Tag Archives: pomo

The TV Character Actor in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction: Garret Dillahunt and the Deconstruction of Aura

I should preface this post with the disclaimer that I am not very well versed in star studies.  For someone who knows about that, check out Annie Peterson’s blog.  What I will be arguing is not so much about star studies, anyway, because in the acting hierarchy “character actor” is not the same as “star.”  Instead, I want to analyze one television character actor, Garret Dillahunt, and the trend of his recent appearances in deconstructing through inversion the idea of “aura.”

The unflappable Garret Dillahunt on White Collar

In “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction,” Walter Benjamin argues that the aura of a work of art becomes degraded through reproduction.  Moreover, he extends his argument to film actors, writing, “The aura that envelops the actor vanishes, and with it the aura of the figure he portrays. [. . .] The cult of the movie star, fostered by the money of the film industry, preserves not the unique aura of the person but the ‘spell of the personality,’ the phony spell of a commodity” (Benjamin).  Though Benjamin argues regarding film, certainly the reproduction central to television distribution fits his argument as well.

Character actors share the “star” characteristic of being bringing a “personality” to their roles, for often character actors make their living by being typecast.  This plays not only on the intertextuality of their roles but also on the illusion of “aura” the actor can give a character.  The idea behind casting a character actor is for the audience to be able to instantly know what type of person he or she is supposed to be.  Go to That Guy! and you can sketch a general character for each actor.

Hey, it's that guy! (on Life)

With Garret Dillahunt, you can still read him as a “bad guy” through his cold stare and austere look, but there is something else.  Over the last few years, Dillahunt has played more ciphers than characters, or to be more accurate, he’s the character actor of choice when your character IS a cipher.  His characters are always more a flexible reflection of the plot or other characters (or his character’s own play-acting) than a set individual.  He’s played robot terminators, slippery mafia dons, killers, con men, and spies, but his characters are always a bit of a closed circuit.  This is done purposefully.  The “aura” that he brings to his character roles is precisely a lack of “aura.”  He could be anyone because he plays lack of specific character so well.

The following clip illustrates this inversion of “aura” nicely.  From Dillahunt’s appearance on Terminator: the Sarah Connor Chronicles, he plays “John Henry” with the body of a Terminator from the future and the first Terminator programming as his mind.

There’s a blankness to Dillahunt in almost all of his roles, a deliberate separation from both a connection with the viewer and a connection with the characters with whom he shares the screen.  It’s not that he’s a static actor, unable to connect.  His film roles tend to take him more in that direction (see especially his comedic performance as wide-eyed Wendell in No Country for Old Men), but on television, his blankness has become his “aura.”  His lack of “aura” intentionally draws attention to Benjamin’s articulation of the modern withering of “aura” in filmic media and actors.  However, Garret Dillahunt serves as a counterexample, a deconstruction of the idea of “aura” based around original/copy or character/cipher, for his recent roles reverse and displace these binaries–and their implied hierarchies–by making the cipher the character and the copy the original.  The idea of difference in undermined through inversion.  Dillahunt can play machine because he embraces the mechanical reproduction of character.  His blankness is valued in his villain characters because it captures the terrifying ramifications of the destruction of personal “aura” in the age of mechanical (and now more-widespread digital) reproduction.

Sometimes even the chyron doesn't know what to make of him.

Image credits:

1. Unflappable

2. Hey, it’s that guy!

3. Chyron

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Psych: postmodern fun (not an oxymoron!)

One of my favorite episodic television series is back on the air tonight, so I thought it the appropriate time to delve into one part of Psych‘s appeal: it speaks to the postmodernist in me.

While far from perfect Psych boasts a number of strengths: the central friendship between Shawn Spencer (James Roday) and Burton “Gus” Guster (Dule Hill) is  breezy but believable (as is Roday’s and Hill’s off-the-charts comedic chemistry); the supporting cast provide balance in the day-glo hyperreal world of the show; and some of the snappiest and most popular culture reference-laden dialogue on the air occurs at a pace that would sometimes make Aaron Sorkin jealous.

Yet, the plots are ludicrous, especially the premise: for going on four years, Shawn has been able to fool both private clients and the Santa Barbara police department into believing he is psychic merely by his powers of observation. (Yes, The Mentalist basically stole the idea of this premise.)  However, the show never takes itself–or anything–seriously.

Witness the element that first made me tune back in: the Psych out.  These outtakes played over the end credits of many of the early episodes and were often Roday and Hill singing and dancing their way into my heart.

These Psych outs continue, if less frequently, and stand as illuminating examples of both the overall irreverent tone of the series and the first postmodern element I’ll investigate: The Breakdown of the Signifying Chain. [1]

Jameson characterized the postmodern as being temporally schizophrenic.  “With the breakdown of the signifying chain, therefore, the schizophrenic is reduced to an experience of pure material Signifiers, or in other words as a series of pure and unrelated presents in time.”[2] In Psych, the 80s seem perpetually present, with Shawn and Gus continually making reference to 80s popular culture (as well as the pop culture of other decades and the present, but the 80s take the majority), with a special focus on the minutia of that cultural moment.  The result is often that only Gus understands Shawn’s references and vice versa, as the references to cultural ephemera has become obscure with the passage of time.  For Shawn and Gus, though, that past is perpetually present and available. (Shawn lives in a state of arrested development, often having to borrow his father’s truck and installing school lockers in his office, so for him, the 80s–as the formative years that he never matured beyond–are his present.) This is in part because of Psych‘s form as a pastiche of many 80s detective programs.

Crockett and Tubbs or Spencer and Guster?

The episodic nature of the form runs counter to the serial trend of some television post-Lost, and the light tone also separates Psych from its fellow closed-in-an-episode mysteries like the self-serious Law & Order and CSI franchises.  Instead, the show appears in tone and plot more like Murder, She Wrote, Columbo, or MacGuyver.

Moreover, both it’s blank parody of and myriad references to the 1980s are made with a clear lack of critical distance, as both elements rarely say anything about the characters or the show itself beyond their ability to make those references or embody that tone.  The show is not commenting on the formula or tone of those 1980s detective predecessors, nor on those cultural works to which the characters refer.  Even its most recent advertising campaign evokes the 80s for no discernible reason other than somehow fits a show that constructs itself from old forms, old styles, and old speech from “the imaginary museum”[3] from which current cultural producers must turn.

If you didn’t know anything about Psych before that ad, would you guess that its present context would be the 1980s?

The point of all these references and this tone, though, is not a lofty expression of the postmodern moment.  It evokes the 80s because they have taken on this day-glo sheen, shining bright and fun in the popular consciousness.  Psych may be a postmodern program, but it lacks the dour notes of Jameson’s analysis of postmodernism.  Instead, it takes the presence of the past and the lack of critical distance and owns it, accepting it as, perhaps, a cultural dominant, but insisting that there is still room for play.  On Psych the characters can play dress-up in the clothes, speech, references, and tone of the 1980s–or the neon idea of the 80s–because it’s fun, and that’s all the reason the show needs.

Footnotes

1. I’m mostly using Frederic Jameson’s identifying features of postmodernism, though it should be noted, Jameson viewed postmodernism as a cultural dominant, not to be parsed out into attributes.
2. Jameson, “Postmodernism, or the Cultural Logic of Late Capitalism,” Media and Cultural Studies: Key Works, Eds. Durham and Kellner, (New York: Blackwell, 2006), 500.
3. Ibid., 494.