Tuesday, May 15, 2007

A Genius -- Part 1

"I like Keaton's [films]. But Chaplin is the best of 'em all." -- Howard Hawks

Charlie Chaplin was a genius. I know, I'm not the first one to say this, but people tend to take him for granted. We think of his little tramp character as too cutsie -- we are too sophisticated nowadays to laugh at something so corny. He doesn't look funny to us with his Hitler mustache, bowler hat and baggy pants. But once upon a time Chaplin made the whole world laugh; and sometimes made them cry -- very often both at the same time.

Like Alfred Hitchcock he could play his audience's emotions like a violin. If you call yourself a student of film and don't make yourself familiar with his work you are doing yourself a disservice. His films are the best film school you could ever attend. Some of the best filmmakers in the history of the medium have been influenced by his work: Woody Allen, Chuck Jones, David Lean, Walt Disney and Martin Scorsese are just a few.

What made him so great? His uncanny ability to put a dash of pathos in his comedy. His ability to communicate visually. He was great at everything.

He was a master at the art of pantomime. It is my firm belief (as it was Chaplin's) that pantomime is older than spoken language and communicates more clearly. Even dogs who want to be petted pantomime the action to communicate their needs. It is an ancient form of communication that, when done well, speaks to us more deeply than spoken words.

If you want to tell stories on film then visual storytelling is your stock and trade and you would
do yourself a big favor by sitting down in front of the television and going to Chaplin University.

My favorite Chaplin films are The Kid, Gold Rush, The Circus and City Lights. If you watch these films it helps if you remember that the gags you are seeing were brand-new. He was the first to think them up and execute them. You may be familiar with some of the gags because you've seen them used in a Chuck Jones cartoon. Or you may be familiar with some of them out of context and are likely to shrug them off because you have seen a clip used in a cheesy commercial to sell you a mattress on Labor Day.

Try to work through that secondhand familiarity and put yourself in the audience's place, seeing these things for the first time. If you can allow yourself to do that, you will not only learn something about your craft, there's a good chance you will laugh your ass off.


Jamie Baker said...

Thanks for this post, Brian.

I had recently seen some KEATON films and it was in my mind to look at some more Chaplin. I am relatively familiar with his shorts (which are brilliant) but less so with the long form stuff, whereas I have seen a lot of Keaton's longer pics.

Chaplin and Keaton seem fated to always be mentioned in the same breath. (Fred Astaire and Gene Kelly get the same treatment). A lot of people that I know prefer Keaton, but me, I can't choose between them; they are both so good, and different if it comes to that.

It blew my mind when it first dawned on me how much the humour and even the timing of the best Warner brothers cartoons were influenced by Charlie Chaplin. It is still amazing to me that a human being was the inspiration for that whipcrack crazy timing and pose to pose action. You are dead right about his mastery of pantomime.

There are some sequences in Charlie Chaplin's shorts that are almost exactly like Bugs Bunny cartoons (or rather I should say that the Bugs cartoons are like Charlie Chaplin). In particular I was amazed by one of the shorts where Charlie goes to a spa and is supposed to get a full body massage from a burly moustachioed strongman. Charlie gets one look at this bruiser and thinks better of it but the masseur doesn't want to let him leave. Charlie dodges and dances past the strongman doing comedic ballet dancer moves and kisses him on the head and pirouettes about in a flouncy manner that enrages his adversary, exactly as Bugs would do decades later on (though Bugs would usually be wearing a dress).

I would say even that some of the famous Bugs "persona" was inspired by Charlie Chaplin.

This is not to detract from the Warners cartoons, which I love with all my heart. It is just to point out the connection.

Perhaps you are right that Charlie's character has been so often referenced lampooned and copied that it is hard to see him with fresh eyes? Keaton's persona didn't echo through the popular culture quite so much and therefore his films may be more accessible to a modern audience?

But I agree with you 100% that "Chaplin U" Is a great place to go to school.

Brian McD said...

Thanks for the comments, Jamie.

It’s funny that it is a common concept that great artists can go unappreciated in their own time only to be praised as a genius by future generations, but the opposite can also be true. A great artist can be praised in their own time only to go under appreciated in the future.

Jamie Baker said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Jamie Baker said...

Brian, I think perhaps another thing that works against Chaplin being thought of more highly today, is the use of sentiment in his work that you pointed to. Among certain people, and that would include those who decide which artists get cannonised, "sentimentality" is a dirty word. I am not sure myself why that is so...

Anyway, another syndrome that often happens, is the formerly appreciated then forgotten artist being "rediscovered" That may yet happen with Charlie.

Brian McD said...

I’m not sure what that is about sentimentality Frank Capra mentioned in an interview that he always had problems with intellectuals because they feel it is vobten. I’m not sure why that is. I think it rings false to some people. These are people that see the world as bad and ignore the good. But neither Chaplin nor Capra ignored the bad in favor of the good. With both of them their films often got as dark as they are bright. Look at “It a Wonderful Life’s” scene when George Bailey has his breakdown before his deciding to commit suicide. All dark is no more real than all light – the world has both.

Jamie Baker said...

Brian, thanks to this post I just rented and watched THE KID. It was very enjoyable. It has a touching story at its core, and maybe less of the broad physical humour than in the shorts (by the way, the one I mentioned above is called THE CURE and was one of his MUTUAL shorts) but it was very entertaining. And the picture quality on the DVD was really superb. I guess it may have been restored?