The form of the meme goes like this: Random Internet jokester inserts random image along with superimposed text that reads: ‘Still more facial expressions than Kristen Stewart’. Add extra humour points if the image is an inanimate object or an entity without a face, say, an octopus. The message is that Kristen Stewart is a bad actress who only has one expressionless, sullen face that she wears no matter what the story she is enacting requires of her. But like a lot of meme-wisdom, this message rests on a whole body of theoretical presuppositions and ideological positions that are worth interrogating before one unthinkingly participates in it.
The first idea to be contested is the idea that ‘good’ screen acting is about moving through a series of facial expressions. Back in the 1920s, the principle of ‘one face, many emotions’ was the basis of a famous film experiment carried out by Lev Kuleshov who showed an audience the face of an actor juxtaposed with the image of either a plate of soup, a child in a coffin or a sexy woman. In each instance, the audience took the actor to be ‘expressing’ the emotions of hunger, compassion and lust, respectively. In reality, it was the same shot of the actor using one expression. The lesson is that cinematic emotion is less about an actor’s labours than it is a function of narrative context and the construction of image sequences.
Once an actor starts actively ‘emoting’, a film immediately runs the risk of overselling a moment. The great French director Robert Bresson was famous for training his mostly unprofessional actors to remove all semblances of theatricality and performance from their work. He encouraged a fast, monotonic delivery of the film’s dialogue in order to produce a ‘pure’ cinematic effect. The Japanese master Yasujiro Ozu similarly chose actors not on the basis of their acting ability but for some unconscious quality in their physical appearance or manner. By contrast, one could describe the always self-consciously virtuosic actor Geoffrey Rush as the uncinematic actor par excellence.
Which isn’t to say that Kristen Stewart isn’t someone who makes a conscious effort to ‘act’. In her interviews, it is quite obvious that Stewart thinks through her characters’ inner lives and works through something that could be described as an acting process. But I think it’s fair to say that Stewart’s acting is a matter of how to produce a maximum of emotion with a minimum of expressive variation. It’s a question of small gestures: adopting a particular posture here or biting one’s bottom lip there or tucking both your hands into your back pocket – this is all that’s needed to know that her character is this rebellious adolescent rockstar in The Runaways or this girl acting out against her materialistic father in Adventureland.
But there’s another stake in the idea that Kristen Stewart is a bad actress. I feel that the public rejection of Kristen Stewart as an actress is a rejection of ‘Kristen Stewart’ as an idea and, by extension, a rejection of a certain kind of person by means of treating cinema as the privileged domain of those glamorously witty, super articulate types that colonise our media landscape (say, Tina Fey or Woody Allen).
Next time you’re in a classroom full of teenagers (I’m using a schoolroom metaphor here because it’s one of those social situations that forces people to be together who share no common purpose) take a look around and you’ll notice more than a few plain faces who are uncomfortable with small talk, who don’t excite easily, who seem (on the outside at least) monotonal. They are the type that in our crueller moments we suspect of being devoid of a personality and whom we generally assume not to be worth our attention. They pop up in films from time to time, for example in Gus Van Sant’s magnificent Elephant, which uses non-professional actors and depicts the utterly ordinary lives of American teenagers. I feel an overwhelming upsurge of emotion watching these faces, the same feeling I had watching Kristen Stewart in Into the Wild; the incredible beauty of that naïve, androgynous figure in the desert whose awkward attempts at romantic gestures come out in short, clipped sentences. It’s this kind of acting that frees us from our preoccupation with the genius of the actor and allows us instead the truly cinematic pleasure of looking at people simply being.