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.
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 ~
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…
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.
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.
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.