Is the stage, for the actor, what the arena is for the bullfighter? The reference to Hemingway early in the film provides unusual grist for the theatrical mill. Like the torero, the actor has to deal with “grace under pressure” and keep his “purity of line” in the face of adversity. For him, adversity means “losing it” to bad memory, fatigue and aging. The public might embody the bulls he has to face throughout his career: he cannot turn his back on them for fear of undergoing symbolic death—becoming a “freak” or a fraud. Yet, the fiercest bull is his own self roaming on the secret stage of his expectations and delusions.
The opening scene of the film shows an actor (Simon Axler) precisely in that kind of arena. He is involved in a performative dialogue between himself and his persona while reciting lines from As You Like It. He is laboring and struggling to get it right. The pace of the sequence mimics the striding—‘strutting’ in the Shakespearean image—of the actor on stage (real or theatrical) to act out the many parts involved in each life: some are rehearsed, some are improvised. Some are remembered, some are forgotten. Some are longed for, some are dreaded. This vignette—which has the emblematic brevity and density of Hemingway’s prose indeed—draws the contours of the multilayered complexity of the human condition. After all, we are, in Arthur Miller’s beautiful words, “high galaxies of possibilities over a fear of falling”. Later, during a group therapy session, Simon admits to having “lost track of his craft”. Hemingway’s figure looms large above him. But, unlike his ghost, he has botched his suicide and has to retrieve what is left of his artistic stamina to go on.
The actor at work
The camera exposes the actor at work – “the sweat and the blood” in Faulkner’s words. Al Pacino, in good practician of Method Acting, outdoes himself by playing a character (an actor) that pushes the Method to its limits by actually experiencing the death he is supposed to perform. Simon’s enactment of King Lear’s final “exit” represents his swan song as an artist. The audience is caught between disbelief and admiration, wandering away from conventional scripts for no longer clearly distinguishing between the theatrical stage and their own existential arena—like the public attending a bullfight, knowing that the bullfighter may die, but shocked at seeing it actually happen in the here and now of the spectacle.
The film takes us somewhere between cinema and theatre. The close-ups linger on the intimacy of the actor’s flesh in a transgressive and intrusive manner, undermining our viewing pleasure: the character here is pitiful and mercifully vulnerable. When Simon ogles at Pegeen and her friend through his Commedia dell Arte mask, we feel that our voyeuristic gaze is exposed. Real or fantasized, the scene also hints at the shadows in the wall of Plato’s cave. Where is the real word? Where is the fictional world? What is our part in this “dance of the happy shades”?
Theatre has always mesmerized because of its ability to create an illusion. The Humbling involves the spectator in a similar experience. Do we dismiss the different encounters and characters as products of Simon’s imagination and brooding? Whose story do we believe? In the end, we are unable to tell between his mythmaking and his life; the truth rests in the beholder’s eyes. The intertextuality with T. Williams’s play provides an additional insight into the world of make-believe. Blanche Dubois and her ability to refashion a streetcar into an icon for desire haunt Simon’s character; the world, as the Southern belle often intimates, relies on fifty per cent illusion. Our imagination sometimes plays (welcome) tricks on us; our fantasies become the strangers on whom we sometimes gratefully rely.
Pegeen, one of Blanche’s contemporary daughters perhaps, had understood the wedding band from A Streetcar Named Desire, given to her by Simon after the performance when she was a teenager, to be binding:“I always thought you would marry me” she comments to him twenty years later. But he is no Stanley—on stage and in reality. She has learned that props are also used in real life. The body, too, may become an accessory: decoy or toy, statement or mask, it can turn into a commodity, relentlessly valued or cruelly discarded.
The blurring of boundaries between real life and fiction resonates with the pervasive presence of cyber life in our existence. Digital devices such as cell phones and computers increasingly mediate human relationships. Our changing world is epitomized, perhaps, in Simon’s miniature train—old technology reduced to being a toy after having been viewed as the icon of progress in the Industrial Age: what has replaced it in the Information Age?
The movie also engages with consumer society and the way it impacts human relations. Someone’s affection can be “bought”; the individual is at risk of losing out in an endless race for material things and success. What happens when social recognition fails you in a society that cannot process aging and vulnerability? Is weakness quickly framed as mental illness? The reference to King Lear reprises the motif of madness: what constitutes normality?
The swapping of identities (Priscilla/Prince) resonates with the cross-dressing theme in As You Like It. In addition, the issue of having the proper costume for the part is teased in an uncanny filmic moment for the viewer: the actor, who is locked out after having stepped into the street through the back door, tries to reenter the theatre through the main entrance. But his stage costume is mistaken for real clothes: seen as a tramp, he is denied entry to the building. The sequence echoes a similar episode from Birdman, creating an eerie effect of repetition.
Male and female desire is explored through the intertextuality with A Streetcar Named Desire. Pegeen refuses to go along with the script Simon has imagined for her (and for them); his dream of a child clashes with her desire for independence. Some sequences resonate with Woody Allen’s men and women—or Hemingway’s. No hills, no white elephants. Just a violent break-up before an oxymoronic final (fatal) premiere. For whom the bells toll? For the character. For the actor. Orestes and his hissing snakes might replace Hamlet’s ghost this time.
Blanche’s famous line: “I’ve always relied on the kindness of strangers” comes to mind as we walk away from the movie theatre. Literary characters may be the last kind companions of our vulnerability and loneliness. But, we wonder, what cultural work does such a film perform in our posthuman era? It might sketch a counterpoint to its chimeras: are they truths or illusions? Cinema reminds us, perhaps, that in dreams begins responsibility.