Friday, October 23, 2009

Smoke acting

Character actor Karel Roden can play two emotions:

Angry, and smoking.

It's probably not really fair to be picking on a guy I've seen in only two movies -- John Herzfeld's 15 Minutes (2001), and Wayne Kramer's Running Scared (2006), which I saw the other night. Actually, Roden was also in Hellboy and The Bourne Supremacy, but I don't remember him in either.

When I first saw him appear in Running Scared, though, the first thing that popped into my head was "Oh, that's that guy who was the villain in 15 Minutes, who always seemed to be making love to his cigarette."

Roden subscribes to a school of acting that says that the more ostentatiously you smoke your cigarette, the more interesting you will appear on screen. And true enough, he smokes cigarettes ostentatiously in Running Scared as well.

Holding the cigarette at unusual angles, most regularly backwards and upside down between his thumb and first two fingers. Masticating the end of it. Blowing smoke through every available orifice in his face, eyes and ears included. Grimacing with the effort of sucking the tip. Working the ember through precise and deep drags. Making a slight smacking noise as he releases it. Puffing and blowing and sucking and mumbling his lines through the object clamped between his lips.

The thing is, it is interesting -- until you recognize what he's up to and identify it as the cheap crutch that it is.

If I were being thorough (or fair), I'd run through my mental database to come up with a handful of other prominent smoke actors. But since this is a blog, and thoroughness (not to mention fairness) is purely optional, I'll simply say that Roden is not alone. He just happens to be the latest example I've seen of the actor who thinks that how he fondles or manipulates a cigarette is his key to getting work. He doesn't really need it -- after all, he does that other emotion, anger, pretty menacingly. Yet he seems to believe that smoking the hell out of a cigarette is a special skill worth marketing.

And I don't know, maybe it is. Maybe that's part of the reason so many people smoke -- part of the tobacco industry's huge arm of advertising that they don't have to pay a dime for. Because it is cool, on some level, the way Roden treats a butt as an essential acting accessory, one that he thinks makes his performance all the more full-blooded. And the reason he probably thinks this is because of the long tradition of directors instructing their actors to smoke that cigarette like they both loved it and hated it at the same time.

So I'll let Roden off the hook. I won't hate the player, I'll hate the game. But I don't really hate the game either. Part of the reason we love the movies we love is because they have style. And a pornographic session of tobacco ingestion undoubtedly contributes to that style.

Like I've said in the past, recognizing that someone is selling you artifice is the first step. If you then want to consciously embrace it, be my guest.

Now why am I suddenly in the mood for a Marlboro Red?

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