Never underestimate the importance of body language.

Last night I was watching Brick while ironing my gi (fabulous movie, btw; noir set in a high school, and it works), and thinking about how Joseph Gordon-Levitt is one of those actors I don’t often see, but generally enjoy when I do. Then I thought about N.K. Jemisin’s guest post on Whatever about Inception, and a comment in the thread there about JGL, and I realized what it is that gets me about his performances:

He understands how to use body language.

Most guys look good in three-piece suits, but as Arthur in Inception, he doesn’t just wear the suit, he wears the posture that makes the suit look good. In Brick, when he’s been beaten up something like four or five times in as many days and is coughing his lungs out, there’s a shot of his feet stumbling down to the path that will lead him to a very dangerous confrontation — and then he stops, and his feet settle, and then he walks off as if nothing’s wrong. (Gamer-brain says, “that’s what spending a point of willpower looks like.”) He doesn’t just act with his face and his voice; it goes through every part of his body, so that the telling details might be in his hands or his shoulders or something else you maybe don’t even notice, not consciously, not unless you’re looking for it.

I’ve realized this is a common theme among actors I like, the ones where hearing they’re in a movie will instantly get me more interested. Johnny Depp does it, and brilliantly. Cate Blanchett does it, though at the moment she’s about the only actress I can think of who does. (I blame the industry, not the actresses; they don’t often get as wide a range of roles to play.) Paul Bettany does it, and he was the one who made me realize body language was a key point for me, after noticing the subtle physical cues he works into his performance. When Vin Diesel remembers to do it, he can hold the entire screen by presence alone; one of the most bad-ass shots in all of Pitch Black is him simply standing up.

And when people forget to do it, that failure can undermine an entire performance. (Now I’ve got kitsunealyc in my head, ranting about Gwyneth Paltrow’s terrible posture in Emma, that made all her dresses look like sacks.)

This drives me a little crazy because of course I want to make use of this idea in fiction, and I can’t — not exactly. The kinds of physical quirks I’m thinking of work best when they’re done subtly, in the background; in prose, though, I have to describe whatever I want you to see, and that automatically draws your attention to it. Especially because getting the nuance of a gesture or twitch might require an entire sentence of description, when the act itself takes half a second. You have to approach it differently: well, duh, it’s a different medium. I think the equivalent in prose is finding that precisely-calibrated angle from which to describe something, that will carry a whole weight of implied meaning without taking up a lot of space. Dunnett does this brilliantly (as she does so many things), particularly with Lymond’s hands; she’ll say something about his face being caged behind his fingers or whatever and somehow her descriptor manages to make me see everything else surrounding it: posture, white knuckles, the whole ensemble of body language, from that one perfect detail. It won’t always work, because one reader’s metaphoric connections aren’t the same as the next, but it’s the only way I can really see to accomplish what I want.

So, I just have to become as awesome as Dorothy Dunnett. <g>

I’d love other examples of this, either in the form of authors who really pull off physical nuance on the page, or actors/actresses who make good use of it in performance. Do you find it as effective as I do, or are your particular buttons of a different sort?

0 Responses to “Never underestimate the importance of body language.”

  1. Marie Brennan

    That’s the funny part, really — sometimes you can’t even visualize what they’re describing. But it still works on an emotional level, for whatever metaphoric reason, and it’s amazing . . . you just have no idea how to reproduce it.

    • tchernabyelo

      Yep, Dunnett is a huge influence on me, she handled both Lymond and Niccolo masterfully in terms of balancing clarity and ambiguity – you watched them so closely, heard them speak, but still sometiems had no real idea what was going on inside their heads, and it was entirely right that you didn’t.

      And yes, I’ll whole-heartedly agree with your recommendation of Brick (a fascinating movie), and lament that Vin Diesel got sucked into deeply mediocre action-stardom when he could have been so much more – Pitch Black is a far from perfect film yet it remains something watchable again and again and again, and one main reason for that is his sheer screen presence.

      • Marie Brennan

        Vin Diesel masses more presence per kilo than just about any other actor I can think of — when he remembers to do it. But yeah, he’s gotten caught up in a lot of movies where he can just phone it in, and so he does. Which is a real pity, because I adore that kind of physicality when I can find it.

        I haven’t yet read the Niccolo books, only the Lymond ones, but Dunnett uses pov in those to mimic off one of the effects that an actor’s performance creates automatically: you see the behavior, but you can only infer what’s behind it. The pov character usually has an opinion on it, of course, while you the reader may draw a different conclusion, but you still don’t know, the way you would if you were in Lymond’s pov.

        The other thing that makes an actor really compelling to me — and it may ultimately rise out of the body-language thing — is the sense, when I’m watching them, that there really is an entire psyche behind the surface I see, that I have to guess at based on fragmentary external clues.

        • tchernabyelo

          The Niccolo series is strong early on but weakens, sadly, at the end, with some major credibility issues. The main Lymond sequence – books three through six – are masterful. In “The Ringed Castle”, for instance, Lymond is an absolute bastard – but for reasons, and in ways, that are perfectly logical, and watching the attempts of those around him to bring him a kind of redemption are brilliant and heartbreaking. The first big fantasy saga I really started writing (still unfinished, a five-book cycle with over 300k of wordage scattered throughout it) features one major character who is only observed, never experienced, and there’s another character who’s minorish in that cycle but has a three-book story of his own who is covered the same way. There’s a kind of fascinating personality that lends itself to that treatment, while an entirely different set of personalities revolve around and comment on/observe such a character.

          • Marie Brennan

            It works for characters who are deliberately and relentlessly opaque to those around them (hi, Lymond!). I loved the moment when I realized, in The Disorderly Knights, that whenever Lymond’s being even more of a bastard than usual, it means he’s doing something really, really important you’re not being told about. (And oh, did that realization pay off when he encounters Richard again in TRC — because that time I knew why he was being such an inexcusable asshole, and I wanted to cry.)

            I do intend to read the Niccolo series, but I had a very hard time getting into the first book, for a variety of reasons, some of which will be resolved by giving it another try.

  2. kathleenfoucart

    This is what drives me batty when I’m writing– I want to get those physical hints in there, especially because I’m so attuned to them IRL, but it’s So Freaking Hard to do without disrupting the flow and giving them too much weight.

    I wish I could think of examples, but no one in particular is coming to mind… I’ll pop back in if I think of any, though.

    • Marie Brennan

      Please do — because if I could learn how to do it myself, it would probably be the most amazing advance in my craft since I learned to finish the stories I started.

  3. moonandserpent

    Oh thank gods even awesome pro writers like you have this problem.

    In my minds eye, the protagonist of my current book-in-progress-shoot-me-now has posture that improves the farther his world decends into complete batshit madness and horror. But I’m fumbling with making that come off in any way that isn’t “look, moar tentacles = better posture!”

    And yeah, Levitt is wonderful at is as is Diesel. Off the top of my head, I’d add Jeremy Davies and Vincent Cassell, too. I can’t think of any novelests who pull it off. Hell, even in comics I can only think of a handful of artists who master usage of posture like that.

    • Marie Brennan

      I am not remotely awesome enough to have solved this particular problem. I’m trying, though.

      I think part of the reason the art of comics rarely compels me is that it isn’t physically communicative in the way I crave. (I’d love to know which artists you think do it well.) Wendy Pini achieves something of the sort at points in Elfquest, but I think she does it in kind of an operatic fashion; I don’t mean that in a derogatory way, just to say that she uses the staging of characters’ bodies and the framing of the panels to create the effect in a broad fashion. Since static images can’t convey the tiny nuances of movement, it may in fact be necessary to approach it from a more macro angle.

      In your particular situation . . . hmmm. I’d probably try to use specific components of good posture — head up, shoulders back, etc — salted through the rest of the text, like using those shifts to break up dialogue or whatever (and contrast them with slumping shoulders etc earlier on), but that’s kind of the basic-level solution, the kind of thing I’m capable of writing at the moment. If I figure out the Dunnett-level solution, I’ll let you know. <g>

  4. desperance

    So, I just have to become as awesome as Dorothy Dunnett.

    Please do. I’ve been missing her.

  5. la_marquise_de_

    Yuen Biao. He’s very physically gifted and usually plays highly agile action roles. In his 1987 film On The Run, he’s just an ordinary guy — no martial arts, no stunts, just acting. There’s a scene where he runs across a road and has to vault a barrier in its centre, something he’d normally do easily. Not here: here he catches a foot and falls, because his character isn’t fit and athletic. His posture and so forth reflects this throughout, too. It’s a fine film for all sorts of reasons, one of which being its showcasing of YB as an actor.
    And Martin Freeman is currently impressing me as Watson in Sherlock with his physical acting — his military posture is impeccable in all circumstances. Whereas as Arthur Dent in Hitchhiker’s, he shambled.

    • moonandserpent

      Holy crap! I totally didn’t recognize Freeman.

    • tchernabyelo

      Ooh, that reminds me. Tony Leung (Chiu-Wai, that is) – absolutely magnetic in Hero, portraying the different perceptions of his character, all through very nuanced physical acting. Eclipses everyone else in one of my favourite movies evar…

    • Marie Brennan

      That’s really impressive, mimicking an incapacity where you normally have a great deal of skill. (I do adore watching martial artist-actors move; they do it so beautifully.)

      Oooh! Summer Glau — that’s another actress who pulls it off, because of her ballet training. It isn’t just her grace of movement, though that’s a big part of what makes her lovely to watch; it’s that she knows how to communicate with movement more generally.

      • la_marquise_de_

        He’s quite remarkable that way — he can strut like the most confident gangster in one film and be skinny and self-effacing and terrified in the next. And, at 53, he can still do all the acrobatics and stuff — and almost convince you with his posture that he’s twenty (the face can’t quite cut it any more, but the body language is spot on).
        I don’t like Summer Glau as an actress, but physically you’re quite right.

    • Anonymous

      Here’s an off-the-wall one, as a supporting actor: Alessandro Juliani (Lt Gaeta) in Battlestar Galactica… especially at times when he is not speaking. Too often, TV actors seem to be waiting for their turns at the microphone for the radio-play-with-pictures (I’m lookin’ at you, Juliana Margulies). Even when Gaeta doesn’t have a single line in a scene, though, he keeps moving appropriately (and staying still appropriately) in the background, and effectively uses his body language to give visual feedback behind the other actors.

      But my favorite has to be Peter O’Toole, who says more with his body than with his voice — and his voice is never silent. The Stunt Man, Lawrence of Arabia, and Venus are merely easily available exemplars.

      I, too, am disappointed with H’wood actresses that way. Radha Mitchell (ironically enough, Diesel’s co-star in Pitch Black) at least tries, though. Maybe it’s that Australian soap-opera background <vbeg>.

      • Marie Brennan

        Jiuliani also sings, quite well. (The instant you said his name, “Gaeta’s Lament” started playing in my head.) I hadn’t noticed him doing what you describe in BSG, but I didn’t really hook into that show — other than adoring its music — and I stopped watching after S2.

        Peter O’Toole is very good, yes, especially in Lawrence of Arabia. His hands are entrancing in the scene with the match. (Okay, yes, I fixate on hands sometimes. They can communicate so much.)

        I pinged Summer Glau elsewhere as an actress who can do it, because she’s coming out of a background of training in physical expression. Clearly we need more ballerina-actresses in Hollywood.

      • la_marquise_de_

        The only modern actress I can think of is Anne Heche, back when she was playing twins on Another World. You could tell which character she was simply through her posture. Her replacement had to have different hairstyles.
        Oh, and Chinese actress Pat Ha Man-Chik can be sultry or threatening, forlorn or confident, dangerous or vulnerable, confused or dominating just in the set of her shoulders or the tilt of her chin. She’s astonishing.

  6. stillsostrange

    Michelle Pfeiffer can do wonderful things with body language, too. I once had to watch a scene from A Story of Us in a psychology class (for reasons lost to time), and I was completely distracted by how frail and cringing and downtrodden she seemed, and how contrary that was to my default image of her.

    • Marie Brennan

      I hadn’t noticed that in her acting, but I don’t think I’ve seen that many of her movies. I’ll keep an eye out for it, the next time she shows up.

  7. mastadge

    A demo example might be Christopher Reeve in Superman, when he’s trying to work up the nerve to tell Lois that he’s Supes. The way he straightens and just projects confidence, and then loses has second thoughts and slumps back into Clark Kent.

    I think Tilda Swinton’s got body language down, too. Check out Orlando.

    • mastadge

      Although I do find myself wondering, now that I think about it, how often body language might be conflated with or mistaken for screen presence. (Thinking of Vin Diesel here — it’s been years since I’ve seen Pitch Black.)

      • Marie Brennan

        I think it’s a large component of screen presence, though not all of it. (Depending on how broadly one defines “body language.” Eyes, for example, can be a big factor — but I did start out by defining my topic as being about something other than the face and the voice.)

  8. diatryma

    I agree about Hambly– I’m reading through her mysteries, a bit at a time, and she does amazing things with just the right words.

    I am really fighting off a Dunnett reread now. Any time someone mentions Lymond, I have to fight off a reread. It will hurt….

  9. kernezelda

    Gigi Edgely in Farscape used her body almost as a separate character. Er, that is, she used body language to richly and convincingly sell her character Chiana’s alienness. I remember reading in interviews with other cast members how amazed they were at her performance, and how much depth it brought to the scripted role. Another example of body language enforcing stage presence was Wayne Pygram’s Scorpius in the same program. Like Gigi, his whole body was covered save for his face (and in her case, bosom ;> ), and both of them were fully made-up to appear alien. Pygram exuded menace simply by standing in a doorway, in our first ever glimpse of Scorpius, and the way he encroached upon other actors’ physical space or touched them always carried weight.

    One of your earlier commenters mentioned an Australian actor; both Edgely and Pygram are, too.

    • Marie Brennan

      You’re right, she’s got a good full-body thing going on (though Scorpius wasn’t as effective, to my eyes). I think I notice it more when I’ve seen an actor/actress in multiple different roles; then I recognize it as part of their technique, rather than something specific to that character.

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