Charlie Chaplin: Bigger than Life

Art and Literature, Film Diary, Film Review

Charlie Chaplin (16 April 1889 – 25 December 1977)

There was once a man by the name of Charlie Chaplin, a bigger than life character. His creation, the Little Tramp was the most famed and recognizable figure on the face of the planet. A genius if there ever was one.

Modern Times (1936)

I can’t remember the first time I saw a Chaplin film, it seems that he always existed in one’s consciousness, but I remember as kid we would sit around the TV at night and when there was a Chaplin short on, we  would get closer to the TV, right into the screen, laugh out loud, that was the first time that I became aware of  the man with the small mustache, baggy pants, big shoes, a cane and the derby hat. Even today, his images is still as universally recognizable as his early days, one of the few artist, who had manged to break all boundaries through his art.

City Light (1931)

Why is Chaplin so lovable? Sentimentality is the answer, when at the end of City Light (1931) , in cinema’s most touching scene,  the Little Tramp is out of jail and walking around broke and homeless,  he encounter the flower girl, her sight restored thanks to him, he recognize her, but she is unable to recognize him and take him for another street tramp, all seem to have been lost, but then, she touches his hand, she recognize him, “You?”, closeup of the tramp, his eyes full of sorrow and happiness at the same time, who could not feel sad and joy at that moment. That is Chaplin’s comedy, we laugh and cry at the same time, because we relate to it, his sentimentality is always the right dose.

The Gold Rush (1925)

Chaplin’s first appearance as the little tramp was on Kid Auto Races at Venice (1914), at 11 minute length, it stand out as Chaplin’s early dilemma with the audience, to make the pubic fall in love with him, the little tramp plays spectator in a car race, he keeps getting in the way of the camera , no matter where the camera is, we see the Little tramp, it’s Chaplin telling us “Get ready for me, you have seen nothing yet” The audience is everything to Chaplin. In Limelight (1952), it’s the lost of the audience that drive Calvero into performing his last show that kills him, he is now a washed-up drunk clown, in need to get his audience back, his reoccurring nightmare is performing in front of an empty theater, as much as we love Chaplin, he worked hard to makes us give him that  love, he gave his best and asked us in return to give him our heart, and we did and still do.

Monsieur Verdoux (1947)

A true artist is  somebody who changes over time,  who expresses that changes through his work. Life is an endless struggle of ideas and emotion, and when an artist travels through this space, he express those fear through his medium, and Chaplin’s medium was Cinema.  It will only take two days in a life of a person to watch everything that Chaplin has done, from his early Keystone Shorts (1914)  to his last film, A Countess from Hong Kong (1967), one sees a dramatic change from a young man who is early work is that of pure entertainment into an older philosopher who is obsesses with humanity’s suffering be it; poverty (The Kid, 1921) class different (A Woman of Paris, 1921), Greed (The Gold Rush, 1925), the cruelty of life and beauty of it (City Lights , 1931) capitalism and the unjust division of labor (Modern Times, 1936) the stupidity of war (The Great Dictator, 1941), the injustice in the world, as the Little Tramp stand in front of the judge referring to the Atomic bomb, “it’s all business. One murder makes a Villain; Millions, a Hero. Numbers sanctify, my good fellow” in Monsieur Verdoux (1947), the artist’ lost love with the audience as in Limelight (1952), the McCarthy’s hearings, the communist hunt and the state of in 50s as in A King in New York (1957) and his final film was a goodwill message to America and the Soviet to stop the arm race, A Countess from Hong Kong (1967) A great resume of films that makes Chaplin more of a dramatist in class of Shakespeare than just a cinematic comedian.

Limelight (1952)

Once when asked, why is his camera is always statistic and not more interesting like that of Buster Keaton? Chaplin answered back saying, “Because I’m interesting!”. Indeed, there are few actors who are who more interesting on screen the Chaplin (put Marlon Brando and Greta Garbo on the list), Chaplin always dominate the space on the screen, one cannot help looking away when the Little Tramp is on screen, he is everything within the frame, Chaplin is the Little Tramp and the Little Tramp is Chaplin. When one think about the image of Chaplin, oddly enough, most of us think of the Little Tramp with baggy pants, big shoes, a cane and a derby hat. The mistaken identity became so popular that Chaplin was unrecognizable in real life to his fans. There is a story that once he went on a contest to ‘most look a like of the Little Tramp’ and he lost. In King Vidor’s Show People (1928), there is a scene in which Chaplin makes a cameo, after leaving the scene, Marion Davies asks “Who was that stranger?”, and to her surprise it was no other than the biggest star of his time, Charlie Chaplin.

Shoulder Arms (1918)

Chaplin’s technique is simple: Minimalism. Simple set-ups with a camera at eye level, straight angle, use of high key light, cut into action, and very few camera movement. What remain on the screen is the characters and their movement. The story and the character comes before anything in the frame. The hard part of shooting like this is the actor’s strict order on hitting their mark and delivering lines on time, sometime Chaplin shot a scene more than dozens of times until he was satisfied with it. That was one of the reason that it took Chaplin years of work to turn out a single film, consider the fact that from 1931 to 1967 Chaplin only made 7 films (that is almost 5 year for a film). Simplicity made Chaplin among the few who resisted the upcoming of sound. Even after shooting his first sound film The Great Dictator (1940) he kept away from using the script strictly, there was always space to improvise. Having his own studio helped with multiple takes, improvising gags and going over budged (something that destroyed Buster Keaton was losing his freedom as an artist and signing to MGM).

The Kid (1921)

One thing that even today no filmmaker has achieved:The complete creativity and freedom that Chaplin had. It is hard today to imagine that a filmmaker could have its own studio, complete freedom to write, act, produce, direct and write the music for his own film. Chaplin had it all, and he left us the greatest gift that anyone can offer, the gift to smile.

Smile 🙂


Trafic: A Comedy of Detour

Culture, Film Diary, Film Review

Trafic (Jacques Tati, 1971)

I wrote the following short essay on Jacques Tati’s Trafic (1971) for my Film History Class at Watkins.

Trafic (Jacques Tati, 1971)

Jacques Tati’s Trafic could be called a Comedy of Detour, its a comedy without a plot, without a coherent story. The film is made of a serious satirical incident that comments on  the industrial and the new modern establishment of France, the center theme is that of the car.

Trafic (Jacques Tati, 1971)

Trafic evolves around cars and the different passengers driving them. The film begins at a small car factory in France in which a crowd of engineers are building a new model car that is both a driving machine and a picnic cart with everything in it, from a bath to a TV set, the head of the group is Mr. Hulot (Jacques Tati). The plan is to take the car into an International Car Show in Amsterdam, Holland. The journey begins with Mr. Hulot accompanied by an American public relationship secretary Maria (Maria Kimberly) and a truck driver carry the car in his old truck. The film is a combination of gags evolving around the misfortunes of the adventure which consists of the truck breaking down in different places. A typical theme of Tati; rejecting modern technological establishment in order for individuals to interact with each other, to establish communication and discover nature and their surrounding. The best gag in the film is a traffic incident in which  numbers of cars collide to create a massive incident, the breakdown of the cars makes the passengers wonders about their surrounding, leaving their cars and stretching their arm with  a soundtrack of birds accompany them.

Trafic (Jacques Tati, 1971)

Tati uses mostly non-actors in the film that fit his description of a scene and his caricature view of the performers. Like Fellini, each performer is hand picked for their look, body movement and gestures. A Tati actor lack emotion, its their movement and gestures that are important,  calculated  to a precision. The essence of each character is not based on psychology or cause and effect, but rather on calculation of a scene as a whole relating to the performer.

Trafic (Jacques Tati, 1971)

In order to maintain the best comic effect, Tati avoids the use of close-up. In the span of the entire film, there are no close-up of a human face. Most of  the gags are set-up in extreme long-shot in which one take for one-scene is applied to it. By avoiding close-up, as a viewer we are attracted to the mise-en-scene as a whole, in which by combination and elimination we slowly are drown into the gag. Tati is the master of mis-en-scene, the framing, composition, and character movement are calculated precisely to give it a natural illusion of realism. The viewers eye moves from endless point of action in which multiple gags evolves. The eye and the brain need more than one viewing of a Tati film to grasp the complete action. The color is used to the same effect, the effect of comparison city life are dull and colorless compare to the countryside in which is full of rich color, mainly red and green with sharp tones.

Trafic (Jacques Tati, 1971)

The music in Trafic like all Tati’s film is an independent character on its own or is of a certain theme that is attached to a certain character. Unlike Mon Oncle (1958) and Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot (1953) in which there is a musical score independent from the action, in Trafic, Tati makes minimalism use of music, each piece of music seems to come from a natural source (mainly in a car radio), the music both comments on a character or on the scene. They are usually short musical tones that are simple and repetitious, one could whistle all day after watching a Tati film. Tati avoids using music as a tool of emotional impact on the audience, like his images, music are used to go alongside a gag or imposes a feeling on the scene and not the opositie.

Trafic (Jacques Tati, 1971)

The coming of sound in late 1920s is marked as the end of the great comic gag traditions. For the coming of sound took film closer to theater tradition than that of vaudeville and music-hall shows in which all the legendary comedian learned their trade. What Keaton failed to do with sound, Tati achieved it (after seeing Mon Oncle, Keaton asked Tati to work on sound versions of his films, a project that never came true) . Dialogue is used in complete oppositions to that of talkie comedy, there are no line that are funny on their own, there are no witty or sharp dialogues, most of the time people are talking normal conversation, what make it funny is the situation they are in.  Every gag in Trafic is visual,  completey independent from dialogue. Sound and music are used in place of dialogues go along with the visual. The city is characterized by noise pollution of traffic, crowds and industrial sound. The countryside is clean with sound of animal farms, normal human conversation and sound of nature. Like a Robert Bresson film, every object, every movement and steps are calculated in term of sound, it’s a world that is full of sound wizardry.

Trafic (Jacques Tati, 1971)

After Buster Keaton and Charles Chaplin, Jacques Tati is arguably the third greatest comic genius of the 20th century. He is a continuous tradition of visual gag comedian that goes back to the early days of Mack Sennett. The world of Trafic, is that of Tati. A world that is of fantasy and imagination, far from realism. Tati takes realism  into a whole new dimensions, that of imitation and exaggeration executed with minimalism, it’s a fragment of the real, a world rich of imagery and sound, the  world of Tati.

François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows

Art and Literature, Film Diary, Film Review

The 400 Blows (Francois Truffaut, 1959)

I wrote the following short essay on François Truffaut’s The 400 Blows for my Film History Class at Watkins.

The 400 Blows (Francois Truffaut, 1959)

In 1959, Francois Truffaut was only 28 when took the Best Directors award at the Cannes Film Festival for The 400 Blows. It’s a date that marked the beginning of the French New Wave,  and had a profound effects on the history of cinema.

The 400 Blows (Francois Truffaut, 1959)

The 400 Blows is a semi-autobiographical film, based loosely on Truffaut’s life as an adolescent growing up in Paris. There are no major plot’s in the films, it follows Antoine Doinel in his daily adventures in a series of events that shows his hopes and frustration at living in a world dominated by adults. Humors, tragic, beautiful and lyrical at the same time. It is Truffaut’s first and most personal film.

The 400 Blows (Francois Truffaut, 1959)

Truffaut was a cinephile, a film lover, Hitchcock being his Master, he was a student of the classic French Cinema (especially Renoir and Vigo) and the Italian Neo-realism, and his admiration for Rossellini is obvious in 400 Blows more than any other director.  The use of non-actors (Truffaut found Jean-Pierre Léaud after a restless search), the use of hand held camera, shooting on locations and improvisations (How much of the interview scenes with Antoine were scripted and how much of it were improvised?). Of course the advance of  new technology gave the young French makers more advantages. The camera were getting smaller, later, the small sound kites made it easier to record sound on location, and the development of new and fast film stocks made it easier to shoot on location in day and night times.

The 400 Blows (Francois Truffaut, 1959)

A few weeks ago, I watched Jean Vigo’s Zero for Conduct for the first time,  I couldn’t stop thinking about the similarities between Zero and 400 Blows, both are a description of the charming world of childhood. A world being run by the adults, they are portrayed as faceless grown up with no respect for them, which make the kids rebel against a corrupt system without a clue to what’s gonna replace it, total anarchism. Just like the ending of Zero, in which the kids claim victory after a revolution, put their new flags on top the school building,  crawls from the roof toward the horizon not knowing what to do next. In 400 Blows, Antoine, run away from being a captive, with a beautiful long tracing shot, Truffaut show his escape to freedom, only to end up being stopped by the ocean, and the end with the sad look on Antoine’s face, the freeze-frame shot that had been copied over and over.

The 400 Blows (Francois Truffaut, 1959)

Today Truffaut is remembered as the most sound directors among the French New Wave filmmakers, he is celebrated among  the classic directors, in lines with Renoir, Carné , and Vigo. He was also more opens toward changing his style and adapting to new ones, he even shot a film in Hollywood, the beautiful Fahrenheit 451. Truffaut is not known as the rule breaking rebel like Godard, or the philosopher-filmmaker like Chris Marker, or the French Hitchcock like Chabrol, he is know as Truffaut, the humorist and the poet among the New Wave directors.

The Saddest Soul: Alexander Sokurov

Art and Literature, Film Diary, Film Review, Update & News

Alexander Sokurov

One of the greatest experience in my life watching a film in a theater was during Nashville Film Festival on 2008,  watching Sokurov’s Alexandra on the big screen, one of the few time in my life that I had an experience that I was not just watching a film but living in it.

Faust (Alexander Sokurov, 2011)

Today as I heard the news that Sokurov had won the Golden Lion at Venice Film Festival for his latest film, Faust . Although not a firm believers in awards, the news brought a big smile to my face, knowing that this award would make many more exposed to the cinema of Sokurov.

Looking back at my films diary, here are a  few films of Sokurov that I wrote a short review on:

Moscow Elegy (Alexander Sokurov, 1988)

Moscow Elegy (Alexander Sokurov, 1988) A nostalgic tribute from a great filmmaker to another, Sokurov’s beautiful and sad poem/essay to Andrie Tarkovsky is perhaps among the greatest documentary to be made about any filmmaker, for it has a life of its own and does not follow any rules or narrative rather it picks up pieces, images and sound, brings them alive to a point that it reaches spiritualism. Both Sokurov and Tarkovsky’s film are pure art that arise in us emotions and feeling that one only experience when encountering a certain truth, it reaches the soul. That is true art: to communicate one’s feeling.

Mother and Son (Alexander Sokurov, 1997)

Mother and Son (Alexander Sokurov, 1997) Alexander Sokurov’s masterpiece. After a long wait, I saw it finally, love it. Like watching a painting with movement. A true achievement in the use of minimalism, sound, Cinematography and Gestures. Tolstoy could have made the first and Thoreau the second part.

Moloch (Alexander Sokurov, 1999)

Moloch (Alexander Sokurov, 1999) Perhaps the first and and only film to portray Hitler as a human like any others, full of complexity. The film is not a typical Sokurov, even though his style dominate the forum of the film. Here we have a fictional portrayal of Hitler, Eva Braun, Goebbels and Bormann, the war is on the background of the film, although there are mentions of it, the film rather focus on a Bunuelian portrayal of relationship between the characters, away from a typical Hollywood film one sees about historical figures.

Elegy of a Voyage (Alexander Sokurov, 2001)

Elegy of a Voyage (Alexander Sokurov, 2001) In less than 45 minutes, Sokurov take us into a world of sound, image, memory and paintings, we feel everything and we become everything in this film. Full of life, miracles are performed on the screen in front of our eyes,  like the unknown narrator, you are making a journey, a a pity I had to watch it on a small screen, this is a film that is made to be watched on a big screen. More than anything, it is a film about memory, life and search into the unknown, the subconscious. It is a visual poem that reminds one of the works of Tarkovsky and Marker, a journey into the world that is half shown and half thought off, the film is shot beautifully through lenses that gives it a  dreamy/fogy atmosphere, images that are as powerful as Mother and Son and as beautiful as any paintings, it is no wonder that the film end in a museum  in which the camera and the scenes itself becomes painting, Sokurov is a painter that draw with light.Like the narrator, we are taken into a journey that we never know the reason for, all we do is to ask were we are and what are we doing in that place. Visually beautiful among all of his documentaries. The film was commissioned by the Boijmans Van Beuningen Museum in Rotterdam, they asked Sokurov to look at a work of art in their collection and make a film about it. Hallucinatory, a dream, a wonderful dream.

Alexandra (Alexander Sokurov, 2007)

Alexandra (Alexander Sokurov, 2007) I remember the first time I watched Alexandra on a big screen at Nashville Film Festival on 2008, it was an early morning showing at 10:30, memorized by the film, when I left the theater, I felt that I had discovered something new and wonderful, something that captured a human soul on the screen. Days, Weeks, Month later I kept remembering and talking about the film. Watching it again on a small screen, it still had the same impact, images and sound are what make Alexandra so beautiful, especially the sound, it is very rich. More than a film, it has a feeling of a short novella, one can not help but think of Tolstoy’s stories set among the cossack and in the Caucasus, or the world of Turgev and Chekhov, what they did with their pen, Sokurov does it with a camera. We are taking into a world of men that is shown through the eye of an old woman, we start to notice different character,  we know them not as characters that are essentials to the story, for there is no story, but rather they exist in the world of the film as bystanders in the world of Alexandra, Sokurov’s camera does the rest, like sentences from a story, he describe them for us, we notice little details about them. Take the scene in the market, it is among the best example of Sokurov’s attempt of capturing the world of literature, we see and hear little details from Alexandra’s POV, Sokurov never try to manipulate us, rather he present the poetic reality the way it is. There was Mother and Son, then Father and Son, and Alexandra is along that tradition, it is about a Grandmother and a Grandson, the relationship between the two, set in Chechnya, among the camp of Russian soldiers, the film is a mediation about people living in the war torn region, mostly on the side of the Soldiers, but we get a view of the destruction of the towns and the Chechen people, but Sokurov is not a political filmmaker and he does not try to make a war film, rather he makes a masterpiece about the human soul. What we get is a film about an old woman and its worries rather than a film about Russian or Chechens fighting each other.