CAMERA ACTION TIO ON
PHOTOGRAPHS S FROM THE SETS TS OF GREAT FILMS MS
Magnum: On Set State Library of NSW, Sydney, to June 23
WHEN people think of the French philosophes of the 18th century — the precursors of what we would now consider intellectuals rather than academic philosophers — they inevitably recall Voltaire, the acerbic and witty author of Candide (1759), or Jean-Jacques Rousseau, who wrote political works such as The Social Contract (1762) and a great treatise on education, Emile (1762), as well as revealing all the complexities of a exceptionally neurotic inner life in one of the most remarkable autobiographies written, the Confessions (1769; published posthumously in 1782).
But there is a third figure — Denis Diderot — who tends to be forgotten perhaps because many of his writings most admired by subsequent generations were published after his death. In his lifetime, he was best known as the editor of the monumental Encyclopedie, which came out in 28 volumes from 1751 to 1772: originally intended as a version of the earlier British Cyclopaedia (1728) published by Ephraim Chambers, the first modern reference work of this kind, it grew far beyond its initial brief and sought to epitomise, in words and copious large-scale technical plates, all human knowledge and technology from the university to the workshop. The enormous success of this project led in turn to the Encyclopedia Britannica, first published in Scotland from 1768.
Diderot ran into opposition from church authorities over the content of some of the articles in his great work, although fortunately for him the project was protected by the powerful and intellectual Comte d’Argenson, who was in effect the overseer of government censorship as well as minister of war. But some of his most daring philosophical and scientific hypotheses were proposed in texts that remained unpublished in his lifetime, such as the extraordinary Reve de d’Alembert, in which he imagines himself sitting by the bedside of his co-editor, a great mathematician, who is tossing in a fever and whose rambling hypotheses about the nature of life itself — reaching well beyond either church doctrine or scientific consensus at the time — conclude in an involuntary sexual climax.
Diderot was also the forerunner of modern art criticism and was able to write unprecedentedly frank and witty as well as insightful commentary on the contemporary Salon exhibitions because the pieces appeared in a private newsletter, Grimm’s Correspondance litteraire (1753-90), so private indeed that it was circulated in manuscript form to a handful of central and eastern European monarchs who were its exclusive and strictly confidential subscriber base. Again, it was only when these reviews were published after the author’s death that they attracted the interest of Goethe and other great minds of the next generation.
And yet another work that fascinated these later readers was the Paradoxe sur le comedien.
This is the first modern treatise on the art of the actor, although it is less a manual than an attempt to correct a general misapprehension about performance, and to suggest a theory about how the actor makes an impression on an audience. The paradox of the title refers to Diderot’s refutation of what was then, as it no doubt still is now, a common misunderstanding about the actor’s art.
People assume when an actor plays a character who is angry, for example, he must himself be angry at the time. But in reality, as Diderot shows, the actor is almost certainly not really angry at all, and indeed if he were he would not be able to perform properly, concentrate on directing his voice into the auditorium, recall the blocking of the scene, etcetera. Nor is it his own anger, distress, love and so forth that he plays; for often he is called on to play an emotion that he has never known at this pitch of intensity.
Constantin Stanislavski — and the later school of method acting — would later reply that an actor uses the emotions that he has experienced, but only as the starting point for an act of imaginative creation.
Similar questions, incidentally, have arisen in the theories of writing and painting. Does an author have to be sad when writing a tragic scene, for example? But in any case the art of the actor is to feign, imagine and represent the