12 April 2008

MODERNITY AND THE FILM STAR: 'ROBERT DE NIRO'

The words; 'method guru' are probably the defining characteristics which we tend to associate with the star, Robert De Niro. It is his popular relationship with the method style of acting that most people have come to recognise him by and his name has become another American icon embedded within our cultural parameters. De Niro has helped to push the method style of acting to the forefront of modern American cinema, by producing a remarkable range of character based performances that have called for immense physical transformations. Undergoing extraordinary metamorphosis's for the smallest of roles reflects a man obsessed with perfection and equally compelled by the neo realist concept of 'authenticity'. De Niro avoids the powerful influence of make up and special effects because they represent a compromised and superficial means of constructing an illusion that is pretentious. He prefers the asethetics of real acting which demands a consistent search for real life material and detailed research. This choice of total immersion with performance breaks down the illusion of acting solely for the screen as De Niro's work reaches beyond the shoot, penetrating into his private life. His obsession with his craft has created a long list of much celebrated stories that reflect his method madness, and many of these myths have become synonymous with Hollywood celebrity culture and folklore. For the role of Al Capone in De Palma's The Untouchables gangster film, De Niro had the exact same underwear made which Al Capone wore when he was still around haunting the streets of Chicago in the 1920s - though the underwear would never make a screen appearance, De Niro's authentic and punishing approach demanded that he wear them.

Dominating the modern American cinema of the seventies was the dubious and strangely sympathetic figure of the anti-hero, a male figure whom possessed non heroic and weak qualities not traditionally characteristic of the hero. The anti hero of 1970s Hollywood cinema was an isolated and alienated character whom De Niro played variations on in films like Taxi Driver, The Deer Hunter and The King of Comedy. These are characters who are typically frustrated males at odds with society, lashing out in a violently disturbing manner and representative of the uglier side of the American underbelly. We could go as far as to label them as sociopaths today. The last and most cinematic association with De Niro the star is his now legendary collaboration with the American director-auteur, Martin Scorsese who together have forged an intimate and highly personal relationship and an extensively daring body of cinematic works. The 'actor's director' is another characteristic linked to De Niro as he is an actor who revels in collaborating fully with the director in bringing to the screen the most appropriate performance. When De Niro completed the first day of filming on Kazan's 'The Last Tycoon', he phoned the director to develop the character further. Martin Scorsese is one of the few people who actually know's the man behind the mask as his off screen persona remains inaccessible and is an enigma as puzzling as that of Brando. Secluding himself from the public's view, De Niro has been presented as a very private and quiet individual, maintaining a low profile until recently where he is seen often on televison endorsing products and brands like American express. Then again the privacy and mystery off screen complements his on screen image as the myth of the frustrated male loner is confirmed by De Niro's refusal to give interviews, reinforcing the notion of him having become alienated from modern society in real life and that he is just as inarticulate as the characters he has embodied on screen.

De Niro has consistently been portrayed as the loner on and off screen right from his breakthrough performance in Scorsese's 'Taxi Driver'. The division that typically exists between the off and on screen image of a film star is not a rule that we can readily apply to someone like De Niro. Everything we see on screen is assumed to be a reflection of the man in reality. This unusually high degree of assumption on behalf of the viewer has occured because of De Niro's isolation from the media's intrusive glare. It is interesting to compare 'Heat' (1995), one of the De Niro's most recent performances with one of his first, 'Taxi Driver' (1976) and to identify that his actual star image of the loner and introvert has not changed significantly. In 'Heat', De Niro plays hard boiled criminal, Neil McCauley who's dedication to his criminal code has numbed his ability to socialise - like Travis Bickle he experiences a great degree of loneliness.

To reverse these dominant representations that have been established over his career would be an unfair mythical deconstruction of his own importance as a star in American cinema. Many of the characters he has played and the ones that have been written about extensively in film literature are 'criminals' and his image has been liberally constructed around his upbrining as he was raised in the Bronx, on the so called mean streets of New York. We can subsequently determine how his Italian origins have been exploited in order that they be directly associated with society's stereotypical image of the Italian hoodlum which is contrary to De Niro's personal admittance of a childhood filled with loneliness. Once again, the persistent emphasis on his upbringing within an environment of loneliness and violence fits into the persona of many of his on screen characters.

There are two basic modes of movement visible within De Niro's performances; the bestial energy of the violent male and stationery silence of the loner. In 'Raging Bull', the camera is constantly attempting to keep up with his amazing physical prowess in the ring and at home. This uneasy combination of violent energy and stillness creates a strange duality which is seemingly ambivalent as it comes across as being a desperate struggle between the two for the man himself. De Niro's style is closer to the restrained and confrontational style of Brando, combining lonely silences and outbursts of violence that are highly emotional and physical. Over the years De Niro has created a cerebral style which suggests he only chooses roles that are physically demanding which is perhaps contradictory when we examine his post 2000 work which consists of comedy roles in films like 'Meet The Parents' that celebrate the postmodern notion of self parody which he so regularly likes to endorse these days.

De Niro has shown a remarkable versitality working within the constraints of the mainstream, taking on many genres, learning to adapt his punishing and methodical approach to everything from crime to comedy. He is surprisingly one of the few actors who can make the audience sympathise with imoral outsiders and misfits like Jake La Motta, Rupert Pupkin and Travis Bickle - deviations from the classical Hollywood protagonist. It has been 30 years since De Niro started to act in films and considering his relatively inconsistent box office record and bankability, it is strangely unique that through the 80s, a period in which the America become one capitalist frenzy, De Niro managed to come out relatively unscathed. De Niro survived by refusing to compromise his artistic credibility by rejecting commercial projects, choosing roles that provided him with the chance to fufil his need for personal expression. His criticism of Hollywood cinema in the 80s, much of which was directed towards a refusal on part of the script writers to produce intellectual, daring scripts, forced him to work with European film makers who were still committed to the notion of personal expression. Films like 'The Mission', 'Brazil', 'Angel Heart', 'Once Upon a time in America' were all made by directors who are considered to be part of the European arthouse scene. Terry Gilliam, Alan Parker and Sergio Leone, circumvented the Hollywood system by using De Niro as a ploy for raising financing whilst at the same time allowing them to stay true to their original visions for their film projects. Scorsese arguably does a similar thing today with Leonardo De Caprio, whom he uses primarily to get the neccessary financial clout for his increasingly expensive film projects.

Towards the end of the 80s, the game was up and De Niro's shift into the mainstream commercial arena was signalled by his unexpected departure from tough, cynical roles to the comic role a Bounty Hunter, Jack Walsh, in the sleeper hit, 'Midnight Run'. The success of Midnight Run proved his commercial potential as a bankable star. In the 90s, De Niro would alternate regularly from art to commerce with films like 'Heat', 'Cape Fear' and 'Backdraft', reinventing himself as an icon of some real cultural significance. Today, De Niro seems to have had enough of the method madness, and the gradual domination of the high concept film has meant that his choice of roles has become less dependent on the physical demands they could bring but rather on the possibilities of commercial pleasures and attractions. The same could be said about Pacino's recent work.

Like most of Franz Kafka's protagonists who are alienated strangers subjected to capitalist beauracracy, De Niro's performances have constantly reminded use of the ills and sickness experiences in modern environment. The foremost psychological conditioning of alienation can be seen in the performances of 'Taxi Driver' and 'Heat'. They are represented as anxious males drifting through a fractured urban landscape associated with dead, empty spaces that are a reflection of the negative effects of living in a modern world. In many of his fims, De Niro gets across our own fears and hostile relationship we have with our own oppressively detached surroundings. This experience of the modern environment is cynical, brutal and coldly pessimistic, presenting an outlook on life that is defiantely bleak. Disorder in his performance is another stark reminder of the increasing loss of social control in today's world - the notion of the vigilante in Taxi Driver was a disturbing prophecy on the inversion of state control. Travis Bickle's stomach pains are another symbol of the suffocating effects of the world he inhabits. This fatalistic inability to communicate expressively and clearly with the people around him is symptomatic of the paranoia modernity has imposed upon us, trapping us in a world we can no longer relate to, communicate in, nor function within.

Violence is another vital source of expression present in De Niro's performance style and has pointed towards our own ever increasing personal experiences with violence within the context of a society that seems obsessed with control and alienation. The hyperbolic anti social violence that is so persistently inherent within performances we find in 'Taxi Driver' and 'Raging Bull' is problematic of our own apathetic difficulties with real life violence to which we have become desensitised by the media at large. We have accepted violence as trivial and normal yet characters like Travis Bickle re emphasises the brutally self destructive approach that is so readily visible within much of society today. Bickle's desire for acknowledgment and recognition from society through the media's transformation of him into a local hero is a commentary on the perverted role of the media. The media's morbid pre occupation with romanticising the actions of Bickle is a distorted reflection rather than an honest appreciation of Bickle's actual anger.

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