‘Visibly unhappy’ Brie Larson and the amateur body linguists

Commentators dissecting perceived slights at Oscars need to brush up on film history

Casey Affleck won the best actor Oscar for his role as a grief-stricken father in, "Manchester by the Sea." It was the first Oscar for Affleck, 41, the younger brother of "Argo" director and actor Ben Affleck. Video: CLIP COURTESY A.M.P.A.S. 2017

 

So apparently Leonardo DiCaprio hates Emma Stone. That’s what I’ve deduced from coverage of last weekend’s Oscars. Watch as DiCaprio presents Stone with her award for best actress. The room bursts into applause, but Leo defiantly keeps his hands folded over his gentleman’s area. He’s the only one not applauding. This is taking the La La Land backlash too far.

Nobody is saying this. Nobody believes it. But they are saying that, by not applauding Casey Affleck’s triumph for best actor, Brie Larson, who presented the award, was showing her distaste for the controversial actor.

A picture emerged of the four acting category winners standing in front of a giant Oscar. Apparently Viola Davis’s glance at Affleck “says it all”. No, it doesn’t. It doesn’t say anything.

Some years ago, Affleck made an out of court settlement with two women who accused him of sexual harassment. “Brie Larson’s protest of Casey Affleck’s win was an act of solidarity with survivors,” the Advocate argued. Was it really a protest? It could have been. But there are an awful lot of assumptions in that headline.

Less stable still was Marie Claire’s suggestion that she “looked visibly unhappy” handing him the Oscar. (And not just because “visibly” completes a tautology.) She actually beamed briefly when Affleck was on the way up from his seat. What does that mean? Maybe she was gloating over her upcoming “protest”.

Listen to Róisín Meets

Other periodicals produced supposed evidence that Brie had been “visibly unhappy” with Affleck throughout awards season. This usually comprised a photograph of Larson wearing a neutral expression while sitting in the same room as Affleck.

I am not arguing that Larson has no problem with Affleck. I’m certainly not arguing that she would be wrong to feel unease at his continuing success with awards voters. The Oscar winning actress, who played a survivor of sexual abuse in Lenny Abrahamson’s Room, may well harbour understandable ill feeling towards him. The point is that nobody could deduce that from these vague inclinations and omissions alone.

Awards Season is perfect for Kuleshov-related mischief. It’s not often that you get a roomful of famous people staring at a stage-load of equally famous people.

Awards season is awash with such pronouncements from amateur body linguists.

Later that evening, a picture emerged of the four acting category winners standing in front of a giant Oscar. Apparently Viola Davis’s glance at Affleck “says it all”. No, it doesn’t. It doesn’t say anything.

 “The way Andrew Garfield looked at ex-girlfriend Emma Stone during her Oscars speech is breaking hearts,” the Daily Mirror told us. The story features a hazy photograph of Garfield looking like a man who has just eaten a slightly stale Hobnob while completing a cryptic crossword. He looks as if he’s planning a potholing holiday in Cornwall. He looks like a man thinking whatever the heck you want him to think. Put a map of central Europe beside him and you might conclude that he was plotting a Fourth Reich.

Kuleshov effect

One can hardly imagine a better example of the Kuleshov effect in action. Around a century ago, Lev Kuleshov, the great Russian film-maker and film theorist, constructed an experiment involving the actor Ivan Mosjoukine. Kuleshov pointed his camera at Mosjoukine and asked the star to keep his face as expressionless as possible. The same footage was then intercut with various contrasting images: a bowl of soup, a child in a coffin, a woman reclining on a couch. When the resulting film was screened, the audience believed that Mosjoukine’s expressions changed each time he appeared on screen. One observer claimed that the crowd appreciated: “the heavy pensiveness of his mood over the forgotten soup, were touched and moved by the deep sorrow with which he looked on the dead child, and noted the lust with which he observed the woman.” (Coincidentally, at least one review mentioned the Kuleshov effect when discussing Affleck’s notably blank performance in Manchester by the Sea.) The experiment confirmed that, in cinema, any image’s meaning is partly dictated by the images that precede and succeed it. Put a hamburger where Emma Stone was and Andrew Garfield looks hungry.

Awards Season is perfect for Kuleshov-related mischief. It’s not often that you get a roomful of famous people staring at a stage-load of equally famous people. Consider the image of Mel Gibson and Vince Vaughn, two conservatives, allegedly glowering furiously at Meryl Streep while she attacked Donald Trump at the Golden Globes. Dig out the footage and you discover that, when the photograph was taken, Streep was explaining how Tommy Lee Jones once told her it was a “privilege to be an actor”. You start with that sort of dangerous talk and you end up herding Kulaks into trucks. Right?

Ponder all those supermarket tabloids that proved Angelina Jolie’s marriage was on the rocks by publishing a photograph of her looking at the side of Brad Pitt’s face. Okay, that did eventually prove to be true. Even a stopped clock tells the right time twice a day. Move on. There’s nothing to see here. 

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