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Review: Glenn Kenny’s Robert De Niro: Anatomy of an Actor

A compassionate, pragmatic anti-sentimentality, or an attempt at one, serves as the through line for his examination of one the most mythologized of all screen actors.

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Review: Glenn Kenny’s Robert De Niro: Anatomy of an Actor

Art-making is too often discussed in terms that implicitly liken it to magic, thusly neglecting the truth that it involves work that resembles the day-by-day toils of many other ostensibly plainer occupations. With Robert De Niro: Anatomy of an Actor, film critic Glenn Kenny quietly pushes against that mythology. A compassionate, pragmatic anti-sentimentality, or an attempt at one, serves as the through line for his examination of one the most mythologized of all screen actors. In his introduction, Kenny writes of “De Niro’s reluctance to do interviews, and his seeming stumbling while doing them, his famous taciturnity in contrast to his preternaturally vivid presence on screen, created a mythology that itself spawned a counter-mythology. It made De Niro as famous for being an enigma, a code that a journalist or critic with just the right amount of persistence and perspicacity could crack. But what if the answer is right in front of our faces, and always has been?” The author follows that with a quote in which director Elia Kazan (who worked with De Niro on The Last Tycoon) claims that the actor is among the hardest working that he’s collaborated with, and the only one who asked to rehearse on Sundays.

In other words, Kenny brings De Niro down to earth as a working artist, which serves to somewhat ironically reawaken your awe for the actor and the profound emotional nakedness that he once achieved reliably in one performance after another. Reading this, one wonders, not why De Niro drifted toward less immersive a-job’s-a-job roles, but how he plumbed himself as deeply as long as he did. The author emphasizes detail, connecting physical gestures from one role, sometimes mercilessly, to their repetition in another film (such as the reappearance of a “shoo” motion from Goodfellas in Awakenings.) He paints De Niro unsurprisingly as a master craftsman who’s intensely devoted to analysis and rehearsal, which he, somewhat, ineffably fuses with his personality and his soul. (I’m indulging my own mythology.) Following the familiar Cahiers du Cinéma “Anatomy of an Actor” template, Kenny discusses 10 “iconic roles” in De Niro’s canon that serve to shape the actor’s career as he evolved from galvanic acting titan to controversial “sell-out” to an inevitably mellower character actor who’s still capable, nevertheless, of imbuing a questionable project or under-respected performer with a bit of prestige by association.

Accounted for are films that you’d expect, such as Mean Streets, The Godfather: Part II, Taxi Driver, and Raging Bull, along with more eccentric choices like Bang the Drum Slowly, Midnight Run, and Stone. Though he doesn’t directly voice this, Kenny’s refuting the distasteful idea that De Niro “owes” us anything, a notion that fuels quite a bit of the vitriol that now greets many of the actor’s admittedly bizarre and depressing performances. Also combatted is the classist condescension—which Kenny does directly identify—that likens artists like De Niro and director Martin Scorsese to intuitive, resolutely un-self-conscious natives unaware of the effects of their art (for more of this, read his second review of The Wolf of Wall Street, on his blog Some Came Running).

Kenny’s critical acuity is particularly sharp in the first half of the book, where the author discusses films that are presumably close to him. His treatment of a few of the actor’s key, oft-discussed films is as striking, and as rooted in nourishing specificity, as any work on the subjects I’ve personally read, including reviews penned by legends such as Manny Farber, who’s cited here. Kenny memorably describes Johnny Boy’s mischief as “coarsening” throughout Mean Streets as the film rockets toward its ambiguous and doom-laden finale. There’s also a pivotal reading of a scene in Bang the Drum Slowly that bolsters a recurring parallel assertion that De Niro’s funnier, and shrewder, a performer than is sometimes allowed:

“When he grins and drawls, ’Yes sir, that was how I always felt’, there’s a very slight hint of disingenuousness there that almost encourages multiple readings. Is this Pearson making fun of himself? Making fun of the coach? Is it De Niro making fun of the character? Is it De Niro making fun of Gardenia? In a way, the line and the reading are funniest when seen from that last perspective. It’s a pretty astonishing moment. Something about what he’s doing leaps out in a way that he may not be necessarily controlling.”

The humanity of the entire book is in that observation, which merges several planes of projective empathy—for the man De Niro may or may not have been at the time, for the character De Niro’s playing—with a discerning eye for the actor’s methods of translating behavior into gestures that have the misleading tenor of spontaneity, but that are often painstakingly arrived at (a notion that’s supported by quotations ranging from Jodie Foster to, most vividly, Jerry Lewis). Kenny’s aliveness to these nuances reaches full bloom in his piece on Taxi Driver, which dissects the masterpiece as an “irrational film” that emerged from studious control on the part of its three primary authors (De Niro, Scorsese, screenwriter Paul Schrader), as well as from an incoherent merging of three obsessive, troubled men’s autobiographies.

Robert De Niro: Anatomy of an Actor takes a subtle stylistic turn in its second half that might bear quasi-meta significance: The writing grows less detailed. Partially, this is unavoidable and understandable, as there’s more to express about Taxi Driver than, say, Midnight Run. But it’s hard to not see this change as Kenny’s way of practicing his own in-character editorializing in the vein of De Niro’s delivery of that Bruce Pearson line-reading: His prose’s generality reflects De Niro’s. As the performances become less intense, so do Kenny’s observations. The book gently recedes from the actor’s proximity as De Niro grows seemingly more distracted and polished in his career, more informed, not just by art, but by the full life of a very successful aging man with family and regrets and promises. This strategy only disappoints with the piece on Stone, an unheralded film that Kenny clearly respects, though his emphasis on physical brick-by-brick detail still isn’t quite there in the fashion that it is in earlier passages. Yet even that dissonance deepens the overall effect of the book, which is obviously not just about De Niro, but about Kenny, serving as our surrogate, trying to understand De Niro. The critic takes you closer, only to recognize the idea of artist proximity as not just an illusion, but as one of the great confounding illusions of our interactions with art.

Glenn Kenny’s Robert De Niro: Anatomy of an Actor is available July 28 from Phaidon Press; to purchase it, click here.

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Let Your Sanity Go on Vacation with a Trip to the Moons of Madness

If you dare, ascend into the horrors of the Martian mind and check out the trailer for yourself.

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Moons of Madness
Photo: Rock Pocket Games

The announcement trailer for Moons of Madness opens with an empty shot of the Invictus, a research installation that’s been established on Mars. The camera lingers over well-lit but equally abandoned corridors, drifting over a picture of a family left millions of kilometers behind on Earth before finally settling on the first-person perspective of Shane Newehart, an engineer working for the Orochi Group. Fans of a different Funcom series, The Secret World, will instantly know that something’s wrong. And sure enough, in what may be the understatement of the year, Newehart is soon talking about how he “seems to have a situation here”—you know, what with all the antiquated Gothic hallways, glitching cameras, and tentacled creatures that start appearing before him.

As with Dead Space, it’s not long before the station is running on emergency power, with eerie whispers echoing through the station and bloody, cryptic symbols being scrawled on the walls. Did we mention tentacles? Though the gameplay hasn’t officially been revealed, this brief teaser suggests that players will have to find ways both to survive the physical pressures of this lifeless planet and all sorts of sanity-challenging supernatural occurrences, with at least a soupçon of H.P. Lovecraft’s cosmicism thrown in for good measure.

If you dare, ascend into the horrors of the Martian mind and check out the trailer for yourself.

Rock Pocket Games will release Moons of Madness later this year.

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Watch: Two Episode Trailers for Jordan Peele’s The Twilight Zone Reboot

Ahead of next week’s premiere of the series, CBS All Access has released trailers for the first two episodes.

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The Twilight Zone
Photo: CBS All Access

Jordan Peele is sitting on top of the world—or, at least, at the top of the box office, with his sophomore film, Us, having delivered (and then some) on the promise of his Get Out. Next up for the filmmaker is the much-anticipated reboot of Rod Serling’s The Twilight Zone, which the filmmaker executive produced and hosts. Ahead of next week’s premiere of the series, CBS All Access has released trailers for the first two episodes, “The Comedian” and “Nightmare at 30,000 Feet.” In the former, Kumail Nanjiani stars as the eponymous comedian, who agonizingly wrestles with how far he will go for a laugh. And in the other, a spin on the classic “Nightmare at 20,0000 Feet” episode of the original series starring William Shatner, Adam Scott plays a man locked in a battle with his paranoid psyche. Watch both trailers below:

The Twilight Zone premieres on April 1.

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Scott Walker Dead at 76

Walker’s solo work moved away from the pop leanings of the Walker Brothers and increasingly toward the avant-garde.

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Scott Walker
Photo: 4AD

American-born British singer-songwriter, composer, and record producer Scott Walker, who began his career as a 1950s-style chanteur in an old-fashioned vocal trio, has died at 76. In a statement from his label 4AD, the musician, born Noel Scott Engel, is celebrated for having “enriched the lives of thousands, first as one third of the Walker Brothers, and later as a solo artist, producer and composer of uncompromising originality.”

Walker was born in Hamilton, Ohio on January 9, 1943 and earned his reputation very early on for his distinctive baritone. He changed his name after joining the Walker Brothers in the early 1960s, during which time the pop group enjoyed much success with such number one chart hits as “Make It Easy on Yourself” and “The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine (Anymore).”

The reclusive Walker’s solo work moved away from the pop leanings of the Walker Brothers and increasingly toward the avant-garde. Walker, who was making music until his death, received much critical acclaim with 2006’s Drift and 2012’s Bish Bosch, as well as with 2014’s Soused, his collaboration with Sunn O))). He also produced the soundtrack to Leos Carax’s 1999 romantic drama Pola X and composed the scores for Brady Corbet’s first two films as a director, 2016’s The Childhood of a Leader and last year’s Vox Lux.

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