Archive for September 15, 2022

Ghetto Fabular

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on September 15, 2022 by dcairns

Met some of my new students yesterday. Oddly, our first official class has been postponed due to somebody called Elizabeth dying. There’s a national holiday to allow us to watch television, a spectacularly British idea which should become an annual, or daily, event.

Since the entire university is shutting down, my eleven screenings will be reduced to ten. I’m definitely starting with Keaton. But if I show SHERLOCK JR I can fit in a Chaplin too. Or a bunch of shorts — could cram in a Lumiere, a Melies, and a couple of something elses to show the development of silent film language… Maybe a Guy and a Feuillade?

I have a week and a bit to decide. It’ll be a last-minute thing, I’m sure.

A little more on THE GREAT DICTATOR. As I said before, the ghetto scenes show Chaplin more than usually constrained by the laws of good taste. While, normally, we can show Charlie having difficulties and we laugh but still have sympathy for him — as was shown in all the WWI gags — we can’t laugh when he’s being bullied by stormtroopers, even when they’re unreal Hollywood goon type stormtroopers. We can’t be encouraged to laugh along with those thugs. Chaplin can use their bullying to build up tension — increased by the fact that the Jewish barber character is an innocent who doesn’t even know what stormtroopers ARE, and so doesn’t realise what danger he’s in — and release that tension as laughter when Paulette starts clunking them with a frying pan. And we can laugh — just about — when she accidentally clunks the J.b. But the notion of being able to beat up Nazis in Nazi Germany without consequences, even if it’s “Tomainia” instead of Germany — is so obviously a fantasy that the film can’t really lay claim to being a satire while this material is being unfolded. It becomes even more a fairy tale than LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL, which admits to being one (a shrewd bit of damage control by producer Harvey Weinstein, who must have known the film was unacceptable but would be extremely popular).

Sidenote: the slapstick business with the stormtroopers is also hampered by being shot and shown at 24fps, without undercranking, and the tracking shots seem to reinforce the HEAVIER quality this gives it.

When, later, Charlie is being strung up from a lamp post — lamp posts have been dangerous since EASY STREET — things are so serious they’re not funny at all. It’s a bigger problem than the one first diagnosed when he wanted to combine comedy and drama, and a friend advised that the two values would surely fight one another. Chaplin believed, and proved, that they could be held in balance. But I think it’s fair to say that in a comedy, violence by anti-Semites against Jews will be upsetting enough to kill subsequent laughter if it’s done with realistic intensity, and if it’s tamped down to be less upsetting, will seem like an unacceptable softening of the truth.

Of course, this is where having a copy of THE DAY THE CLOWN CRIED to look at would be very useful. It’s just possible that Jerry Lewis, king of the conflicted response, might have solved the problem, even if he did it unintentionally — his likely mingling of broad comedy, schmaltz, and horror could (and we can only speculate) have fermented into something truly unbearable. The late JLG said that the only film to make about the Holocaust would be a very technical study of how many bodies could be fit on a wheelbarrow, and it would be unbearable. Jer might be the man for that. (Welles: “When he goes too far, he’s wonderful. When he doesn’t he’s unbearable.”)

So, no, I’m not a huge fan of the stormtrooper schtick. And it’s interesting that this business is really the only use Chaplin makes of the J.b’s amnesia, other than as a convenient ellipsis to skip over most of the interwar years.* Our protagonist lays down no memories during this period, so we can jump ahead to the next bit of interest to us. And, to return to my crackpot theory, when the Jewish barber is imprisoned, he splits in two, like Bill Pullman in LOST HIGHWAY. Here, one persona is exaggeratedly innocent. The other is pure malignity. One copes with his war trauma by a near-total memory dump. The other prepares a second global conflagration as revenge.

More Hynkel frolics soon!

*The return to the cobwebbed barber shop does give us a great uncanny moment, where the barber suddenly notices the disrepair, which makes no sense to him since he believes he’s been gone perhaps for a day. The camera tracks in to a medium shot, pans to a web-shrouded sink as he looks at it (a non-optical POV shot, effectively), then back to him, and Chaplin graces us with a very fleeting Look To Camera.

“Do you see this too?”