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.