Pantomime

Harold Lloyd, seen in his 1923 B/W classic “Safety Last” was a master pantomime actor/director who thrilled his audiences with his story scenarios and mind-blowing stunts (no green screen technology!)

“I’m a big fan of pantomime storytelling, being an animator.” — John Lasseter

Pantomime — the art or technique of conveying emotions, actions, and feelings by gestures without speech— is one of the oldest forms of entertainment in human history. For thousands of years, it has helped tell stories, build our imagination and make us laugh. It has made its home in family rooms and on Shakespearean stages. It has graced film and television since their inception. It’s the quintessence of visual storytelling.

“Pantomime is a big thing in the cultural calendar of my country…” — Alan Cumming

Alan Cumming (seen here with the late Natasha Richardson on the set of Cabaret) is an extraordinarily talented actor/singer/writer whose physical performances make him the star of any show or scene he’s in.

Unfortunately, with the dominance of quick access information, flashy action and snappy punchlines in entertainment today, this craft has lost a bit of its glamor and respect. Except on Broadway stages or standup comedy acts, directors and performers, both in live action and animation, are favoring stiffer choices complemented by dialogue heavy exposition and more extensive camera work (i.e. highly convoluted and often overlong action sequences). Times and tastes may have changed, but wordless performance still has its place in the craft of fine acting and storytelling. In fact, the best acting is often between the lines. Physical action, which constitutes both pose and movement, can sometimes convey ideas and emotions with even greater clarity and poignancy than any dialogue or close up shot. It would be a shame for any performer not to study the power of gesture.

Containing less than 1000 words of dialogue, Walt Disney’s iconic film “Bambi” is one of the quietest films in history. It’d be hard pressed for any modern day studio to create or even allow for the creation of a film told primarily through imagery, music and action, the original bread and butter of not just animated films but of all films.

To me, pantomime is a beautiful yet phenomenally difficult craft to learn; it requires very specific training and endless preparation. Not unlike animation, extensive exploration into character creation and intense imagination is required, as is patience, both on the part of the creators and the audience. It’s a form of acting that delivers ideas in a way that is both timeless and universal, a wordless language that represents 100,000 years of humanity in the making. It’s an illusion of life told through time, shape and space, and nothing else.

The following limited selection is my small tribute to the magical possibilities of pantomime in film:

Rowan Atkinson is perhaps the finest pantomime actor working today. Originally designed to help him fine tune and explore the depths of acting, his creation “Mr. Bean” has become a worldwide sensation. Watch carefully how he always firmly establishes his character of “Bean” prior to any action or interaction with his environment. Story action and character formation are deeply intertwined and Atkinson, who sports one of the highest IQ’s in Hollywood (178), knows that that’s how we build interest. Executed with superb timing, gesture and clarity, Atkinson’s Bean is always fabulously entertaining.

The best and most iconic of comic pantomimes is Charlie Chaplin.  In “Modern Times” Chaplin creates a masterpiece of comedy and pathos as well as a prescient commentary of the social malaise caused by Taylorism — the economic theory of industrial production and practice that dominates the workplace to this very day. Chaplin’s little Tramp is so carefully constructed from his “stache” down to the flaps of his oversized shoes, that just one look at him tells us who he’s supposed to represent — namely us, the little people. But it’s the Tramp’s never-say-die spirit, inventive adaptability and relentless sense of hope that makes him so likeable and his antics so funny. Despite the fact that his creation is over 100 years old now, Chaplin’s pantomimes are perfectly written, staged and acted and should continue to be studied by actors and animators today.

When people think of pantomime, they usually think only of comedy or full-bodied, high-action performance. Al Pacino may be known predominantly for some of the loudest and most powerful screen characters, but here in Mike Newell’s excellent film “Donnie Brasco” he delivers a most sincere and sophisticated performance. In this last scene from the movie, both the events that are to unfold and the deep feelings inside the character are told with action — highly subdued action. In my humble opinion, Pacino’s portrayal of the aging Lefty, a respectfully loyal but out-of-luck gangster is one of the best and most underrated performances of his career.

In Wong Kar-Wei’s visually sumptuous masterpiece “In The Mood For Love” Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung (who won Best Actor at the Cannes Film Festival for his contribution) deliver some of the most beautiful silent performances ever to grace the screen.  The story is one told with minimal dialogue, elegant framing and the most subtle of gestures and glances. Perfectly supported by Christopher Doyle’s gorgeous cinematography and Shigeru Umebayashi’s hypnotic score, the film is achingly beautiful in theme,  movement and performance. It’s one of my favorite films of all time.

A great tribute to the silent era, The Artist (2011) is a tastefully clever and heartwarming story of love and destiny. Starring Bérénice Bejo as Peppy Miller and the ever-charming Jean Dujardin as George Valentin, the movie displays all the joys and wonders of what silent acting can do to enchant the minds and hearts of viewers, even today.

“I like actors that are good with pantomime and that can transmit a lot by their presence and attitude more than through their dialogue.” — Guillermo del Toro