And gladly wolde he lerne and gladly teche. — The Narrator's description of the Clerk in the General Prologue of Chaucer's The Canterbury Tales
I made myself a promise that I would not begin this book with the first-person singular pronoun I . . . and I've already broken that promise four times — five if you count the pronoun myself, which the Oxford American Dictionary defines as "corresponding to I and me." An unpromising sign.
I made the pledge because, if I realize my design, this book won't be about me as much as it will be about a vibrant troop of other people who have quickened the most exciting adventures of my life, which will, if fortune smiles, be the subject of these pages. That pretty much answers the question posed by Charles Dickens, in the person of the eponymous David, as David Copperfield begins: "Whether I shall turn out to be the hero of my own life, or whether that station will be held by anybody else, these pages must show."
The mask is off, mystery and suspense evaporate: Inside Inside will be about a considerable number of "anybody elses," as I intended that title to hint. As compensation for revealing the drama's end at the beginning, I offer, with appropriate diffidence, the prospect that the journey on which we're embarking together will be populated by the most intriguing souls I've ever encountered. I'm encouraged in this notion by the fact that Inside the Actors Studio, the television series that has presented more than two hundred of these "anybody elses," is seen in eighty-four million homes on the Bravo network in America, is on the air in 125 countries, and has received thirteen Emmy nominations, which leads me to suspect that I'm not alone in my estimation of the allure — and lure — of these heroes of my life, hence of this book, and of some other heroes I've met along the way to Inside the Actors Studio.
I confess that I am hugely fond of beginnings and, by logical inference, averse to endings. I don't know whether this makes me an optimist or a pessimist, but I've long since reconciled myself to the fact that it's there and it's never going to go away.
April may be the cruelest month to Eliot, but to me it's the kindest, with its portents of spring, which is crammed with beginnings. Of holidays, I enjoy Memorial Day because it officially begins the pleasant summer season, and dislike Labor Day because it ends it. Thanksgiving is welcome because it begins the Christmas season, of which I confess to being inordinately fond, and I'm resistant to the compulsory joy of New Year's Eve, because it ends it.
This affection for beginnings has had a predictable effect on my preferences. Though I should know better than to invite comparison with my betters as I begin my own literary effort, I confess to unbridled admiration for the blunt simplicity of "Call me Ishmael;" the instant dramatic engagement of "It was the best of times, it was the worst of times;" the authorial certainty of "Happy families are all alike; every unhappy family is unhappy in its own way;" the ringing challenge of Donne's "Go and catch a falling star/Get with child a mandrake root;" the quiet fury of Yeats's "Turning and turning in the widening gyre/The falcon cannot hear the falconer;/Things fall apart; the center cannot hold;" the stately opening chords of Tchaikovsky's Serenade for Strings, which greet us not with the C-major tonic but with a submediant A-minor chord, as if the boat had left the dock without us, and we had no choice but to jump in and swim after it; the ominous minor key (verbally and musically) of Irving Berlin's "There may be trouble ahead," before he shifts jubilantly to a major key for "Let's face the music and dance!"
The art of beginning a tale with compelling grace and economy has found a particularly congenial home in motion pictures from their inception, since the filmmaker, from Griffith, Dreyer, Renoir and Eisenstein to Truffaut, Bergman, Scorsese and Spielberg, differs from all his creative predecessors in possessing the godlike power of holding in his or her hands two of the essential elements of art — and life: time and space.
I believe that when cultural archaeologists look back from a distant time, they will see cinema montage — the art of film editing — as the preeminent artistic innovation of the twentieth century. Its juxtaposition of images and ideas, fracturing and rearranging the viewer's spatial and temporal assumptions; its willful, artful compression — or expansion —of time; its magisterial presumption and confident command of our perception have affected not only film but every other medium and art form — theater, television, music, fiction, nonfiction, fine art, design — and changed the public's way of looking at and listening to all of them.
When Martin Scorsese brought the rat-a-tat delivery of his formidable cinematic scholarship to Inside the Actors Studio, he reminded the students who comprise its live audience of the historic experiment conducted by the Russian director Lev Kuleshov for members of the cultural bureaucracy in the fledgling Soviet Union. The ostensible purpose of the experiment was to demonstrate to the politicians the informational and propaganda potential of the still infant art, but it's probably a safe assumption that, as a filmmaker, he was hopeful of steering government subsidies toward his industry — and perhaps his own films, which would ultimately bear such titles as The Project of Engineer Prete, On the Red Front and The Extraordinary Adventures of Mr. West in the Land of the Bolsheviks.
On the occasion of the experiment, he screened a short film he had shot and edited for the express purpose of demonstrating the way in which juxtaposing unrelated images could evoke new and unexpected emotions and meanings. He had begun the project by filming the prominent Russian actor Ivan Mozhukin, looking straight into the camera, with the instruction, in Scorsese's words, "to think of nothing, just look."
Kuleshov filmed separately, without the actor, four shots, a bowl of soup, a girl, a teddy bear and a child in a coffin, then, in the edit room, intercut the close-up of the actor after each of the other images. When the viewers of the finished footage were asked to describe what they had seen, they ascribed to the actor ("with great admiration," Scorsese chortled) a wide range of reactions and emotions, hunger, tenderness, amusement, sadness, despite the fact that the actor had never seen what the viewer saw and, most important, that each cutaway to the actor was exactly the same shot, frame-for-frame, with no change of expression from one appearance to the next. The "change" was in the viewers.
Excerpted from Inside Inside by James Lipton. Published by arrangement with Dutton, a member of Penguin Group (USA), Inc. Copyright (c) October 2007