Archive for Nietzsche

Bedtime for Tantalus

Posted in FILM, Theatre with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 16, 2021 by dcairns

ONE A.M. is a wild experiment. Chaplin resuscitates his drunk act — he hasn’t been this hilariously incapable since the face on the barroom floor — and is the only one on screen for nine-tenths of the action. Poor Albert Austin is frozen like a wax dummy — I always found him uncanny and a bit disturbing as a kid — so he barely counts as co-star.

I invoke the mythical Tantalus because Chaplin plays a man tormented by his environment and its objects. All he wants is to go home and get into bed, but he’s so inebriated his home has become strange to him (he’s horrified by all his stuffed animals) and the furniture and architecture conspire to prevent him doing anything he tries. Even the matches in his pockets are useless to him since he can’t remember the simple sequence of actions that results in a smoke. Which may be for the best — his mishaps get more and more violent and he could easily set the whole hideous joint ablaze. And you can’t rely on the fire brigade in Chaplin World, as we’ve seen.

The struggle with the taxi door, which is milked for longer than you would think possible, a foretaste of tortures to come, is astounding. The bit that really got me hysterical was the attempt to put away his handkerchief in a pocket, but with his arm through the taxi door’s window, so that the door panel intervenes between hanky and trouser. Charlie — definitely not a hobo, he has usurped Leo White’s topper — finds himself vigorously wiping the door rather than pocketing his kerchief.

I watched my old DVD, then the restoration, which looks much, much better but lacks tinting, which I think we need for the opening exterior. It’s never going to look like night, it’s all too glaringly a bright Los Angeles day, but a hint of blue would at least suggest that’s what we should be imagining.

This is another film that seems to have entered Stan Laurel’s DNA, to emerge when needed. Charlie has lost his door key so goes in by the window. Then he finds his key, so he goes out the window again and comes in by the door. Echoed in THE MUSIC BOX’s broken logic when the boys discover the easy way up to Professor von Schwarzenhoffen’s house, and then redundantly use it. Just as the endless, repetitive journey up the stairs made by Chaplin, calculated to make the audience scream with frustration as well as laughter, is echoed by the struggles with the crated player piano.

The slippery floor, upon which the many little rugs glide like magic carpets, frequently sending Charlie tumbling, occasionally transmitting him to just where he wants to be, like Star Trek transporters, sets up another comparison, with Jerry Lewis’ insanely slidey psychiatrist’s office in CRACKING UP. Lewis was more of a Stan Laurel man, I guess, but he clearly absorbed a lot from Chaplin (including the pathos, which comes out funny when Jer tries it). I’d be fascinated to know what Chaplin thought of Lewis, but we already know he’s a better clown and filmmaker than he is a critic. He liked Benny Hill, if that helps.

The best bit of sliding may be the first, because Charlie is trying to steady himself on the door knob, which is attached to a door which is of course hinged, and swinging wildly, a very unsuitable object to steady yourself with, but all he’s got. A good metaphor for drunken stupor. Attempting to combat treachery from the floor leads you to struggle with treachery from the wall.

Every now and then it’s good to remember that Chaplin’s father died from the effects of alcoholism. It’s getting less and less acceptable to laugh at drunk routines, isn’t it? Back in the day, we weren’t supposed to regard drunks as tragic — the falling-down incompetent kind were funny in a way that disabled people weren’t, because it was a temporary, Tom & Jerry kind of physical handicap, and it was self-inflicted. The vicious treatment of the gouty in Chaplin’s films is similarly “justified” by the sufferer being responsible, it would seem, for his own condition.

Personally I’m very happy I wasn’t “protected” from this film as a child. And I have no problem with laughing at Chaplin’s skill (or Arthur Housman’s, or Foster Brooks‘) rather than laughing at alcoholics or alcoholism. But see also Nietzsche’s “A laugh is an elegy for the death of an emotion.” Chaplin is attempting to kill with laughter his most painful memories, and who has a better right?

Onwards, then, to the parade of stuffed animals. It is admittedly implausible, in literal terms, that our hero, who keeps a set of climbing gear and is therefore a traveler and presumably the man who bagged all these big cats, bear, ostrich etc, has forgotten all about this and is thus horrified at finding what he presumes to be his home occupied by wild animals. But there IS a metaphorical truth about the way familiar things can come alive and be uncanny at night. And so, though Chaplin is playing a drunk magnificently, maybe he’s also playing a child, as usual. Drunks don’t SEEM that much like children, but they have regressed to that stage where they don’t have control of their bodies of their emotions, so there’s a confluence.

One can sympathise with Charlie’s dismay at discovering this wretched undead Stouffer lurking at the foot of the stair. This film also features numerous examples of Charlie’s intimacy with the camera. A fresh taxidermic outrage… a wary glance to his chums in the audience — “Can you see it? Is it as bad as it feels?” Yes, Charlie. Yes, it is.

The sawdust atrocity comes into its own when Charlie kicks it and its curving body causes it to banana round and counter-attack. Brilliant comedy physics.

Then the rotating drinks table. A loooooong bit here. Brilliantly extended by having the victim recognise that his snagged cape is the trouble, then having him doff the cape, but tread in it, so his foot drags it along and it’s STILL snagged and so off we go again. I always assumed that Beckett’s Act Without Words and its sequels were primarily Keaton-derived, but a case could be made for Chaplin exerting an influence through this film, or at least mining similar terrain.

Fiona observed that a lot of what happens here would work well for Keaton, and is the kind of thing we associate more with him. Keaton, in fact, rarely played drunk, but in the thirties often was drunk. But he certainly struggled with objects which sometimes seemed imbued with a malign consciousness. The line between alive and inert is blurred, erased. Chaplin is usually more in command of this, can get away with treating people as objects, objects as people. Keaton transforms one thing into another without conscious choice, simply thinking with his body and adapting. Chaplin seems to generate a protean field around himself which allows things and people to swap qualities. A dangerous thing to mess around with — look what happens when he gets drunk.

“Familiar objects seem to stir with a writhing furtive life.” William S. Burroughs.

And enjoy the sight of Charlie in tight trousers for once. The black-sheened spider legs become more expressive — the baggy pants actually robbed us of many possibilities, but gave us an indelible outline.

Failing to light cigarette after cigarette, or the same cigarette multiple times, leads Charlie to climb atop the spinning table and try to reach the chandelier, a doomed effort. A little later, it will turn out he has another match after all, which is the way of these things, isn’t it?

Incidentally, I don’t much like the intertitles, which try too hard to be “witty.” Replacing them with inarticulate grunts and swearing would emphasise the basic miserable reality of what we’re facing.

Now to the stairs. After throwing his silk hat onto a stuffed ostrich with perfect finesse — the hostile universe will allow Charlie the occasional, purely trivial triumph — our adventurer sets off upstairs. He’d used a wire to allow Eric Campbell to hold him aloft by the throat in THE FLOORWALKER and it’s possible he uses one to let him lean back at the top of the stairs, another to let him slide down feet first on his belly each time he loses his balance. The stairs look to be heavily padded, anyway, which is a kind of relief.

The further up he goes — in Freudian terms, into the higher conscious — the more vicious the house gets. The clock with the Poe-esque pendulum is completely impractical, a literal health and safety nightmare. It guards the bedroom door like Cerberus. Playing it safe, Charlie slides along the wall like Cesare the somnambulist and is biffed on the chin by the clock’s pugilistic upswing, sending him downstairs again.

Many, many attempts later, Charlie tries the other stair, is terrified by a stuffed bear, and eventually makes it — twice — using the coat stand which had proved useless for hanging coats but makes a neat if precarious climbing frame. A tussle with a stuffed bear, and he gains the bedroom, after adding concussion to inebriation via a round with the killer clock.

The Murphy bed is the boss villain of this fever-dream game. Fiona points out that no rich drunken hunter/mountaineer would have a Murphy bed, something Chaplin might have encountered in cheap rooming houses during his Karno tour of the States. Anyway, this bed is possessed. It’s main desire seems to be to prevent Charlie sleeping in it, or perhaps to destroy him. Starting gradually, it displays more and more independent action, and more complex movements, being able to flip like a YOUNG FRANKENSTEIN secret panel, lower like a drawbridge, then pull up from the head, reversing itself. It has the alarming, unnatural flexibility of Linda Blair’s neck.

Fiona, having laughed harder at this than anything in Chaplin apart from THE CIRCUS’ monkey attack, which reduced her to breathless narration, as if by describing what was happening she could lessen its side-splitting agony, began to grow tired of the bed, but then laughed when Charlie leapt onto it as it rose, ripping the bed from the frame.

“Oh well, at least it can’t hurt him now,” she said, and on cue the bedframe viciously tripped its victim.

To the bathroom. The film MUST be ending soon. The attempt to fill a glass of water from the shower drew laughs of anticipation, then bigger laughs when the reaction to a drenching exceeded all anticipation, and when the shower’s exit could not be found, owing to the camera angle concealing it. Charlie performs a full circle of the interior without locating it, and so attempts to climb out…

Finally he beds down, sodden, in the bath, with a wet towel for a blanket, his deep stupor finally coming to his aid by making him oblivious of his miserable, wet, freezing, hard-surface discomfort. The End — of a comedy of frustration beyond even Bunuel.

Clip Joint

Posted in FILM, MUSIC with tags , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , on June 9, 2021 by dcairns

Essanay released TRIPLE TROUBLE in 1918, over two years after Chaplin had left the studio, and they claimed in advertisements that it was a complete Chaplin film they’d been hanging on to. In fact, it’s a couple of sequences from the abandoned feature LIFE, a few bits of POLICE, and the last shot of WORK, patched together with new footage specially filmed by Leo White.

Chaplin sued, arguing that this fraudulent Frankenstein of a film would damage his professional standing. Essanay successfully argued that critics, many of whom reviewed the film favourably, couldn’t tell the difference, and so neither could the public. So much for newspaper reviewers.

I’m writing about the film now since all the Chaplin footage in it was shot in 1915. I’m writing about it at all because it does include material, the LIFE outtakes, which is not available elsewhere. (Cutting together the scenes Chaplin himself repurposed for POLICE with the scenes here would give us a stronger idea of the unfinished movie’s narrative.)

The film begins with a chaotic series of random shots of context-free characters — a mad scientist, a count, a butler, a cook, Charlie and Edna as a skivvies. Which is pretty much how it continues. In the fuzzy print on YouTube, few intertitles seem to survive, so White’s plan, if he had one, is obscured. He himself is playing a count, though, and he’s trying to buy the radio-controlled explosives from the scientist. The scientist is refusing — we can imagine him saying “I intended my radio-controlled explosive to be used for peaceful means!” (credit to Simon Kane for this joke) — and so White seems to send hired thug Wesley Ruggles to achieve something or other.

As David Robinson says, some of White’s scene matching is quite clever — Charlie exits carrying a bin, and White cuts to new footage of himself in typical silk hat mode, walking down the street, only for the bin to rise over a high fence and tip its contents over him. The montage makes us believe Charlie is wielding the second bin, and that there’s in fact only one bin. As with his mangling of A BURLESQUE ON CARMEN, White is also reasonably adept at match-cutting entrances and exits filmed some time (two years?) apart. He doesn’t have much of the original cast to play with, but Billy Armstrong, extravagantly moustached, matches his own exits with new entrances and ties the various separately-shot sequences together, bodily. The trouble is, White — as we know from ABOC, is really shit at narrative.

Oh, he’s helped by something else — Wesley Ruggles apparently was to appear in LIFE as a thug, wearing the same costume he has on in POLICE, but with bigger fake eyebrows. And his trousers don’t seem to be torn yet in LIFE. Curiously, Chaplin shelved all the Ruggles material from LIFE, but kept other footage for use in POLICE, along with Ruggles and his pinstripes. So White is able to use film of Ruggles in both LIFE and POLICE (optically flipping the latter into Looking Glass Land, which shows a certain scrupulousness about disguising his perfidy) along with new material of Ruggles running around firing his gun indoors, which he cuts together with Charlie reacting in unflipped POLICE shots.

Actually, this may not even be Ruggles in the LIFE footage, just a guy wearing his suit.

None of this micro-cunning matters because on a macro level the film is a mess. But let’s look at the Chaplin bits.

The stuff in the house which isn’t from POLICE shows Charlie being incompetent with a bin, which he tips on Edna through carelessness. It’s not particularly inspired, and is interestingly mainly because we discover that, in LIFE, Charlie was to have worn a top with striped sleeves, revealed whenever he removed his tiny jacket. Why this insignificant change in the customary costume? We may never know.

The flophouse scenes, a different batch from POLICE’s, are much more interesting. In LIFE, there were apparently to have been two flophouse nights, a contrasting set. TT uses the second sequence, in which Charlie arrives with a cigar, probably filched from his new employer. He was penniless in the scene that appeared in POLICE, now he has money to hide from a thief who’s robbing the snoring schnorrers.

The IMDb mentions Snub Pollard, who’s evidently too well-disguised for me to identify, and also Albert Austin, in what would be his only Chaplin Essanay appearance, as “man.” Didn’t clock him either.

Ruggles’ motivation here is opaque, but he’s evidently a bad guy. No sympathetic character could sport such caterpillarish eyebrows.

Charlie is pretty nasty too, using one drunk’s mouth as an ashtray, and later silencing the fellow with one of Essanay’s sugar-glass beer bottles. It’s a return to the viciousness of THE PROPERTY MAN — interestingly, both derive from Chaplin’s early life experiences — the workhouse dormitory and backstage life. This seems to bring out his sadism.

“A laugh is an elegy for the death of an emotion” ~ Nietzsche.

“Chaplin is a very simple case. He is compelled to endlessly reenact the humiliations of poverty” ~ Freud.

There are more extravagantly outlandish rags being worn in this sequence — Chaplin could give Terry Gilliam a run for his money when it comes to using the homeless as set decoration.

I’m not 100% sure than Chaplin intended LIFE to be a feature, but that’s what the sources say. What survives looks like maybe half a two-reeler. Charlie struggles to get a place in the flophouse, then gets a job emptying bins at a house where Mabel works, returns to the flophouse (comparatively) flush with money.

The scientist thing is entirely White’s invention, but forms an interesting antecedent to Laurel & Hardy’s DIRTY WORK, where the boys are chimney cleaners arriving at the home of a mad scientist, an odd juxtaposition of story elements which may have been inspired by White’s desperately improvisations here.

The scientist’s invention is accidentally detanated at the “climax” of TRIPLE TROUBLE, a sequence which, for obvious reasons, barely involves Charlie. The most interesting shot in the film shows the kops (of course there are kops) apparently tumbling through the air, having been blasted skywards by the almighty boom. The crummy print and video interlacing render the image almost incoherent, but it seems like an interesting effect.

And then Charlie pokes his head from an oven, stolen from the end of WORK. Ruggles, in a new shot, lobs a brick at him — a callback to Keystone days — White cuts back to Charlie reacting to random rubble in WORK, and the thing ends.

I find repurposed footage movies sort of interesting, from WHAT’S NEW, TIGER LILY? to HERCULES UNCHAINED to DEAD MEN DON’T WEAR PLAID and TRAIL OF THE PINK PANTHER. They never really work, though. You would think that those which have the luxury of being able to shoot new material with some of the same actors would be the most coherent, but Blake Edwards and Leo White can prove the contrary.

On Sunday, we begin Chaplin’s Mutual period — I’m excited! These are the Charlie Chaplin films I grew up with, or failed to grow up with, on BBC2, accompanied by the Goed Nieuws Orkest. Alas, their lovely Chaplin violin theme is nowhere to be found today…