Archive for Modern Times

The Girl

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , on April 15, 2023 by dcairns

Been a long time since we looked at MONSIEUR VERDOUX, eh? This must be that lull one gets into when nearing the end of a project — a reluctance to press on, a desire to linger awhile. Not that we’re even halfway through VERDOUX, but we are nearer the end than the beginning in terms of Special Mission Gentleman Chaplin.

Chaplin is unusual in that, like Woody Allen, he always feels the need to pair up with a beautiful girl in his pictures, but unlike Woody Allen he realised in middle age that he shouldn’t get too romantic with them. We first see this in MODERN TIMES, where the Chaplin-Goddard menage is noticably innocent. His impish sexuality only emerges when he goes mad. THE GREAT DICTATOR still contains a romance, but it’s very innocent. The naughtiness of the Tramp has vanished, and lust is transposed onto the figure of Hynkel, whose main attraction is towards an inflatable globe.

VERDOUX sees Chaplin settled with a wife and kid, and some other wives too, who are not figures of real romance for him, needless to say. And now he meets “the girl,” played with aloof alertness by Marilyn Nash, who was Mrs. Philip Yordan in real life, and met Chaplin through tennis. The critics weren’t particularly wowed by Nash, and her movie career did not last, but she had a nice quality, not necessarily identifiable as deliberate performance, though it could be. See also Ruthelma Stevens: it’s a thoughtful quality, and a watchful one.

But what is the role of “the girl” to be? Initially, she’s to be a guinea pig for Verdoux’s special woman-killing poison. Where his usual victims are chosen for their wealth, this one is chosen for her poverty and obscurity. Convention would dictate that Verdoux’s ruthlessness will soften into love, but he’s married to a nice lady whose role is to make his homicidal career seem a little more sympathetic, so he can’t very well cheat on her. (Mme Verdoux being disabled adds another element of sentiment, but also de-sexes Verdoux still more, though this is based on a false stereotype and for all we know M. and Mme Verdoux have a wildly thrilling conjugal life).

In fact, as we’ll see, the girl’s career parallels our anti-hero’s: she too will make a profit from murder, but in a more socially acceptable way, by shacking up with an arms dealer. Mass murder doesn’t trouble us: “numbers sanctify.”

Anyway, Verdoux decides not to kill the young pretty girl, which helps us retain some interest in him (can one speak of sympathy in this context?)

And now we really are nearer the end (for Verdoux and VERDOUX) than the beginning…


Posted in FILM, Mythology, Politics with tags , , , , , , , , , on December 14, 2022 by dcairns

We’re finally there!

The visuals can be disposed of quickly. Chaplin, the Jewish barber, stands cap in hand before the microphones. But once the speech starts, Chaplin the director cuts to a tight head-and shoulders, and mainly stays on it.

A cutaway to Hannah allows him to break the shot and we return to a wider one, but a dramatic push-in as he ramps up his fervour once more takes us close. Crowd shot, dissolve to Hannah, then a series of closeups of the two, separated by distance but united by some psychic connection, perhaps — yes, love.

As Costa-Gavras points out, the simplicity is deceptive. They key thing Chaplin does with his framing, apart from creating intimacy with his audience (that of a talking actor, not a silent comic) is to exclude all the apparatus of Tomainian Nazism. The double cross armband is framed out. To Cost-Gavras, far from being uncinematic (a big talking scene) this is the essence of cinema. As Scorsese puts it, cinema is a matter of what’s in the frame and what’s not.

Chaplin was at continual war with his assistants about the speech. These conflicts were often productive — Chaplin only gave in when he was genuinely convinced, and have you ever noticed how impossible it is to convince anyone of anything? And yet, he did occasionally make chances. The crew was his first audience, after all.

Chaplin’s argument was that the speech was what the Jewish barber WOULD say, if he were given such a chance. Which is odd, because Chaplin doesn’t even bother to use the barber’s voice, that rather high-pitched, quick style of delivery. And there’s been no indication that the barber is a political thinker: he did, after all, describe Hynkel as “Most amusing,” when the raids on the ghetto were paused.

This is Chaplin speaking, as impressively as he can. Having played two roles throughout the film, then effectively merging them as the barber is mistaken for the dictator, he now drops both masks and makes the speech HE would make if given the chance. You can see him making speeches to raise money for war bonds in WWI and he’s similarly impassioned. And presumably didn’t believe a word he was saying.

Chaplin/the barber begins by suicidally dropping his Hynkel guise, or almost. He doesn’t want to be an emperor. He’d like to help everyone if possible. “We all want to help one another. Human beings are like that.” Says the man standing before the lightly fictionalized Nazi army. The thing is, he’s not wrong, which is why his words are touching. But whatever you can say about humanity, the opposite also seems to be true. It’s why the Chaplin-Hitler dichotomy is so effective here.

“Machinery that gives abundance has left us in want.” Chaplin returns to the themes of MODERN TIMES — he sees that the form of modern society that turns people into cogs in a machine is slavery, inhuman. He may not have recognized the similarity between communism and capitalism — whether you’re being oppressed by the state or by business may not make much difference — but he’s instinctively an anarchist anyway.

“We think too much and feel too little.” I never liked this line, in this context. One thing you can’t say about Nazism, it seems to me, is that it’s overly intellectual and lacks emotion. Rather, the appeal is to the gut. What Chaplin means by “feel, ” I think, is “show empathy,” at which point the line starts to work. And the kind of empathy that’s needed is true, universal empathy. No doubt the Nazis considered themselves empathetic, loved their children. But they closed off fellow-feeling, limited who could be considered their fellow.

“Even now my voice is reaching millions throughout the world -” a useful reminder which cues the first shot of Hannah.

“To those who can hear me, I say – do not despair. The misery that is now upon us is but the passing of greed – the bitterness of men who fear the way of human progress.” All this harping on greed. Hynkel is greedy, I suppose — he lusts for the world. But a lot of this speech is anti-capitalist more than anti-Nazi. And J. Edgar Hoover is in the audience, furiously taking notes. Chaplin will be allowed to make two more films on American soil.

“Soldiers! don’t give yourselves to brutes – men who despise you – enslave you – who regiment your lives – tell you what to do – what to think and what to feel!” Ah yes. Necessary to address the actual, physical audience. Chaplin actually filmed shots of Tomainian soldiers putting down their rifles and dancing together. Maybe his assistants’ objections were sufficiently strong on that occasion, or maybe Chaplin didn’t want to cut away from himself. I think it’s important we don’t see too much how the speech is received. Chaplin has done what he has so often done — he did it in THE KID and CITY LIGHTS particularly — he has taken the story to an impasse, where it can end on a note of high, positive emotion, but it is impossible to convincingly or dramatically imagine what comes next. The film is forced to stop.

“Don’t give yourselves to these unnatural men – machine men with machine minds and machine hearts! You are not machines! You are not cattle! You are men!” Again with the machines. If we think back to the WWI stuff, Chaplin dwarfed himself with big guns and put himself in a plane — war was the work of machinery, just as industry was in MODERN TIMES. It makes the spot gags with Hynkel’s inventors more relevant than we might have thought: the dictator is a modern man, keen to enlist all the latest scientific developments in his brutal advance. “We’ve just discovered the most wonderful poison gas,” gushed Herring. “It will kill EVERYONE!”

“Only the unloved hate – the unloved and the unnatural!” I don’t know if CC read Wilhelm Reich’s The Mass Psychology of Fascism, but it’s perfectly possible. “In brief, the goal of sexual suppression is that of producing an individual who is adjusted to the authoritarian order and who will submit to it in spite of all misery and degradation.” The book was published in Germany in 1933, and immediately burned. Not sure about English translation, though.

“In the 17th Chapter of St Luke it is written: “the Kingdom of God is within man” – not one man nor a group of men, but in all men! In you!” OK, he mentioned the deity. And pushes in dramatically, a very rare thing for Chaplin, as he does so. “Pour religion on everything, like catsup,” is Lee Tracy’s advice in THE BEST MAN. It always truck me as weird, as my school attempted to indoctrinate me (no separation of church and state here) that the one true universal religion was followed only by a small minority of human beings. Saying that God is inside all humans is, sort of, nice and inclusive. Or maybe colonialist? Perhaps the Hindus, Buddhists, Shintoists, don’t WANT that foreign God inside them? But Chaplin’s use of the idea is as benign as it can be made to be — if there’s any truth in this stuff, it should unite rather than divide us.

“You, the people, have the power to make this life free and beautiful, to make this life a wonderful adventure.” Yes, and what do we choose to do with this power instead?

“Then – in the name of democracy – let us use that power – let us all unite. “Let us fight for a new world – a decent world that will give men a chance to work – that will give youth a future and old age a security. By the promise of these things, brutes have risen to power. But they lie! They do not fulfil that promise. They never will!” This is part of the trouble. Chaplin is saying all the right things, but he recognizes that others have made these promises, without any intention of even trying to achieve them.

“Let us fight to free the world – to do away with national barriers – to do away with greed, with hate and intolerance.” “How the world dearly loves a cage,” as Maude says in HAROLD AND MAUDE. Freedom of movement has always seemed crucial to me. Now it’s the big thing UK political leaders can win support by promising to abolish. When I was a kid I proposed to my socialist big brother that the nations of the earth should be free to run any forms of government they wanted, so long as their people were free to travel to pick the one they wanted to live under. He was appalled by my naivety. “That wouldn’t solve anything!” I still slightly suspect he was the one being naive, in believing that things get solved.

“Let us fight for a world of reason, a world where science and progress will lead to all men’s happiness. Soldiers! in the name of democracy, let us all unite!” Chaplin’s treatment of the speech’s reception is very clever. We need to see SOMETHING, I guess, so when he finishes his speech on a grand climax followed by an uncertain look, he fades up the sound of mass cheering — Chaplin looks VERY uncertain as to how he feels about this popular adulation, as well he should — and cuts to a stock shot panning across a vast, undifferentiated throng. Doesn’t look like a crowd in uniform. It’s just a sea of humanity. So that the Tomainian troops have been stripped of their military costumes and turned back into human beings. We can certainly agree that avoiding using recognizable TRIUMPH OF THE WILL footage was a good call. But using stock footage per se was also smart — it enhances the feeling of cardboard flimsiness, it separates the fictional world from our own, because this is a kind of dream ending.

Chaplin did consider dissolving from here to the barber waking up in his concentration camp, which would have been very strong. NOBODY wanted to see that. It would have been, in a way, more true and tasteful, but in 1940 Britain, having urged Chaplin not to make the year before, was now clamouring for a propaganda feature, and Chaplin gave it to them — in his own manner.

“Look up, Hannah!” The bit of the speech which is mysteriously chopped off so often.

“Listen,” says Hannah, looking up and listening after the speech has ended, and only Chaplin’s music is playing.

Nobody talks about that. Everybody says the film ends with a big long speech. “It needed to be said,” said Sidney Lumet, dismissing the carping that it was too on the nose. “Everything doesn’t have to be perfect.” Which is true, but the film doesn’t exactly end on a big speech. It ends on a woman listening, to silence, or to non-diegetic music somehow only she can hear, or to something else that we can’t hear. Not yet, anyway.

A case of mistaken identity

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , on December 13, 2022 by dcairns

Chaplin gets to his big speech in THE GREAT DICTATOR in an almost indecent hurry.

First, Schultz and the Jewish barber escape their prison camp, No evidence as to HOW this is achieved, Chaplin simply cuts to them on the open road — vaguely similar to the closing shot of MODERN TIMES but not the same location. The escape itself is elided, as in DOWN BY LAW. This road shot also puts me in mind of the recurring interstitial image in Bunuel’s DISCRETE CHARM OF THE BOURGEOISIE.

Hynkel, duck hunting at the Osterlich border, falls in the water. Despite his costume, he is immediately mistaken for the Jewish barber and arrested.

Nobody, until now, has remarked on the curious resemblance between A.H. and the J.b. In fact, they still don’t notice it, they merely assume one is the other. This is fairly credible military/police thinking, though: they’re looking for a guy, and they see someone who looks like that guy, so they grab him.

Very good suspense when the barber has been misidentified but doesn’t know it.

Model shot — tracking shot! — a sort of tabletop miniature with haystacks with hatches — in the background, possibly the real Woodland Hills again.

So the invasion of Osterlich is on — scenes of violence and death in the ghetto, and Hannah’s farm is attacked. One stormtrooper knocks Hannah to the ground and strolls off, eating a bunch of grapes — anticipating Lubitsch’s later depiction of Nazis in TO BE OR NOT TO BE — rather than relishing their cruelty, they’re already BORED of it.

Hail the conquering Hynkel! The Jewish barber and Schultz are driven up to a big Nuremberg-type stand where he’s to address the conquering troops. He mounts the podium. More excellent suspense. Garbitsch and Herring are watching.

Comedy with collapsing chair. Keystone-vintage knockabout. Interestingly, the kind of gag that would work whether this was Hynkel or the barber. Maybe better suited to Hynkel, actually — comedy of deflation.

Henry Daniell makes a short fascist speech in front of the obvious painted backdrop. More of the film’s cardboard Nazism.

“You must speak,” says Schultz. “I can’t,” says the barber. An encapsulation of Chaplin’s own attitude as recently as the film before this one.

It was my intention to cover the speech today but I was working on another project, and now it’s 6pm, so I guess that’s for tomorrow. The speech is a big thing one-tenth of the film’s runtime.

TOMORROW — to be concluded