Thursday, August 23, 2007


Portrait of Thomas William Coke,
(future Earl of Leicester)
by Pompeo Girlamo Batoni,
oil on canvas, 1774.
Sometimes titled An Englishman Abroad.

Posture and pose. Carriage.

Certain conventional descriptions have become attached to characters.

We read of a hero's lithe stride ( insert appropriate dangerous animal simile here) or regal old ladies, or someone who stands ramrod straight.

While people watching, I wondered about the why of these and similar automatic cliches.

I soon developed a certain sympathy, at least for the intent.

I observed a lot of sagging, slouching, pelvic projection, and people perambulating with their ass stuck out like a baboon.

In spite of the tired terms, the writers reflect a basic fact: a vast majority of people don't walk well. And their posture sucks.

Ergo, the main character should be described as standing out from the shuffle, because s/he usually does.

My one criticism of crowd/hallway/to-an-fro scenes on film or TV is that the posture and pace of the extras and minor actors is usually far too good.


writtenwyrdd said...

A basic understanding I gained working in law enforcement is that people who look like victims often are. If you walk like a non-victim, even if you are decrepit, you don't generally run into trouble.

I think the same rule applies for other body carriage and language traits. Posture that is alert, confident and tall is intimidating.

Posture that is 'wimpy' isn't.

But this doesn't take into account other cultures, like urban ghetto, for example. I mean, the slouch is a predatory thing in these areas. Perhaps you could call it junkyard dog behavior, which sounds perjorative; but it is, nevertheless, communicative of danger. The slouching dog in the junkyard will bite you just as badly from fear as it will from fury. (And that's the observation of a former police dog handler.)

writtenwyrdd said...

God, I just read that and I'm not sure I made sense. Need... Coffee......

Church Lady said...

Writtenwyrdd, you totally made sense to me (I haven't had coffee yet either though!)

quote: people who look like victims often are. If you walk like a non-victim, even if you are decrepit, you don't generally run into trouble.

I've heard that from a few different sources. Perhaps even Oprah did a show about self-defense for women. Women, if by themselves, should walk with purpose and confidence and with keys in hand when going to their cars.

The urban ghetto slouch is interesting. What exactly do you mean? Is this a gang body-language code? I'd like to know more.


Charles Gramlich said...

There's a theory, not a very good one in my opinion, but still a theory, that walking upright began with humans as a "style" choice. Someone started doing it and everyone thought, "how cool," and began imitating.

SzélsőFa said...

I also understood what writtenwyrdd said. I think I got the ghetto 'slouch', too.
I, unfortunately, have had the opportunity to watch some 'gangsta'-looking gypsy individuals. They wish to express that they don't care about anything. They slouch right through you if you don't step out of their way. With their 150kgs, big golden necklaces and hairy chests.

Bernita said...

Written, I firmly believe in the non-victim posture, so strongly that I advised my daughters to assume attitude and a don't-mess-with-me style in addition to the other benefits of proper posture.
I know what you mean about the ghetto "slink" though.

Nor me, Charles. There are obvious health advantages to good posture that don't have much to do with "style."

Jaye Wells said...

Standing with good posture can also make you look thinner.

Bernita said...

Certainly will, Jaye. The weight may not change, but the profile does.

Chris, Charles' theory applies here, I think.

Good visuals there, Szelsofa!

spyscribbler said...

Wow, good point. I never thought of the posture of the bit parts, but you're absolutely right.

Robyn said...

Great subject. If I read another hero who has panther-like grace, blood will likely shoot from my eyeballs.

But posture does give away self-image sometimes. I had horrible posture as a teen, because I wanted to "pull in" and hide. I had, um, certain blessings the other girls didn't have, if you follow, and standing up straight seemed like I was sticking those blessings out.

Interesting how the gangsta slouch started with baggy pants. As I understand it, the baggy pants made for good hiding of and easy access to a weapon in the crotch. Now, of course, it's a fad. I've seen many young men walking like a duck because their pants were drooping below their backsides!

Bernita said...

Lacks realism, Natasha.

Hee, Robyn!
Yes, I do follow.

Sam said...

I love seeing people will good posture. It's amazing how a dancer will stand out from the crowd. I, alas, slump and slope, but I try to remember to straighten up once in a while.

Ric said...

Slouching along...
I think readers expect their heroes to be Confident - the easiest way to show this is the purposeful walk.
I agree clearly with your observation of secondary characters on film - interesting, though, you even noticed. Maybe that's what I love about you so.

Kate Thornton said...

It was a delight in the army to see so many folks with good posture - you need it if you have to carry heavy stuff like packs and weapons. You also need it if you want to eat in communal settings. Next time you're at Hogwarts (via the films) watch the posture in the dining hall.

Yes, you can always tell an actor or dancer - or soldier - by the practised posture.

And Writtenwyrdd - I too have heard that a confident posture deters criminals who will seek out a less-confident-looking victim.

Bernita said...

Surely you don't have slump habit, Sam!
When I see an otherwise very attractive girl standing/walking like a cow I have the urge to run up, shake her, and yell in her ear.

Have been watching a fair amount of TV lately (research,I assure you) and finally figured out the "what's wrong with this picture" niggle that bothered me.
Ric, I shall accomplish nothing today,I shall be in such a flutter.

Bernita said...

One certainly can, Kate, and contrary to an oft-repeated stereotype, I have never considered soldiers' posture as "stiff" - rather a beauty of co-ordination.
One can often identify a police officer as well by his "stroll".

Dave said...

I recently bought the Kenneth Branagh version of HAMLET. I've only listened to the commentary track so far.
Branagh uses lots of single-camera, extended shots, whole scenes done in one take of 3, 4, 5, or more minutes. He talks about the difficulties of filming that long in one take. It seems that the bit actors, the extras who must be doing something purposeful but only fill the scene and rehearsed as much as the main characters. If they blow a line or flub a take four or five minutes into the scene, then all that work is lost. In a scene like - The Player King's telling of Priam - that's 12 to 18 actors doing coordinated moves.

(This is beside the point - Aside from a magnificent production of HAMLET, the commentary track is fascinating as Branagh discusses how to make the most familar scenes interesting and new.)

That's what you are seeing on the TV, Bernita. A well rehearsed group whose actions are scripted.

Perhaps, if we create a summary paragraph for each character, it should include posture. That's a good thought.

writtenwyrdd said...

If you watch animals, they have postural displays that indicate many things: attitude, mood, attention and its focus.

Ears pricking, tails twitching, fluffing hair, all correspond to people moves. Most animals do not straighten up like we do, they straighten out, puff up, make themselves bigger. Our hair doesn't fluff, but we tend to gesture wildly when agitated. And instead of tails giving our unease away, we twitch, nibble cuticles, cannot keep eye contact.

But there's always something.

Can you tell I find body language fascinating?

Bernita said...

Dave, having been an actress, I'm familiar with the finicky details of scene choreography - and I still maintain that, on average, the posture and walk of many bit actors in many productions is too good.
Not all directors are created equal, and it is, after all, a subtle thing.

Bernita said...

All aspects of body language may lift a novel out of the mundane, Written. You're smart to find it so.

December/Stacia said...

That's actually a very clever thought, about extras. I never thought about it but you're right--it does make the scenes feel off somehow.

It's hard to come up with non-cliche descriptions of stuff like that, which are still concise. It's one of my greatest difficulties.

Bernita said...

Truly, December, it poses a major challenge for any writer.
Always the danger of straying from cliche into too clever or too "cute."

Anonymous said...

Funny, your talk of bit players reminded me of watching a Gilbert & Sullivan opera on Cd yesterday. I found it really irritating, unlike a live theatre experience. And I think you pegged what bugged me. Without the entire stage in view, we see these chorus members stalking on and off screen, singing a silly song...and it is adrift from the whole, so it grated on my nerves.

If a filmed stage production is to work at all, it needs to be filmed from a distance to catch the entire stage. Cats is the only one I've ever been able to really enjoy because that's what they did.


The Anti-Wife said...

Slouching seems to be the easy thing to do. What an interesting observation about the extras and about how one's posture portrays one's image.

kmfrontain said...

LOL, written. Made sense to me and it was very informative. Thank you.

And thank you, Bernita, for bringing up posture in writing.

Anonymous said...

Extras are often thought of as set dressing, more prop than person. I wonder if that causes the lack of characterization.

The whole posture thing works in the corporate/workplace world as well. I've learned to make myself seem much larger and louder in a room full of much larger and louder men.

I will definitely be including something about this in a story I'm planning.

Bernita said...

An easy habit, AW.

My husband always claims he decided to marry me when he saw me from across a street.

Just something I notice about people, Karen.
Posture/walk is one of the first things people respond to - consciously or subconsciously.

Bernita said...

Probably, Seeley.
And you are correct.Surprising how often people are perceived as taller, bigger than they physically are, for example.

Gabriele C. said...

I've always stood proudly, and I don't remember having been taught - it's just natural. I've been told at university that I enter the dining hall like a queen enters her throne room. :)

I suppose I should mention stance for my characters more often, Roman soldiers and Mediaeval knights did have a good bearing and so I never think about it.

Bernita said...

The imperial presence, Gabriele...

Jon M said...

My posturing is impeccable! Never mind that though, I'm going to get me haircut like Thomas Coke's!:-)

Bernita said...

Hee, Jon.
My carriage sways...

LadyBronco said...

Love the painting as always, Bernita. All I can think of after seeing it is Mr. Cook posing there thinking...

"Yeah. The chicks dig me."

Bernita said...

Thank you, Lady B.
You're probably right. He was 18, and on his way to a fancy ball.