The Circus [1928)

I never learned to write like anybody else.

I only learned my own way.

Maybe, you’d say, I never learned to write.

By writing we mean literary composition.  Style.  Manipulation of prose.

I suppose I rely more heavily on poetry.

But perhaps I’m not a poet.  In the strictest sense.

I learned to write like myself.  Thanks to film.

Each film is a mirror.

I learned to analyze my emotions and thoughts.

And because I loved the films I tried to convey their artfulness lovingly.

I don’t mean to intimate that I’m going away.  Just yet.

I don’t know.  Who knows?

I only mean to express this important realization.

As today I sat down to write a novel.

Tried many times before.  Unfinished projects.  Absurdly obsessive poetry.

But this time was different.

I sat down with literary tools.  MY literary tools.

I have developed my own style (for better or worse).

Developing a unique style of anything (but particularly writing) is a tightrope exercise.

For there are times within the modern novel that the novelist must become truly vulnerable.

We can’t have our cake and eat it too.

And why make this Chaplin film suffer the ignominy of being associated with my self-panegyric?

It just works out that way.

I’m a bum, he’s a bum.

A laughing stock.

A stock character.

But I have captured the world (if only for a second).

Modern life can seem hideous, but we wield power through art.

Set pen to paper like the greats before you and know the writer’s life.

The thinking life.

I am but a shabby philosopher.

The reason why I tack these emotions onto Chaplin’s The Circus is because of my affinity for the Little Tramp.

Nothing of Chaplin’s is as shockingly good (to my eyes) as Limelight, but The Circus certainly must rank among his most laugh-out-loud creations.

Perhaps you have seen stills from this film.

Perhaps you have noticed monkeys.

Yes, it is all very hilarious.

But the best is the tightrope as metaphor.

Some “cheat” with a net (no penalty).  Others cheat with a safety wire.

In life, we really don’t know when our crutch has been removed.

We don’t realize how ridiculous we look.

Our dependence upon a thing.

And when we outgrow it we don’t realize the momentous importance of those first few moments…in which we are flying free.

You might say that I am overthinking a rather straightforward slapstick farce, but I would advise you to ponder how The Circus ends.

There is more than a bit of sad clown.

Pensive.  Reflective.

The carnival has packed up and a little guy comes into focus as the dust dies down.

Wagons rolling…

Apparently Orson Welles didn’t think much of Chaplin as a director, but on the other hand Orson Welles never made me laugh.

That’s not nothing.

 

-PD

Monsieur Verdoux [1947)

Being unwanted is a powerful feeling.

A life devoted to a profession, and then (poof!)…

But aging is a powerful experience even when separated from an event of displacement.

Let me clarify:

Aging can make one vulnerable.

We are only all too aware that we aren’t as handsome or as beautiful as we once were.

We are made aware of this decline by way of “the spectacle” (to borrow an idea from Guy Debord).

Sure, we can read it in the glances of everyone we meet, but we must realize that those eyes have glanced upon the ideal.  Those eyes are connected to minds.  Those minds have been imprinted like microchips.

With what?  “The tyranny of good looks…” to quote the brilliant Marilyn Yalom.

The quote comes from her excellent volume How the French Invented Love (2012).  Yes, this nonfiction tome is only too relevant to the subject at hand:  Charlie Chaplin’s bizarre Monsieur Verdoux.

This one won’t have you laughing yourself into the aisle.  Not till the back nine (at the earliest).

Charles Chaplin was a rebel.  When it worked, the world loved him.  When it didn’t?  Ah-la-la…  No one can be completely spared the wrath of the public.

A quick glance at the ever-reliable Wikipedia [cough cough] tells us that Monsieur Verdoux fared better in Europe than in America.

Quickly perusing the section marked “Reception” we might come to the conclusion that audiences in the United States did not “get” this film.

So then did we merely have a cultural barrier (and its opposite) in operation as far as world reception?

I think not.  I think that Europe’s humor was forever changed by the World Wars.  Coming just two years after the second ended, this film was a litmus test.  What could be found funny in this cruel new world?

The entire world had lost its innocence.

And so the comedian was forced to make do with the sordid rubble.

It is not spoiling much to tell you that in this film Chaplin plays a serial killer.  The idea apparently originated with Orson Welles, but the treatment was no doubt a full Chaplin adaption.

Yes, it is shocking.  A bit.  Nowadays.  But then?!?  It must have been much more scandalous.

This was the first time Chaplin took to the screen in a feature film without relying to any extent upon the Little Tramp character.  It was a brave departure!

What I find most fascinating about this film is that the fictional Verdoux, like the real-life Hitler, was a vegetarian and animal lover.

Ah!  However…Verdoux was based on a real killer:  Henri Désiré Landru.

They share the same first name (and a rhyming last):

Henri Verdoux?

Henri Landru.

They also share a profession:  used furniture merchant.

It is not clear to me (without further research) whether the vegetarian/animal lover aspects were inventions of Chaplin or not.

I’m guessing they were.

In any case, they are effective reminders about the intricacy of human personalities.

Schindler’s List comes down to us as a hack film because it lacks life.  That is the message I get from reading Godard’s critique of Spielberg.  What is more, Godard seems to lament (mourn) the lack of video footage shot within German concentration camps during WWII.

Some have construed this as holocaust denial.

I don’t think that is the point.

However, Godard’s presentation of his argument brings with it a certain amount of skepticism.  Put simply, his question seems to be (in my own words), “How could the Germans be so technologically advanced (particularly in film and motion picture equipment) yet fail to shoot any footage within the camps?”

What comes down to us today is footage of said camps’ “liberations”…  Indeed, Hollywood directors were tasked with making propaganda of the hideous findings (George Stevens comes to mind) [not that they needed much help there].

And so why have I made this detour?  Simply to illustrate that the human brain is smarter than Hollywood assumes it is.

Spielberg is not a great director.  He’s merely a rich director.

Chaplin was a great director.  Monsieur Verdoux was largely a failure in the United States.

To come back to Guy Debord (and I paraphrase heavily in translation from the French), “Reality has been turned on its head…”

The spectacle reigns supreme.  Who cares if it’s true?  Even better than the real thing.  That is the message of Debord’s La Société du spectacle (published in 1967).  And that message is relevant to Monsieur Verdoux.

Perhaps it was the Letterists (of which Debord was a member)…perhaps it was the Situationists (of which Debord was the guiding light)…one of these groups boycotted Chaplin when he arrived in France.

Ah, I have found it.  Indeed.  1952.  It was the Letterists.  Their screed pamphlet called Chaplin a “con artist of sentiments”.  [translation by Len Bracken]

Indeed, that is just the role Chaplin took up five years previous in our film Monsieur Verdoux.  It is also part of the argument which Godard has made against Spielberg.

As much as I love Debord (one of my three favorite writers), I have to disagree with his early (pre-Situationist) position against Chaplin.  Godard would likely disagree with Debord and the Letterists on this matter as well (judging from the abundance of Chaplin films referenced in his magnum opus Histoire(s) du cinema).  But I must agree with Godard regarding Spielberg.  It does no honor to the memory of Holocaust victims nor survivors to give the sad event the “Hollywood touch”.

Godard has (along with most of humanity) been called anti-Semitic.  I don’t believe that to be the case regarding the most important director to have lived.  A single glance is not enough to absorb what Jean-Luc is saying in any of his films (not to mention writings or interviews).

Ah, but now I am far off-track.  I have left Verdoux in the dust.

But that is alright.

Perhaps the measure of a film’s greatness is how much it makes us think?

 

-PD