Peter Brook: The Tightrope (Brook, 2012)

Film critics don’t talk about acting much these days. Have they ever?

Directing, cinematography, scoring, editing, are all important formal elements of a film. Sometimes discussions of the latter are used to challenge the auteur theory that has dominated much film criticism since the primacy of Cahiers du cinema. Perhaps actors have long been thought of as part of the Hollywood star system–more movie stars than technical craftsmen.Do critics distrust the abstract, new agey language that actors (and acting coaches) sometimes use? Do we distrust that which we can’t see or quantify?

Certainly we will talk about performances and performers that we like, but it is, admittedly, hard to separate them from the words they have to read or the way the director can light their faces. Add to all those reasons the rise in reputation of directors such as Robert Bresson who, like the Italian neorealists, used non-professional actors to create a flat surface that invited viewers to project their own emotions onto others’ countenances, and we begin to understand why acting is often neglected. Alfred Hitchcock once smirked that actors should be treated like cattle. If he didn’t respect their artistry, why should we?

Peter Brook is perhaps better known to theater goers than cinephiles. (For more on Brook, see this post on Lord of the Flies and this one on his filmed stage production of Hamlet.) The Tightrope is a hidden camera documentary allowing us to watch Brook’s acting workshop. It will either thoroughly enthrall or totally bore viewers depending on how interested they are in thinking about what acting is. Brook calls it the “certain link between the pure imagination and the body itself.”

Imagination is an important quality for an actor, and Brook’s exercises, including the one which gives the film its title, are designed to strengthen it so that a performance is something more than pantomime or rote recitation of lines. “The imagination has to be true and real” he says. By watching actors walk an imaginary tightrope or blow out an imaginary candle, we see (even if we don’t always understand) the subtle differences in bearing and posture that draw us in rather than simply bore us.

So I definitely recommend the documentary, particularly for young or aspiring critics as well as aspiring actors. If I had one complaint it is that I would have liked to have seen something towards the end where the actors actually perform. If we attend the exercises closely enough, we believe–at least I did–that they will strengthen the actors’ imagination and should improve their performance. But that’s a little bit like predicting a sporting result by watching the warm up drills, isn’t it?

That he didn’t show the actors in performance might be explained by Simon Brook’s expressed desire to highlight his father’s work rather than the use the actors put it to. He has made an earlier film, Brook by Brook about his father. According to his statements in the press kit, he wanted this film to be a follow up, but Peter Brook refused to let rehearsals be filmed. So as rich as this documentary is, it left us wanting the better film that I suspect Simon Brook wished he could make: one in which he filmed his father in rehearsal, and one in which we got to see the results of his labors and not just the labor itself.

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