Charlie Chaplin: The Life and Times of a Tramp

Everyone knows the image. Derby, toothbrush mustache, bamboo cane, tattered tramp clothes, the penguin-like waddle. He was the world’s first “movie star” and the first actor to ever be paid a million dollars. His life was an uneven one, to say the least. The American public fell in love with him in the 1910s, only to blacklist him forty years later. He is arguably the great comic actor of all-time, and he has influence comedy on film ever since.

Charlie Chaplin was born in 1889 in London to a couple of music hall entertainers. Both Charlie, Sr. and Hannah Chaplin were singers and actors and influenced Charlie, Jr.’s decision to join the profession. By the age of three though, Charlie Sr. had bolted and Junior had little contact with him after that. Hannah Chaplin was the great tragic figure of the family, having a nervous breakdown in 1895. She, Charlie, and his younger brother, Sydney ended up in Lambeth Workhouse. The boys were moved to a home for orphans and destitute children weeks later. Hannah suffered a second and final complete mental breakdown in 1898 and Cane Hill Lunatic Asylum in Surrey, where Charlie and Sydney paid out 30 shillings a week for her care there. Once established in Hollywood years later, the brothers had Hannah brought to live with them where she spent the remainder of her life.
Charlie’s debut came when, during a rowdy show, Hannah was booed off stage and hit with a thrown bottle. As she sat backstage crying, five year old Charlie came on stage singing the popular song “Jack Jones” and managed to entertain and win over the crowd. In the early 1910s, Charlie toured with the Karno Theater, and worked alongside Arthur Jefferson aka Stan Laurel. Charlie was discovered by film producer/director Mack Sennett whose Keystone Film Company made comedic shorts. In 1914, the Little Tramp character debuted in a short titled Kid Auto Races at Venice. Something about this very simple clown-like character clicked with the viewing public and Chaplin’s popularity rose, causing the shorts to shift their focus from the Keystone Kops to the Little Tramp.
Chaplin’s creation of this character reveals the complex thought process behind his comedy. He wanted the character to contain as many contradictions as possible and wanted to make him appear somewhat ageless in appearance. He wanted the hat to be to small to fit on his head, but the pants and shoes to be comically over-sized. The mustache was an after thought. While the Sennett comedies traditionally focused on broad, exaggerated gestures, Chaplin’s style of pantomime was much more subtle in its humor. Chaplin would improvise little flourish that served to underscore the sweetness of the Tramp in one moment, then suddenly toss a brick at a rival’s head to completely mess with our perceptions of the character.
In 1917, Chaplin left Keystone and signed with Mutual, where he would have tighter creative control of his projects. It was at mutual where he began to expand his films until releasing his first feature, The Kid. In 1919, he co-founded United Artists with Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks, and DW Griffith. Here he directed his first drama, A Woman in Paris and subsequent comedies (The Gold Rush, The Circus). Despite the arrival of sound to cinema, Chaplin continued his silent pictures with City Lights and Modern Times, before finally giving in and making The Great Dictator. Chaplin’s film output would lessen and lessen.
In the upcoming month, I plan on watching the Chaplin films I haven’t seen and reviewing them, as well as brief reviews of ones that I have and doing small articles on various aspects of Chaplin’s life (the women he was involved with, his political beliefs, his life after film). Below is a tentative schedule of when I will be posting reviews his films not seen by myself as of yet:
April 1st – The Kid
April 8th – A Woman in Paris
April 15th – The Circus
April 22nd – The Great Dictator
April 29th – Limelight
His films that I have seen and will be covered in more capsule reviews are: The Gold Rush, City Lights, and Modern Times.

Shadows in the Cave Digest #03 – March 2010


The Cinematic Small Screen: Comedy, Drama, Science Fiction and Fantasy
The Burton/Depp Collaborations: 1990 – 1999, 2000-2007
Director in Focus: John Sayles – Silver City, Passion Fish
Double Features

Hypothetical Film Festivals

Wild Card Tuesdays
Newbie Wednesdays
Jolly Good Thursdays
Friday Imports
Un prophete (Film of the Month!)
Seventies Saturdays
Maybe Sundays
Blind Date
I’m Here

Next Month: 
– Charlie Chaplin Month!
– A Look at the films of John Waters!

Changes for Next Month: 
– Saturdays become Director in Focus Saturdays 
– Hypothetical Film Festivals become a regular feature on Sundays 
– Jolly Good Thursdays will shift to focus on British actor/director Charlie Chaplin

Newbie Wednesday – Bunny and the Bull

Bunny and the Bull (2009, Paul King)
Starring Edward Hogg, Simon Farnaby, Veronice Echegui, Richard Ayoade, Julian Barrett, Noel Fielding

Note: This film has no planned release date for either theaters or DVD in the US. So, your best bet is to torrent the sucker.

“Come with us now on a journey through time and space”. If you are familiar with the immensely popular British series The Mighty Boosh then those are familiar words to you. The director of that series, Paul King, embarks on his feature film debut, bringing with him some familiar faces in supporting roles as well as the quirky aesthetic sensibilities of his television series.

The premise puts agoraphobic Stephen in the midst a year long hermit period. He is dealing with a trauma that occurred in Europe while he was on holiday with his friend Bunny. The two follow Stephen’s idea of fun by touring the various museums of the continent, but once Bunny takes the wheel things become a lot crazier. They meet waitress Eloisa who is looking for a way back home to Spain, and Bunny decides that once they arrive there, he is going to fight a bull.

The strongest thing this picture has going for it are the inventive visuals. King is definitely a peer to a director like Michel Gondry, in the way he intentionally lets the audience in on the hacked together set pieces. A fast food delivery bag becomes the setting for a flashback in a restaurant. A snow globe becomes the Swiss mountain chateau the men stayed in. A photograph of their train becomes a chain of photos, set against a landscape made of similar snapshots. The Mighty Boosh did the same, and it caused the universe to feel like a timeless fantasy-scape.

The plot on the other hand is not very strong. There’s no real depth to the two main characters, Stephen is a very stereotypical neurotic and Bunny is the typical crazy risk-taker. There’s not attempt to give us more about these characters or attempt to explain their motivations. The rest of the film is populated with set piece characters, such as the dog-milking Polish man, an innkeeper overly fond of her stuffed bear, and a former matador who uses a shopping cart with horns for practice. The film is very pretty to look at, and showcases the cleverness of the director aesthetically, I just hope he can find a richer level of writing for his next film.

Director in Focus: John Sayles – Passion Fish

Passion Fish (1992, dir. John Sayles)
Starring Mary McDonnell, Alfre Woodard, David Strathairn, Vondie Curtis-Hall, Angela Bassett, Nora Dunn, Sheila Kelly

John Sayles makes films that are a bizarre phenomenon amidst Hollywood culture. His characters are all adults, usually in their late 30s, early 40s. They actually behave like adults. The conflict in these films is muted and commonly unresolved. It’s no wonder he is forced to make films independently. This particular film features the “umarketable” combo of two women in their late 30s and a conflict that is never truly resolved.

May-Alice (McDonnell) is a soap actress paralyzed from the waist down after a car accident. This is the last in a series of disappointments that sends the obstinate woman back to her family home on the Gulf in Louisiana. She goes through a series of in-home caregivers that are driven away by her temper, until she meets Chantelle (Woodard). The two women bond after Chantelle shows May-Alice she’s going to make her work to rehabilitate her body. Each woman learns about the other’s past and through these revelations they grow closer and learn to put down their aggressive facades.

This could have been a very overwrought melodrama, but Sayles is able to make very fleshed out, three dimensional characters. The friends and uncle of May-Alice who come to visit feel very unique in this world. The love interests of both characters feel very real as well, despite not having all that much screen time. Each of these characters feels like they could support a feature, or at least a short, of their own. And May-Alice plays a different role with each person, revealing that the only time she isn’t acting is when it is just she and Chantelle.

This is not a film for the CG driven and big explosion crowd. If you are looking for a thoughtful film about something, and a film that really highlights strong female acting, then I would definitely recommend you pick this up.

Some final thoughts about John Sayles: Sayles is most definitely an independent spirit. His films are not the kind Hollywood would ever think to make, and its a good thing he is there to make them. I can see how his style of muted filmmaking has influenced a lot of similar indie filmmakers today. He never felt a need to be too stylistic with his camera, preferring to make it clean and crisp, while focusing on fleshed out characters who are real people.

Films I watched by this director: Lone Star, Matewan, Men With Guns, Silver City, and Passion Fish

Director in Focus – New Director Poll Results

So the vote for my next Director in Focus is complete and the results are as follows:

Francois Ozon – 9%
Claire Denis – 18%
Pier Pasolini – 27%
Brian DePalma – 45%

So Brian DePalma it is! The April schedule looks as follows:
April 3rd – Carrie
April 10th – The Fury
April 17th – Sisters
April 24th – Dressed to Kill

DocuMondays – Examined Life

Examined Life (2009, dir. Astra Taylor)
Featuring Judith Butler, Cornel West, Slavoj Zizek, Kwame Anthony Appiah, Michael Hardt, Martha Nussbaum, Avitall Ronell, Peter Singer, Sunaura Taylor

Fans of Michael Bay’s work will no doubt be rushing out to see this one. That was sarcasm. Canadian-American filmmaker Astra Taylor has assembled 8 philosophers and given them ten minutes a piece to muse on some aspect of existence. This could have been pretentious drivel, but Taylor is able to make herself the subject of the film early on in an effort to point out that such an endeavor is imperfect and we should simply sit back and enjoy the mistake. While walking through a park with NYU literature professor Avital Ronell, the subject becomes the interviewer, asking Taylor what the goal of all this is. Taylor responds that philosophy is such an oral exercise, yet it is communicated primarily in printed words, where there is time and space for it to be stretched out and examined. Taylor states she wanted to see if something similar might be accomplished on film, where the philosophers can speak.

The three standouts for me were Judith Butler, Slavoj Zizek, and Cornel West. Cornel West has had vast experience as a media personality so he has the charisma and verbage to make what could have been a dry seminar into a witty musing on the nature of democracy and authority. Judith Butler is also very interesting, with her segment involving a discussion between Taylor sister, Sunastra, who is a painter and disability advocate. Their talk hinges on the idea of “going for a walk”, and what that means for a wheelchair bound person such as Sunastra. This evolves into the nature of being disabled in a contemporary context and then to an exploration of what the manner in which people walk tells us, and how human behavior is regulated by social expectations.

The best was Slavok Zizjek, a Croatian philosopher whose A Pervert’s Guide to Cinema is a great documentary introduction to film criticism. Zizek delivers his dialogue from a landfill somewhere in New York. He talks about the conflict between humanity and nature, and the trend in some groups to desire a “return to nature”. His argument against this is that Nature is simply an ongoing series of violent biological interactions. He cites oil being such a large part of contemporary life, and how we never contemplate the sheer level of violence that had to occur to destroy so much living matter to produce the oil in the earth. The conclusion of this talk is that it is in humanity’s best interest to create further and further artificial environments that it can control, and that this will involve a redefining of beauty from a pastoral standard to one in which hills of garbage can be found to have a pleasing aesthetic.

The documentary is obviously not for someone needing an escapist film, yet it is not a film for someone who has attained a degree in philosophy. I found it fairly apparent that Taylor is trying to reach out to the contemporary individual who has an interest in continuing their education and not moving through life drone-like. The film is full of idea candy, some interesting questions to contemplate and savor after seeing the picture.

Maybe Sundays – Blind Date (2007)

Blind Date (2007, dir. Stanley Tucci)
Starring Stanley Tucci, Patricia Clarkson

Navigating the waters of a relationship, especially one that has gone on for decades is a dangerous and fragile thing. It is almost instinctual on many people’s part to use the vulnerabilities of their mates in verbal combat, attempting to make painful digs. External circumstances can also damage both parties in a way that makes their relationship irreparable. This very quiet, simple film examines those moments of conflict by combining emotional realism but aesthetic surreality.

Don (Tucci) works in a bar/theater where he performs an intentionally bad magic act. He will regularly place and respond to singles ads in the newspaper, placed by he and his wife Janna (Clarkson) as part of a strange game they play. They always meet at the theater, where their ads have determined what roles they will play. In a few strange episodes, they play psychiatrist to each other. These meetings are revealed as ritual torture around the half way point when a tragedy is revealed as the reason why they do this back-and-forth routine. The rendezvous typically end in frustration on the part of Janna, unable to forget the pain that birthed this dance.

Despite the complex ideas and concept the film is very rough. The surreality of the setting the repetition, which on one hand is crucial to telling this story, feels tedious and the momentum of the film suffers. The acting is amazing, I wouldn’t expect less from these performers though. The film is part of a series which works to release English language remakes of Dutch filmmaker Theo van Gogh’s work. Van Gogh was murdered by an Islamic extremist in 2004 after releasing a film highly critical of the Islamic community’s treatment of women. Despite the flaws in this remake, it does have me interested in seeing the original and the rest of van Gogh’s work.