Nadie se parece tanto a si mismo como cuando intenta ser distinto is an Argentinian short film from 1998, from filmmaker Marcelo Mosenson, with whom I have been fortunate enough to establish an e-mail acquaintanceship, having previously written about his short Vecinos and feature-length De cerca nadie es normal. The title is translated as “The More You Try to be Different, the More You Look Like Yourself.” I would say perhaps, “The More You Try to be Different, the More You Reveal of Yourself.”
The film is a documentary, of the direct cinema or cinéma vérité style, meaning the material is presented without narration, commentary, or informational context. So pretty much raw.
The subject matter is live theater. Other than the titles and credits, the entire film is clips of actors and actresses performing. Little if any of it appears to be from an actual staging of a play before a live audience; it has the feel more of rehearsals or auditions.
In fact, it’s clips from an acting class. I only know that because I read it independent of seeing the film (though there are clips in the second half especially from which one could perhaps infer it). To me that’s one of the drawbacks of this documentary style. As a viewer you have to infer the context. But I always feel like every brain cell I have to devote to playing the guessing game of Who are these people?, Where are they?, What are they doing?, etc. is one fewer that I have available with which to take in and appreciate the substance of the film.
It’s not that I always want a film to explicitly “tell me what to think,” but it’s no insult to my intelligence for it to provide enough background to give some sense of what’s going on.
I think one of the selling points for this style of documentary is that it presents its subject matter in a way that is more real, non-manipulative, and unfiltered. Maybe, but I’ve always found that a little misleading. True, it eliminates some of the tools that can be used to make a film propagandistic, but you can still use editing to do plenty of manipulating. Plus, documentaries of this style are typically not filmed with hidden cameras, so you’re not really seeing reality unaffected by the filmmaking process. It’s not a “fly on the wall” situation; the participants know they’re being filmed.
I will say, though, as far as that last point, I suspect that matters less here than usual. These folks are already performing after all, in front of an audience of at least their peers and one or more teachers. The presence of a camera, especially if unobtrusive, I wouldn’t think would have much if any effect on them.
I don’t hate this style of documentary. I’m dubious about certain aspects of it, but every style has its drawbacks. Maybe this isn’t my first choice of style, but by now a considerable percentage of the documentaries I’ve seen, especially in recent years, have been of this style, so I’m kind of used to it.
I infer that a fair amount of what we’re seeing are not rehearsed scenes of actual plays, but exercises. Many seem to be of the general form of one participant being tasked with trying to get a reaction from another, and the other trying not to react.
For example, there are several clips where you get the sense that one person was instructed something like, “Your job is to make the other person leave the stage and go and sit down. You can say anything you want, in any way you want, at any volume you want, to achieve this, though you can’t physically touch the person,” and the other person was instructed something like, “Your job is to hold out as long as possible and remain standing center stage, without speaking and without reacting in any way.”
Most people instinctively turn into drill sergeants in that situation, turning the volume of their voice up as high as it will go, getting in the person’s face, and ordering them repeatedly to sit down.
One gal, though, starts that way, and then when her victim can’t help but crack a smile at her antics, she immediately switches strategies and seeks to laughingly cajole him off the stage. “Sit down or I’ll kill you” becomes “Sit down as a favor to me because we like each other.”
In another exercise involving a man and a woman, one participant (I infer) is charged with dancing seductively enough to get some reaction from the other, while the other, again, is supposed to be as stoic as possible and not give in.
It’s interesting that the dancing woman regards it as maximally provocative to shimmy and gyrate as close to the man as she can get without touching him, whereas when it’s the man’s turn he gets all handsy and embraces the woman, runs his hands up and down her, etc.
The vast majority of the scenes or exercises feature someone expressing intense emotions, most often anger, either alone center stage directed at no one in particular (except the audience) or in a conflict with another participant.
As I watched these clips, one thing that came into my head repeatedly is that acting training seems to have as its foundation a loss of inhibitions. I thought of a friend of mine who has been involved, both as a student and an instructor, in such enterprises as dance classes and improv comedy classes, and how he values them more for their therapeutic benefits than anything else. That is, he treats them as opportunities to free oneself from one’s usual restraints, to stop repressing oneself emotionally and just let loose, and to facilitate others doing likewise.
Kind of like the theory behind primal scream therapy. (You can certainly see a lot of overlap between primal scream therapy and the folks in this documentary.)
I’ve always had mixed feelings about that. I’m not completely averse to the notion that releasing oneself emotionally in the ways my friend advocates and in the ways we see in this film can be a liberating, healthy thing. But I also wonder if there isn’t some extrovert bias here.
I mean, my friend is a decided extrovert. His natural state is to be emoting, to dance and move, to carry on, to be social, to be the center of attention, etc. When he’s not doing so, it feels uncomfortable to him, like he’s hemming himself in, or allowing his circumstances or society to clamp down on him.
He then thinks that can be universalized. He sees an introvert like me, someone who rarely screams, loses his temper, gets “crazy,” dances with abandon, whatever, and he immediately reacts, “Ah ha, that’s a repressed person who has never learned to really get in touch with himself and let his emotions out. What he needs most is to loosen up!”
But what if carrying on like these people in the film or like my friend isn’t the natural state of all of us, isn’t something we’d all be doing if only we weren’t repressing ourselves in an unhealthy manner? Maybe the most natural, the most comfortable, the most emotionally healthy, state for me isn’t the same as it is for him.
Or think of children, especially those so young that they mostly haven’t internalized the socially mandated constraints on their behavior. While there can obviously be major drawbacks to uninhibited behavior (it can put them at physical risk, break things, make terrible messes, disturb people around them, etc.), there’s no doubt something wonderful to behold, perhaps something to be envious of, in such children totally letting loose with no restraints.
But my point is that while some little kids will manifest their lack of inhibitions by yelling and jumping up and down and spinning like a whirling dervish, another might plop himself down in the nearest mud puddle and quietly make a total mess of himself, and another might sit happily in a chair with a big grin on his face gobbling down an economy size bag of M&Ms in its entirety. Not every uninhibited child, or person, will be loud and constantly emoting.
I’m not sure. I’m just saying that whereas he’s certain that people like me would be a lot better off if we learned to just loosen up and let out our emotions in some flamboyant way rather than remaining so much in control all the time, I’m unconvinced either way.
Consider the exercise where the guy and girl are trying to get a rise out of each other. As extroverts, or at least as people who sense that extrovert behavior is what’s expected for this exercise, each instinctively dances seductively and tries to in effect overpower the other with what they take to be displays of raw sensuality. But is that really the only way, or most effective way, to make someone of the opposite sex potentially sexually open to you, or is it just the most extroverted way? Don’t people sometimes find a person sexually interesting and desirable because of their intellect, wit, strength of character, or other factors that don’t involve a lot of writhing around and emoting?
On the other hand, while I’m undecided how emotionally therapeutic this stuff is, I can see why it would be used in an acting class specifically. That is, I’m not sure that encouraging people to act more like extroverts is necessarily liberating and helpful to them as people (if they’re not already extroverts), but I suspect it’s helpful in turning them into actors.
That may not be obvious at first. One might think instead that while being able to behave like an extrovert is good insofar as it’ll enable you to portray extroverted characters, presumably it’s just as important to be able to behave like an introvert so as to enable you to portray introverted characters.
But I contend that there’s an asymmetry here. Characters in movies/TV shows/plays/etc. are, on the whole, substantially more extroverted than the general population. Certainly some are quieter, more subdued, etc. than others, but that’s only in a relative sense. Even those characters tend to be more extroverted than the vast majority of real people.
Think about how often the following things happen in a movie, etc. compared to real life: A person loses their temper, a person breaks down and cries, a person laughs uproariously, two people have a confrontation where they really “have it out” verbally, etc. Or even think about something as simple as: What percentage of the time in a movie, etc. is a given person speaking, versus, what percentage of the time in real life is the average person speaking? You know, most real people spend the vast majority of their time doing things like sleeping, working alone, driving, watching TV, etc.—all stuff that involves little speaking or emoting—whereas movies, etc. are almost all about situations where people are engaged with each other, whether in a confrontation, in play, in a seduction, in an adventure, whatever. Such characters, even the more supposedly introverted of them, are constantly called upon to manifest emotion, to speak, etc.
In live theater, this is all the more true. Your voice must project to the farthest reaches of the house, your physical gestures must be discernible from just as far away.
Even beyond the context of fiction, I remember when I tried out for “Jeopardy!” a long time ago, the folks running the audition told us there were two criteria used to select contestants. One was that you had to get at least a certain score on a trivia quiz they administered (I think it was 75% and I got around 70% or something like that, so I was already out—I’m not too upset about it; I contend that my intellect is far greater than my knowledge of trivia, and it just happens that the latter is far more important for succeeding at this game show), and the other, more important, one is they want very enthusiastic, fun, outgoing people. That latter requirement surprised me. I mean, don’t you think of “Jeopardy!” as kind of the “dignified,” “intellectual” game show, the kind that would be most welcoming of nerds and such? Well, in a relative sense, probably so. But even the game show that puts the least emphasis on contestants jumping around and getting excited and so on still requires a lot more extroversion than what is average in the general population.
And so it is with acting. If you’re not the kind of person who can dance around and scream and carry on with abandon—either in real life, or at least be capable of doing so when called upon to –you probably will never make it as an actor.
I found that the intensity of it all in Nadie se parece tanto a si mismo como cuando intenta ser distinto drew me in for a while, but that that effect gradually wore off. There’s only so long I can watch people screaming at each other and wailing about the pain in their life and such before it kind of starts feeling normal rather than attention-grabbing. The film is just over 40 minutes, and I wouldn’t have wanted it to be longer. Indeed, about 30 minutes of this material might have been better for me.
Though if the film had been willing to stray from this format so as to include other material—narration, interviews, background on the teachers and students, some kind of story involving a production they were to put on, whatever—then more than 40 minutes might well have held my interest. But just this raw material, clip after clip, of people emoting intensely was only effective for me for a limited amount of time.
Finally, what of the title? Is one of the lessons that we can draw from seeing actors, or at least acting students, at work that the more you try to act like someone else the more you reveal of yourself?
On the one hand, I almost want to say that it’s the opposite. Or at least that the worse you are as an actor the more you reveal of yourself when you play a character. Because as a bad actor, you never really get outside of yourself. You talk, move, emote, etc. the way you do rather than the way this character would.
If you’re watching your buddy Hank up on stage, and you never lose yourself in the character, never see him as anyone other than Hank, then Hank’s probably not much of an actor.
But there are other ways to think of it such that it makes more sense.
For instance, consider the fact that no two people will ever play the same part exactly the same. Let’s say Betty and Veronica are each playing Joan of Arc. Betty’s Joan of Arc will differ from Veronica’s Joan of Arc, maybe in broad, obvious ways, maybe in subtle ways.
In that case, we could say that if you subtract out what is common to Betty’s portrayal and Veronica’s portrayal, what is left—what each portrayal contains that the other doesn’t—is revealing of these two actresses.
Or another way to look at it is in the context not so much of acting as of training to be an actor, which is after all the subject of this documentary. In order to learn to act—at least this seems to be the philosophy of this particular acting class; I don’t know how universal the philosophy is—you first have to release your inhibitions and emote such that everything inside of you becomes externalized. We see that in exercise after exercise, as these folks scream and carry on about their mother, conflicts with their boyfriend, whatever.
The meaning of the title, then, would be not so much that through acting you reveal yourself, but more that as part of the preparation to act you have to reveal far more of yourself than is the norm in regular life.
On the whole, Nadie se parece tanto a si mismo como cuando intenta ser distinto is certainly a worthwhile film that provides plenty to think about.