The First Provocation
Angie Black: Producer, Director, Researcher
Work: The First Provocation (film) & 02 BRIDGET (Shooting Script)
Length: 6.58 mins
The First Provocation (2015) and the shooting script 02: BRIDGET combine to demonstrate practice- led research into how to expand on the process of crafting and capturing performance on film. The enquiry was framed by the question: How might it be possible to mediate a live performance work into a narrative fiction film to engage an audience beyond the intended performance audience of the original? What approaches can a director adopt to elicit spontaneous and intimate emotional responses that are captured for the screen? A close examination of the filmmaking processes used by Miranda July (live performance) and Mike Leigh (character-based improvisation) informed the production process undertaken for the creative practice.
The single-shot film, The First Provocation, explores how to expand the realist form in an experimental approach to performance that merges unexpected live performance within a narrative fiction film. The researcher worked with the tenets of Leigh’s character-based improvisation process to develop the character of Bridget with the actor in a series of improvisation workshops over two years. Without the knowledge of the actor (Rebecca Bower) playing Bridget, Yana Alana’s (Sarah Ward) performance of ‘One Woman Show’ was implemented as a provocative act to disrupt Bridget’s narrative. The emotional responses to the live performances (as provocations) relied on the secrecy surrounding their implementation. A concealed, alternative draft to 02: BRIDGET omitted scene 40, (the provocation scene) and was deliberately used to ensure no cast or crew had any prior knowledge of the provocation character prior to the filming of the scene. The purpose of the provocation scene was to provoke a reaction to the conflict devised in the character story and in response to a character from outside the film story world.
The unedited first take of Bridget (The First Provocation), reveals the unrehearsed raw emotion of the actor/character’s response to the provocation performances. The accompanying script 02: BRIDGET demonstrates the writer’s prediction for the character’s response. In viewing The First Provocation the response of the actor embodying the character differs dramatically from the writer’s prediction for the character in the scene.
The First Provocation has since been edited to appear in the feature film The Five Provocations (Black 2018). The feature film comprises four interweaving character stories told from each of the four characters’ perspectives. The researcher wrote, directed and produced the 94-minute film as part of a practice-based PhD that examines an alternative process of crafting and capturing performance on film in response to the research on the mediation of live performance, improvisation as a screenwriting tool and gender disparity in screen media (Black 2019). The project specifically investigates concepts of the performance of gender and sexuality, identity and experience through narrative themes of loss and change. The making of the film (as demonstrated by the film and script here) explores a new way of working with actors by examining the capacity for spontaneity in performance through character-based improvisation.
The interruption offered a surreal, ‘unexpected’ character/actor experience that triggered hidden impulses in the character. The actor’s ‘in character’ reactions were an integral part of capturing a true response within the film. What can be seen as surreal or magic realist scenes merge with natural performances that investigate themes of sexuality and gender identities, with the intention of producing a challenging, provocative and memorable film.
Apart from its innovative approach to the filmmaking process, innovation is also evident in the medium of its dissemination: edited into a feature film. The Five Provocations premiered at the Melbourne Queer Film Festival and secured worldwide distribution with Label Distribution. It has garnered favourable reviews, such as at The Adelaide Film Festival, which compared the film’s narrative to the experimental films of Luis Buñuel and David Lynch (Mousoulis 2018). The film is available to watch on subscription and Video on Demand (VOD) platforms: https://www.justwatch.com/au/movie/the-five-provocations or at https://thefiveprovocations.com/
Black, Angie. 2018. The Five Provocations, Australia: Black Eye Films.
Black, Angie. 2019. “Capturing The Moment: an investigation into the process of capturing performance on film and The Five Provocations: a feature film” PhD Dissertation, La Trobe University.
Mousoulis, Bill. 2018. “The Australian New Wave’, Pure Shit Australian Cinema, 12 July 2018.
PEER REVIEW 1
Which aspects of the submission are of interest/relevance and why?
The Five Provocations (2018) by Angie Black is an enchanting journey through grief and identity. The film presents four intertwining vignettes from a cast of diverse characters as they deal with unique personal struggles. On-screen performances by Sapidah Kian, Blake Osborn, and Rebecca Bower are particularly affecting. Cinematography by Matt Jasper achieves a refined realism and intimacy in the softly lit interiors.
One of the most innovative features of The Five Provocations is Angie Black’s mischievous injection of well-known live cabaret performers into each of the narratives (where the picture gets its title from). The ‘provocations’ present a remarkable experiment in screen direction and in adapting live stage performance to screen. Apparently, without the knowledge of the actors or production crew, each of the four characters is confronted by a live cabaret performance event. For example, Marlena who is grieving the death of her lover discovers an uninvited weeping Maude Davey, burlesque performer of My Life in the Nude (2014), in her lover’s living room and is prompted to follow her into the night exterior to a mystical shrine. These scenes are evidently improvised by the actors and are seamlessly edited into the narrative to provide significant turning points in each of the character’s arcs. As they appear in the final film, the ‘provocation’ scenes are reminiscent of surreal psychological happenings from David Lynch or even the carnivalesque worldmaking of Fellini or Buñuel.
Does the submission live up to its potential?
The research question posited by Angie Black concerns the use of spontaneity and improvisation in the filmmaking process in order to capture a more authentic or “true” performance from the actors. What is less clear in the investigation is how this experiment may or may not influence the audience’s interpretation of the final film. Specifically, how the medley of performance types – scripted direction, improvisation, and live cabaret – have been arranged to provoke an innovative viewing experience.
The scene submitted for review, “Bridget: The First Provocation” (2015), is the initial single take of Bridget (played by Rebecca Bower) being confronted by the unexpected presence and ensuing performance by cabaret character Yana Alana (Sarah Ward). Bridget is convincingly terrified. Evidently not what was predicted by the director. Allowing the actor’s improvisation to veer from the script is a success. The performance is gripping and emotionally charged. However, I’m not sure we can adequately gauge from this experiment if the performance is better or rawer or more realistic than if the actor knew what was going to happen. We may need to slip into the director’s seat to compare iterations side by side. I’m not convinced ‘liveness’ or spontaneity by way of recording a happening nor the improvisation of actors necessarily equates to a more authentic or raw depiction. But I also think there is more to be interpreted from this unique medley of performance.
As a viewer, or reviewer in this instance, the text is layered and transmedial. The reflexive tropes in the scene, such as camera pre-roll and the director calling ‘action,’ strip the cues to suspend disbelief and I find myself watching Rebecca Bower professionally improvise the fictional character of Bridget. I study Rebecca’s expressions as the happening unfolds for glimpses of the actor at work, whereas in the feature film version I play along with Bridget’s trauma. The single-take includes the revealing aftermath of the actors and director debriefing, Rebecca Bower appears shaken but invigorated by the experience. There is evidence of trust and comradery between Bower and Black in their exchanges, “what should we do next?” Bower asks.
This uncut video provides a rich resource for ascertaining the provenance of the wider production (Burton 2014). Traditionally, we tend to only learn of directorial provocations through para-texts (Gray 2010) such as cast and crew interviews, written articles, behind-the-scenes media, or controversy. The non-consensual use of butter as lubricant in the rape scene of Bertolucci’s Last Tango in Paris (1972) comes to mind. Through an innovative transmedia arrangement, this research project invites viewers to explore the authenticity and integrity of the production beyond an actor’s performance. Black’s collaboration with cabaret acts provides depth, authenticity, and diversity to the thematic exploration of gender, sexuality, and grief.
How does the submission expose practice as research?
Perhaps the most significant finding of Angie Black’s practice-based investigation is in revealing the convoluted contemporary experience of performance media, dancing between predilection and improvisation, where the real manifests as provocation. Black presents a unique and innovative transmedia arrangement for the viewer to become entangled in. The presentation of cabaret performance-acts within a feature narrative, and crediting them as such, is an exciting provocation of screen media and contributes to evolving discourse around transmedia practice.
Burton, Aaron. 2014. Provenance in personal documentary: My Mother’s Village, Media Arts, College of Fine Arts, University of New South Wales.
Gray, Jonathan. 2010. Show Sold Separately: Promos, Spoilers and Other Media Paratexts. New York: New York University Press.
PEER REVIEW 2
Which aspects of the submission are of interest/relevance and why?
In this review I pose a lot of questions and seek more information – while obviously not all these could be satisfied within the word limit of the Research Statement, any one of these would be worth deeper exploration. The fact that this work raises so many points of interest for further discussion demonstrates the inherent value in the endeavour as practice-led research for scholars and practitioners alike.
The concept of incorporating four ‘live performance’ experiments woven into a narrative feature film with a message/purpose is the innovation. The work submitted here offers an illustration of the approach taken towards the larger project, and it is the larger project that this work points towards.
The idea of constructing a ‘secret’ scene for an actor to respond to is thought-provoking and even brings to mind similar approaches by less artistic endeavours – the game show and reality TV. If there is a specific precedence for this and or an influence – theoretical or creative – to Black’s approach it would be useful to state in detail here. The practices of Leigh and July are mentioned as informing this work, it would be good if this could be expanded upon (and cited in the Reference List). How are the intended and real outcomes different or similar to the aims and outcomes of Leigh and July? Black alludes to this at the start of her research statement with one of her two research questions, “How might it be possible to mediate a live performance work into a narrative fiction film…” and concludes at the end of her Research statement “Apart from its innovative approach to the filmmaking process, innovation is also evident in the medium of its dissemination: edited into a feature film”. This would be better supported if specific detail had been provided to describe how/why particular aspects are considered innovations, and a deeper examination of the outcomes to understand what specifically has been achieved.
In the endeavour for a ‘true’ response, what does Black believe is ‘lost’ in a more traditional non-provocated performance and what specifically do they believe is gained by inserting such a provocation? Does it give an actor insight into their own understanding of the character for instance? Does it affect their performance in future scripted scenes in some way? Does it give the director an opportunity to develop on this response to perhaps improvise the progression of the story towards another ‘truth’? Essentially, for an actor and for a writer/director, what is gained by this approach? For the director and for the actor the response is likely different or perhaps there are some cross overs? Whatever the case, what are these and how does this similarity/difference work or become combined towards the final collaborative creative output? That is to say, how does the final work speak differently, or have something different to say than it would otherwise as a result of this experiment?
Does the submission live up to its potential?
This really is a fascinating project that provides so much potential for debate and further enquiry. There are a lot of questions raised and potential findings from this submission but from the research statement, it is largely left to the reader to ponder upon possible outcomes or conclusions that could be drawn. Important questions that the methodology raises remain largely unexplored. The script and film provide the clearest potential research findings as they largely speak for themselves, as is often the case with well-crafted creative work. This creative work succeeds in offering alternatives to standard as well as experimental practices.
The research statement lists the following as the work’s purpose/potential, which I cite below and provide a response:
“… to demonstrate practice-led research into how to expand on the process of crafting and capturing performance on film.”
This is absolutely practice-led research that provides an opportunity for worthwhile discussion/debate in this area.
“The enquiry was framed by the question: How might it be possible to mediate a live performance work into a narrative fiction film to engage an audience beyond the intended performance audience of the original?”
While the narrative fiction film is not presented in this submission to view or review, one can surmise from how the film was critically received, where ‘the film’s narrative was compared to the experimental films of Luis Buñuel and David Lynch (Mousoulis 2018)’ that the method devised and applied by the author has been successful.
What would be useful to know from this research question is the context behind choosing the live performances. How were the live performances selected, did they need to meet any set criteria for instance? Did the live performance need to fit within the framework of an existing narrative or was the narrative written to accommodate the live performances? What was the context for the ‘original intended audience’ and is there any cross-over with its re-purposed use? Given Black has stated of the feature film, “The project specifically investigates concepts of the performance of gender and sexuality, identity and experience through narrative themes of loss and change” it perhaps could be assumed that this was the starting point from which the live performances were selected.
In terms of the intent to engage a film audience in the live performance, it is worth noting that the live performance is heard but not seen in The First Provocation film. The camera stays firmly on the character of Bridget reacting to a largely offscreen provocation. This raises another aspect not discussed in relation to the stated intent to ‘engage a film audience in a live performance’: is there a reason for the camera to stay on the actor/character Bridget instead of covering the scene to include the live performance? The scene in the feature film may be different, perhaps a second camera was used – Black refers to the scene being edited for the feature film but does not specify how the live performance is portrayed.
“What approaches can a director adopt to elicit spontaneous and intimate emotional responses that are captured for the screen?”
This is an interesting question to ask, especially the plural ‘approaches’ and it would have been good if the author had expanded in the research statement on how the final ‘approach’ taken came to be to reveal some of the processes behind the final method decided upon and why. It is alluded to in the shooting script with the intent (highlighted in red): “What does this scene provoke in Bridget? NEEDS to realise that she’ll be ok on her own, without men. [sic] families come in all sorts of shapes and sizes” (p.15).
Also worth discussing is the decision to keep the provocation scene secret from the crew, “no cast or crew had any prior knowledge of the provocation character prior to the filming of the scene”. It would be interesting to know the rationale behind this and how this worked in practice. How did the DOP and sound recordist find this process for instance? Was it important that they had observational documentary filming experience?
How does the submission expose practice as research?
Black states, “A close examination of the filmmaking processes used by Miranda July (live performance) and Mike Leigh (character-based improvisation) informed the production process undertaken for the creative practice.” The implementation of Leigh’s improvisation approach is discussed but how July’s live performance has been applied and informs the works is perhaps alluded to but not specified.
The claim that “The actor’s ‘in character’ reactions were an integral part of capturing a true response within the film” is a really interesting assertion. The idea of capturing cinema ‘truth’, or even a ‘reality’ for TV always makes for robust debate into what is really meant by ‘truth’. What does a ‘true’ reaction to a highly constructed moment of ‘non-reality’ deliver that a scripted performance cannot, or does not? And what is the goal in capturing this ‘truth’ within a construction? Black touches on possible answers but doesn’t go on to explore these in any depth. This pursuit of cinema ‘truth’ and the methodology applied to attain it is a compelling proposition to consider and it would have been good for Black to explore this more in the research statement.
The film itself offers a visceral view of the actor’s personal experience in having taken part in the provocation experiment. The end of the film is especially revealing and it would have been good to see/hear more of this, to allow this to play out in front of the camera instead of ending the film before the outcomes are fully discussed. In this instance, it could be argued that the ‘truth’ in the scene occurs equally when the construct ends and the ‘person’, not the ‘character/actor’, responds and reflects upon what has just happened. It could be argued that it is at that moment when the drama director says cut, that the most revealing and insightful moment into the human experience (and the effects of the process undertaken in this practice-led research) can be observed. Discussion and analysis on the experience as it was felt by the actor, as well as the cast and crew involved would offer valuable insight into the claims made. It’s likely these conversations would have happened, it’s the documentation of this that would be useful as research findings. Providing this, either within the submitted film or in the research statement, would offer a closer and more detailed study in how the methodology has impacted the outcome, and presented a ‘true’ response.
The work submitted was completed in 2015. For publication in 2021 it would be useful to reframe the work with any new insights or reflection to be offered 6 years on.
Firstly, I would like to thank the two peer reviewers for the time they have taken in viewing, reading and providing such considered responses to this practice-led research.
It’s certainly pleasing that both reviewers agreed that the creative work raised a number of questions and was successful in presenting an outcome to the experiment in investigating screen direction approaches and mediating live stage performance to screen. However, both reviewers also pointed to an omission in the research statement, a question that was raised but not directly answered – how might it be possible to mediate a live performance work into a narrative fiction film? The answer to this question has many layers, but a key strategy was to go back to the tenets of performance itself, which involved looking at the work of several key scholars who worked across disciplines of screen and performance studies.
This research was also informed by Murray Pomerance’s theoretical thinking about the performed screen moment and the actor’s role/ability to craft/create “the cinematic moment” (2016, 9). The work also referenced Sharon-Marie Carnicke’s work on “experiencing” (1998: 107) and theories on crafting performance for film (Baron and Carnicke 2008, 11).
Much filmmaking and screen performance is concerned with creating the illusion of verisimilitude within the screen story. This verisimilitude connects the audience to the believability of the work. This concept of ‘verisimilitude’ was one of the issues about screen storytelling that I was exploring. The filmmakers Mike Leigh and Miranda July provided inspiration and practical strategies to explore my own research questions about the process of crafting and capturing performance on film, including how to mediate live performance in a narrative fiction film. The films of Mike Leigh offered a filmmaking process that involved working with actors by examining the capacity for spontaneity in performance through character-based improvisation. Whilst Leigh’s films Secrets & Lies (1996) and Another Year (2010) are grounded in realism, July’s films The Future (2011) and Kajllionaire (2020) offer performative moments that test the verisimilitude of the story world and the unusual characters at play within her films. Both July and Leigh are filmmakers who begin their filmmaking practice through performance. Both offer comparative case studies through which to examine performance in film practice. Both are concerned with producing works that capture and/or document aspects of (often mundane) everyday life and blur the lines between reality and fiction.
The realist film genre lends itself to both a narrative on the theme of loss and a creative process that undermines the predictable tenets of realism. There is a duality to this concept: in the first instance, the film is a narrative about dealing with loss and it also allows a way of directing the performers to work with the unexpected. This then became part of the filmmaking process through the impetus to capture character reactions that are nuanced and unexpected, as in life. Which would have been a better way of the research statement to address what is meant by true in the research statement.
Both reviewers raised the contentious nature of the word ‘true’ in the research statement, where I said, “The actor’s ‘in character’ reactions were an integral part of capturing a true response within the film.” Thank you for highlighting the use of this word which I appreciate can raise such questions. For the sake of clarity, the intention behind capturing this response refers to the interaction between actor and character when they are confronted with a surprise (unforeseen) and unscripted moment or an unknown and unexpected character in the context of the film narrative. Often terms such as ‘authentic’, ‘real’ and ‘genuine’ are used to define emotional performance styles in film but admittedly they do present a number of conceptual anomalies. Therefore, in this context, the words ‘spontaneous’, ‘unexpected’, ‘unguarded’, ‘realist’ and ‘natural’ should have been used for greater clarity of meaning.
A proposed revision of this research question would say: This creative work explores the unexpected in its content and form. It seeks to capture how our expectations of life and plans for the immediate present can suddenly be interrupted by the unexpected.
The intention of the single-shot film presented with this work was to capture the character of Bridget’s response to the live performance work. The film and provocation scenes were all shot single-camera so as not to alert the actor to the intervention. This first initial recording shot/take created the blocking or choreography for the scene. To allow for further coverage of the scene, the live performance was then reframed and filmed.
There are so many well-considered, generative questions raised by the reviewers that I would love to have more time/room to answer. While most of the answers they seek are in the 40,000 word PhD thesis (Black 2019), this creative research project is focused on Bridget: The First Provocation alongside the shooting script ‘02: Bridget’. Both creative works submitted here are intended to provide insight into the creative process through the lens of this short film that is both separate from and integral to the larger scaffolding that led to the works final outcome within the feature film The Five Provocations (Black 2018).
Baron, Cynthia and Sharon Carnicke. 2008. Reframing Screen Performance, Ann Arbor, MI: University of Michigan Press.
Black, Angie. 2018. The Five Provocations, Australia: Black Eye Films. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=aC3liT5PGcA
Black, Angie. 2019. “Capturing The Moment: an investigation into the process of capturing performance on film and The Five Provocations: a feature film” http://arrow.latrobe.edu.au:8080/vital/access/manager/Repository/latrobe:43161
July, Miranda. 2011. The Future, USA: Roadside Attractions.
July, Miranda. 2020. Kajllionaire, USA: Annapurna Pictures.
Leigh, Mike. 1996. Secrets & Lies, UK: Channel Four Films.
Leigh, Mike. 2010. Another Year, UK: Thin Man Films.
Pomerance, Murray. 2016. Moment of Action: Riddles of Cinematic Performance, New Brunswick, NJ: Rutgers University Press.