Describing Behaviors

Observable Behavior 1–10
by Liza Johnson

The essay begins…

1. IN ACTING, BEHAVIOR IS A word for observable gestures, pulses of affect. It is a primary craft element of screen performance; alongside dialogue and action, it is one of the main ways that anything becomes legible in cinema—character, plot, meaning. It’s also the element that is generally unscripted, so, for actors, behavior is a site of invention and interpretation. It’s very rare that a screenplay dictates behavior: ‘‘She bites her lip,’’ or, ‘‘He lurches a little to one side.’’

2. Some people rely a lot on observing behavior. Everyone does it, but not everyone does it in the same way, and not everyone is good at it. At least in my experience, if you’re outside a culture or a friend group, or in figurative or literal ways you don’t speak the language, you must rely on observing behavior. It makes other people think you have ESP, when in fact you are really using sensory perception in a way that culture would prefer you didn’t.

It is said that the children of addicts and other erratic parties are especially good at this kind of observation, of reading all the surfaces of the world all the time. I like to think of it as a special skill that is learned eccentrically, outside the academy. This may be one of the reasons that acting remains a semidemocratic site of class mobility, because the things that make you really good at observing or reproducing behavior are unsystematic, unpredictable, or at least not the same things that get you into Harvard.

There are different words for this: if you want to pathologize, you call it hypervigilance; if you want to psychoanalyze, you call it projective identification; or if you are an actor of a particular training, you might also liken it to Anne Bogart’s viewpoint of kinesthetic response.

Behavior comes before language, before affect can be named as feeling, or explained or narrated, or described in words. It is arguably one word for the legible pulses of affect that people can pretend are illegible, so you seem psychic if you recognize them.

In this “listicle,” filmmaker Liza Johnson proposes ten ways of thinking about—and looking at—behavior, through her own and others’ films and writing.

LIZA JOHNSON is an artist and filmmaker. Her feature films include Elvis and Nixon (2016), Hateship Loveship (2013) and Return (2011.) Her short films and installations include South of Ten (2005), In the Air (2009), and, with Elizabeth Povinelli and the Karrabing Indigenous Corporation, Karrabing: Low Tide Turning. She is Professor of Art at Williams College.