Tuesday, July 19, 2011


The biography of Robert Redford has an interesting passage about the actor’s experience with Marlon Brando. Both stars appear in the movie ‘The Chase’. Redford was in awe of Brando and described his acting as ‘child’s play’. According to Redford, being a genius like Brando means retaining one’s childlike feelings and perceptions.  It’s an interesting observation coming from someone whose style is considered instinctive and natural. I always liked Redford as he is an appealing actor but his great looks impacts any appreciation of his talent. His performance is always the same and does not seem to have any variation. His charm is his looks as well as the honest authenticity of his roles. His best roles are those where he is outdoors as the outdoors is his element in real life. Hence, he is great in ‘Jeremiah Johnson’ and ‘Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid.’  He also acts well if the story and director is good so ‘All the President’s Men’, ‘The Way We Were’, ‘Out of Africa’ and  ‘The Natural’ are good films. But he will never distinguish himself with his acting when compared to great actors like John Malkovich, Al Pacino, Robert De Niro and Dustin Hoffman.

He will be remembered for Sundance– his advocacy for independent films.  It’s like an incubator in the way Silicon Valley entrepreneurs are helped by angel investors. It’s a great breeding ground for promoting talents in the film industry. Redford does not have a controversial life so lacks the notoriety and attention getting glare of publicity that usually surrounds other actors. He can even be said to be boring when compared to the other denizens of Hollywood. His great work will be Sundance and the Utah mountains he helped preserve. Perhaps it can even be a more lasting effort than Newman’s ‘Hole in the Wall’ which is a great charity. I think Redford has followed closely his instincts and has preserved his integrity as an artist. He started out as a painter and some samples of his painting are quite good. He seemed to have admired Modigliani who I like as well. I think this is the key in understanding Redford – his true artistic temperament and his love of the outdoors. His outdoors outlook makes him avoid ‘method acting’ (a product of the city) which seems unauthentic. Newman and Redford work well because of the contrast of styles: method acting and instinctive acting.

Redford is a true child of Los Angeles and one would think that he would remain in California and enjoy the abundant quality of nature in that state. But the fact he left Hollywood with its distracting lifestyle for the more remote and mountainous Utah is a testament to his integrity as a family man and love of remote nature. His best role is possibly ‘Jeremiah Johnson’ where both the role and the actor become one in the same way with ‘Gandhi’ and actor Ben Kingsley. But ‘Jeremiah Johnson’ does not tackle the great issues and may not have a lasting impact or relevance as other classic films like ‘Gandhi’ or ‘Lawrence of Arabia’.  The only film of possible great significance is ‘All the President’s Men’ which tackles a great event but is not distinguished by his great acting and only with the performance of Jason Robarts and Dustin Hoffman. He remains relevant because his acting is authentic when he portrays decent men who have had their share of tragedy: the loss of his first child and perhaps the end of his long marriage has made him understand life's pain. He has also gone through a wrenching search for identity as described in the biography.

His analysis of Brando’s genius is interesting coming from someone like Redford with his artistic temperament. I guess all works of creativity require a certain childlike grace.  This applies to all sorts of work from acting to painting to writing. Different mediums but the act of creativity is a playful act like a child at play, allowing one to freely experiment and explore in whatever direction it brings him. This brings me to my writing exercise which is easier if one is in a childlike mentality. I attended a writer’s workshop during the weekend. Basically 3 days of lectures and writing exercises. It was a good workshop held at an old Southern college not well-known in the state. It was an interesting campus with old buildings and tree-lines pathways. It also had modern structures that blended well with the green scenery.  We had dinner on Friday and Saturday plus lectures from locally known authors as well as classes and writing exercises. There was a social event at a local book shop where we had wine and cheese. I met interesting people who were all working on producing some written work. There were courses in Sunday morning where I learned a lot of techniques.

During the writing exercises, I realized that I could write well (at least according to the feedback I got) in the short time allotted. Creating something from scratch is much easier if one does not constrain himself. In my case, I constrain myself with my own personal experience since my writing is basically journaling and blogging. So one may have writer’s block if one attempts to imagine new adventures based on oneself as the main character.  But creating new characters from scratch seem to lift me out of any constraint as one can do just about anything. There is no self-consciousness as one may normally get if one was writing a diary and turning it into a novel. Creating things from scratch is much easier because of the freedom but the work may seem childish or trivial because one does not speak from true experience. But I guess that is fiction and one needs to make a conscious effort to suspend the disbelief of the reader. I had a similar fear in the past in my grade school days when I tried to write a spy story with my love of James Bond movies and Ian Fleming books as my only guide. After all I did not have any actual experience being a spy in my teenage years. I had this trepidation because it did not feel authentic (as compared to journal writing) and I was afraid of being found out as a fraud.  

Many years later the feeling is still there so the tendency is to keep writing along the lines of journaling to maintain that feeling of authenticity. But this is a mistake because it can never be that way as it’s supposed to be fiction after all. So starting from scratch has a greater demand on the imagination which one does have in abundance. It’s the only benefit of an overactive mind filled with churning thoughts. Then again, one is no longer a teenager but someone approaching middle age, having read lots of books, travelled and lived in different countries, had interesting experiences, raised a family and so on.  So the journey from teenager to middle age has provided grist to the mill for a mature writer to exploit. One feels like Redford in his quest to maintain authenticity and be natural and instinctive. But that does not distinguish great actors who need to learn techniques such as method acting to rise to another level.  Consequently, one should learn the craft of writing by attending workshops and training courses as well. One can only go so far by being natural and instinctive and gain certain virtuosity like Sean Connery – not a great actor but instinctive and natural (like Redford) but who gained enough craft to go into different roles throughout his lifetime.

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