Acting at Life

A while back Netflix was offering me few alternatives so I settled on Johnny Knoxville’s performance in that stirring paean to geriatric irresponsibility, Bad Grandpa. Knoxville acting as gross old man Irving Zisman isn’t particularly memorable, but it is a bit of a departure from his Jackass work in that he plays one character throughout, rather than mixing it up or simply being himself. The Jackass TV series and films still set the pattern for this movie (as did Sacha Baron Cohen in Borat, etc.): a performer (performers, in the case of Bad Grandpa) remaining in character interacting with people who are unaware they are being filmed until afterwards. Thus actors are acting with actors who don’t realize they are acting (or aren’t acting at all, depending on your definitions).

The result is a film made up largely of actors who don’t realize they’re making a movie. So a sort of “reality” film. Except the situations aren’t real but contrived—it’s just that 90% of the folks we see in the movie believe them to be real (with funny/offensive results, as can be inferred).

It seems odd to make art (or “art”) out of individuals who have no idea they’re making it. Of course, if the actors-playing-themselves (unawares) had refused to have their images shown in the film, we probably wouldn’t have seen their actions. So in a sense they had some agency in their acting—but not enough to actually be able to change their reactions on film, only to allow them to be shown or excised.

What’s even stranger to me, though, is when everyone involved in a film—especially the director, producers, and principal actors—do not seem to know they are making a movie. This has happened on many occasions, I propose: Troll 2 and The Room come to mind. These are movies that we have to believe were made as serious, “artistic” movies, rather than created as some kind of tongue-in-cheek Sharknado spinoff. These are movies that fail as serious films but succeed as hilariously-inept spectacles. Thus, the directors of these films—like the unwitting actors in Knoxville’s or Cohen’s movies—actually had no idea they were making the movie that resulted from their progress. They believed they were creating Movie A—a horror film, or a serious drama. But the audience who saw these movies saw immediately that there was no Movie A, but only Movie B—a hilariously schlocky nonsense-fest.

This is all perhaps a cautionary tale: what stories do we create that we won’t be able to see? Is all of our seriousness just comic? Probably. To see humans as anything but comical and revolting would probably take a very sympathetic Audience.