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.