Monday, December 29, 2014

On Acting Nice

I've been watching lots of movies and thinking about this bit from Aristotle:
"But we get the virtues by having first performed the energies, as is the case also in all the other arts; for those things which we must do after having learnt them we learn to do by doing them; as, for example, by building houses men become builders, and by playing on the harp, harp-players; thus, also, by doing just actions we become just, by performing temperate actions, temperate, and by performing brave actions we become brave.  Moreover, that which happens in all states bears testimony to this; for legislators, by giving their citizens good habits, make them good; and this is the intention of every lawgiver, and all that do not do it well fail; and this makes all the difference between states, whether they be good or bad.... 
Again, every virtue is produced and corrupted from and by means of the same causes; and in like manner every art; for from playing on the harp people become both good and bad harp-players...for if this were not the case, there would be no need of a person to teach, and all would have been by birth, some good and some bad. The same holds good in the case of the virtues also; for by performing those actions which occur in our intercourse with other men, some of us become just and some unjust....It does not therefore make a slight, but an important, nay, rather, the whole difference, whether we have been brought up in these habits or in others from childhood" (Nicomachean Ethics Book II, Chapter 1).
If it's the case that watching shows regularly can influence our actions towards others (as I suggested here), would it not follow that it's even more influential to act out the actions in the shows regularly?

It's not uncommon for actors in films and shows and plays who are playing the part of lovers to actually fall in love.  It could just be the case that two people working together fall for one another through proximity alone, but then why don't more actors fall for the camera operators or stage hands or secondary players.  I think there's something about saying the lines to one another over and over, or even just staring into one another's eyes, that creates the feeling.

But I'm curious about more villainous and harmful acts - more harmful than a new attraction ending an old relationship, and how Artistotle's ideas connect significantly with recent findings on neural pathways in the brain.
The brain gets accustomed to our typical activities and changes when they stop or when new activities start: “neurons seem to ‘want’ to receive input….When their usual input disappears, they start responding to the next best thing” (29)....Once we’ve wired new circuitry in our brain…’we long to keep it activated.’ That’s the way the brain fine-tunes its operations. Routine activities are carried out ever more quickly and efficiently, while unused circuits are pruned away” (34).
The key difference in current brain science and Aristotle's contemplations is that we now believe that childhood isn't the end all and be all of brain development.  We can alter the pathways through our behaviour as adults. There is ever time to change, albeit it can be a more difficult battle to change the pathways than to create them in the first place.

In Birdman, the play inside the film ends with a suicide.  As a theatre piece with a long run, the actor would be shooting himself in the head every night.  Does that repeated act on stage make it easier to carry out in real life?  In Nightcrawler, Gyllenhaal altered the way he moved, his facial gestures, and his speech to become utterly creepy.  How well does he turn that off when he's not on the set?  How quickly does the creepiness re-enter in inopportune times when his ego's depleted, like during an argument.  After many childhood dance recitals, when asked to ad lib a dance for an audition (a lifetime ago), I reverted immediately to a collection of moves from past dances.  The body memory had created a pathway that was easiest to find in a pinch.

But the actors in our lives who, for instance, pretend to be nice for their own gain, they don't become nicer over time.  Their pretending is part of the action to the point that their nice-act becomes hard to stop.  It becomes difficult to be authentically kind or thoughtful.  Is it the case, then, that stage actors have a harder time turning off the pretending, than turning off the current characters they're embodying for part of each day?  

As a teacher, I have developed certain traits that have spilled over into my "real" life, but many of these are useful.  I stay calm and can often diffuse a situation when others are arguing angrily.  I listen patiently to the least-interesting conversations.  But then I also really want to impart information wherever I go, and tell others what to do and when to speak.  These are habits I actively repress outside of my job - and not always well.  However, during my classes, I'm not actively pretending to be a teacher.  I'm behaving appropriately as a good role model of behaviour, which, I think, is what Aristotle suggests we do.  We should act kindly and courageously as if we're role models for the world to follow.  And sometimes pretending to be kind and acting on it, not for self-gain, but as a means of practicing, can create an authentic kindness.

It's a similar problem found in self-help books that encourage us to think happy thoughts.  While smiling can actually make us feel a little happier, focusing on acting happy can have the reverse effect because somewhere inside we know it's an act.



The implications of all this isn't just a watchful eye over the behaviours of our children, but of ourselves, of our smallest actions that can get embedded as habits. And if it's the case that pretending is attached to the action being pretended, then it seems to follow that we can allow sword fights with sticks, or water gun fights, or teasing when it's very clear that it's a game (and not just a consequence-free passive-aggressive act of anger or retaliation).  And our actors won't be unduly corrupted by their actions.   But only if it all starts with the right attitude towards the good.    

1 comment:

  1. This post reminds me of a story I heard concerning Sir Laurence Olivier and Dustin Hoffman during the filming of 'The Marathon Man'. After a day of filming, Hoffman told Olivier that he had stayed up for a two days in order to get into his role. Olivier responded to Hoffman: 'Next time, dear boy, you should try acting.'.

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