Remember that you are an actor in a play, which is as the playwright wants it to be: short if he wants it short, long if he wants it long. If he wants you to play a beggar, play even this part skillfully, or a cripple, or a public official, or a private citizen. What is yours is to play the assigned part well. But to choose it belongs to someone else.
Epictetus (trans. Nicholas P. White)
When you think about it, films are a strange metaphysical work of art. You can buy a ticket and watch someone’s life begin and end in two hours with a bag of popcorn. Joy and pain, the two main emotions we feel, are only elements we as outsiders perceive for our own amusement.
We judge the characters on the screen for their actions and dialog.
Their births and deaths are artistic to us cinema-goers. Fiction they might be, but they can bring us into tears and laughter because these characters are performing for our own amusement. We don’t think about the editors, the costume designers, the grips, the best boys, the production assistants, and any other staff positions you don’t recognize in the staff roll; at most, we may know who the director and the actors are, but we don’t actually think about them.
We think about the characters whose tragedies are dramatized on the film. Their roles, no matter what social position they hold in their fictional worlds, are in the end to entertain us.
What we don’t realize is that we are playing the same roles outside the cinema because other people are watching us. We might be acting as a fool in the classroom who unwittingly entertain others in the upper social castes at the expense of ourselves; we could also act as leaders of a group who sacrifice their spare time to finish off projects for other people; or maybe we’re acting as bystanders who pretend nothing is wrong when everything is wrong. We are all actors in a society playing our own roles so well enough that we don’t perceive we are in essence method acting.
We are all good liars.
Agni is an especially good liar. In a world where the tundra never ends and there are no sunny tomorrows, his sister and he are blessed people (祝福者) for they hold special rejuvenating powers. They have escaped to a village of elderly people and are repaying their kindness with their powers. Agni cuts his limbs and gives them to the village elder, so everyone can eat his body parts and still live to see the next wintery day.
He can do this because his regenerative abilities are fast enough to maintain a good pace of cutting limbs and feeding the whole village. Agni thinks he is doing good. He has found a role for himself: he is the breadwinner for the whole village because he can use his body to feed everyone. Agni believes this is the only — and the best — way to survive out the ice age.
However, that paradise of a lie ends when Doma and his troops land on the village to steal their food and children. When they realize that the village is in fact a cannibalistic society, Doma is disgusted and uses his power to burn and raze the village.
Everyone Agni has worked to save them has died before his eyes. His little sister who he loves and swears to protect before she can see the sun melt the ice burns and dies. He wants to die too like everyone else. But her words echo inside his head. She wants him to live. He refuses to die and lives instead in pain.
His body now burns from hate.
From this moment, he has become the protagonist of a movie. A very bad b-movie. Joining forces with Togata, a self-proclaimed director, he learns what it means to be a protagonist and follow the plotlines needed to create what Togata believes will be the best movie ever made.
What does a protagonist need to do? A training montage to show how much they despise the villain for taking everything away. They need to say lines worthy of a tragic hero. Agni needs to think himself as a protagonist whose sole motivation is revenge.
That is why his body is burning. He is a man enveloped in fire. Those flames have to mean something and Togata sees it as a symbol of sweet vengeance. So as director, Togata tells Agni, the actor, to behave more like a protagonist.
Let us take the proposition seriously and see Agni’s life as a film — a documentary — as Togata wished. In order to create a compelling protagonist, Togata has to eliminate what Judith Weston in Directing Actors call “result direction” in Agni’s acting. Telling someone to be scared, for example, just means they will overact and mimic what they have seen in horror films. Instead, her approach is to let the actors experience the horror themselves through a memory or something that make them uncomfortable outside the stage. Real acting comes from the inside.
But Agni can’t act. He always breaks what Constantin Stanislavski called in An Actor Prepares “the organic bases of the laws of nature” in acting. Agni is unable to “plan [his] role consciously” and “play it truthfully”. He cannot “induce outbursts of inspiration” at will. Agni is acting, but nothing about it is believable. He can’t picture an “inner moment” of this character he is playing. Without a series of these “inner moments”, he doesn’t see his acting as part of a “moving picture”. If he could act creatively, “this film will unroll and be thrown on the screen of [his] inner vision, making vivid the circumstances among which [he is] moving” in the story. But he has no conception of what a movie is in this dystopian world and does not believe in the role himself.
So his wooden acting persists in the film. He is forcing himself to be the protagonist of this movie, even though he has none of these experiences that tell him what kind of hero he should be. Agni is casted by Togata and that’s about it. He tries to act what he believes a hero is. Agni imagines what heroes do and he emulates it. But he has no one to mimic. He is worse than most actors. He just pretends he can act. It is thus one silly lie that anyone can see.
But that kind of bad acting is no different from the lies people believe in. Religions and societies arise from fictions, not good acting and the truth, to protect many from the wicked reality. The citizens of Behemdorg (ベヘムドルグ) believe that the 祝福者 are no more than firewood — fuel — for their city. The 祝福者 are powering the city. The denizens do not mind how the 祝福者 giving them comfort are treated because they are already socially conditioned to see them as slaves not worth their time. All they care is that the electricity’s working.
If these people see the 祝福者 as fellow human beings, their society will crumble. They will realize how inhumane their actions are. So the lie — the fiction — must go on. Bad acting needs to remain on the forefront or the world around them will collapse.
That’s why everyone is so embedded into their roles in this world. One notion of self-awareness and the whole lie crumbles. The film has a rogue actor.
Agni, an outlier and a very bad actor, ends his own script because he knows he is doing a bad job. He doesn’t see himself as a protagonist of a movie and refuses to act like one. His compassion for others in need destroys the script Togata has envisioned; he can’t be Hamlet anymore. Agni wants to liberate people from their awful roles and free them of this horrible movie.
But once the film ends, people need another film. They require a new fiction in order to live. Otherwise, these people are “sheep without a shepherd”. Agni can act as their shepherd, a religious leader that will lead everyone to salvation. His believers will find wisdom in everything he does and say. A new responsibility burdens his shoulders, but this is the new life — the new role — he now has. He can’t refuse it.
If there is a God or Creator out there, they are a playwright we will never meet to criticize their questionable casting choice. But it is what the people in the world have to make do with. Their bad acting is what drives their dramas, even if it is objectively superficial from our perspective. They are blinded by the fictions they are acting out.
They are living in hoaxes that cannot be shattered or more people will die. So they either delude themselves back into the fiction or suffer alone with no one to confide in. Their lives are abject and meaningless because they are trying their best to fulfill their social roles. These people have no individuality; they are merely tools people use to live by.
There is no difference between people as firewood then and people as leaders now. They are only socially constituted roles we condition ourselves to. Agni returns to cutting his own limbs, this time as the God who creates miracles for his peaceful cult. No one wants to believe they are eating the eyeballs and the fingers of a pathetic man who has no existence and will to live; they want to eat the meat of a man who has performed miraculous feats. These people have been saved by Agni’s “Fire Punch”, not the name of a terribly named fighting move but a mysterious godly power that has delivered justice onto the wicked. His “Fire Punch” will melt the snow and usher in a new day. Exaggeration is their religion and lies are their only way to face reality.
Agni tries to evade his disillusionment by committing himself into this new role. He tells himself lies about what he is. If he has to change roles again, so be it. It’s for other people. He has to sacrifice himself for society. However, the truths of the world mystify him. People betray him and friends and enemies walk out of his life without giving an opportunity to say goodbye. Agni is alone in the world. He isn’t sure what his moral compass should be and his goals become less and less clear. Agni doesn’t know why he is living when all he can feel is pain and confusion.
He can’t play his assigned roles well at all. In fact, he wonders why he is still on the stage that is life. The camera points at him because he is the protagonist — but he doesn’t want to and he knows no reason to keep on living.
Agni wants to forget everything. He refuses to be responsible for the power in these roles because he doesn’t want the role.
He is an actor without a role.
What is an actor without a role in the movie? A nobody. Somebody who didn’t get into the film. They are less important than the extras who walk behind the actors because they do not exist. All they can do is walk out of the film entirely. That is what Agni is. In his delusions, he murders people in a frenzy and tries to commit suicide, the best way to put oneself out of the script.
But he lives every time. People more important than him die before him and he is left alone making up new lies to satisfy himself and the new societies he’s in. He wants to live because he remembers a fist bump; he once promised his sister that they will live to see the ice caps melt. His willpower to live is the only reason stopping this b-movie from ending. Agni still wants to find a role.
He doesn’t know why he is living, but he knows how to live and he exploits it every time. Thus, his curse is to find meaning in his immortality. What can he do with his talents that can help society? He doesn’t know what to do except wait for someone to direct him to the next role.
That’s what actors without a role are like. They wait for their agents to find a job for them and they tend to accept whatever menial job they could get for the few seconds of fame they might be able to attain. They tell themselves the pros outweigh the cons all the time. You gotta pay money to make money. The glamor of acting to us outsiders hides the dullness of the real activity in acting: a meaningless waiting for something.
Agni cannot tell this pain to anyone. He is no different from the actor who has failed several auditions and wondering if there is a reason to stay in the business. Telling others about this is pointless and people will look down on you. It’s part of the business. That’s life. That’s Hollywood. Unlike the actor however who can look forward to seeing “Another Day of Sun” like the song in La La Land however, Agni can’t see a better day. Every day he feels weak, someone dies. He has to keep on searching for that meaning. He has to keep on going to auditions and hope for the next break.
He needs to find the role that works for him. Or he will end up living not just an unfulfilled life but a drag to the society around him and the world. He will be typecasted to roles he abhors and there will be no end to this insanity.
What if he is unable to find a role though? What would an actor who seems to be so down on their luck that they are destined to perpetually have no role do? There may be no other answer but suicide. The movie doesn’t want him after all. Someone who is useless and can’t be socially conditioned to fit into society should be put down or at least leave the world before they do something reckless.
There are many people like that however. Actors without roles are common in society. They can still be someone if they ignore how people look down on them. Togata has lived for 300 years because they love movies. Movies are a great entertaining art and they want to see everything what Hollywood had to offer.
They want to make the new Star Wars, the new b-film, the new epic that will revitalize the weary human spirit through the tantalizing depictions of violence, sex, and murder. Togata has stopped seeing themselves as an actor of society a long time ago and is contented being as a film buff. They are able to recount history as an outsider and find the all-encompassing human drama as watchable as a film.
Togata returns to society with a made up role in a world with no movies: as a director. They want to watch the movie they plan to make. It doesn’t matter how useless this role is in this world; it’s what Togata has created for themselves and they will do anything to make the film happen.
They have become the close advisor to Agni because they have found what they always wanted to do for a long time. Togata may have been an actor without a role, but they have created the role instead.
Agni admires them for the individualism he is unable to realize yet.
Only Togata could have this freedom because they did not have to bear any responsibility. Responsibility is why people stay with the fiction and commit to their assigned roles. Otherwise, the whole project falls apart.
A film needs actors who know their roles. It can’t have individual people doing improv on the spot all the time. Actors who don’t behave are detrimental to the core product. All must maintain the rigid structure. That’s how the good standard Hollywood film is made.
But there are other ways to make a good film.
Enter Jean-Luc Godard. He responds to the challenge of Hollywood cinema by asking ourselves what does it mean to tell a story organically. He sees a film as a practical rifle and a rifle as a practical film:
You need a film just as guerrillas ——trekking about in the night, good users of rifles –— need a light, a small light, in order to see. But it’s not exactly a gun. It’s a light which helps you check with your gun.
Filmmaking is a democratic activity between directors, actors, producers, and more importantly the watchers. Creating a film is always a political statement in one way or another. Films can be fascist or socialist. He writes his scripts on the go while he’s on location.
In his debut film Breathless, his guerrilla filmmaking techniques have gained notoriety because he often shoots in public places he has no permission to film. Shooting days could take about 15 minutes or 12 hours depending on how many ideas Godard was able to pen down. The result: Spontaneous, on the gray line of legality, and borderline revolutionary on how we freely associate seemingly unconnected and unplanned events and dialog into a story brimming with life.
Films do not need a formulaic structure. A three act structure is useful, but it is not the only tool a screenwriter can use. An actor can have much creative input as a director in Godard’s vision.
A film like Pierrot le Fou is only possible if the actors improvise and engage in the creative vision of a film like a director would. Improvisation can lead to better storytelling because it is true to life. They can think up what the ending might be with the person holding the camera. The actors are the directors here because, to Godard, life is freely lived and so should our movies. We are democratic with our bodies and thought. Choice is implicit in many of our decisions.
This also means our lives are not as formulaic as a Hollywood film and this invites uncertainty: we don’t know what our actions will lead to. This much freedom can cause anguish on so many people. We need cliches. We fear that if we don’t have a script to follow, we can’t do anything.
But that’s the biggest lie of the world: we just don’t want to write their own scripts. Instead, we prefer making up our own fictions to keep the status quo. We have to realize we need to be responsible too. We can’t be willing slaves to a societal structure.
Us actors have to think like the director too.
We need to think about what kind of life we want to lead. We can’t let anyone else dictate on what a good life means. Yet, the responsibility shifting from a mysterious leader to our own selves is huge. We aren’t ready for it.
If we want to make a film like Godard, how would we even know where to begin?
It might be fruitful to see how Godard’s films function as films first. Laura Rascaroli notes that many people view Godard’s films as “essay films” for Godard sees himself as an essayist and critic. Cinema, in Godard’s eyes, is a “form that thinks and thought that forms” and that “instead of writing criticism,” he makes film. He then adds “the critical dimension” into the process. His films thus have a distinct “authorial voice”, which is represented by a narrator-like role: an “enunciator”, a self-insert character who is close to the director’s heart.
This approach mirrors the self-reflexivity found in personal essays and is “structural rather than occasional” in the script. It is “personal and individual” and finds no need to empathize with the “social and collective” dimensions in documentaries. More importantly, like any good essay, the “I” — the voices of the essay — recognizes there is a “You”, this “embodied spectator”, and encourages “You” to participate in the film. “You” are tasked to reflect on the reflections of the self-insert character as they ponder about the themes in the film. None of these exploration will lead to anything conclusive like an argumentative paper though. The rhetoric in the essay film instead “opens up problems and interrogates the spectator”. “You” have to “engage individually” with the film. No strict emotional or narrative arc will guide you; you have to go into the inferno yourself.
This is why his films have a unique kind of “openness”. You are investigating what the film can be alongside the director and the actors. An essay is riffed with digressions and detours, but they are what makes these films of Godard so engaging. He follows the creed of Montaigne when he films his essays: “I myself am the subject of my book: it is not reasonable that you should employ your leisure on such a topic so frivolous and vain.” A study of humanity will only come after we study ourselves deeply. This perilous journey into the self — a search for one’s individualism — is exhausting for everyone participating in it, but it is worthwhile. We don’t know where we’re heading and that’s why it’s an adventure — to write essays, to make films, to act in our own films, and to live in our very own ways.
We desire formulaic structures because we are afraid of that. We search for roles and niches to fit in, not to create our own identities and “essay” our life out of our problems. Individualism and openness frighten us because we can’t grasp the meaning of our lives while we’re living it. This is why we let ourselves be socially conditioned to accept certain cruel clauses on our contract to the world.
But essay films are structured too, just not in the formulaic way we like to think in. No matter what approach people use, a film needs a beginning, a middle, and an end. We know everything has an end somewhere. What’s different is that the journeying holds the structure of the essay film together; it lets the meaning foster, develop, and grow — culminating into a catharsis not found in any typical “structured” film. It is an organic structure that represents the creative energies of the people involved to make the project happen.
There will be an ending somewhere and the meaning of the films — our lives — will be answered at the final last minutes.
Victor E. Frankl, a psychiatrist and survivor of Nazi concentration camps, observes there is more to how we see our lives as movies in “The Case for a Tragic Optimism”:
To invoke an analogy, consider a movie: it consists of thousands upon thousands of individual pictures, and each of them makes sense and carries a meaning, yet the meaning of the whole film cannot be seen before its last sequence is shown. However, we cannot understand the whole film without having first understood each of its components, each of the individual pictures. Isn’t it the same with life? Doesn’t the final meaning of life, too, reveal itself, if at all, only at its, on the verge of death? And doesn’t this final meaning, too, depend on whether or not the potential meaning of each single situation has been actualized to the best of the respective individual’s knowledge and belief?
Frankl likes to tell his patients to imagine themselves on their deathbed. He asks them now to think about their past accomplishments and what they have done. This causes them to not just think about themselves in a more objective fashion but to see themselves as having meaning, some positive impact on the world. Much like how we don’t make sense of the movies until we see the ending, we won’t ever be satisfied with our lives till we are in the ending. Till then, we are living in every moment, every frame of the film and we won’t be able to get the full picture.
That is our curse as human beings. We don’t know what our lives will transpire to. Yet, it can be a blessing too because even tragedy can be an achievement in the very end of our lives. A protagonist can only be heroic after we have seen everything they have done. We can only judge ourselves and others once we have sat down and watch their lives on the silver screen from start to finish.
That means we won’t know what their roles in society really are when they are still living. The “roles” we are leading are not real; they are socially constituted by our behavior and ideals. We haven’t let history finished rolling the film. Plot twists can happen. Role reversals could happen. No one is set into a role just yet. The life of Agni hasn’t finished until the manga ends.
We won’t know what we will feel about Agni and his real role until the very end of the film.
We are all actors without a role in one giant film called life, but we are also all watching our little essay films with anticipation. We won’t know what we are doing because there is no reliable structure to follow and the roles we are given don’t help us. However, we still want to make the best film that we can possibly make.
Agni is trying to create a role for himself in the world of Fire Punch. It is the struggle we all face as people. The ending can only be earned once we stick to the end of the film. Our ongoing drama as watchers, actors, and directors must go on till then.
But we will all reach the end and gain our own grand catharsis and the movies of our lives will be one beautiful spectacle.