Wednesday, May 23, 2007

A Genius - Part 2 (or Chaplin's Blog)

I have said it before: The people who made films "in the old days" were better at their craft than those who make them now.

I have urged people to seek out old interviews with these storytellers to see just how much they had to say about their craft. If you do this, you will see farther because you will be standing in the shoulders of giants.

Now here is one of those giants: Charlie Chaplin. If you want a taste of just how smart this man was here is something he wrote up for American Magazine in 1918 called "What People Laugh At":

"Comedy moving pictures were an instant success because most of them showed policemen falling down coalholes, slipping into buckets of whitewash, falling off petrol wagons, and getting into all sorts of trouble. Here were men representing the dignity of the law, often very pompous themselves, being made ridiculous and undignified. The sight of their misfortunes at once struck the public funny bone twice as hard as if private citizens were going through a like experience.

Even funnier than the man who has been made ridiculous, however, is the man who, having had something funny happen to him, refuses to admit that anything out of the way has happened, and attempts to maintain his dignity. Perhaps the best example is the intoxicated man who, though his tongue and walk give him away, attempts in a dignified manner to convince you that he is quite sober.

He is much funnier than the man who, wildly hilarious, is frankly drunk and doesn't care a whoop who knows it....

For this reason, all my pictures are built around the idea of getting me into trouble and so giving me the chance to be desperately serious in my attempt to appear as a normal little gentleman. That is why, no matter how desperate the predicament is, I am always very much in earnest about clutching my cane, straightening my derby hat, and fixing my tie, even though I have just landed on my head.

I am so sure of this point that I not only try to get myself into embarrassing situations, but I also incriminate the other characters in the picture. When I do this, I always aim for economy of means. By that I mean that when one incident can get two big, separate laughs, it is much better than two individual incidents. In The Adventurer, I accomplished this by first placing myself on a balcony, eating ice cream with a girl. On the floor directly underneath the balcony I put a stout, dignified, well-dressed woman at a table. Then, while eating the ice cream, I let a piece drop off my spoon, slip through my baggy trousers, and drop from the balcony onto this woman's neck.

The first laugh came at my embarrassment over my own predicament. The second, and the much greater one, came when the ice cream landed on the woman's neck and she shrieked and started to dance around. Only one incident had been used, but it had got two people into trouble, and had also got two big laughs.

Simple as this trick seems there were two real points of human nature involved in it. One was the delight the average person takes in seeing wealth and luxury in trouble. The other was the tendency of the human being to experience within himself the emotions he sees on the stage or screen.

One of the things most quickly learned in theatrical work is that people as a whole get satisfaction from seeing the rich get the worst of things. The reason for this, of course, lies in the fact that nine-tenths of the people in the world are poor, and secretly resent the wealth of the other tenth.

If I had dropped the ice cream, for example, on a scrubwoman's neck, instead of getting laughs, sympathy would have been aroused for the woman. Also, because a scrubwoman has no dignity to lose, that point would not have been funny. Dropping ice cream down a rich woman's neck, however, is in the minds of the audience, just giving the rich what they deserve.

By saying that human beings experience the same emotions as the people in the incidents they witness, I mean that—taking the ice cream as an example—when the rich woman shivered the audience shivered with her. A thing that puts a person in an embarrassing predicament must always be perfectly familiar to an audience, or else they will miss the point entirely.

. . . There is no mystery connected with "making people laugh." All I have ever done is to keep my eyes open and my brain alert for any facts or incidents that I could use in my business. I have studied human nature, because without a knowledge of it I could not do my work. And as I said at the very beginning of this article, a knowledge of human nature is at the foundation of almost all success."

If you think that Chaplin is not funny and therefore has nothing to teach you just look at one of the things he said, that we like to see rich people or people in power as comic foils. Is that true? Well, the Daily Show makes use of this everyday. And look at the glee generated when we hear that Paris Hilton has to go to jail.

Now, pick a modern filmmaker at random and read something they say about the craft and it will become clear to you that Charlie Chaplin was indeed a genius who has much to teach us, and that we have much to live up to.


r i l e y said...

so, heres a question for you -
not trying to counter the fact that chaplin is a genious, and doing as someone else stated in mentioning them in the same breath - why is chaplin less funny today than buster keaton? feels like in the classes/screenings ive had where both of their films are shown, keaton gets more laughs. just wondering if you had any theories - i haven't seen enough of either of there stuff (i'm working on it, i swear) to really have an answer...

Joon said...

I think it could possibly be because people are resistant to sentimentality, which I believe Chaplin showed more of than Keaton. Though, I also haven't watched enough of their work to really speak with much authority.

Jamie Baker said...

I think it also depends on what you are watching. If you want to see Chaplin really going for the funny-bone, and not at all for the heart-strings, then watch his series of MUTUAL SHORT COMEDIES. There are 12 of these, made in 1916, and they are all very funny.

Brian McD said...

For me personally, Keaton is great, but I feel very little emotion when I watch his films.

I do think that Chaplin’s attitude may feel dated to us. We tend to see him as corny. We have also made a decision as a society that thinking is better than emotion. Chaplin himself said, “We think too much and feel too little”. I hear people all the time talk about how they were manipulated by a film that made them feel something. But when a film manipulates them intellectually they have no complaints at all. And thus, as foretold in the book of Revelations, Crash wins best picture.

Rowan Atkinson made a great documentary called Laughing Matters (that you can’t get in the U.S. as far as I know) about physical comedy and he has a great section on the attitude of a gag changing the gag itself. He takes the first film comedy ever made (not very funny to us now) about a guy getting squirted in the face with a hose and by changing the attitudes the characters, and little else, he makes the gag hilarious.

Jamie Baker said...

Brian>> I have really been thinking a lot about this issue lately.

For one thing, I have always felt that the term "manipulated" is a strange one when it comes to assessing film (or perhaps ANY art form, for that matter) because it is an inherently manipulative medium. Every frame of film and all the elements within it, are arranged to get an reaction from the audience. Even the appearance of spontaneity is usually carefully orchestrated.

I think that when we use the term, what we are really saying is that we NOTICE the manipulation. This may be where older films (and paintings etc) fail the modern audience, simply because we see through some of the techniques being used. they have been used so many times that they loose some of their power on us.

As to the specifics of SENTIMENTALITY and our reaction to it, my own opinion has changed over time. When very young I was swept along by it. Later, I became suspicious of it, but more recently I am open to it again because I think that REALLY engaging people's emotions is the hardest thing to do in any medium.

I don't like feeling "manipulated" and yet I am grateful to any artwork that truly engages me emotionally.

Danny said...

I enjoyed reading that article. Thanks for sharing.

Good points made by all.

Brian McD said...

I agree, Jamie. I have never been a big fan of the word “manipulation” when it comes to film for the exact reason that you state – it is the nature of the thing to manipulate. And I agree too that it is when people are aware of it that they object the most.

But what I have seen over the years is that it is sentimentality that makes these people the angriest. They are not nearly as offended when they are manipulated to feel other emotions. Many comedies go for cheap laughs. And many horror films go for the cheap jolt from the audience as the cat jumps out of the dark instead of the killer.

It seems the only thing labeled manipulative is something that makes people tear up. I’ve heard people say things like, “I have to admit I cried.” It’s as if it’s a game that they’ve lost.

Jamie Baker said...

hmmm... any ideas on why this might be so? Could it be that we have developed this "shield" against all the advertising that we are subjected to?

Brian McD said...

I don’t think it’s a defense against advertising. I just we just created and live in a culture that values intellect over feeling. I think it’s been a long time coming.

I think it’s because we know our emotion can fool us, but we are not as hip to the idea that our intellect fools us all the time. I’ve mentioned before that I study magic and illusion and that art is all about fooling intellect. It works best on really smart people.

I have learned that magic is not about fooling people -- it’s about them fooling themselves.

We put more stock in intellect than we should, I think. There are a bunch of terrible films that are considered “smart” so they get a free pass. We think they must be good because they are very complicated or because they deal with an important subject. That is our intellect fooling us.

Ginny said...

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This is Bruce. Call me at (415) 609-6124 or email me at I want to talk to you about a project.


Jamie Baker said...

Brian>> those are interesting points. I agree with you that there is a bias towards being "intellectual" that sometimes bypasses "good", "satisfying" or even, ironically, "smart".

In place of my advertising theory, I guess my question to you should have been more like; when did this change come about?

It seems to me that our culture was more open to sentiment in the past and yet now we have become suspicious of it. Do you agree? If so, why do you think that change came about?

Or do you think that our culture has had this bias ingrained form way back?

Brian McD said...

I don’t quite know when it happened, but I think it was a slow transition. It’s not completely gone yet, look at Shawshank Redemption (the movie I like to call a “girl movie” for boys) it is a very sentimental film. But if things keep going the direction they have been in 30 years people may think it’s sappy. I think people we still like it, but they may call it sappy the way people do with Capra films like It’s a Wonderful Life. On the other hand there were people at the time who called Capra “Capracorn”. Mostly it was critics who said it.

I think art and film critics have had much to do with this transition. Most of them are morons and we treat them as if they know things. Not only do we listen to what they have to say but also we exalt them so high that the guy on the street who doesn’t like what the critics like is treated like he’s the moron. But think about it, who are films made for critics, who see movies for free, or the guy who plops down $10 bucks? But we have convinced laypeople that what they say about “art” means nothing – it wasn’t made for him anyway, it was made for a guy with a lot of sheepskin on his walls.

I think critics have helped push sentimentality out of style by wanting to appear smarter than all of us. This makes them gravitate towards films that are puzzles rather than emotional. In their minds any fool can have emotions, but it takes a genius such as themselves to put together the clues of a convoluted story. They are “head people” not “heart people” and we have started to follow their lead.

Joon said...

I agree that film critics definitely play a part in the phasing out of the acceptance of sentimentality, but I don't think they are a strong enough voice to really do the damage.

While those stuffy critics who would moan about the truly good sentimentality in films like ET, THE SHAWSHANK REDEMPTION, and THE IRON GIANT (films that completely EARN the right to use such sentimentality) can burn in hell, I think there is good cause for the more general critics to distrust sentimentality in movies.

And I believe this is the 'manipulation' that these critics are talking about. Movies that have sentimentality for the money. Movies that don't put in the work to earn those lumps in the throat, the goosebumps, and the tears. Movies like ARMAGEDDON, that had sacrifice and romance tacked on in lieu of the success of TITANIC the year before.

Regardless of what you think of Michael Bay, I don't think anyone can deny that he did exactly what he wanted to do with that movie. It worked on me. The sacrifice, the music, the flashes to an American flag draping Bruce Willis and Liv Tyler crossing her arms. It's absolutely ridiculous but it worked on me as it worked on lots of other people.

The difference between this 'sentimentality' and that of THE IRON GIANT? After The Iron Giant, I didn't feel like I had to take a shower. I felt cleansed after THE IRON GIANT. Not so with ARMAGEDDON. I regretted my reaction immediately. I thought to myself, "Why am I letting this get to me!? WHY!?"

That's the manipulation that you guys are talking about. The bad kind where Michael Bay exploits our hard-wired reactions the way a good salesman knows how to get you to sign on the line that is dotted (He did hone his chops on commercials and music videos after all...) . Where the reaction is practically forced out of you.

If such emotions can be sucked out of me with such ease, I can completely understand the contempt and mistrust that critics (who don't get to be so choosy with what they get to watch... I would not want to be a critic for that reason alone) have for sentimentality. It's so easy to fake for a general audience.

I respect the way our brain is wired. I have some understanding of why stories work on us the way they do. But our brain is hard-wired in a way that has positive and negative implications for us as human beings. But as human beings we have the ability to transcend our instincts, kicking and screaming, if we have to.

This is why I am totally for filmmakers trying to do anything and everything new in order to connect with an audience. I say go ahead and experiment like crazy. See what else can get a rise out of people. Just don't bitch and whine when people don't connect to it and you don't get that multi-million dollar deal! Just move on and try something else and keep developing the craft.

What I don't support are movies that try to have it both ways. Movies that say that they're trying to tell a good story but say 'the audience just wasn't ready or smart enough to get what they were trying to do'.

Bobby Pontillas said...

Brilliant insights in their simplicity. And I really enjoyed the discussion that came from this entry.

Clint said...

I realize this conversation is years old at this point, but I have to add something to it. In my experience, on the contrary, society has moved very much the opposite direction, from thinking to emotion. How a person feels is far more valued in our society today than how he thinks. The news we get, the talk shows we have, the magazines we have--all of it focuses on how people feel. The interviewers, the interviewees, the watching audience. Even our politics is geared toward the anecdote designed to tug on our heart strings, no matter however impractical or ill-advised whatever policy its being used to promote is.

So I don't think it's about that. I think it's more about two things:

1) The introduction of method/naturalistic acting and direction. Earlier films have a more earnest, literate approach, and I think a society steeped in the increasing naturalism and realism of cinema since the Seventies simply has a hard time relating to the earlier form. Simply put, it's not "hip" enough, but mainly it just doesn't feel like what they're used to seeing.

2) Most important, our society has become far more cynical than it was in the past, which is hugely ironic considering what we had to go through in the past. It's obvious to me that the vast majority of those making "serious" "realistic" films are those who equate "serious" and "realistic" with natural cynicism. Quite simply, happy endings aren't like real life, to a whole lot of "serious" people.

That's what I admire and love so much about Shawshank. It didn't hide the rough parts of their existence or lives. It was brutal to watch and even hear. But it did illuminate beautifully and brilliantly that, yes, indeed, hope does exist, even in the harshest of worlds, because *we make it exist.* This has been a bete noir of mine for years, especially in film because I love it so much.

Capra chose to focus on the good in his films. I'm reading his autobiography right now and it was a very conscious choice that he made. He was fully aware from his own experience how hard and unfair life could be, and yet he also knew from his own experience what the right values, attitude, and, yes, American opportunity could to do reverse ill fortune. And he chose to illuminate that side of life, feeling like it was the perspective that most Americans wanted to see. I think he was right then and is still right now, based on how few people actually see the "serious" films being released these days. I think there's a very good reason that The Sound of Music to this day is the highest grossing film on initial release (according to BoxOfficeMojo's film rankings adjusted for inflation).

Capra, Chaplin, and so many others like them suffer today quite simply because the prevalent attitude among serious filmmakers is a jaded cynicism, and an American populace led to believe "reality" equals "complexity" equals cynicism and down endings. And conversely, that happy endings, no matter the darkness that's preceded them, are naive and simplistic. I'm sick of it. I'm tired of feeling like I need to take a bath after seeing almost any current film that hasn't come out of Pixar, either because of its viewpoint or content or both. To hell with them, and thank god for the independent film revolution. It's time for the new Capras to cowboy up. I think the country would be more than happy for it, and would reward them well.

Brian McD said...

Hey Clint,

I think we are describing different pieces of the same elephant. I do think people use emotion more, but I think we value it less. Emotion is thought of as cheap and manipulative. And to be fair it is often used that way. But so can cold numbers, facts and stats be manipulative.

Mark Twain said, “There are lies, damned lies and statistics.”

But we tend to trust cold, hard facts more than emotion.

I just think you and I are saying the same thing, but in a slightly different way.

Clint said...

I guess I'm torn on this. Considering the laser focus on emotional appeal by most all media, I have a hard time believing that society values emotion less than logic and reason. But I do agree that folks at least *believe* they trust cold, hard facts more, whether they do or not. I know I trust facts more than emotional appeals, to the degree I can ensure they are actually the fact.

But I also know that people aren't moved and inspired by cold, hard facts. People relate to situations by recognizing how they *felt* in the same situation, and what additional *feelings* those situations provoked. I think that's where the sense of manipulation comes into play. When the situations are carefully constructed so that they work on an audience subconsciously--the audience simply recognizes something it relates to--the emotions come out naturally. But when the situations are clumsily created and the audience can see its supposed to be feeling, it recoils. Feelings are honest things, and most people want to come by them honestly, not because someone wanted to jerk a tear out.

I think maybe the sentimentality falls into that same category. I think audiences are generally fine with sentimentality when a film, even just a scene, has earned it. Just don't pour it on like syrup, something that's added all of sudden to elicit an effect. The scene at Grant's Tomb in Mr. Deeds Goes to Town doesn't seem sentimental to me because Longfellow Deeds has been well established as just the sort of guy who'd appreciate something like that. Same with the end of Shawshank. Without the exquisite bonding structured throughout the film, its ending could easily have become mawkish.

I'm thinking all of this as I type, pretty much, but that's sure how it seems to me at first...well, second, blush. It's very much on my mind as I rewrite my first script, a war film based on real people and events. I know I want the audience to come away with certain feelings, but to come by them honestly, out of respect and admiration for the men whose story I'm telling. To achieve that while rendering real life into story is the most daunting thing I've done.

Brian McD said...

I think that we basically agree here. My main point is that I see awful things. Films that are convoluted or pointless or boring or whatever and people will make up all manor or excuse for them.

In my years of talking to people about this with people there are two great artistic crimes one is to be clearly understood and the other is to be emotional.

Norman Rockwell is the perfect example of this. He is both clear and emotional and is treated by many as a hack. But any jackass who picks up trash and glues it to a canvass just might be called a genius.

This is also true in movies. There is a lot of trash glued to canvasses.

I agree that storytellers have to earn emotion or it seems forced. But I have heard many a critic say something like, “I have to admit I goy misty-eyed” when reviewing a film. Not, “boy this filmmaker knows what he’s doing because he made me feel something”.

There are a few exceptions, but that’s basically how it goes down, I think.