Tuesday, June 12, 2012

I'll Give You More Gold Than Your Apron Can Hold

In This Is Orson Welles, Peter Bogdonavich asks the great director about Charlie Chaplin, and Welles says that while Chaplin was unquestionably a genius, Welles preferred Keaton because Chaplin never made him laugh much. I'm not about to argue with Orson Welles, so let me respectfully state that I do not really understand this. The Keaton part I get, but I don't get the concept of not laughing at a Chaplin film. Take, oh, let's say, just as a random example, The Gold Rush (which, hey, Criterion is releasing today on DVD and Blu-ray!). Early in that film, Chaplin's Little Tramp, here credited as "The Lone Prospector," is trying to find his way through the snowy wilds of the Klondike, and as guidance he's shown consulting his compass, which is just the four points written on a sheet of paper. The way he positions it, holds it still, and then moves his body around so that he is now walking North, is simply hilarious. I know, I probably don't make it sound like much of a gut-buster, but trust me, it's a brilliant throwaway, and simply one of probably dozens of kinds of jokes that Chaplin puts to use.

Last year when I wrote up The Great Dictator I made the same point about Chaplin's comic inventiveness -- for all his later, and eventually much focused-upon by critics, social conscience (which is obviously in full force in The Great Dictator, and somewaht less so, but still there, in The Gold Rush), I find it hard to think of Chaplin as anything but a comic filmmaker, first and foremost. I almost said "comedian", but that's only half the story. Watching Chaplin, or any of the great silent-through Golden Age-through Jerry Lewis comic filmmakers, really throws into relief the paucity of invention in the vast majority of modern comedies. And I like modern comedies, the funny ones anyway, but how often are any of them visual? There's Woody Allen when he's being funny, the Coens when they're being funny and then who? Most of the time, the director of a modern comedy, even the ones you might have to sort of think of as auteurs, like Judd Apatow, will simply make sure the people who are saying the funny things are in frame. The writing is the point, and having the dialogue spoken aloud. Few people use the medium to help craft the jokes. It can be really stunning to see how much further out on a limb the silent filmmakers were willing to go creatively, back when there weren't as many cliches to fall back on.

All of which is to say that The Gold Rush is a very funny movie. But Chaplin manages more, as he usually does. I think just in terms of plot The Gold Rush is an odd bird. Never mind how much he manages to cram in there in under 90 minutes, but in the first twenty minutes, along with all the famous set pieces (the shoe-eating comes pretty early), you have two murders and the sudden death of Black Larsen (Tom Murray), the guy you'd been led to believe was going to be the villain. You have the discovery of gold and the wounding-into-partial amnesia of Big Jim McKay (Mack Swain), a key character whose temporary disability will suddenly drive great chunks of the plot. Some of Chaplin's narrative devices here might be considered clumsy by some, but I think that could only be because we're used to something neater and more cleanly plotted. A half hour of snow, murder, avalanches, chicken suits, and starvation jokes go by before Georgia (Georgia Hale), Chaplin's love interest, even turns up. The film is almost over before Georgia returns his affections. Yet none of this is ever rushed, but rather purely economical. Although its economy, or the success of it, is rather mysterious. How can a good ten minutes of screentime be given over the famous scene of Chaplin and Swain trapped inside a cabin that is teetering over a cliff, leaving maybe another ten minutes to get across that the two men are rich and Georgia and the Lone Prospector are in love, and have it all play smoothly? Who can do that? And how can they do it? And how can that same film include the most moving use of "Auld Lang Syne" that I, at least, have ever seen, even though no vocals can be heard, and even though the actual music is an orchestral version laid over the scene 82 years later?

Chaplin's ambitions led him to tell big stories, which he then put under a microscope, so that a film with a title as sweeping as The Gold Rush basically has only three or four major characters. This allows for an intimacy that a more tedious form of ambition would naturally have to sacrifice. Chaplin's best films tend to be very noticably structured as a collection of long scenes, almost a series of unified sketches, but this is noticable only to the degree you realize how long certain scenes are allowed to play out. The flow of narrative is there, however, and if Chaplin craftily makes you accept certain absurd leaps in logic in order to be swept along, the more power to him. Even if you can't fully, Chaplin provides an emotional heft to The Gold Rush that, hefty or not, is applied lightly. The ending of the film is interesting when you consider how he used another version of it, heavily tweaked, at the end of City Lights six years later. In comparison, you could almost call the ending of The Gold Rush the cynic's version of the later film's famous last shot, but in fact it's just the fantasist's version. It's nice to imagine things playing out this way. City Lights might make you wonder what happens after the ending, and The Gold Rush might not, but you also shouldn't need to.


Greg F. said...

Chaplin's best films tend to be very noticably structured as a collection of long scenes, almost a series of unified sketches, but this is noticable only to the degree you realize how long certain scenes are allowed to play out.

A keen observation. I watched City Lights last year and it starts with the dedication of the statue followed by the tramp being thrown off the statue and meeting the blind flower girl. It's two scenes but it takes up nearly the first third of the movie. That's something I miss with many newer movies. I like long played out scenes which is why so many modern movies lose me by cutting away too fast.

I think Chaplin was a master of the cinema and I think, if it's possible, he's been underrated for the last forty years or so as Team Keaton pushed Buster to the forefront. The idea that these two cinematic marvels should compete is utterly ridiculous but I hear the "oh, Chaplin was so sentimental," too much. He was sentimental but in the classic tradition of sentimental melodrama played off as comedy. I'm not going to go into a movie about a tramp who falls in love with a blind flower girl and not expect sentimentality.

I haven't seen Gold Rush in years but your review has made me want to see it again. Laura's never seen it so maybe we could watch it together.

There's a documentary on Chaplin I watched years ago (an American Masters episode) that showed how obsessed he was with getting his visuals just right. Like Stanley Kubrick years later, he would shoot a scene over and over and over until he felt satisfied that it worked. In fact, he and Kubrick share the same long lapses in between films because they would each spend years developing an idea and then working out the look and feel. Forgetting comparing him to Keaton, maybe we should start comparing him to Kubrick.

bill r. said...

Do people really complain about Chaplin being sentimental? I'm glad I've never read those articles. "Sentimental" is used as a pejorative, and it shouldn't be. It's a form more than anything else. If you do it badly, which Chaplin obviously doesn't, then you have other words you can use. But saying something is bad because it's sentimental is like saying something is bad because it's funny.

Keaton and Chaplin were both technical masters, and of course they were both comedians, but their stuff does have a completely different feel, a difference I don't really know how to describe. Probably because I've seen too little Keaton, but I can almost see the Chaplin/Kubrick comparison. Their brand of technical mastery does seem to match up in certain ways.

CITY LIGHTS is the one, or the major one, I haven't seen in a long time. I hope that one's next for Criterion.