Saturday, September 6, 2014

The correct verb tense for acting performances

My wife was going to Sydney for the night on Friday night, so for a cinephile like me, that meant one thing: a Friday night double feature. (It also meant taking care of my children by myself for nearly 24 hours. Details.)

As I was perusing the films on the Hoyts kiosk rental site, I came across this poster for a film I'd heard praised by a person whose opinion I do not necessarily trust: The Inevitable Defeat of Mister & Pete. A title like that caused me to question whether I should truly dismiss it just because he liked it, so I lingered on the poster long enough to notice this critical rave:

"Jennifer Hudson was fantastic!"

See if you can tell me what's wrong with that quotation.

A movie performance, I would argue, is not a thing of the past, as implied by the word "was." It is not something that occurred at that one moment, when the DP was shooting the actor and the director was yelling "Action!" and "Cut!" As movies are an ongoing art form that can be accessed and experienced from now until all existing copies of the movie are destroyed, a movie performance is forever in the present tense.

So to say that Hudson was fantastic just seems incorrect. That's the kind of terminology you reserve for a play, a concert. Those performances occur once and are over. I suppose if Hudson were appearing in a show on Broadway that goes on for several months or years, you might say she "is" fantastic in the show, since it's still going on. You'd be less likely to use that term for a band on tour, since bands are more susceptible to having a bad night, whereas actors tend to achieve a certain consistency to their performance that's easier to repeat.

However, I now wonder if movies don't, in fact, age out of the appropriateness of the term "is" to describe a performance. If you're talking about Broken Blossoms, which was released in 1919, do you really say that Lillian Gish "is" great in it? Or do you say "was"? Does it have to do with whether the actor is alive or not?

I don't know. I'm just throwing it all out there.

For the record, I settled on Cuban Fury and Vampire Academy. No one was or is fantastic in either film, though I did like Cuban Fury quite a bit. Vampire Academy? For some reason I thought it was going to be a pointed satire of vampire movies that also functioned as a teen coming-of-age story. Instead, it was the bastard child of Twilight and Harry Potter, but, like, a really dumb bastard child.

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