Gillian Wearing’s ‘Self Made’ is a documentary feature, but it could have been a reality TV series. ‘The Method’. Seven ordinary people, selected from thousands of applicants, participate in a protracted acting workshop using the celebrated ‘method’ technique.
That sounds disparaging, but it isn’t. Not entirely.
What makes reality TV so tawdry is the cynicism of the producers. Our natural curiosity about other people is turned into a circus of competition and conflict, contrived by the threat of elimination; joy and tears, witnessed by condescending presenters, pompous experts, and crude drum rolls. ‘Self Made’ doesn’t have any of that, apart from the tears, which are abundant, but it does offer up the personal lives of its participants for our viewing pleasure.
‘The Method’ as practiced by acting coach, Sam Rumbelow, seems to be a form of drama therapy. Exercises, including voice work, manipulative improvisations, and re-enactments are aimed at unblocking “the flow of energy,” accessing and accepting your personal truth.
At first, Rumbelow (who resembles a boyish John Malkovich) comes dangerously close to sounding like a charlatan, but later a reassuringly sympathetic warmth emerges. He seems to care. (If only he’d remove his dapper cloth cap and accept the personal truth of his baldness.)
The participants are told they have been selected because they have unique personal stories to tell, but it turns out many of these are generic tales of domestic dysfunction, bad parenting, bullying. We are all unique – that’s the only thing that isn’t unique about any one of us – but that doesn’t make us all interesting.
Several of these ‘unique’ people have violent fantasies, of revenge, or resentment, which they are encouraged to act out (in the safe environment of the workshop.). Rumbelow does not judge them, nor does Wearing, and this is what makes ‘Self Made’ an edgy, bracing experience.
Most disturbing is the self-exposure of warehouse worker, Dave Austin, crypto-fascist personality. Masochism, control, sadistic rage, and emotional blankness. His decision to determine the day of his own death, a revulsion with the decay and impotence of old age, recalls the narcissistic theorizing of Mishima. His choice of character – Mussolini – speaks for itself.
‘Self Made’ points to the limits of the Method. It does repressed aggression and raw cries of pain. Ironically, given its obsession with truth, it enables the authentic performance of otherwise melodramatic material. It doesn’t – at least, on this evidence – deal so well with more pacific emotions, those of sorrow, and longing. The romantic disappointment of middle-aged Lesley makes for the weakest of the ‘end scenes’ (the short films or dramas towards which each participant is working). As an actor, Lesley was more convincing in earlier improvisations. In this gentle, nostalgic duologue which sees her spurning an admirer, she is as stiff as you’d expect a non-actor.
Or it could be that Gillian Wearing, who we assume to be directing this film-within-a-film, did not engage with the period material, shooting it without passion.
Or it could be that I just wanted her to see Lesley act out her frustrations and kick the shit out of her polite admirer.
‘Self Made’ was released in UK cinemas last week (September 2nd)