Archive for David Robinson

Machine Made

Posted in FILM, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , , on April 30, 2022 by dcairns

In MODERN TIMES the people are mute but the machines talk. It wasn’t always thus: Chaplin seems to have initially planned the film as a full talkie.

GAMIN: ‘What’s your name?’

TRAMP: ‘Me? oh, mine’s a silly name. You wouldn’t like it. It begins with an “X”.’

GAMIN: ‘Begins with an “X”?’

TRAMP: ‘See if you can guess.’

GAMIN: ‘Not eczema?’

TRAMP: ‘Oh, worse than that — just call me Charlie.’

Remember Billy Wilder’s complaint that Chaplin was a genius, but when he let his characters talk he became like a child of four writing lyrics for Beethoven’s Ninth? Unfair, of course, but I think it’s true to say that dialogue like the above wouldn’t have improved MODERN TIMES. It might have felt more like the talkie inserts in LONESOME, inept longeurs. Of course, talking films had developed hugely since Pál Fejös’ 1928 masterpiece, but Chaplin hadn’t. You can see him recapitulating the history of sound films: music and sound only, now a part-talkie, then a full-fledged sound film with music and dialogue and effects (I guess he was able to skip out the phase where everyone stood around a hidden mic and talked, without benefit of music or post-produced FX).

The dialogue Chaplin considered, but rejected, is CHATTER — exactly the kind of talk the combination of pantomime and intertitles excluded, instead boiling the verbiage down to its purest narrative essentials, and putting the focus on behaviour. When we come to THE GREAT DICTATOR we will have to reckon with Chaplin’s decision to embrace talk, and his surprising success with it. But we’re not there yet.

The first voice we hear in MT is the boss, but we hear him over his METROPOLIS-style CCTV, or Skype or Zoom or whatever you want to call it. Something which is finally commonplace, and we do speak with our bosses quite a bit on it. Hang on in there, we’ll get the flying cars and jetpacks eventually.

So the boss is mechanized, effectively, and soon Charlie, discovered at the assembly line, will be mechanized too. The terrible thing about these machines, observes Anthony Hopkins in THE ELEPHANT MAN, is you can’t reason with them.

Chaplin had been inspired by the horror of Henry Ford’s assembly lines. Though he would quote Ford’s suggestion for a shorter working week, he was otherwise quite opposed to this kind of modernity. As David Robinson (also my source for the dialogue above) points out, MODERN TIMES would be attacked both for having a political subtext and for not having one. I suppose either attack can be justified, but the truth is that the film attacks capitalist modernity using the tools of pantomime and slapstick, therefore its arguments are, in a sense, unsophisticated: but beautiful, emotive, and surprising.

Also, we could propose that Chaplin’s criticism is tempered, or undermined, or corrupted, by his visual delight in whirling cogs and giant dynamos and the other accoutrements of industry, As Tati is a bit in love with the more domestic modernism of MON ONCLE and PLAYTIME. Still, the humour Chaplin concocts here is sufficiently black, sufficiently alarming, in fact, to make the film’s intent clear.

I’ve expended a lot of words and I still haven’t moved on a single moment from where I got to in my last post: Chaplin at the conveyor. Let’s make a start.

Charlie in his screen career has been drunk (often), drugged (in EASY STREET), concussed (CITY LIGHTS), and he has been not only in altered states himself but has participated in the hallucinations of others (transforming into a big chicken in THE GOLD RUSH). MODERN TIMES is the first time he goes mad, though. Maybe this final departure from consensus reality had to wait until after the death of Hannah Chaplin, which occurred in 1928.

Chaplin had a fear of madness, and his charming brother Sydney seems to have expected him to succumb to it, waiting, he once said, for that moment so he could sell the studio and relax on the proceeds. The portrayal of insanity in MT is not a realistic one: but it’s the kind of madness the Little Fellow WOULD get. It starts in the muscles. All that bolt-tightening becomes compulsive, a nervous tic. He fights against it: a twist of the body and that back-kick which he uses to cheer himself up, and the tic goes away. It’s like a skipping needle on a phonograph record, it just needs a nudge so that the mechanism can continue smoothly. Henry Bergson’s dictum that comedy arises from human beings behaving like machines is a good one, though of course it doesn’t remotely cover all humour.

At a certain point, of course, the bolt-tightening perseverance (mechanical continuation of a movement after it has lost all conscious purpose) can’t be stopped, and the subject (Charlie, or X) snaps — which comes as a kind of joyous release, really, the return of the repressed, in this case the impish, dervishlike demon of the Keystone era, comes out of the box — manic, anarchic, smutty, irrepressible…

TO BE CONTINUED

The Sunday Intertitle: The Idiot Stick

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , , on March 27, 2022 by dcairns

Afternoon, everybody.

Before Charlie meets the blind flower girl in CITY LIGHTS he was at one point going to spend five solid minutes struggling with a stick stuck in a grating outside a department store.

An entire sequence without a single intertitle, pure pantomime, and with no discernible connection otherwise to the film’s plot. Since the statue unveiling sequence is also non-plot-related, this would, I think, have delayed the start of the film’s real story by a dangerous amount, so cutting it was the right decision.

Still, I think it’s a great sequence — depending on the company you watch it with, it’s either progressively more hilarious or more frustrating. If you’re into it, the frustration is part of the hilarity.

Great supporting performances. I remember being astonished at who was playing the idiot messenger boy, then forgetting, then finding out again and being astonished all over again. It’s Charles Lederer, future screenwriter for Howard Hawks among others — he was Marion Davies’ favourite nephew, and Chaplin may have met him at San Simeon, where he was a regular guest, or through Marion, with whom he seems to have been intimate, or maybe through socialite-AD Harry Crocker.

Crocker himself plays the window dresser who gets so infuriated with Charlie, and he’s excellent. Though short, and ultimately deleted, it’s a much more challenging role than Rex, the King of the Air in THE CIRCUS. Long takes, lots of business and expressive pantomime. The actors have to sustain it and communicate it without the aid of title cards or cutaways.

The scene depends for its effect on a hierarchy of stupidity. The mouth-breathing Lederer, barely conscious or alive, is at the lowest end of the idiot spectrum, regarded with horror by Charlie. In an earlier film, at Keystone or Essanay, Charlie might have bullied the dolt, but here the only cruelty is in the simple observation. It’s still a bit cruel. We can call him an idiot, maybe, because he’s just a comic type, not a specific syndrome, though David Robinson goes further and calls him “a haunting figure whose malevolent, wooden-faced idiocy gives him the look of a distant and mentally-retarded cousin of Buster Keaton,” a beautiful turn of phrase except for the slur (if you look up the origins of the phrase “mental retardation” you discover it’s actually racist).

Charlie himself is in the middle phase of the idiot scale — his obsession with pushing the stick through the grating, even though he’s just passing the time, is one symptom, his inability to understand that pushing one side or the other results in an identical effect, and only pushing the centre can be expected to work, is the other plank upon which his dumbness rests.

But Crocker’s shop man is the third kind of idiot. Like Oliver Hardy, he’s just intelligent enough to think he’s smart, but not smart enough to realise he’s an idiot. He gets obsessed with Charlie’s stick problem, and excited and infuriated about it. Charlie at least is smart enough to know it doesn’t matter one way or another. He’s never agitated about his dumb stick. Although he does get possessive of it when the message boy shows an interest.

Charlie’s incomprehension of Crocker is a subtle joke in its own right: the gag being that Charlie is completely unable to understand a clear and explicit pantomime.

The fourth form of idiocy, I guess, is that of the street gawkers who stop to watch Charlie. They don’t even have any ideas to suggest. Their passivity may tell us something about Chaplin’s attitude to his audience, or that may be a reach. But once again, as in THE CIRCUS, Charlie finds himself an unintentional entertainer.

Chaplin was very pleased with this sequence — “a whole story in itself” — but it had to go, precisely BECAUSE it was so self-contained, so it was left to Kevin Brownlow to issue it as part of Unknown Chaplin, thirty years after it was shot, by which time Chaplin, Lederer, Crocker and probably everyone else in the crowd and behind the camera, were gone.

The Circus is Leaving Town

Posted in FILM, literature with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , on March 3, 2022 by dcairns

So, Chaplin’s THE CIRCUS has been turned into an exciting serial, but last time I neglected to give you the cliffhanger: when Rex the high-wire guy unaccountably disappears (is there ever a reason given?), Charlie, who has been practising on a rope one foot above sawdust, is suddenly enlisted to hopefully break his neck. Hurriedly getting ready, he accidentally unleashes a platoon of capuchin monkeys belonging to Bosco the magician (no reason why either monkeys or a magician would be present in a circus, but I guess it’s possible, barely).

Not being a complete clown, except by profession, Charlie enlists a props man — the wonderful John Rand — to harness him up on a wire so he can perform feats of derring-do and derring-don’t in complete safety without the aid of a safety net. We anticipate disaster, and we are right to do so.

Rand has been one of the more delightful discoveries of my Chaplin deep dive — an incredibly effective clown, without a hugely strong individual personality but with a lot of style. He seems to specialise in frantic characters, often particularly dedicated kops in pursuit of Charlie, as in POLICE. Here, his perpetually flustered manner is usefully deployed as he’s entrusted with another man’s very life.

The monkey assault was, it seems, Charlie’s initial idea for the whole film — “I’m in a high place being attacked by monkeys or something,” Henry Bergman reports him saying. It sounds like someone reporting a dream, which seems appropriate. Of course Simon Louvish sees the sequence as a metaphor for Charlie’s divorce difficulties, which forces him to assume Bergman is lying. But one could still take a psychological approach to the scene (particularly appropriate the more like a dream the idea is — a fragmentary notion arising from the subconscious) and say it’s inspired by Chaplin’s exposed position as a celebrity who performs for a public, and is prey to attack by critics or personal enemies. It’s relevance to the divorce story becomes coincidental, or prophetic. The divorce and scandal merely fulfill the pre-existing anxiety, the nightmare comes true.

As well as John Rand, we have Josephine, Hollywood’s go-to monkey, who co-starred with Keaton in THE CAMERAMAN and Lloyd in THE KID BROTHER and even Laurel and Hardy in BABES IN TOYLAND (unrecognisably costumed as Mickey Mouse!) I’m unskilled at reading monkey markings so I don’t know which one she is, but as a skilled performer she could have been trusted with any of the more elaborate bits of business.

The different uses of Josephine by the three great silent clowns tells us a lot about them. For Lloyd, she’s originally a threat, part of the film’s array of bad guys, but with typical resourcefulness Harold turns her into a tool, a useful decoy, dressing her in his shoes to lure the villain away. Keaton focusses on her role as organ grinder’s assistant: an animal that has been trained to turn the crank on an organ may also usefully or hazardously operate a Gatlin gun in a Tong war, or a movie camera. Though Keaton’s universe is the most whimsically hostile, generally, it’s Chaplin who uses Josephine and her simian friends or relatives as an attack force. David Robinson continually describes the monkeys as awful or vicious, but I see them as awful only in effect. They’re not savagely attacking Charlie, they’re just, you know, monkeying around. Even the one biting his nose seems interested only in messing with him. The monkeys will, potentially, kill him, but it doesn’t seem to me that they WANT to. In fact, the comic irony of the scene is that small, basically harmless creatures become a menace to life and limb(s). It’s the same gag as the wee dog barking at Charlie in the lion cage.

The unusual situation allows Charlie to get a fresh laugh out of the tiredest old joke, the banana peel. It becomes a bigger hazard, and an unlikelier one (though the association with monkeys is strong and logical) and the anticipation caused by its being in his path is even stronger because his path is so damned narrow. Totally unnecessary to add any new wrinkles — just have him slip on it. Also, Charlie’s trousers falling down, an old gag that’s suddenly funny and terrifying, and also adds to the sense of public exposure and humiliation underlying all this.

Chaplin COULD have emphasised the association with his own life and career by having the audience laughing at his peril, assuming it to be part of his act, but instead they react in terror. This augments the tension — those cutaways of horrified faces are really powerful — but it seems less pertinent to the film’s plot and themes. Oh well, he made a sensible choice, one can’t deny it works.

Excellent use of the pole, too.

Oh, along with the nose-biting there’s another oral intrustion, the monkey sticking its tail in Charlie’s mouth. Maybe the detail that convulsed Fiona the most. I’ve written about Charlie’s oral fixation in terms of the choking gag, and related it to a childhood trauma in the best dollar book Freud tradition — Charlie choking on a coin he attempted to swallow as part of a magic act — money, performance, choking — three big themes. The number of times in his films Charlie ingests metal is astonishing. And of course food and its absence are absolutely defining concepts for Chaplin. And we could also note that sexually Charlie was extremely oral (I just typed oran by mistake, a Freudian ape-slip) — the salacious aspects of the divorce involved his enthusiasm for receiving fellatio. Let’s agree that sometimes a monkey tail is just a monkey tail. Ptui.

Incidental research: since this sequence converted Fiona from a non-fan to a full-on supporter, I decided to try it on my parents, who both declared that they didn’t like his stuff (and probably had to suffer through a fair bit when I was growing up) and they’re not silent film enthusiasts. My Mum was particularly strong in her statement that she didn’t like him. My Dad does have a fondness for both Stan Laurel and Harry Langdon. Anyway, they both laughed hysterically. But didn’t act like I’d changed their minds. Which must prove something: some distinction between laughing at and appreciating.

Miraculously surviving his aerial ordeal, Charlie interrupts the ringmaster beating Merna, delivering not only a kick up the arse to the villain, but a sock in the eye. This gets him fired, and he’s discovered by Merna camped outside the grounds the following night. I’ve seen a beautiful illustration of this by production designer Charles D. Hall. It’s a rare exterior set, because Chaplin clearly wanted to see the moon in the sky.

Incidentally, Hall also illustrated the monkey rampage, indicating it was indeed part of the original plan for the film (this was concept art, not set designs) rather than a direct artistic response to the divorce scandal. Charlie now behaves like he did in THE TRAMP, making way for the better man. By getting Rex married to Merna he assumes the role, in modern parlance, of cuck — but here the role is portrayed as noble and selfless, as indeed it is in the circumstances. The ringmaster can no longer push Merna around as she has a protector with rights, a respected star of the show.

(Ringmasters are usually baddies — they’re bosses, of course, making them natural Chaplin enemies, and they seem to have twirly moustaches as part of the job description. Al Ernest Garcia even does a “Curses!” gesture, a little midriff-level air-punch.)

This stuff is played skillfully played: Charlie maintains the guise of being happy for his friends, no horse in this race, until the circus leaves town and he doesn’t join it.

This is one of his great endings — it hadn’t occurred to me before but the sort of crop circle he’s left in is only an abstract suggestion of the patch of pale grass that’s left when a tent is removed. This is more like someone has scuffed up the dirt in a ring. A big top crop circle. (UFOs and circuses are much alike — they visit and depart, people go in and see inexplicable things and lose track of time.)

Chaplin uses a surprising number of shots, for him. The extreme wide is tragedy, as Welles observed. Then a medium of the pensive ex-clown. His eyes meet ours, a return to the camera intimacy that defined early Charlie, but with the intent melancholy rather than humorous.

Closeup of the tattered star on the ground, also. What’s significantly absent is the standard Chaplin head-to-toe framing. Even when he gets up and leave, we’re much wider than that.

Incidentally, I’d like a restoration of the film’s original cut — this star is supposed to be the film’s opening image, but Chaplin altered that when he added the damn song at the start. Opening on the star and then leaving it in the dust at the end would be so neat. And makes the film more explicitly a film about stardom, something which at this time in his life Chaplin was apparently wishing he could leave behind. But he still had quite a few years left to go…

Charlie walks off, back-kicking the crumpled star, and forcing himself into a jaunty walk. Off to the city lights…