Tag Archives: Comedy

CHAPLIN AT FIRST NATIONAL (PART I)

* This is the first in a two-part series.

Charles Chaplin left Mutual Film in 1917 and signed a contract with First National. Their agreement amounted to more than a million dollars per year. Chaplin was the first movie star to sign such a lucrative offer. Loyal to his inner circle, he brought leading lady Edna Purviance and heavy  with him, among others.

Although Chaplin’s first feature length film, The Kid (1921), would emerge from his five years at First National, his relationship with the studio was not an amiable one. The struggles between artist and executives would inspire Chaplin to form his own studio, United Artists. Again, this was a first for Hollywood.

Most critics and film historians consider the First National films a notch below the work Chaplin did for Mutual. In the First national shorts, Chaplin’s level of inspiration often noticeably wanes, so the general consensus is, for once, correct. Still, even lesser Chaplin is worthwhile (well, until we get to the late Chaplin features).

A Dog’s Life (1918) was Chaplin’s first short for First National. It was also the first movie to make a million dollars, more than justifying its considerable budget. Chaplin is in full Tramp mode here. Although an immensely popular film, and containing elements which Chaplin would develop more fully in The Kid, A Dog’s Life is an uneven effort.

Dawn brings only another day of misery in poverty. The Tramp ingeniously tires to steal a hotdog, but policeman Tom Wilson shows up to soil the spoils (Wilson would appear as the same character in The Kid).

Still from A Dog's Life (1918)In flight, the Tramp saves a mongrel, Scraps, from a scrape with a pack of dogs. Scraps, like the Kid (and, the Gamin later still) is a reflection of sorts of the Tramp, creating an identifying bond between the two.

The Tramp is a scrapper himself, fighting desperately for employment, but to no avail, alas. Dog and man enter The Green Lantern bar to find a mother and wife figure in Edna, who, as an amusingly awkward torch singer, has the locals in buckets of tears. (Literally. This scene also includes Henry Bergman in mighty uncomfortable drag).

Edna’s Big Boss Man threatens her with: “flirt or you’re fired! Give them a wink and smile!” Poor Edna’s just no good at flirting. “Do you have something in your eye?” asks the Tramp. Now Edna’s out of a job.

Lo and behold, some local bank robbers have buried some money, which Scraps has located. It looks like Paradise has been found, but not before at least one more scrap (which involves a surreal rendezvous with the crooks in a booth).

An over-written, bucolic finale rings phony. Ambiguity pointing to a release from the hell of poverty would have worked considerably better.

Shoulder Arms (1918) finds Chaplin again in social commentary mode, which was a gutsy move considering that the star was under intense Continue reading CHAPLIN AT FIRST NATIONAL (PART I)

CHAPLIN’S THE CIRCUS (1928)

‘s The Circus (1928) has long been considered something akin to Beethoven’s 4th Symphony, which composer Robert Schumann referred to as “a Greek maiden between two Norse gods (the Eroica and the Fifth).” The Circus is the the maiden between two certifiable Chaplin masterpieces: The Gold Rush (1925) and City Lights (1931). Yet, Beethoven’s Fourth, seen without Schumann’s assessing lens, has, on occasion, proven to be a maiden unleashed, as in Carlos Kleiber’s live, mercurial Munich version (on DVD) and Herbert Von Karajan’s devastatingly sensuous 1963 performance with the BPO.

Like Beethoven’s 4th, The Circus is an underrated opus. Seen without the preconceived assessment of historians, it is an interesting gem. Oddly, it is the one film of Chaplin’s that was recognized for a “special” Academy Award. Despite that, it is an infrequently revived (and discussed) film.

The filmmaker himself did not help the cause for The Circus. Chaplin’s autobiography is interesting primarily as a career record. Private, painful details are omitted. Quite tellingly, Chaplin never once mentioned this film in that autobiography. Clearly, he avoided it because this film was made while he was going through a highly embarrassing divorce from one of his child brides (Lita Grey) at the time. Intimate details from Chaplin’s sex life were exposed to the public. According to ‘s “Hollywood Babylon,” Chaplin went through such an ordeal that during the divorce trial, the star’s hair literally turned prematurely white.

Often, assessment of Chaplin’s films include the biographical. A good example of this is Roger Ebert’s review of The CircusEbert takes the often-traveled road of comparing Chaplin to Buster Keaton:

Chaplin was a considerable artist, brave and gifted, but I am in a minority in placing him second to Keaton among the silent clowns. My reasons for that are admittedly impulsive: I sense Keaton was the better man. Chaplin was so famous, so rich, so powerful when so young that there is a kind of conceit in the Tramp, a reverse noblesse oblige. Yes, he had a miserable childhood, and in his films, he often plays the friend of waifs, but there’s an air of back-patting about it. The Buster Keaton character has his feet on the ground. He would be embarrassed to parade his goodness. He uses ingenuity rather than divinity. Chaplin’s untidy love life suggests he felt he deserved whomever he wanted; Keaton in private life seems to have been melancholic because of alcoholism, but a decent enough sort with women.

Still from The Circus (1928)The problem with Ebert’s assessment of Chaplin is his objection to Chaplin’s enormous success and his bullet point details of Chaplin’s post-stardom biography. This view reduces Chaplin’s films to the anecdotal. While remnants of personal history cannot be completely excluded in approaching Chaplin’s art, his films, inevitably, transcend biography.

To be fair, Ebert is certainly correct in his comparison of the contrasting silent clown screen personas; Keaton’s Stone Face never asked for audience sympathy in the obvious way that Chaplin’s Tramp did. However, nor can Keaton identify with the everyman on Chaplin’s level. The Tramp’s poverty, which has nothing to do with the success of the actor playing the character, imbues him with an intimate personality that Keaton lacked. Out of all Chaplin’s contemporaries, only  emerged with a comparable persona.

Ebert also makes a comparative notation regarding the amorous nature of the two clowns. To me, both Chaplin and Keaton are sexless, at least when filtered through a contemporary perspective. Chaplin’s celibacy is that of the adolescent, as a people’s priest. Keaton’s character, while more  intelligent and ambitious, is too phlegmatic for us to imagine him as anything Continue reading CHAPLIN’S THE CIRCUS (1928)

CHAPLIN’S MODERN TIMES (1936) CRITERION COLLECTION

People often say that we have lost Christ, we have lost Mary. Living in the 21st century, I am, perhaps, more concerned that we have lost Chaplin‘s Tramp.

Easter is not Mel Gibson’s blood-soaked sadism posed as religious dogma. Rather, it’s Fred Astaire and Judy Garland strolling down an Easter Parade. Christmas is not Cecil B. DeMille pious kitsch. Christmas is personified by the Little Tramp trying to find existential depth within an increasingly plasticized, dumbed-down modern Western world. Indeed, there may be a bit of poetic irony in Charles Chaplin’s exiting this mortal coil on Christmas day itself, in 1977.

Chaplin was not a religious man. Yet, his Tramp is the most religious and iconic figure in all of cinema. Chaplin seemed to be partly aware of this. The late film historian Leslie Halliwell reported that when Cecil B. DeMille was casting for The King of Kings (1927), Chaplin approached DeMille, offering to play the role of Christ: “I am Jewish, I am an atheist, and I am a comedian. I would be prefect for the part because I could play it totally objective.” DeMille had Chaplin thrown out of his office. Although Chaplin was probably right in that assessment, we can be grateful that DeMille rejected the casting. King of Kings may be one of the worst examples of  1920’s Hollywood. Of course, Chaplin exaggerated his beliefs in the interest of self-promotion. He was not Jewish and his atheism is debatable. The clown was, predominantly, anti-clerical.

With the first talkie, The Jazz Singer (1927), silent cinema was history. Someone forgot to tell Chaplin. He was still making silent films nearly a decade later. Many commentators have noted Modern Times (1936) is anything but modern. This film was a last, in many respects, for Chaplin: his last silent film and the final indisputable appearance of the Tramp. (There is a debate over whether Chaplin’s Barber from 1940’s The Great Dictator was really the Tramp, or not).

Still from Modern TimesModern Times, originally titled “The Masses,” is not completely silent. The Factory task master talks through a Orwellian screen.The Billows feeding machine speaks through a “pre-recorded device.” Chaplin sings a gibberish song near the finale.  However, these do not add up to a “talkie.” Rather, it adds up to a silent with clever, carefully chosen, cartoonish sound effects.

As a social commentary, Modern Times is derivative, borrowing from , among others. As a romantic comedy, it’s also derivative, recycling numerous gags and plot elements from Chaplin’s Mutual shorts. It has, rightly, been pointed out that Modern Times is like a feature-length compendium of those shorts. However, the screen presences of Chaplin and  are imbued with such authentic personalities that it somehow seems fresh.

In Run to the Mountain, the Trappist monk Thomas Merton wrote of Modern Times: Continue reading CHAPLIN’S MODERN TIMES (1936) CRITERION COLLECTION

131. DOGGIEWOGGIEZ! POOCHIEWOOCHIEZ! (2012)

“We’ve always had a thing with how people treat little people at Everything Is Terrible!, like it’s really weird and creepy… I think it’s the same thing with humans and dogs. They’re weirdly sexualized, they’re weirdly turned into little kids at the same time. When they’re your best friend it turns into this weird, gross, furry pile where you can’t tell where the lines are between human and dog, master and slave, and sex, and it’s just ugh. In that way it turned out to be perfect, because when you watch The Holy Mountain you’re so confused about the world and you feel icky, but at the same time it’s beautiful. It felt perfect when it was coming together because it was gross but then you put 15 layers of dogs together and be like, ‘I think that’s kind of beautiful.'”–Commodore Gilgamesh on Doggiewoggiez! Poochiewoochiez!

Recommended

DIRECTED BY: Commodore Gilgamesh, Ghoul Skool

FEATURING: None (some recognizable actors and celebrities can be glimpsed in movie clips)

PLOT: This movie is 55 minutes of clips of strange and funny dog clips from movies and videotapes, arranged into a pop-absurdist montage that loosely follows the plot of Alejandro Jodorowsky‘s The Holy Mountain. Appropriated scenes range from major motion pictures like Beethoven to direct-to-video instructional manuals on dog massage, with the snippets arranged thematically (dog grooming, dog sex, talking dogs making terrible puns, etc). The editing crew also takes the canine footage and manipulates it into original psychedelic collages to further strengthen the connection to the mystical Mountain.

Still from Doogiewoggiez! Poochiewoochiez!

BACKGROUND:

  • Everything is Terrible! is a consortium that collects strange and funny found footage clips from how-to videos, amateur Christian puppet shows, infomercials, and other video detritus of the past, often transforming the results with simple editing techniques to make it even weirder. Their website has been active since 2007. The members post under pseudonyms and only appear in public wearing fuzzy monster masks (although at Doggiewoggiez live screenings, they appeared in dog masks instead).
  • Everything is Terrible! released two previous full-length compilations of found-footage clips—Everything is Terrible! The Movie and 2Everything2Terrible2: Tokyo Drift—but Doggiewoggiez! Poochiewoochiez! was their first themed release and their most conceptually ambitious project.
  • The movie’s extremely modest $2,000 budget was successfully funded via the crowdsourcing website Kickstarter.
  • One source reports the film contains 1500 cuts (which would work out to about one scene every 2 seconds). It took a little over a year to assemble the footage.

INDELIBLE IMAGE: “The Dog Molecule” segment, where we see a puppy puffing on a tiny pipe version of its own head, and the camera pulls back to reveal an identical third pooch puffing on that canine.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Constructing a remake of the flamboyant Surrealist epic The Holy Mountain would be a fool’s errand; there would be no way to out-weird the original. Unless, of course, you remade the self-indulgent spiritual odyssey as a comedy, illustrating the key scenes using found footage from crappy dog videos. Then, you’d be creating a parallel universe of weirdness.

Teaser for Doggiewoggiez! Poochiewoochiez!

COMMENTS: A startling indictment of the indignities desperate Hollywood producers will inflict upon man’s best friend in the name of cheap Continue reading 131. DOGGIEWOGGIEZ! POOCHIEWOOCHIEZ! (2012)

130. WEEKEND (1967)

“What a rotten film, all we meet are crazy people.”–Roland

DIRECTED BY:

FEATURING: Mireille Darc, Jean Yanne

PLOT: Corrine and Roland are a married couple who are cheating on each other and who hope to inherit money from Corrine’s dying father. They set off on a weekend trip to travel to the father’s deathbed, but find the French countryside is a giant traffic jam filled with burning wrecks. As they struggle to reach their destination they meet fictional and historical characters, magical beings, and feral hippie terrorists.

Still from Weekend (1967)

BACKGROUND:

  • According to writer/critic Gary Indiana, Godard based the structure of his story on Friedrich Engel’s “The Origins of Family, Private Property, and the State,” but reversed the historical progression so that the movie proceeds from civilization to savagery.
  • Mireille Darc, who had starred in the types of popular comedies and spy films Godard despised, petitioned the director for a part in one of his movies. He agreed to cast her in Weekend; when she asked him why, he answered, “because I don’t like you… and the character in my film must be unpleasant.”
  • The scene where Mireille Darc tells her lover about a threesome with another man is a parody of a similar scene from ‘s Persona (1966), and also a reference to George Bataille’s surrealist/erotic novella “The Story of the Eye.”
  • Godard often makes literary and historical references without announcing them. Some of the characters who appear in the film are Robespierre’s lieutenant Louise Antoine de Saint-Just, Tom Thumb, and Emily Brontë.
  • Weekend was condemned by the Catholic Legion of Decency.
  • When Weekend wrapped, Godard reportedly told his usual crew to look for work elsewhere, as he would be abandoning commercial film from that point forward. (This story is probably apocryphal, since Godard’s cinematographer Raoul Coutard didn’t remember such a formal announcement; nonetheless, Godard did cease making commercial movies after Weekend, and Coutard and the other regular crew members didn’t work with the director again for many years).

INDELIBLE IMAGE: The celebrated traffic jam, an eight-minute tracking shot scored to the sound of honking horns. The camera surveys a lineup of stalled vehicles, and our interest never flags as we pass people tossing balls from car to car or playing chess in the middle of the highway, autos upturned on the side of the road or smashed into trees, and trailers housing monkeys and llamas, until we reach the tragic source of the congestion. Roland and Corrine zoom past increasingly angry motorists in their convertible, sometimes racing ahead of the camera and sometimes falling behind it, and we slowly realize the strangest feature of the backup: there’s nothing blocking the opposite lane, and no reason the other drivers can’t simply zoom around the trouble.

WHAT MAKES IT WEIRD: Introduced as “a film adrift in the cosmos” and as “a film found in a scrap heap,” Weekend is, more than anything, a nasty and bitter assault on bourgeois French culture of 1967: a revolutionary rejection of consumerism, propriety, and even (or especially) of the need for plots that “make sense.” Today, Godard’s mix of Marxism, alienation, transgression, Surrealism and fourth-wall breaking seems “oh-so Sixties”; but the passionate hatred that fuels this ambitious attack on good taste and good sense endures, giving Weekend an anarchic vitality that survives its turbulent era.


Original French trailer for Weekend

COMMENTS: Weekend is both a satire and a wish-fulfillment fantasy. Certainly, Corrine and Roland, who care for nothing that can’t be bought (a Continue reading 130. WEEKEND (1967)