Neil Patrick Harris: details in performance

Details matter.  If I had to summarise the common thread running through my thinking and writing about popular culture to date, and if I had to paraphrase the bulk of my written feedback to students, that is the phrase I would use.

One of the many areas of filmed fiction in which details matter a great deal is performance.  But because it is harder to point to or quantify elements of performance with the same certainty that one can point to a camera movement, a cut, or even a musical score, performance does not always receive the central place it deserves in discussions of how meaning is made.

On my ‘Analysing Television Drama’ module, which takes Joss Whedon’s work as its case study, I often try in my seminars to put performance at the centre of the sequence analyses we undertake.  Sometimes, I encourage students to replicate the gestures of the actors onscreen in an attempt to ‘feel their way’ into a performance.  Or I encourage other forms of perspective-taking (‘If I were to speak to you in that way, or touch your shoulder in that way, what would it reveal about my attitude towards you?’).  The Buffy episode ‘Doppelgangland’ is a particularly useful tool for thinking about performance, as it involves the wonderful Alyson Hannigan giving sharply differentiated performances.  There is her ‘regular’ Willow, a high school teenager who is all hesitations and nervousness, and there is Willow’s vampire doppelganger from an alternative dimension, all self-possession and stillness.  Thinking about Hannigan’s two performances beside one another brings out more clearly the choices (of posture, eyeline, vocal inflections, movement) in each that create character.  (Fans of the Buffyverse will know that there are several other episodes in the series that could also be used in this way.  ‘Who Are You’, ‘Intervention’, ‘The Wish’…  And there is, of course, the whole of Dollhouse too.)  Alex Clayton has written a brilliant article, which emerged from his teaching, that compares performances in Alfred Hitchcock’s Psycho and the film’s remake, directed by Gus Van Sant.  Early in his article Clayton stresses that ‘details matter, … they make all the difference’.

I have not yet taught Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog – a short film made on a slim budget during the 2007-8 Writers’ Guild of America strike and originally distributed for free via the internet – on ‘Analysing Television Drama’ (though it has made brief occasional guest appearances- and yes, I know it’s not strictly television ).  I am, though, a huge fan, so I thought I would mark Neil Patrick Harris’s fortieth birthday with a critical appreciation of his role as Billy/Dr Horrible.  Having watched and listened to Dr Horrible endlessly over the past several months, one of the main things I have come to appreciate is the level, and the depth, of detail in Neil Patrick Harris’s performance, which is at once consistent with the (admittedly few) other things I have seen him in (principally, How I Met Your Mother), and also of a piece with the broader achievements and sensibility of Joss Whedon, Dr Horrible‘s director and co-writer.  (The main body of my blog begins with a further brief digression, about the other Captain character Nathan Fillion has played for Whedon, but we get to Harris and Horrible soon enough!)

Joss Whedon and how to use contrast in drama

One of Whedon’s artististic signatures is his use of abrupt, stark contrasts, often for emotional effect.  In ‘Serenity’, originally intended to be the pilot episode of Firefly, we are given a thumbnail sketch of charismatic true believer Sergeant Malcolm Reynolds (the superb Nathan Fillion), a member of the Independents, fighting the Alliance and their quest for unification.  In a fast few minutes on a night-time battlefield we see him outrun gunfire, bring down an enemy aircraft, try to shore up the spirit of one of his subordinates (‘We are just too pretty for God to let us die’), and kiss a crucifix.  Then comes the pivotal moment in the scene where he finds out that his army has surrendered.  Suddenly, his constant stream of commands and cajoling is cut short.  His speech falters, then ceases altogether.  He can only stand dumbstruck and watch defeat unfold (in slow motion).  We jump forward in time.  The head of a man in a spacesuit, upside down, floats into the top of the frame.  All is darkness and quiet.  The battle of Serenity Valley is the punctuation mark in Mal’s life.  It hardly matters how much time the cut has elided; an Alliance interrogator in a later episode will tell Mal, with considerable justification, that he never left Serenity Valley.  Mal is now a cynical, even sullen, man, eking out a living on the edge of the galaxy.  This would not register as strongly as it does were it not for the way we are introduced to Mal in the battle sequence (one of the many reasons why it is a shame that Firefly began its broadcast life with ‘The Train Job’ rather than ‘Serenity’ – but that’s another story).

Think also of the Buffy episode ‘The Body’, where Whedon manages to make the coldness, silence and stillness of the corpse of Joyce Summers (Kristine Sutherland) tell even more than they already are by cutting (back) to the body from a warm, convivial family gathering in the same house, and then back to it again from Buffy’s fantasy of her mother recovering.  The list goes on.

On television, brevity and economy are often cardinal virtues.  This is even more true in the case of a standalone short film.  If we are to care about its characters – and Whedon always wants us to care about characters – then they need to be sketched with clarity and vividness.  This can explain why it is hard to imagine many people better suited to the pivotal role in Dr. Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog than Neil Patrick Harris.

Of the three principal roles in Dr Horrible, Harris’s is by far the most technically demanding.  Felicia Day, whose Penny spends her days helping the homeless (and doing her laundry), has to put across sweetness and cautious romanticism.  Captain Hammer (Nathan Fillion), despite Penny’s charitable attribution of layers to him, is cheesy all the way down.  Like Penny, Hammer is pretty much the same thing to all people.  And Day and Fillion deliver exactly what is required of them.  Harris, on the other hand, has to play the two personae of his character: Billy the ‘laundry buddy’, and Dr Horrible, nemesis of Captain Hammer and aspirant member of the Evil League of Evil.  Not only this: unlike Penny and Hammer, he is not only in a musical (they are too), but a musical blog, and must periodically address his viewers, via a webcam, accordingly.  Not only this: Harris must capture the way that Billy/Dr Horrible fluctuates between feelings of, on the one hand, failure, frustration and tenderness for Penny, and on the other, megalomania, hatred towards Captain Hammer, and rising evil.  It is this final set of demands that really allow Harris to show off his ability, in terms of the emotions communicated by his performance, to turn on a dime.  The best way to demonstrate this is to look closely at one of Dr Horrible‘s musical numbers.

‘My Freeze Ray’ (music and lyrics by Joss Whedon)

Dr Horrible’s Sing-Along Blog begins with its eponymous villain reading emails from his viewers.  We learn that the doctor’s inventions are imperfect but not entirely ineffective (he has transported gold from a bank vault but in the process it has decomposed into a useless – and smelly – liquid), that his world is populated by other somewhat low-rent supers (most importantly, Captain Hammer), that he has applied to the Evil League of Evil (again), and that he possesses the verbosity and wit of most Whedon protagonists, quick with replies to the email put-downs he has received.  He is stopped in his tracks, though, when he reads the following lines: ‘You always say in your blog that you will show her the way, show her you are a true villain.  Who is ‘her’, and does she even know that you’re…’  Horrible trails off, turns to face the camera, and (much like Sergeant Reynolds) moves his mouth to speak, but finds the words will not come.  In true musical fashion, what you cannot say, you sing.  Cue the music.

We cut to Harris, no longer in Dr Horrible garb, carrying a basket of laundry into a laundrette.  As the song progresses, we cut between three different set-ups.    Two of these are based in the laundrette.  The first is ‘real’: Billy/Horrible does his laundry and tries to talk to Penny (and, some of the time, sings).  The second is Billy’s fantasy, where he is able to freeze time, and confidently lead Penny in a dance in between the machines. FInally, there is the opening set-up of Dr Horrible at his webcam, looking at us but now addressing (the absent) Penny, telling her how he feels.  The corresponding three performances, and the first and last especially, are nicely differentiated.  The Billy carrying his laundry is all self-consciousness and self-effacement.  He hunches over his basket, steals glances at Penny with earnest eyes and furrowed brow, and swallows nervously.  In the number’s comic highlight, towards its end, he plucks up the courage to tell Penny ‘Love your hair’ (significantly, we only hear this sung, not spoken), but, in response to her ‘What?’ (Penny is not – yet – singing, nor hearing the music), he immediately disclaims his words, nervously improvising and turning it into a nonsense utterance: ‘No, I, I, love the… air’ (nervous chuckle).  By contrast, Dr Horrible, video blogging, holds our gaze, and is all swagger.  He cradles his freeze ray, confidently warding off any confusion about its function, leaning towards the camera and gesturing as he explains, ‘It’s not a death ray or an ice beam, that’s all Jonny Snow…’.  Later, as he tells Penny/us ‘That’s the plan/Rule the world/You and me/Any day’, he is every inch the confident propositioner, pursing his lips and tipping us a sly wink.  The musical rhythm, especially, also carries these contrasts.  The song begins, and repeatedly returns to, a very tentative rhythm, with lines composed of only three syllables: ‘Laund-ry Day/See you there/Un-der-things/Tum-b-ling…’  When the first much longer line comes, it coincides with us cutting back to the Horrible-cam, and gives the impression of our protagonist powering through and overcoming his nervousness, replacing it with a declaration both sinuous and emphatic: ‘With my freeze ray I will find the time to find the words to…’.

— — —

This ability to deliver nicely delineated and differentiated personae is impressive enough.  What is yet more impressive is Harris’s ability to move from one emotion to another within an individual scene, and sometimes an individual shot.  As he spies on Penny and Captain Hammer through a window, Horrible sings about ‘how the world’s filled with filth and lies’, underlining the sense of ‘filth’ by screwing his face in disgust.  However, as Harris’s sweet vocal soars as he continues, ‘But it’s plain to see/Evil inside of me/Is on the rise’, pain and hurt flash across Horrible’s features (his raised eyebrows and furrowed brow giving us a glimpse of Billy).  ‘Brand New Day’ begins with an evil smile spreading across Horrible’s face, as the camera pushes in towards Harris and urgent music comes in.  Later in the same song, Horrible caresses a (framed) photograph of Penny, singing with longing that ‘Penny will see the evil me/Not a joke, not a dork, not a failure’.  As he does so, he involuntarily gives two nervous blinks.  Once again, the Billy persona is putting in a brief appearance (we have seen the same gesture in the scene preceding the song, when Billy and Hammer meet at the Coin Wash).  Horrible then regains his composure, and his fantasies of power and control (already, as the preceding lines show, part of his fantasy about being with Penny) reassert themselves: ‘She may cry but her tears will dry/When I hand her the keys to a shiny new Australia’.  As he sings these lines, Harris adopts a pose more fitting of a supervillain.  From an initial position of curling up in the corner of a chair, he spreads out in it, crossing his legs in a deliberate fashion, draping one arm proprietorially over that of the chair and, with his other, flexing his gloved fingers.  (The mise-en-scene comments on Horrible’s megalomanic aspirations to offer continents as love gifts to counteract his feelings of inadequacy.  He is dwarfed by the chair he sits in, a choice which adds an extra ironic edge to the fantasy that quickly follows, of a giant Dr Horrible stomping through a city, towering above buildings, and crushing Captain Hammer underfoot.)

In the introduction to his book on Howard Hawks, Robin Wood, after analysing a scene from Red Line 7000, writes the following:

the beauty of the scene, a very touching one, arises not from any content that can be intellectualised and removed from the images, but from the very precise timing of the acting and the editing, from gesture, expression, intonation, exchanged glance.  This is why (the reader had best be warned now) Hawks is ultimately unanalysable.  When I am asked by sceptics why I like a film like Red Line 7000 I can work out a detailed intellectual explanation – the construction of the film, the interaction of all the parts, is, as so often with Hawks, masterly – but it doesn’t really satisfy me.  What I really like about Red Line 7000 is the vital tension that is expressed throughout in the great complex of action, gesture, expression, speech, camera movement, camera placement, and editing, that is cinema: the sense of the film’s being the work of a whole man, intuitively and spontaneously, as well as intellectually, alive.

Whedon, now surely by some long distance the most written-about television artist in history, has of course proven to be eminently analysable, and these analyses have produced many precious insights.  However, I believe there is much more work to be done to allow us to fully recognise and celebrate the vital surface texture of Whedon’s work, and most especially, his work with performers.  The unassuming eloquence of actors under Whedon’s direction is perhaps easy to overlook given that it quietly takes its place alongside much more mannered dialogue, and, often, a pronounced focus upon big, big themes.  I now wish to briefly quote Jason Jacobs (and his article in Screen 52.4) and say, along with him, that the study of television (and related media) should include ‘an attempt to find the critical terms with which to describe the works we admire. […] I doubt whether we have even remotely enough of that in television studies.’  The comments above may only be a relatively undistinguished instance of such activity, but that should not be taken as a negative reflection upon their object of attention.  On Whedon, actors and characters, there is much more to be written, and I intend to be the one to write some of it.  To be continued…

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2 thoughts on “Neil Patrick Harris: details in performance

  1. Pingback: Dr Horribles Sing-Along Blog – Joss Whedon vs Sexy Alyson Hannigan (MetalEddy SourceFed Movie Club) | MrHairyBrit - Hairy Man of Youtube

  2. Pingback: All rocket launchers, no emotional resonance | Between Sympathy and Detachment

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