Archive for Chaplin

London Particular

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on June 10, 2017 by dcairns

I found this unused blog post from 2014 when I was first in Bologna. Why let it go to waste, just because some of its content got used elsewhere?

An eclectic and idiosyncratic array of shorts, Chaplin’s London & Calvero’s Colleagues, presented by Mariann Lewinsky, ran at Bologna — the selection aimed to reproduce the sights and sounds of Chaplin’s music hall days, with street scenes of London life in the years before his departure for the US (“America — I am coming to conquer you!”), and theatre acts which echoed those mentioned in his autobiography or recreated in LIMELIGHT. Maestro Neil Brand provided live accompaniment.

LIVING LONDON (1904) is one of the best Victorian street scenes I’ve ever seen, full of life and detail and quirks of behaviour, captured forever by Charles Urban. You can see a brief extract above.

WORK MADE EASY (1907, USA) was a trick film in which an inventor trains a gadget on various heaps of boxes, barrels, and a building site, causing the desired tasks to be performed in super-quick-time via both reverse motion and accelerated motion. At the end of the film, for no comprehensible reason, his arms fly off and streamers flicker from each hollow shoulder. That’s entertainment for you!

In L’HOMME QUI MARCHE SUR LA TETE, acrobat Monsieur Tack not only stands on his head but walks on it, kicking his legs to lift him off the ground, even descending a shallow flight of stairs with only a little pad bandaged to his cranium for protection. He’s my new hero.

KOBELKOFF (1900) was included in homage to a deleted scene from LIMELIGHT featuring an armless wonder. I’d forgotten how portly Nicolai Kobelkoff was, giving him a disturbing resemblance to a winesack or a sea-lion. Prince Randian, by contrast, was all muscle.

Albert Capellani’s CENDRILLON (CINDERELLA, 1907) is enchanting, and shows the growing sophistication of narrative and performance in this period — Capellani would be a key player in developing the motion picture from short subjects to features.

FESTA PYOTECNICA NEL CIELO DI LONDRA (FIREWORKS DISPLAY IN THE LONDON SKY, 1902) is Urban again, offering hand-tinted images of a rather spectacular fireworks display. Apart from the blazing portraits of Victoria & Albert, there’s a fire engine made of fireworks, from which firemen emerge, also apparently made of fireworks. Close examination reveals how this was done. Pyrotechnicians, hopefully dressed in asbestos, wear exoskeletons to which are affixed blazing, sparking fireworks at regular intervals, creating a luminous outline which converts them into animated figures — Victorian mo-cap technology in action.

This screened a second time in the Piazza Maggiore, ahead of A HARD DAY’S NIGHT, where I snapped the following blurry image:

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A carriage made of fireworks, right? I have a better phone now, so expect better snaps from me when I’m back in Bologna in a couple of weeks…

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The Sunday Intertitle: A Well-Earned Break

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on July 10, 2016 by dcairns

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Several weeks since the last Sunday intertitle, a small tragedy I know, since a Sunday without intertitles is like a Sunday without sunshine. Ironic, too, since we’ve been in Bologna, bombarded with both intertitles and sunshine.

The first film we saw with intertitles over there, strictly speaking, was Karpo Godina’s THE BROWNED BRAINS OF PUPILIA FERKEVERK, about which I hope to say more later. That same evening saw us foregathered in the Piazza Maggiore in the gloaming, unable to find a seat since THOUSANDS of extra viewer had assembled ahead of us to se MODERN TIMES with the Chaplin score reconstructed and conducted by Timothy Brock.

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This was something I was a little wary about, since I’m always banging on about how CITY LIGHTS and MODERN TIMES are NOT silent films — Chaplin is continually using sound in all manner of innovative ways to create new kinds of movie gags. But Brock did a very sensitive job ~

The balance between the film’s sound effects track and the live music was extremely well-judged, the only sequence losing out being the indigestion noises in prison, which are realistically quiet on the original soundtrack (quite brilliantly convincing, in fact) but inaudible soft in the Piazza, especially with all those yearning masses in attendance. It took me some time to get used to the fact that the score sounded so different — I can accept on faith that it’s based on rigorous study of the original and completely true to what Brock was able to hear and notate, but everything about it sounds different. I guess that’s the point: we’re told that the original is poorly recorded and this is clearly a different experience played live, immensely richer and fuller. The thing is, I actually don’t need anything better than Chaplin’s original 1936 recording, which has the single benefit of authenticity over the many benefits of Brock’s reconstruction.

But once I’d gotten over the difference, and set to one side purist objections, I could enjoy the magnificent sounds Brock and his orchestra were making. There’s just one point where his musical approach was deliberately unfaithful to the original, and forced me to have another think.

Just before Chaplin sing’s his famous nonsense song, the original movie features some singing waiters, the act he has to follow. They sing some kind of southern thing, with a lyric about how “You can hear those darkies singing.” Brock tastefully mutes those chumps and just plays the melody live. I don’t know what else he could have done, since playing the music from the film would have violated the clear division set up between the duties of the film soundtrack (dialogue and effects) and the orchestra (music). Hiring some singing waiters doesn’t seem like an option. And the lyric is distractingly offensive to modern ears, and was uncharacteristically insensitive of Chaplin even then.

(Chaplin always avoided making fun of racial stereotypes, saying black people “have suffered too much ever to be amusing to me.” When Charlie accidentally sits on a black lady in the back of a black maria in this film, Chaplin is doing her the courtesy of treating her exactly as all other innocent bystanders are treated in his work, unless they’re the subject of sentiment.)

In a way, muting the waiters enhances the film. Walter Kerr, in his majestic The Silent Clowns, complains that some of Chaplin’s combinations of sound and silent conventions are disruptive or inconsistent. As I recall he objects in particular to the big boss man giving Charlie a two-way TV barracking in the best 1984 tradition ~

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Chaplin is moving at silent movie speed, the Big Boss is talking. How is this even possible? Rather than being irked by the discordance, I’m impressed by the technique. Rather than using a matte, Chaplin uses a rear-projection screen so the whole interchange can be filmed “live” (though Big Brother is in fact pre-recorded). The dialogue has been looped, very skillfully, so everything can move at around 18fps. And note how convincingly the Boss’s eyes follow Charlie around the room…

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My interpretation of Chaplin’s “rule” for dialogue in MODERN TIMES is that the machines speak while the humans are silent and must depend on intertitles. There’s no other real reason why the inventor hawking the automatic feeding device (cinema’s most disturbing contraption prior to the Ludovico Technique in CLOCKWORK ORANGE — both devices are presented with the cliché “Actions speak louder than -“) should use a phonograph recording to deliver his sales pitch. Then there’s the boss, who only speaks via the medium of closed-circuit TV (he’s PART of the factory) and there’s a radio broadcast about prison releases and an ad for indigestion relief.

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The singing waiters break this rule, though they’re largely heard offscreen. Charlie breaks the rule too, but it’s better for him to do it suddenly and violently, prefigured by the shock of his switch to 24fps movement and the sound his shoes make as the scuff on the dance floor. He’s also doing something else here he doesn’t attempt elsewhere — when Chaplin sings, the camera becomes the night club audience and he performs right at us. Charlie, in his early movies, enjoyed a direct rapport with the movie audience. It’s fortuitously showcased right at the start in KID AUTO RACES AT VENICE where he won’t get out the way of a newsreel camera — he emerges from the crowd to hog the lens and the limelight and communicate with us visually. Throughout his early work he enjoys this ability to shoot us a sly look. I’m not quite sure when he phased this out, but in something like the dance with the bread rolls in THE GOLD RUSH he deploys a deliberate device, moving in close so that the camera takes the group POV of the showgirls watching him perform, so that he can again sort-of acknowledge the camera, though he does it with an assumed shyness, never quite meeting our eyes.

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What does Chaplin’s singing mean? In the story, it’s his latest attempt to join society and earn a living, and it’s the one that comes closest to being a roaring success. Bypassing language but accepting sound, Charlie/Chaplin nearly becomes a star of the talking age. But it’s not to be — fleeing the restaurant, Charlie and the gamin (Paulette Goddard) revert to intertitles, and a song plays without the later, famous words. Invitation declined. Charlie walks off into the sunrise, not alone for once, and the camera, and Chaplin, stay behind, watching him go.

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The Sunday Intertitle: Kid Stuff

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , on May 15, 2016 by dcairns

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Fiona had never seen THE KID — I have been slowly trying to raise her appreciation of Chaplin, a decades-long project that reached its apogee with A DOG’S LIFE, which she found delightful. She also got quite a bit of pleasure out of MODERN TIMES and THE GREAT DICTATOR. Oh, and the monkeys in THE CIRCUS had her on the floor begging for mercy, tears rolling down her face, sideways (because she was on the floor). She’ll always be a Keaton girl, which is fine, but I think you’re missing out on something if you don’t check out Chaplin.

THE KID seemed like a good bet because Chaplin is bolstered by a strong co-star. Fiona liked the dog in A DOG’S LIFE and Edna Purviance even gets to be funny in that one. And Fiona likes Paulette Goddard on principle. So I was staking everything on Jackie Coogan and on Chaplin’s chemistry with him. It worked!

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Things didn’t start too great, as the intertitle “A picture with a smile — and perhaps, a tear,” provoked the response “Oh fuck off,” which Chaplin had neglected to list in his catalogue of responses. If he had written “a smile — and perhaps a tear — or possibly an Oh Fuck Off” he would have been bang on the money.

But once Charlie gets landed with an unwanted baby, her attitude changed. Chaplin can be brutally UNsentimental, which only Walter Kerr in his majestic The Silent Clowns really acknowledges. Here, the comedy comes from the defenseless baby becoming a threat. Like Stevenson’s The Bottle Imp, or Tex Avery’s Droopy, you can’t get rid of it. When Chaplin opens a drain and briefly looks thoughtful, Fiona practically screamed in shock and then laughed in relief. “No, I can’t really do THAT,” Chaplin seems to think at us, as he closes the drain again, baby still in his arms.

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The baby then scene-changes into Jackie Coogan, and we’re pretty much home free. The little blighter is adorable and hilarious — Chaplin has schooled him in every move, you think, until you see his astonishing crying scene, which comes straight from the heart and can’t be faked or produced by imitation.

Chaplin (and his gag-writers) manages the action of scenes marvelously, developing situations into crises and finding unexpected ways to solve them. A lot of the comedy follows the baby problem pattern, turning a helpless and appealing infant into a deadly threat. The kid gets in a fight and a bulbous pugilist turns out to be the opponents brother. He’s going to pummel Charlie if his brother loses the fight. Charlie is now trying to sabotage his adopted son’s efforts. Or when Charlie, a door-to-door glazier, feels the watchful eye of a policeman on him — now the kid, suspected of throwing stones, becomes an incriminating item. Charlie must deny the association, gently kicking Jackie away with his foot. A father rejecting his son, writes Kerr, is monstrous. But here, because of the crafting of the situation, it’s hilarious. The kid is oblivious, uncomprehending, so we’re not tempted to emote at the wrong point. The man in trouble is the father.

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Chaplin still wasn’t so good at developing the whole arc of a story, and this remained his biggest difficulty. Starting out with more of a plan might have helped him, but then you look at the talkies… This leads him to the heavenly dream sequence, a heavy slice of whimsy — pointless, unfunny and positioned to paste over the fact that the plot is going to resolve itself happily without the protagonist doing anything. It’s exactly like the massive ballet in AN AMERICAN IN PARIS, only that’s entertaining in its own right. Chaplin’s paradise is more boring than Dante’s, and seems longer. “What has this got to do with anything?” asked Fiona.

But sooner than you think, the ending comes, and the film seems sort of perfect again. The good bits are sublime. The one bad bit disappears from memory like… like a dream upon awaking.

Criterion’s Blu-ray makes the film look like it was shot yesterday. Uncanny. My images come from the earlier DVD.