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On Art and Authenticity

On Art and Authenticity

Films without celebrities may seem more genuine, but in real life we’re much like movie stars.

Illustration by Byron Eggenschwiler.

Last night I watched Blue Valentine, which stars Ryan Gosling and Michelle Williams as an unhappy husband and wife. It’s a dark, dirty-realist romance. But if the director, Derek Cianfrance, was going for realism, why did he hire movie stars? Why not unknowns? Why do we want to watch the same actors play different roles? I can imagine humans just as easily going the other way—enjoying an actor in one role, then never wanting to see her play any other.

Movie stars make your brain do funny things. While watching Michelle Williams in Blue Valentine, I was simultaneously remembering her in Brokeback Mountain—a woman from another time, in different dress. I couldn’t help but think of The Notebook, in which Ryan Gosling had been in love with Rachel McAdams, not Michelle Williams at all. My mind went to what I knew of Michelle Williams’ life (living in Brooklyn, a young mother, a sort of widow) and what I knew of Ryan Gosling’s life (very little). All these layers complicated my suspension of disbelief, my pure immersion in the world of the film. Why would a director want this? Why would I?

The day before watching Blue Valentine, I saw Winter’s Bone, a film whose star, Jennifer Lawrence, I did not recognize. Nor did I recognize any of the secondary characters. It was so different from my experience of watching Blue Valentine. I kept thinking that maybe Winter’s Bone was a documentary, an idea I did not—even for an instant—entertain while watching Michelle Williams kiss Ryan Gosling. Even when I reminded myself that Winter’s Bone wasn’t a documentary, I couldn’t help but wonder if perhaps the actress lived a life similar to the one she was portraying: a poor teenager in the Ozarks. (Later, seeing Lawrence looking quite conventionally beautiful on the cover of a magazine—like any starlet—the illusion was finally broken.) Because of director Debra Granik’s decision to cast unknowns, Winter’s Bone was more “realistic.”

Yet I’m becoming convinced that there is actually something more deeply realistic about Blue Valentine—about seeing films starring actors we know. Watching an unknown actor is like encountering your brother or friend: a whole, unified, single character, with one name, one appearance, a limited context, nothing other than what he is. Watching actors we’re familiar with, on the other hand, aligns closer to our subjective experience of the world—of life as it’s lived by us.

When I see Michelle Williams play different parts, I have some sense of an actual, central Michelle Williams in my mind. This mirrors my own experience of being a person: I have a self that’s independent of the many context-specific roles I play. When I’m watching Blue Valentine, I’m conscious of Michelle Williams’ other realities, just as I, in any given moment, am conscious of all my other lived realities. The multiple layers I project onto Michelle Williams are in concert with the multiple layers of my life.

Imagine the reverse: a film culture in which the protagonist is always played by an unknown, while all the small parts, even the extras, are played by stars. It would be the opposite of our actual, lived experience.

We enjoy watching talented stars because it reinforces some irrational hope: that we could live many different lives, lives as different as an actor’s roles. We have all imagined ourselves into millions of scenarios we’ll never experience. Imagining them, on some level, strengthens the belief that we could live them, if only life—or the people around us—would let us! As children, we thought life would be full of possibility, full of range. Instead, life turns out to be a pretty narrow series of contexts and relationships.

People like Jennifer Aniston or George Clooney, on the other hand, don’t alter from role to role as deeply as, say, Dustin Hoffman. But I think, on some level, we prefer watching these less-great actors. Their contexts change from movie to movie, but they transform only within narrow parameters—parameters that resemble our own. Mediocre actors are more tragic, more poignant for this reason. They’re more like we are. I know that if I, Sheila Heti, were to live any of the various movies in my head (like that life in the casinos of Vegas) I would pretty much remain this same Sheila Heti. I wouldn’t transform the way Dustin Hoffman does. Even as we move between our actual, lived multiple realities (who we are with our friends, versus with our family), we more or less stay close to a core, recognizable self.

There’s a certain conversation I never get into with anyone my age—only with people who came of age in the sixties. There’s a persistent word in their vocabulary that troubles few of my generation: “authenticity.” Over and over, I hear older men and women reveal their longing for an “authentic” self, one that’s been lost or hampered.

I know what they mean, but I am skeptical that the goal of my life should be to live more authentically. Striving for authenticity feels at once too selfish, too Sisyphean and too banal. Maybe there’s some more interesting goal to pursue—a more artful way of living, more “realistic.” Michelle Williams in Blue Valentine is not lying. She is not being false or inauthentic. She’s being an artist. Those roles are not lies—they’re her art.

If my multiple roles are like those of Michelle Williams or Jennifer Aniston, then can’t my roles be my art? They’re not strange deviations from my core self. Just as Michelle Williams would not exist to us if she weren’t in those different roles—and if there weren’t a core Michelle Williams at the heart of it all—we would not exist to each other if we were not in our different roles.

What do they say about the best actors? That they make brave, unexpected choices—as we might. They know how to improvise, and can both take the spotlight and give it. Good actors knows how to make other actors look good. They are generous. They are intelligent, though not necessarily intellectual. They use their emotions, but are not used by them.

Art is not an impulse foreign to our natures. That we can make art and appreciate it is implicit in the very idea of what a human is. That we have to take on roles should not have to be a burden. It can be our art.

So why not play? Why not act, and make conscious choices, and be artful? For me, making art implies being engaged and fulfilled, being free, being in control, making choices and sharing my humanity—communicating with the world. I would rather master my art than run after authenticity.