Direction

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Charles Chaplin wrote in his autobiography that the only thing he learned from his first director, Henry “Pathe” Lehrmann, was that if a character exited frame left he should enter frame right in the next shot (maintaining continuity of movement, you see). This was kind of a put-down, but in fact you could argue that Chaplin learned very little film technique, besides this basic and essential component, at any point during his fifty-three year directing career. (And if that seems like a put-down, remember what Chaplin was able to accomplish using his “limited” technique.)

In fact, Chaplin sometimes got basic screen direction wrong. In SHANGHAIED, made a hundred years ago (!), Charlie is working in the ship’s galley, mistaking the soup pot for a wash pot and washing the dishes in it. He exits to deliver the now-soapy soup to the captain and first mate —

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–and exercises a 180 flip upon passing through the doorway. Now, CC hasn’t done anything impossible (yet) — it’s not even a continuity error, it’s just bad matching of screen direction. We’ve crossed the line while passing from room to room, so that Chaplin seems to be moving in a different direction all of a sudden,

Later, things get weirder still, as the tasting of the soup results in a beating for the cook, who then discovers Charlie’s role in the fiasco. A scuffle, ending with Charlie delivering one of his trademark kicks up the arse to the cook, propelling him through the same door Charlie used earlier —

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— only now the door teleports the cook onto the ship’s deck. Same doorway, different destination. A Twilight Zone moment. At least it didn’t flip him 180, which would have made things even more disorienting for him.

The life of a sea cook is rough and confusing, which must be why they’re always fathering illegitimate children.

STOP PRESS: it’s not over until it’s over — a late, and very great blogathon entry from Scout Tafoya, covering late/latest Ridley Scott and late/latest Orson Welles. Here.

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5 Responses to “Direction”

  1. Or Chaplin was actually making an inside joke of continuity. Recall reading that he was annoyed at the Keystone practice of linking distant locations by intercutting (i.e., one side of a street is shown to be a very rural-looking park, and the other is a sidewalk along manicured lawns and mansions. You never see them in the same shot; just characters gesticulating at each other and occasionally walking out of frame here to walk into frame there).

  2. Chaplin vs Kuleshev!

    If it’s a joke it doesn’t work, because the gap between set-up and pay-off is too great, and the pay-off would clash with the punchline to another joke (cook is kicked onto deck).

    It could be Chaplin originally shot footage showing him exit the kitchen onto the deck and then entering the captain’s dining room by another door, then cut this out to save time…

  3. John Seal Says:

    Totally misread this as referring to “a souffle, ending with Charlie delivering one of his trademark kicks up the arse to the cook”

  4. Sign the petition, folks!

    I fear any souffle produced in that kitchen would disappoint!

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