Bright Lights Film Journal

Presence and Absence: Toward a Working Conception of Screen Characters

“A basic consistency on the actor’s part remains uniquely convincing as character, no matter how simplistic that character’s definition.”

It seems a little silly to speak of characters in films as if they possessed a full-bodied existence of their own. Unlike their counterparts in the novel (think of Anna Karenina, Isabel Archer, Leopold Bloom), the film character can never consist of more than a few defining quirks, a seemingly coherent (but ultimately simplistic) psychology and above all the presence of the actor. When we speak of a great performance by Marlon Brando, Robert De Niro or Jack Nicholson (to name three of the more celebrated actors of the last fifty years), it is really this presence, so strongly pronounced in these unusually telegenic men, that are we referring to. In the most interesting work of the trio (Brando in Last Tango in Paris, De Niro in Taxi Driver and Nicholson in Five Easy Pieces), it is the commitment of the actors, the expression of a few unique personality traits and the ability to suggest a kind of deep-seated damage in the characters’ psyches that accounts for any notion of “depth” we may read in the performances. To suggest that these creations transcend their essence as screen characters and partake of the same full-bodied existence as the best characters from literature is to (in one sense) overestimate the possibilities of the cinematic medium. Yet focusing so emphatically on character to the detriment of film’s other capacities is to underestimate these possibilities as well.

Unlike the novel, where the writer must build his characters out of the written word, a task that amounts to a uniquely difficult transmutation of basically meaningless signs into a rounded, intricately constructed figure that, at its best, comes to take on an independent existence, the film is able to draw on the image of a living individual to embody its characters. Perhaps for this reason, it is easy for audiences to speak of screen characters as if they were living beings. In the novel, a poorly defined character remains an unrevealing mass of words, but his cinematic counterpart is at least represented by the image of an actual person, an image that, combined with even the most rudimentary psychological background and a basic consistency on the actor’s part remains uniquely convincing as character, no matter how simplistic that character’s definition.

Still, it is not useful to confuse this shallow illusion with the real thing, which is why the presentation of character by directors such as Abbas Kiarostami and Tsai Ming-Liang is so refreshing. Many viewers objected to Kiarostami’s Taste of Cherry (right) on the grounds of insufficient character development, but it is precisely this refusal to acknowledge the primacy of characterization that allows for the film’s success. As Homayon Ershadi drives around the outskirts of Tehran looking for someone to assist his suicide, the audience is granted no information about his reasons for wanting to end his life. In contrast to the majority of films which try to simultaneously create a coherent psychology for their characters and simplify this psychology into the most basic demonstration of elemental causality, Kiarostami eschews questions of character motivation which could only offer an insufficient explanation for an act that generally results from a myriad of largely incomprehensible circumstances. By taking the act of suicide as his starting point, Kiarostami is free to focus on a unique exploration of modern Iran, encompassing its plurality of individuals, its institutions of military and religion and its singular urban and sub-urban landscapes without wasting a moment on watered-down psychology. Similarly, Tsai Ming-Liang, who uses the same Hsiao-Kang “character” (Lee Kang-Sheng) in all his films, addresses the problem of characterization by reducing the very concept to a state of near-total abstraction. Hsiao-Kang can be charismatic, but more often he is simply there. Insistently passive, he often registers as just another element of Tsai’s mise-en-scène rather than an individual with an independent existence. Granted the director’s conception of an alienating modern Taipei, this interpretation of character seems just about right.

Originally taking its cue from the theater (early films were called “photoplays”), the cinema has never fully gotten over its reliance on the older medium which, no matter how unfashionable it may have become to point out, is inherently dissimilar to film. The play traditionally relies almost exclusively on dialogue and is an intrinsically character-based form, while even films that are heavy on dialogue communicate information primarily through the visual image. In the play, questions of aesthetics seem largely confined to set design and choreography. Because of the lack of proximity between audience and actor and the real-time staging of the production, theater doesn’t offer the possibilities for a carefully constructed visual program capable of producing images of great immediacy that comes easily to its cinematic counterpart. In the one hundred-plus years of the medium, film has largely divested itself of its reliance on the properties of the stage production, from the early development of uniquely cinematic techniques like the close-up and cross-cutting, through the radical formal experiments of directors like Godard in the 1960s, to the innovations of today’s filmmakers, but one aspect of the theater that film seems reluctant to cast off is its insistence on traditional notions of character. Fortunately, many of today’s most important filmmakers are willing to forgo this illusion of psychological coherency in favor of the development of other aspects of their art, carefully constructed visual compositions, particularity of setting, an interrogation of the individual’s place in a global society, approaches that come much closer to the realization of the medium’s true capabilities.

In his classic 1933 text, now issued as Film as Art, Rudolf Arnheim shows how the unique limitations of film (when compared with lived reality), though commonly viewed as weaknesses of the art form, were in actuality the properties that granted the medium its singular effectiveness. Like the projection of three-dimensional solids onto a two-dimensional plane or the delimitation of the image, film’s ultimate incapability of presenting fully realized characters (although not among the “weaknesses” discussed in Arnheim’s work) can be similarly turned to the medium’s advantage. Out of this limited capacity for characterization, directors like Abbas Kiarostami, Tsai Ming-Liang, Jia Zhang-ke and many other of the world’s best filmmakers have created a new conception of character, more in tune with the cinema’s real capacities, a conception that sets the characters unemphatically into their environments and makes no attempt to provide them with a false complexity that the film would be incapable of sustaining. These filmmakers save their complexities for their aesthetic programs, their social, political and metaphysical explorations and their singular evocations of place. In so doing, they are able to realize the highest aspirations of the film artist.