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Screen Performance

We often talk about cinema in terms of actors (e.g., “Did you see the new Oscar Isaac movie?”), but why we respond to certain performances—and how those performances are created—is deceptively obvious and therefore difficult to explain. Identification with screen actors was long thought to be subordinate to identification with the camera, an assumption that reduces the interpretation of characters to matters of story. Film performance has been either taken for granted as an actor’s “natural” state of being or devalued as merely the product of editing. This seminar will proceed from a contrary position, following James Naremore’s argument in his book Acting in the Cinema, to teach you how “films depend on a form of communication whereby meanings are acted out.” Focusing on U.S. narrative cinema, we will watch a different film each week that is in some way “about” performance. We will discuss performance codes and methods, including naturalism, anti-naturalism, dance, and vocal performance. In the last four weeks of class, we will also consider work that complicates or expands on our understandings of cinema’s performed meanings, such as stunts, cameos, animation, and the uses of special-effects technologies. 

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