Sunday, May 22, 2011

Humanity Was Kicked Around Somewhat

Included in the vastly informative booklet of old and new essays that accompanies the Criterion release of Charlie Chaplin's The Great Dictator (due in stores this Tuesday) is Chaplin's own defense of his film, specifically the slightly problematic climactic speech, printed originally in 1940 in the New York Times. In that essay, Chaplin says:

There is always a kind of praise or a kind of criticism that can't be quarreled with or argued about. "It's funny" or "It isn't funny." Who knows except you? Even the laughter may fool you. "It's beautiful" or "It isn't beautiful." We are a democracy; we are allowed a difference of opinion, and every single, blessed one of us is right. Thank heaven for that!

Chaplin is taking a rather more accepting attitude towards criticism than I imagine he actually possessed, but the first part, about something being funny or not funny and that reaction being unique to each individual, is something that has been latched onto by the defenders of any given comedy ever since (and likely long before). The idea is, if an audience laughs, they think it's funny, and therefore it is funny, and so comedy is a more subjectively judged artform than pretty much any other artform you might name. Well, that's horseshit. By the logic just outlined, if I cry at a movie, that film is emotionally powerful, or if I get scared by a horror movie, it's a good horror movie, or if I etc. at a movie, that movie succeeds at being etc. In short, if anyone feels the emotion the filmmaker wants you to feel, then the film is good. And so it is, to me (or you). But criticism is supposed to grapple with, among other things, why a thing works or doesn't, and the widespread attempt to remove comedy from this process with a kind of "Ah, what can you do?" shrug is nonsensical at its core, and even patronizing towards comedy, in that this attitude assumes that there is no such thing as a good joke or a bad joke, but only jokes that make you laugh, or don't.

The Great Dictator often seems regarded as a comedy only in a technical sense, because the film's remarkable historical stature has nearly overwhelmed everything else about it. But it really is a comedy, through and through (the excellent DVD commentary on the Criterion disc, by Dan Kamin and Hooman Mehran, thankfully provides a complete picture of the film, which includes Chaplin's general approach to comedy and how he applies and executes it in The Great Dictator). Few scenes go by without some sort of gag -- at one point, a transitional shot of Adenoid Hynkel, Chaplin's Adolf Hitler substitute, simply walking through a room includes a fluidly comic pratfall -- and the film is classically structured around a series of comedic set-pieces: the slapstick WWI opening, Hynkel's absurd German-gibberish speech, the Jewish barber's (also Chaplin) initial abuse by the German police which includes his famous dazed dance down the street after being accidentally clonked on the head by a frying pan-wielding Paulette Goddard, and so on. And then there's the variety: slapstick, puns, one liners, surrealism, scatology. The result is that The Great Dictator is a sprawling comedy epic of the kind you almost never see anymore, and when you do you often wish you hadn't.

But it can never be forgotten that The Great Dictator is also a film with -- shudder -- a "point", though in this case that is vitally important to Chaplin's success. For one thing, rarely has a point been more worth making, in any venue. Made in 1940 after the nightmare of Hitler's Germany was in full swing, but before America had entered the war, The Great Dictator manages to somehow be both zany and unblinking (at least within reason, if that qualifier doesn't sound like too much of a contradiction) of Hitler's, or Hynkel's, savage crimes. Many of Chaplin's jokes are downright audacious in their blackness. Take the moment when Chaplin's barber is about to be hanged from a lamppost, following a series of physical comedy hijinks that echo the much more light-hearted antics between the Little Tramp and the police in City Lights. It's all a lot of fun, but then they are going to lynch him. Not only that, but when a kindly German officer named Schulz (Reginald Gardiner) stops the lynching, the barber, who has been strung up off the ground by this point, drops out of frame, and this is played for laughs. And not only that, but it's funny.

The jokes that flow from the palace scenes, that is the scenes that directly involve Chaplin's version of Hitler, can be downright shocking (and, as I mentioned, surreal; Hynkel's manic scamper up the curtain is positively Lynchian). Some of the shock comes from historical context, not just of the war and the Holocaust, but in regards to what was considered generally permissible in Hollywood at the time. The pay-off to the bullet-proof uniform gag, for instance, or the parachute hat, which is played with terrific quiet by Chaplin and Billy Gilbert, whose robust performance as Herring, Chaplin and Hynkel's Goering, is one of the film's secret weapons (as is Henry Daniell as Garbitsch, whose horrific nature is highlighted by the fact that he doesn't get any jokes). Gilbert actually has the film's single best line, when he can barely contain his excited joy as he tells Hynkel about this "wonderful new poison gas" that's just been discovered. "It will kill everybody!" he enthuses. It's a joke that cuts out the middle man in a way that Dr. Strangelove, The Great Dictator's wiseass younger brother, never quite allows itself to try.

Meanwhile, of course, there's the film's most famous scene, which shows Hynkel dancing with a balloon made to look like a globe of the planet it is Hynkel's dream to conquer. It's a virtuoso scene, funny and strange and elegant. There's an uneasy beauty to it that would later be reproduced, in a much different way, decades later in the "Tomorrow Belongs to Me" number from Cabaret. In the DVD commentary, Dan Kamin claims -- rightly, in my view -- that Chaplin never tops this moment...well, this moment, and the one that immediately follows, a barber scene between Chaplin and Chester Conklin, though to me even that one pales in comparison.

If anything in The Great Dictator proves that not all jokes are created equal, and that the involuntary response of laughter, or absence of same, from the audience is not necessary any indication of the level of craft and artful imagination at work, it's the globe scene. And that's not even the one I laugh at the hardest. It's simply the one I'm most in awe of. It's the one that boils the film down into one glorious flourish of creativity, disgusting in its beauty and appalling in its entirely correct implications. This is the art of comedy.


Greg said...

I'm glad I'm the first to comment because I want to say something I've said for years which is that I've never had a problem with the final speech nor seen the problem objectively. That is to say, I have never seen it as the break in character (Chaplin speaking directly to the audience) that others have. I see it as the little barber taking the opportunity to express something that needs to be said and I honestly think it's beautiful.

Most people I've read (the usual film history meme) write that the ending is sentimental, too much of a break with what came before, etc. I simply don't agree. I really do love the end speech and think the movie is pretty brilliant throughout.

Also, and not for nothing, I've always found it a little appalling that in 1940 Chaplin was the only person outwardly ridiculing or lambasting Adolph Fucking Hitler.

Finally, you do a terrific job of outlining what is and isn't comedy. I have always believed, seemingly paradoxically, that something need not make me laugh to be funny or that something that makes me laugh hard might not be that funny but hits me at a moment when I'm ready for anything. That's hard to explain to people but comedy does have universal standards like any other art form that can be recognized whether or not they actually strike any particular viewer as funny.

bill r. said...

Thanks Greg. The thing about that speech is that is, by definition, preachy. But it's impossible for me to criticize it on that basis because if the context. He's preaching against Hitler for Chrissakes! This was all going on right at that moment, and as you say no other filmmaker was going that far at the time.

If i'm going to criticize that section of the film, I would focus on the set up. I was going to bring this up in the post but it didn't fit what I was talking about, but basically the fact that Hynkel and the barber look exactly alike is never mentioned once in the film, until Chaplin needs it to make his point. That's awfully strange and clunky, but ultimately I don't really care that much.

Greg said...

No, I like that no point is made of it. If it were, we'd have an even clunkier "Hey, you look just like Hynkel. We must now turn the movie into a scheme to get you into Hynkel's place." I like that it just kind of happens. I think Chaplin made the right choice in not making it a plot point at any point until then.

bill r. said...

Because of the nature of the film, and because of my resistance against the notion that any and all films must hew as closely as possible to some abritrary idea of absolute reality, the idea that the similarity is never commented upon does not really bother me. But you don't think it's a little clumsy, given the nature of the story? I do see your point about running into trouble by making it too big a deal earlier in the film, and maybe there's no middle ground. I just find it jarring.

bill r. said...

Also, from your first comment:

I have always believed, seemingly paradoxically, that something need not make me laugh to be funny or that something that makes me laugh hard might not be that funny but hits me at a moment when I'm ready for anything. That's hard to explain to people but comedy does have universal standards like any other art form that can be recognized whether or not they actually strike any particular viewer as funny.

Yes. The universal standards line is particularly on the mark, and I wish I'd thought to put it that way. And it is very difficult, if not nearly impossible, to explain, mainly because in doing so you will come perilously close to "explaining the joke", which can ruin good jokes that aren't even yours. But that doesn't mean we need to accept this Utopian idea of joke equality bullshit.

Greg said...

But that doesn't mean we need to accept this Utopian idea of joke equality bullshit.

There's this annoying post-modern tendency (born of the baby boom generation) to jump through hoops to make all things equal when, in fact, all things are not equal. It's not offensive to recognize greatness and the only way to recognize it is to understand that, being great, it means most other things aren't. To use the lowest common denominator as an example, I have (and you and everyone else) laughed at farts. Yep, I've laughed when I heard people fart and in some cases, longer, louder and harder than at anything Chaplin ever did. But that doesn't mean someone passing gas ranks anywhere near the same plane of existence of a freezing and starving tramp attemping to eat his leather shoes and treating the shoestrings as spaghetti. There, he's perfectly balancing pathos with slapstick and filming it all with a choreography worthy of a fine ballet. A joke has to be more than a laugh to be great. It should make you smile or laugh, yes (even if only inside your head) but to achieve greatness it should have something more than immediate shock value.