, beauty changes every other month. (As my father informed in euphemized terms, “Opinions are like assholes; everyone’s got one.”) The point is that no single attribute of a human body is objectively bad. Some bodies are diseased. This is unfortunate, but they still have a body which must be respected as such; all bodies were created equal, because we are not a fucking thing but flesh and bone. (Blood, fibers, keratin, etc., you get the idea.) I think kids should be taught this from an early age. Fucking schoolkids reinforce shallowness and body negativity like every schoolkid before them by taunting for the same goddamn reasons – someone looks funny, or slightly unusual, or has some physical attribute than another kid deems worthy of mockery. I’m all for retaining valuable rites of passage and innocence in childhood, etc., whatever. What is the lesson of, “Ha, ha, you look vaguely different!”? That other people will hate you because of your appearance? FUCK THAT. My time’s running short, but this bullshit has always pissed me off. Shallowness is enforced in every aspect of our society. My point is a basic one, and it’s that my body is just as good as your body. Which is just as good as a model’s body. Which is just as good as the body is a 300 pound woman with one leg. Which is just as good as an athlete’s body. Which is just as good as a dwarf’s body. Which is just as good as mine. Because what the fuck does “good” mean in the end, anyway? An athlete’s body is more capable of running and jumping than mine; I grant this. A model’s body might be smaller than the overweight amputee; how is that a mark of being “better” in general? She might have a number of limbs closer to that which she was born with. But what does that mean? My point is that people who insult or mock those who look different are worthless fucking morons themselves, and it’s nothing against their bodies, but it does show that the minds occupying them are shallow and unable to accurately evaluate other people. I may go more into depth about this later, but that’s the general idea: there are no “good” bodies or “bad” bodies. You decide how good your own body is, and no one else has the right to determine that for you.

Finally, I’ve wanted to write about certain actors recently. And I think I’ll start by talking briefly about Charles Laughton. Laughton is – God, where to start? He was a great actor. Not really a “movie star,” even though he could do Shakespeare and act opposite Clark Gable and Maureen O’Hara, and he carried a number of movies by himself. His single directorial effort, Night of the Hunter, is one of the great films and in a class by itself, a unique, beautiful vision that captures ideas and images no other film has quite managed. When acting, Laughton’s roles varied from cowards and buffoons to great, bloated symbols of power and corruption. He’s magnificent in his last role playing Senator Seab Cooley in Preminger’s Advise and Consent (1962), in which he’s nominally the villain, but really an integral part of America’s two-party system, as the aged southern senator who sits over the rest of the Senate like a tiger batting a mouse around in its paws. I’ve noticed over and over – in Witness for the Prosecution (1957) and The Paradine Case (1947), acting under Wilder and Hitchcock respectively – how Laughton can easily fit himself into any place in the justice system, acting like a chess piece in the machine of jurisprudence, fully aware of the mechanisms operating around him. When Laughton is in control of a situation, he can easily be scary; he was the original Dr. Moreau in The Island of Lost Souls (1932), and you can really imagine him playing God! After all, he was doing it for half his career. Then there’s the matter of Laughton’s appearance.Charles Laughton

He has a fascinating, craggy, offbeat face. Like I said before: no movie-star glamor. He was an actor. He could be likeable, he could be a bastard. This also connects to my points earlier about people trying to put labels of attractiveness on others’ bodies. (Oddly enough.) You can’t do that with Charles Laughton. He was the affable hero of Jean Renoir’s American wartime allegory This Land Is Mine (1943), as well as his next movie, Jules Dassin’s early comedy The Canterville Ghost (1945). He was Rembrandt and King Henry VIII (I want to see both movies). He could be larger-than-life, or he could demonstrate that you didn’t need to be pretty to star in a movie. Also, very appropriately, he starred (again opposite Maureen O’Hara as Esmeralda) in the post-Chaney Hunchback of Notre Dame (1939). Oh, and that’s right, he also embodied the extreme decadence of Christianity-oppressing Rome while playing an indulgent, hedonistic Nero in The Sign of the Cross (1932). Sometimes he was excess and measured sadism incarnate; other times he was cuddly and lovable. Charles Laughton is just a great figure in film history, and I really think he fits well with the other ideas I’ve been discussing today. Look into his face. Sometimes maybe you’ll find the grim depths of absolute authority. Other times you’ll see the pain of being different. Another fun fact? Laughton was also homosexual, despite being married to his close friend Elsa Lanchester (aka the Bride of Frankenstein). It really just adds an additional level to what I’ve been discussing here. If you’ve never seen him, check out Hunchback or Witness for the Prosecution whenever they’re available. You will not be disappointed.

3 Comments

Filed under Body, Cinema, Media

3 responses to “Judging bodies and profiling actors

  1. “My point is that people who insult or mock those who look different are worthless fucking morons themselves”

    Clap, clap, clap, clap! (that’s me giving you a standing ovation ;D)

    Hear! Hear!

    Now to the subject that brought me here: I’m a carried-away Laughton fan, and since I discovered him in “This Land is Mine”, many years ago, he’s never deceived me. Incidentally, I found/find the character he played in the film and, well, the actor himself, as positively attractive… Whenever someone refers to him as “ugly”, i’m tempted to recommend him/her a visit to the optician!

    One thing: Laughton, while also a crafted stage actor, was a movie star in the fullest sense of the word, a big-time world star: he was launched into world fame by “the Private Life of Henry VIII” (yes, you’ll enjoy it, and also “Rembrandt”) and never left the spot. Few actors of his girth have ever enjoyed the star magnitude Laughton had (of course, he wasn’t a “movie star” in the looks section).

    In his lifetime, he was somehow disregarded by snotty colleagues for working so much in the movies: movie actors were looked down upon and that may be one of the reasons why Laughton never got a knighthood, though of course, Laughton was as good, and in some cases, frankly better, than many a thespian who has ever earned a knightood.

    Forty years after his death, his work as an actor still holds remarkably well and is still appreciated by actors and public alike: To me that’s a greater honour than any that could be granted by any terrenal, temporary power (i.e. a monarch)

    Incidentally, you might like to drop by my Laughton blog:
    http://rootingforlaughton.blogspot.com

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