Archive for Charles Dickens

The Sunday Intertitle: The Drop

Posted in FILM, literature, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , on September 12, 2021 by dcairns

Time to get on with THE KID. I’m running the full-length version with the scenes Chaplin deleted for re-release put back in, because I want to see what audiences saw a hundred years ago. But I’m watching it with Chaplin’s score, which they wouldn’t have been able to do.

IMDb offers no ID for the charity hospital nurse, but she looks a bit like Phyllis Allen, from the Keystone days.

As Walter Kerr points out, the only parts of the film which are really sentimental in the true sense are those involving Edna Purviance as the mother. And it’s these that he cut back on later. Fading in an image of Christ on the way to Calgary as Edna is released from the charity hospital with her illegitimate baby is a very Victorian, very Griffith idea.

This being a Chaplin film, though, she immediately heads for the park.

Now we meet “the man” — obviously the baby’s father. Chaplin does some stuff that’s unusual for him here — he’s working in an usual mode, though it’s close to what we’ve later come to regard as “chaplinesque.” When the Man looks at Edna’s photo, Chaplin dissolves to it, quite gradually, rather than just cutting to a POV. The dissolve as language of solemnity. And he’s not wrong to lard on the seriousness, because he has to cue his audience, who have come expecting laughs, to get into the dramatic situation first, and not look for titters. Command of tone is one of the most important skills there is.

Edna, meanwhile, passes a church where a wedding is taking place. Artsy vignette effects — also not typical of CC’s style. For whatever reason, the bride looks miserable, which may be a case of larding on misery where it doesn’t belong. The true trick to this kind of scene ought to be to show everyone being happy except Edna. Having a flower drop on the ground and get trodden on may also be belabouring the point too much. Still, for artful, religiose sentiment, lighting up a stained glass window behind Edna’s head so that she grows a halo is a neat bit of stagecraft. And subtle enough that egginess is avoided, mostly — you could easily miss it.

The business of giving up the baby is echoed in Alan Rudolph’s TROUBLE IN MIND, which everyone should see. It’s a bit of dramatic contrivance of the kind you might get in Dickens, or Wilkie Collins, only with an automobile. Edna stows the child in the back seat of a fortuitously unlocked limo. This being LA and sunny, one might expect the poor mite to broil, but thieves in cloth caps (including regular Albert Austin) steal the car (lock up your autos!) and the baby (Silas Hathaway) is whisked off, dumped in a slum neighbourhood, and the lovely new environment Edna had dreamed of for him is dashed away and replaced with…

Charlie! A jaunty tune switches genres on us and Chaplin again capitalizes on his inconceivable fame by entering in extreme long shot, his tiny figure instantly recognisable, the most successful costume design in film history. Barely dodging a rain of garbage from an upper window, Charlie parades, a figure of natural dignity and poise, dressed in rags.

The location is Chaplin Keaton Lloyd Alley — in 1922, Buster Keaton would run through it and catch a passing car with one hand and be yanked offscreen in COPS, and in 1926 Harold Lloyd would sneak into work the back way using the same sidestreet. There’s a campaign to name the anonymous alley in honour of the three great silent clowns.

— and a second avalanche of debris strikes Charlie, shattering his mood and his air of superiority. The intertitle “Awkward ass” illustrates Chaplin’s love of language, I guess, but isn’t funny and doesn’t seem to fit the situation very well. But I guess Charlie’s attempts at snootiness are being stressed.

Charlie takes a fragment of cigarette from a tin box full of butts — the facts of poverty dressed up in the style of a gentleman — cargo cult richness. An elaborate play is made of tapping the tiny fag end on the tin as if to break the filter. Another bit of comedy when Charlie finds that binning his decrepit gloves is easier than putting them in his pocket.

Baby Silas is discovered, bawling. This is a delicate situation and Chaplin handles it brilliantly, refusing all sentiment. First, he does a classic Charlie trope, looking up to see if the sprog, like the garbage, has been tossed down from a window. Chaplin knew he could rely on a laugh by looking straight up whenever encountering anything unexpected.

Then he sees a woman with a pram. Obviously, she must have dropped the contents by mistake. He tries to cuckoo her, planting Silas in the pram along with her young one, and when she remonstrates, he nearly takes the wrong one. The plot could have gotten twice as complicated just then.

Events conspire to saddle Charlie with the unwanted stray. He tries to leave it where he found it, but a kop is hovering at hand. He tries to fob it off on an old wreck of a guy — “I need to tie my shoelace” — hands it to him — legs it. The guy, no more scrupulous than Charlie, dumps Silas back in the pram, and Charlie is blamed for this when he innocently walks by. Baby Silas is as hard to shake as Droopy or the bottle imp.

This is all so effective precisely because under the comedy there’s something desperate, almost the first time this has occurred in Chaplin’s work. Amid the “seriousness” it’s nice to note that Baby Wilson, the one in the pram, is really enjoying the sight of Charlie being hit with an umbrella.

(The IMDb notes that Baby Wilson was born in 1919, but somehow appeared in THE HEART OF A MAGDALEN in 1914, presumably with the help of that cell-phone woman who traveled back in time to see THE CIRCUS.)

Charlie now gives some thought to murdering the infant by dropping it down an open drain. Well, it’s not quite as harsh as that. Chaplin knows how to present things. It’s simply a man looking for a solution to his problem. He COULD drop it down the drain. That would work. But no, he can’t very well do that. A micro-glance in our direction confirms him in this view. It just isn’t the done thing.

He finds a note left by Edna: Please love and care for this orphan child. Well, that does seem to be the only remaining option, doesn’t it?

TO BE CONTINUED

Page Seventeen II: Cruise Control

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on August 2, 2021 by dcairns

London. Michaelmas term lately over, and the Lord Chancellor sitting in Lincoln’s Inn Hall. Implacable November weather. As much mud in the streets as if the waters had but newly retired from the face of the earth, and it would not be wonderful to meet a Megalosaurus, forty feet long or so, waddling like an elephantine lizard up Holborn Hill. Smoke lowering down from chimney-pots, making a soft black drizzle, with flakes of soot in it as big as full-grown snowflakes—gone into mourning, one might imagine, for the death of the sun. Dogs, undistinguishable in mire. Horses, scarcely better; splashed to their very blinkers. Foot passengers, jostling one another’s umbrellas in a general infection of ill temper, and losing their foot-hold at street-corners, where tens of thousands of other foot passengers have been slipping and sliding since the day broke (if this day ever broke), adding new deposits to the crust upon crust of mud, sticking at those points tenaciously to the pavement, and accumulating at compound interest.

Thalberg was awestruck with Universal City. It was a virtual world unto itself, a self-contained municipality devoted exclusively to making motion pictures. There were restaurants and shops and even a police force, but most impressive were the production facilities. Universal’s largest shooting stage was 65 feet by 300 feet–roughly the size of a football field–with another stage at 50 by 200 feet. Both were enclosed and electrically equipped; in fact, a dramatic moment during the studio’s dedication in 1915 had been the activation of the electrical system by Thomas Edison, Laemmle’s former nemesis, who supervised the wiring of the plant. Besides the enclosed and open-air stages, the street sets and “back lot” for location work, there were extensive auxiliary facilities, from film processing labs and cutting rooms to prop and costume shops, construction yards, and even a zoo to supply supporting players for some of Universal’s more exotic productions.

The various government departments were unable to agree on either the details of what had taken place or an explanation for it. Frank Knox, Secretary of the Navy, announced at a press conference on 25 February that the raid had been a false alarm. He admitted that the west coast of America was now vulnerable to enemy attack and suggested that any vital factories or other manufacturing facilities by the sea should be moved inland.

Only way to protect yourself against this horrid peril is to come over HERE and shack up with Charybdis… Treat you right kid… Candy and cigarettes.

So what I am, is a photographer: street, holiday park, studio, artistic poses and, from time to time, when I can find a client, pornographic. I know it’s revolting, but then it only harms the psychos who are my customers, and for the kids I use for models, they’d do it all down to giggles, let alone for the fee I pay them. To have a job like mine means I don’t belong to the great community of the mugs: the vast majority of squares who are exploited. It seems to me this being a mug or a non-mug is a thing that splits humanity up into two sections absolutely. It’s nothing to do with age or sex or class or colour–either you’re born a mug or a non-mug, and me, I sincerely trust I’m born the latter.

Superficially, there seemed little to it — the story of a young photographer, obviously successful, who has become detached from reality. Happening on a pair of lovers meeting in a deserted park, he snaps them. The girl chases after him, desperate to have the film, but he refuses her and takes it home. As he develops the shots, and progressively blows them up, it appears that a murder may have taken place, what looks like a body is lying beneath some bushes nearby. It is never made clear whether this is reality or illusion — a dichotomy which is the central enigma of a flimsy plot.

After saying all this, my grandmother heaved a gentle sigh, but it was enough of a sigh to make the uniforms ask what there was to sigh about. She nodded towards the fire, meaning to say that she had sighed because the fire was doing poorly and maybe a little on account of the people standing in the smoke; then she bit off half her potato with her widely spaced incisors, and gave her undivided attention to the business of chewing, while her eyeballs rolled heavenwards.

Seven extracts from seven page seventeens from different books lying around my house. I was excited to discover that the first page of chapter one of my battered Bleak House lands on page seventeen, because I love that opening and page seventeen is my page of choice here. And of course it was high time Burroughs made an appearance, since he and Brion Gysin pretty much invented this kind of thing.

Bleak House by Charles Dickens; The Genius of the System: Hollywood Film-making in the Studio Era by Thomas Schatz; Unsolved Mysteries of World War II by Michael Fitzgerald (not the producer); The Naked Lunch by William S. Burroughs; Absolute Beginners by Colin MacInnes; Blow-Up and Other Exaggerations by David Hemmings; The Tin Drum by Gunter Grass.

Page 17, #18

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on November 21, 2020 by dcairns

Resisting the slow touch of a frozen finger tracing out my spine, I showed him how that this figure must be a deception of his sense of sight, and how that figures, originating in disease of the delicate nerves that minister to the functions of the eye, were known to have often troubled patients, some of whom had becomes conscious of the nature of their affliction, and had even proved it by experiments upon themselves. ‘As to an imaginary cry,’ said I, ‘do but listen for a moment to the wind in this unnatural valley while we speak so low, and to the wild harp int makes of the telegraph wires.’

Evelyn crouched on the window seat, elbows on the sill, her hands cupped to the curve of her cheeks, their pressure making it easy to smile. Softly, she sang. It was strange to hear for she did not know music; she did not read and had not been told of music. But there were birds, there was the bassoon of wind in the eaves sometimes; there were the calls and cooings of small creatures in that part of the wood which was hers, and, distantly, from that part which was not. Her singing was made of these things, with strange and effortless fluctuations from an instrument unbound by the diatonic scale, freely phrased.

As the last fold was unrolled something hard and loud-sounding bumped out of it and trundled along the nursery floor. All the children scrambled for it, and Cyril got it. He took it to the gas. It was shaped like an egg, very yellow and shiny, half-transparent, and it had an odd sort of light in it that changed as you held it in different ways. It was as though it was an egg with a yolk of pale fire that just showed through the stone.

This was the time of a botanical renaissance, brought about by the classification of plants by the Swede Linnaeus and more especially by the voyage to the South Seas by Sir Joseph Banks and Captain Cook, killed in Hawaii in 1779. Cook carried back to Europe not only fantastic landscapes and images, from the ice world of the Antarctic to the gigantic heads of Easter Island, but a treasury of plants: three thousand species, one thousand of them unknown to botany. The world was alive with news of itself.

Elizabeth Taylor, the last of the old-style Hollywood actresses, has retained her hold on the popular imagination in the two decades since this piece was written, a quality she shares (no thanks to myself) with almost all the public figures in this book – Marilyn Monroe, Reagan, Jackie Kennedy among others. A unique collection of private and public fantasy took place in the 1960s, and may have to wait some years to be repeated, if ever. The public dream of Hollywood for the first time merged with the private imagination of the hyper-stimulated 60s TV viewer. People have sometimes asked me to do a follow-up to The Atrocity Exhibition, but our perception of the famous has changed – I can’t imagine writing about Meryl Streep or Princess Di, and Margaret Thatcher’s undoubted mystery seems to reflect design faults in her own self-constructed persona. One can mechanically spin sexual fantasies around all three, but the imagination soon flags. Unlike Taylor, they radiate no light.

Again, Apollo’s destruction of the Python at Delphi seems to record the Achaeans’ capture of the Cretan Earth-goddess’s shrine; so does his attempted rape of Daphne, whom Hera thereupon metamorphosed into a laurel. This myth has been quoted by Freudian psychologists as symbolizing a girl’s instinctive horror of the sexual act; yet Daphne was anything but a frightened virgin. Her name is a contraction of Daphoene, ‘the bloody one’, the goddess in orgiastic mood, whose priestesses, the Maenads, chewed laurel-leaves as an intoxicant and periodically rushed out at the full moon, assaulting unwary travellers, and tore children or young animals in pieces; laurel contains cyanide of potassium. These Maenad colleges were suppressed by the Hellenes, and only the laurel grove testified to Daphone’s former occupancy of the shrines; the chewing of laurel by anyone except the prophetic Pythian Priestess, whom Apollo retained in his service at Delphi, was tabooed in Greece until Roman times.

Meanwhile, every actor secretly dreads the surprise announcement of “Reload!” as the crews’ eyes roll up and the director’s roll down and their fellow actors’ eyes turn somewhere away. Then they have to get themselves back together to start again or – worse for many actors – pick up where they left off. In particularly emotional scenes, actors often never quite get back to their pre-reload intensity. (Of course, it can be argued that the pressure imposed by a running camera leads to an intensity and concentration that mere rehearsal cannot accomplish, but not many actors would agree with that claim. I’d submit that there’s certainly enough pressure to perform without that added by the celluloid whizzing through the camera.)

Back by unpopular demand (mine)! Seven extracts from seven page seventeens from seven books I’ve randomly picked up. I wasn’t going to do anymore, or I was going to switch to video, but I missed them…

The Signalman, by Charles Dickens, collected in The Penguin Book of English Short Stories; The Phoenix and the Carpet, by E. Nesbit; More Than Human, by Theodore Sturgeon; The Billion Year Spree, by Brian W. Aldiss; The Atrocity Exhibition (introduction), by J.G. Ballard; The Greek Myths: 1, by Robert Graves; Movie Speak: How to Talk like You Belong on a Film Set, by Tony Bill