Screen tests and the uncanny

Screen tests are fun to look at, letting you peek before the actors peak, as it were (or crash). There must be some good philosophy to be written about the uncanny. (Hasn’t Susan Sontag written something on this?)

[On checking, it turns out that Sigmund "Sometimes a cigar is just a cigar" Freud is the great theorist of the uncanny and Susan Sontag hasn't come up with anything that turns up with any prominence in Google. Nothing like a bit of raw ignorance to begin a post with.]

In any event I love the uncanny – and thinking about what’s comic about impersonators – both those that strive for verisimilitude like Max Giles and those that don’t – like John Clarke. All this humour works at the level of the uncanny it seems to me – surprising us by showing us what is familiar and how it is familiar – because we can see something just like it which is clearly not it. It surprises and delights us with what we take for granted and what we cognise as we see it.

And speaking of the uncanny, check out the screen test for the three great actorlets in Harry Potter. It’s a great risk casting someone when they did who will pupate while you make the films. I think that in the movies they were pretty much all at their best in the first movie. Hermoine was simply wonderful, Ron was great and Harry – though blander than the others – was excellent. They all remained good of course, but Hermoine was never as good as the first film – which is more an observation of how totally wonderful she was in the first film. Ron stayed as good as he was and Harry pupated rather badly – and ended up a bit wooden and somehow ended up with a bit of a macho stance – with his arms hanging wide around his hips a little like a gunslinger.

Anyway in the screen test, Hermione isn’t nearly as good as in the first movie (though she’s good) – so they worked on her and did great things for it. Ron is the great same old same old – good in his test and in all the movies.

But Harry is the big surprise. Daniel Radcliffe is quite lovely in the screentest and has a kind of pellucid quality – I don’t know if I’ve got the right word, but there’s some youthful freshness that shines through in an extraordinary way.

In a previous post I made this comment:

One of the things that intrigues me about the world is that acting is never ‘realistic’.  For instance whenever you listen to a documentary and some scene is ‘reconstructed by actors’, you can always tell that they’re actors.  They say their lines like they’re in a play or a movie, yet they’re acting real life. Strange isn’t it? They’re professionals at feigning life, and yet, when their only job is to feign life, not to ‘put on a play’ which is understandably a kind of hyper-real-life, they can’t do it. I’d like to understand why this is so. I’m sure it’s not a reflection on actors that their acting is not fully ‘realistic’, just as a TV presenters speech to camera is not like they speak normally, and just as when we give a speech to a group it’s not the same voice we use to speak to each other. Still I think it is a very telling reflection on actors that they show little sign of doing something completely realistic on the rare occasions when it’s called for.

But in a way that’s very rare for an actor, indeed, I guess this is because it is before Radcliffe became an actor you can’t quite tell that he’s acting. He’s got an awkward kind of smile on his face which makes you think he’s not really doing the screen test, but it turns out he is – and doing a quite extraordinary job of it.

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