Archive for the ‘Comedy’ Category

Pineapple Express (David Gordon Green, 2008)


At long last, the world takes its revenge on Rosie Perez for her performance in Do the Right Thing

But anyway, this was absolutely hysterical. A great mix between the typically nutty/witty dialogue you’d expect from an Apatow production and just ridiculous over-the-topness that’s an homage to old, shitty action-fests, great chemistry between Rogen and Franco (Rogen can’t stop himself from being his stupidly over-the-top annoying self here and there, but that’s rare – these guys are great together), and enough of David Gordon Green’s signature great photography and lighting to keep the snobs at bay. And whaddya know, a plot with more labyrinthine twists ‘n turns and misunderstandings between opposing characters than the likes of Blood Simple! (or Dumb and Dumber…) Jolly good fun


Modern Romance (Albert Brooks, 1981)


Alright, so Albert Brooks is basically a poor man’s Woody Allen.  Woody’s more skilled as a filmmaker overall, and any given screenplay of his is tighter, more focused (amazingly, considering how many tangents any given conversation in a Woody Allen screenplay can go on), and with more fleshed out, fully-realized characters.  But Albert Brooks as actor, director, and screenwriter (co-screenwriter in “Modern Romance,” actually) certainly ain’t no slouch.  “Modern Romance” could use some more focus, with much of it just Albert Brooks as film editor Robert Cole high on quaaludes and talking to himself or on the phone about god knows what (or not high on quaaludes and talking to himself and on the phone about god knows what…) for way too long, or the out-of-left-field tangent involving he and co-editor Bruno Kirby editing a shitty sci-fi movie starring George Kennedy (which might actually be a welcome tangent, just to give us a break from Albert Brooks showering us with bizarre neuroses).  And, shocking as it may be, Robert Cole out-neurotics a typical Woody Allen character.  A Woody Allen character a la Alvy Singer is neurotic and unstable and annoying as sin, sure, but likable.  Albert Brooks as Robert Cole is so neurotic, so jealous of any person his girlfriend Mary dares to even talk to on the phone or meet with for a business dinner, and so paranoid that Mary’s somehow gonna go behind his back about something and that the world’s against him that, well, the man’s just plain creepy.  It’s a small miracle that Mary is as patient with this shrew of a man as she is and finds the strength to keep going back to him…which is probably why you root for their relationship to succeed despite the two being so mismatched.  This movie needed a straight-faced, NORMAL person to complement the over-the-top motormouth Brooks, and Kathryn Harrold is great.  Mary’s quiet and subtle, the polar opposite of Robert, which is probably why they make such a great pair that’s doomed to failure, and success, and failure, and success, etc. etc.  And it’s clever, a hell of a lot more clever than a run of the mill rom-com (some of Brooks’ random-as-hell monologues actually feel unscripted and improvised, which is just fantastic until they start going on too damn long), and I laughed.  So who am I to complain?  Good stuff 🙂


Limelight (Charlie Chaplin, 1952)


The lights come on, the curtain comes up, and out comes the goofy-looking buffoon of a stage comedian Calvero.  Wearing crappy clothes and sporting something like a whip, he sings and performs his little act involving a flea circus.  The act is silly, but wholly unremarkable and really nothing special (although this does take place at the turn of the 20th century, so who am I to say what was considered quality comedy back then? 😕 ), and he finishes his act to impressive applause…that suddenly goes silent.  The camera cuts to the seats before Calvero to reveal that the place is empty, totally devoid of audience, and as Calvero looks at this with a forlorn, long face, an astonishing match cut replaces that face with the face of an older Calvero, wrinkled and with snow-white hair, looking just as despondent as he sits up in bed in his dark bedroom.  It’s a sobering look at a former star who’s haunted by his fall from fame and glory, but the most sobering part of all is that that’s Charlie Chaplin performing the so-so comedy routine, and that despondent little old man is the same Charlie Chaplin.  The great physical comedian of silent cinema, the great artist of the 20th century, now a nondescript old man.  If “Limelight” is the story of Calvero coming to terms with being a has-been in a world that no longer appreciates his art, then surely it’s art imitating Chaplin’s life, as cinema had long moved past the silent era that Chaplin had once dominated.  If “Limelight” as a movie is nothing to run home about, at least it was a placeholder, a chance for Chaplin to give his swansong, one of his last chances to show audiences that he had something left in the tank, not just as a physical artist, but as a bonafide (or at least still-competent) actor, director, and screenwriter.

On its own merits, “Limelight” is a competent but rather unexceptional comedy/drama.  It follows the formula that Chaplin made use of in so many films before in which his character befriends a physically or emotionally weak character who becomes his dependent, and the two come to depend on each other to conquer the challenges around them.  It’s the same formula we saw as the Tramp looked after the Kid in “The Kid,” the blind girl in “City Lights,” and the gamin in “Modern Times.”  Here, the dependent is a suicidal ballerina prone to stress attacks and psychosomatic paralysis.  He nurses her back to health with his sense of optimism while at the same time trying to affect his own comeback, only to once again become a despondent drunk when Terry the dancer makes her recovery, and only together can they find each of their own happiness and acceptance in the world.  We’ve seen plots very similar to this out of Chaplin before.  The only difference is that Chaplin in his prime used facial expression and physical comedy with his co-stars to garner sheer emotion from the audience, whereas this film uses words.  As a writer here, much of Chaplin’s screenplay is flowery, run-of-the-mill, and frankly a little too wordy, though some of Calvero and Terry’s conversations about life, love, their pasts, and success are absolutely lovely.  I wanted to hear more dialogue like that, but alas, there just wasn’t quite enough.  And Claire Bloom, who play’s Terry, is pretty damn irritating, so that hurts too 😕 .  A while back I said I was uncomfortable with “The Great Dictator,” Chaplin’s first film that was primarily a talkie, because his Tramp character just seemed out of place in the world of sound, and the awkward use of dialogue just didn’t gel with his as-always wonderful physical comedy.  The dialogue of “Limelight” might not be perfect (far from it, actually), but at least Chaplin had much more time this time ’round to get used to making a full-sound film, and it actually feels like a “normal” (if unexceptional) film rather than an awkward clash of sound and silent cinema.  Give it credit for that, at least.

The twists and turns the plot takes involving the return of Terry’s past love interest and both Calvero’s and Terry’s rollercoaster-esque ups and downs of success and failure, aren’t exactly unexpected or anything that would wow you, but the structure’s still kind of nice.  A long ballet number in the middle of the film akin to the famous passage from Powell’s “The Red Shoes” is lovely, and the exclamation point of both Calvaro and Terry’s journey to achieve past success.  Terry’s story arc turns out to be everything you’d expect, but still rather poetic, especially in the final shot of the film which is great, and completely appropriate.  But still, in all likelihood you didn’t come to see how Terry turns out (though it’s important), because this is Calvaro’s story – and Charlie Chaplin’s.  Is there still room for the likes of Charlie Chaplin in 1952?  Considering that Chaplin was a rather old man at this point and that he’d only make two more films after this before hanging it up, the answer to that question seems rather bleak, doesn’t it?  Look, clearly a world that moves into colorized, sound-driven cinema is destined to leave the likes of the silent icon like the Tramp behind, but it seems Chaplin didn’t get that message.  Sure, “Limelight” won’t be regarded as a Chaplin classic, or a classic of any kind, but just think of what a remarkable achievement it is for Chaplin, an accomplished actor, director, screenwriter, producer, and even score composer (all of that already being a remarkable achievement that’ll probably never be duplicated), to completely change up his style to reflect the changing status of cinema to make a film that’s still competent and relevant years, decades, after his prime.  

Does most of Calvero’s physical comedy get as many laughs as the Tramp’s?  No, of course not, but that’s not the point.  The Tramp’s just…the Tramp, getting laughs effortlessly.  Calvero is a man with vices and faults, all of which we see clearly thanks to Chaplin’s outstanding performance with his soothing voice and subtle body language (something you’d never expect out of vintage Chaplin) that’s reassuring one moment and heartbreakingly vulnerable the next.  You show Calvero the broken-down man in conjunction with Calvero the stage performer, and his act isn’t exactly laugh-inducing, but almost sad to consider what that entertainer must once have been…like Chaplin.  But then, you look at Calvero’s big comeback.  All he needs is a way-too-big tuxedo, a violin, and a gimpy leg (and Buster Keaton playing the piano!  Talk about a silent film fan’s wet dream, this was the one and only time Chaplin and Keaton appeared on-screen together, and if you have no other interest in seeing “Limelight,” at least do yourself a favor and Youtube this one scene), and, well, he’s back.  After two hours of watching a washed up Calvero lamenting his status as a has-been and pathetically trying to revive his career, at last he has his return to glory.  Here’s a scene, so many years after the Tramp enchanted audiences regularly and with ease, where Chaplin is remarkably at the top of his form once again, making physical comedy a precise, remarkable art form, even at this late stage in his life (and the joining of his style with Keaton’s, as both men fumble around with piano wire and music sheets, is nothing short of an artistic masterpiece that no description can do justice to.  WATCH THIS SCENE, PEOPLE 😛 ).  I laughed at and loved Chaplin here as if he were still a young man sporting that signature suit, hat and cane.  That old man with the sad face, wrinkles, and white hair’s still got it.


In Bruges (Martin McDonagh, 2008)

I had trouble understanding what Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson were saying.  There, that’s the big complaint I have about “In Bruges.”  That’s the best I could muster concerning what’s wrong with this movie.  And really, that’s no fault of the movie, and certainly no fault of Colin Farrell and Brendan Gleeson.  I mean shit, they’re Irish, speaking with their natural Irish accents, so if anything that makes for better performances than if they had faked it for the sake of a stupid American like myself.  So right there, a weakness becomes a strength, and try as I might to find fault with what could be passed off as a run-of-the-mill dark comedy with guns, any of those faults became strengths too.  This ain’t no run-of-the-mill dark comedy with guns in the vain of a Guy Ritchie style orgy (thank God for that).  This is an incredibly smart, incredibly fun dark comedy and pseudo-crime film that I couldn’t get enough of.

The premise is about as simple as a premise can get.  Two hit men, the hotshot rookie Ray (Farrell) and the soft-spoken veteran Ken (Gleeson) are sent by their boss Harry (Ralph Fiennes, who we don’t even see until the second half) to hide out in Bruges when a job goes wrong.  Ken is enamored with the quaint medieval city, while Ray wants out as soon as they get there.  Yep, that’s it.  Too simple, not exciting enough?  Hell no.  A premise as simple as this allows for more concentration on Ray and Ken: their relationship with each other, their likes and dislikes, their personalities, instead of this plot twist or that.  The movie’s less than two hours, and we’re thrust right into to story as it begins with Ray and Ken arriving in Bruges, but we feel like we’ve known these two guys their entire lives.  Comedy is the toughest genre to make a successful film out of, let alone one that feels real, but first-time writer/director Martin McDonagh succeeds.  Farrell and Gleeson have wonderful chemistry, and their dialogue is snappy, realistic, and incredibly witty (at least I’m pretty sure it was, what with my trouble getting past the accents 😛 ).  We have so little time to get to know these guys, but through performance and dialogue, they’re more fleshed out than most other protagonists in just about any other dark comedy, from Ken’s ‘Who’s-on-first’-esque telephone conversation with the intimidating Harry and genuine adoration for Bruges’ buildings and artwork to Ray consistently calling the dwarf actor in town a midget, or succumbing to the guilt brought on by his tragic mistake during his last job, or having no reservations knocking the piss out of an obnoxious Canadian couple while on a date – naturally, his date doesn’t mind.  Ray and Ken couldn’t be more different – they’re apples and oranges – which is why they’re made for each other and have as dynamic a relationship as they do.  They’re two of the most sympathetic hit men you’ll come across.  These are two of the best performances of the year.

Man, what a screenplay.  It tiptoes the fine, fine, fine line between comedic realism and the utterly bizarre.  But either way, it’s not laugh-out-loud funny, but certainly chuckle-worthy, exciting, disturbing, and really fucking fun.  The perfect dark comedy.  And even better, it’s a dark comedy that’s smart, and logical.  The second half gets really hectic and action-packed, with what seems like a lot of coincidences that need to happen here, here, and here for everything to go down the way it does.  Some would call that simplistic, a writer taking the easy way out, but I think it’s genius and perfectly within the realm of this movie’s reality the way things turn out the way they do. Ray, Ken, the maniacal but honor-bound Harry, Ray’s love interest Chloe, the racist, pretentious dwarf wearing the Harry Potter costume, the half-blind stickup man, the pregnant innkeeper, the snooty Canadians, and the bell tower where one of them meet a tragic, glorious destiny – the confluence of all these distinctive characters, all exactly where they need to be for the chaotic finale, might be a little too convenient, yes, but it’s also the textbook on economical, ingenious storytelling – the perfect bringing together of so many random people and places into a unified, logical (but still frantic) whole.  You’d think that a racist midget (excuse me, dwarf) who takes horse tranquilizers and predicts an imminent war between the whites and blacks, a stickup man blinded in one eye by a blank-firing gun, and Ray and Harry arguing over how their deadly chase will go down before it even begins, would all be beyond bizarre – but it’s not.  We see some crazy things in this movie, but in a place as ethereal as Bruges at night, they all make perfect sense, and we’d expect to see them any day of the week.

Is the run ‘n gun climax too generic?  The ending too predictable?  Well, the shootouts, the chases, are more generic than what came before, but still exciting as hell.  You could predict the ending, but it’s still the most appropriate, surreal ending possible (Harry does stick with his principles, after all – as does Ken, and even Ray.  Honor among murderers).  Frankly I loved the ending in all its dreamlike glory – it’s the culmination of Bruges itself giving off more and more life as the story goes along.  Bruges becomes a character in and of itself (thanks to some great cinematography), starting off as just the collection of boring old buildings Ray sees it as, but becoming more and more of an embodiment of a state of mind, kind of like Venice in “Don’t Look Now” (makes sense, then, that the movie the dwarf is shooting is a Eurotrash homage to Nicolas Roeg’s classic).  But, the focus on Bruges, whether just to show the buildings or to make it an otherworldly purgatory, is never over-emphasized.  I’m convinced that Bruges is an incredibly beautiful city, and I’d really like to visit it after watching this movie, but the emphasis isn’t really on the place, but rather, on the great half bizarre, half logical characters and razor-sharp dialogue and wonderful moments of coincidence and fate.  You know, I don’t know why I’ve spent all this time defending “In Bruges” from supposed weaknesses like ‘too predictable ending’ or ‘not enough plot’ or ‘too much deus ex machina coincidences’ or ‘bizarre characters’ or ‘I can’t understand what the funny-sounding Irishmen are saying,’ because the movie’s merits as pitch black comedy, and one of the most straight-up, balls to the wall entertaining movies I’ve seen in quite some time, speak for themselves.  Do yourself a favor and visit Bruges with Ray and Ken.


My Winnipeg (Guy Maddin, 2007)

It starts with the director, Guy Maddin, guiding his leading actress Ann Savage through her lines (“did he pin you down or did you just lie back and let nature take its course?”  “Was it the boy on the track team or the man with the tire iron?”).  Rather than ease us into it, Maddin begins his film by breaking the fourth wall…or so we think.  For now at least, it’s akin to that screen test scene from Fellini’s “8 1/2”, which revealed that that movie’s filmmaker protagonist was testing actresses for…the very film we were watching at that very moment.  It broke the barrier between film and reality, and now so too does Guy Maddin…or so we think.  Later, we see this opening scene in the so-called “proper” context, as one of a number of scenes from the filmmaker’s childhood that he’s recreating with his mother and actors as part of a “social experiment.”  But even then, there’s no rhyme or reason, no narrative structure to safely nestle us in the guarantee that we’re just watching a quirky little movie.  It’s still one of many scenes in “My Winnipeg” that blurs fantasy and reality, memory and history.  “My Winnipeg” has no story structure beyond the razor-thin “plot” of the narrator trying to escape from this city he’s lived in his entire life (a premise that becomes irrelevant after about a minute and a half).  It’s not grounded in a fictional screenplay, nor is it grounded in reality.  We see fantasies presented as fact, fact presented as fantasy.  It’s the narrator’s (Maddin’s) expression of unreliable facts, his hatred, his conceded acceptance, his fantasies and what-ifs, his desires, his romantically poetic interpretations of bizarre goings-on, and his love not of Winnipeg, but His Winnipeg.

It’s not a documentary, even with the narrator’s “this happened, and then this happened” voiceover, and it’s not pure fantasy, even with the frozen horses and the expressionistic depiction of Winnipeg’s occult past.  Like I said, it’s not pure reality, and it’s not pure fantasy.  It’s just the way Maddin sees things.  Was Winnipeg’s City Hall really built as a lightning rod of the occult in the early 20th century a la the apartment building in “Ghostbusters?”  Did that horse track really burn down, trapping the horses in an eternal panic in that frozen river like the victims of Vesuvius?  Is “Ledge Man” really Winnipeg’s pride and joy soap opera, starring the narrator’s mother in the same premise for 50+ years?  Does Winnipeg really have a higher sleepwalking rate than any other city in the world?  Are streets really named after the city’s beloved whores of old?  Did the Winnipeg Arena’s implosion really only destroy the extra space added when the evil NHL came to town?

Sure, why not?  In his own bizarre way, even taken to the utmost fantastic excess, Maddin presents all these quirky events as fact, so why shouldn’t I take it as fact?  And he sells it because it’s bizarre, but he buys into it, explains to us all the zaniness of this city’s alleged history and his interpretations of it as matter-of-factly as possible.  We see typical home movie footage of the Winnipeg Arena’s implosion, which is undisputed fact, but when you add to that the haunting black-and-white images of the ruined arena, in the midst of its death throes as the wrecking ball of the present bangs, bangs, bangs, intrudes on this place of the past, and the narrator matter-of-factly observes (not implies, observes) that the implosion is really an exorcising of the beautiful arena’s NHL demons, inference becomes cold-hard fact.  It’s Maddin’s world, complete with disjointed memories, unreliable accounts of events far in the past, and his own personal fantasies and demons, so anything we’re presented with, goes.

Or don’t believe it, your call.  But even if you cry bullshit on this guy’s account of what would be far and away the most interesting city on the face of the earth if it were true, just sit back and admire the way Guy Maddin tells a story (well, not a story really, but an entire mentality – a visual poem).  When the narrator’s not giving a play-by-play of one of Winnipeg’s bizarre goings-on, his running, disjointed commentary becomes a T.S. Eliot poem (“the forks, the lap”; “white.  block.  house.”).  The droves of sleepwalkers become droves of fedora-sporting silhouettes, shuffling through the “Unknown City”  (that’s Eliot’s “The Waste Land,” not Maddin..but really, what’s the difference? 😛 ).  Fantasy combines with reality, unreliable memories combines with history, and in terms of Maddin’s technique as filmmaker, techniques of old combine seamlessly with experimental techniques of the new (the narrator even makes no bones about this possibly being the next great film genre – again breaking the fourth wall).  The black and white cinematography is perfect.  For once, a contemporary black and white film actually felt like it’s come from the silent era and the age when black and white was the norm, rather than a fake 21st century novelty.  A recreation of mayor and friends in the early 20th century and their…rituals in city hall, with no sound but elegant music and sights of the bizarre, is taken right out of the silent era, from Buñuel or Murnau.  The images throughout “My Winnipeg” are at once ordinary, fantastic, and awe-inspiring.

Or move past the silent era, in scenes of the narrator’s recreations of childhood milestones, and you get a wickedly satirical look at 40s and 50s noir / melodrama (complete with noir legend Ann Savage playing the mother).  A scene like the mother’s confrontation with her daughter after a car accident (the same scene from the beginning, now revisited) is everything you’d expect from an old-timey movie, complete with the mother’s hammy dialogue/accusations and (purposefully, just to show him who’s boss) lousy acting, despite her supposed decades of experience as the heroine of “Ledge Man.”  Everything you’d expect, and nothing.  Why is the family chihuahua suddenly played by a pug?  What’s with the woman who’s house the narrator’s borrowing for shooting, just sitting there with the makeshift family while he films, “putting a damper on things?”  Because it’s old-meets-new, and it’s all wickedly funny, and bizarre.  The traditional bluescreen technique of showing artificial images outside the windows of the train car as the narrator tries to escape becomes anything but traditional.  Title cards you’d see in a silent film become subliminal, punctuating this treatise on Winnipeg with eccentric commentary (“Dance of the Hairless Boners,” anyone?).  Amidst this contemporary silent film are moments of hairy crotches, naked whores, “the smells of female vanity and desperation”: images that wouldn’t be caught dead in the Hayes era.  Maddin’s weaving together of cinema of old and cinema of new is so seamless, so creative, so interesting, that at the same time the facts and fictions of Winnipeg are brought into a unified whole, so too are the long-dormant film techniques of the early 20th century and new-age experimentation that’s now running wild.

Wikipedia tells me that Winnipeg is the capital and largest city of Manitoba, located in the prairies of Western Canada, and is home to “historic architecture; distinctive neighbourhoods, (like Little Italy and the Exchange District); scenic waterways; a Canadian heritage river; and numerous parks, including Assiniboine Park and Kildonan Park.”  Those are the facts, but they tell me nothing.  There’s a difference between a location and a place.  Wikipedia describes a location, Guy Maddin shows us a place.  Even in the nondescript town I live in, every side street, the barber shop, the police HQ, the Dunkin Donuts, the landmark coffee shop, the railroad station, they all have stories to tell: stories that’ll change drastically as they’re passed from generation to generation, teller to teller, but will always maintain some kind of spirit.  Home videos or news reports show you an old hockey arena being demolished, but through this most subjective film, we see the independent spirit and heart of the entire city being ripped apart one wrecking ball hit, one death pang, at a time.  Back alleys, frozen horse heads, white block house, Ledge Man, the most unique public baths in the world, and that divine Winnipeg Arena with its cramped seats, putrid man-stink and public urinal trough become the stuff of myths, legend, and memory…and life.  The narrator is initially trying to escape from Winnipeg, the only city and home he’s ever known, but this isn’t Winnipeg, it’s His Winnipeg – not a city, but a state of mind, and how could anybody possibly escape from that?


The Golden Age (Luis Buñuel, 1930)

Well, the “Man” and “Young Girl” (this IS an early Buñuel, after all, so names mean nothing 😛 ) had nice chemistry, and crap like a cow in a master bed, shooting a kid in the back and a swank party bursting into flames are all attention-grabbing (whether that’s a positive thing or not…).  Otherwise “The Golden Age” was pure rubbish.  It’s a shame, really, because I was looking forward to returning to Luis Buñuel’s surrealist roots after I began his filmography with the early complete mindfuck “Un chien andalou,” followed by the contemporary, “conventional” (at least in Buñuel’s terms) “The Exterminating Angel” and “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie.”  I suppose “The Golden Age” is supposed to be a middle ground between them: slightly more plot-driven than “Un chien andalou,” but far more visually surreal than the later films.  Well, Buñuel was quite the extreme filmmaker, and turns out his films are better the more extreme they are in terms of the direction he takes them in.  “Un chien andalou” was so wonderful because it made absolutely no sense, except for the simple fact that your mind makes sense out of the random images coherently put together through match cuts.  It combined simple images of cloud slicing moon / knife slicing eye, and a man pining for a woman, and the utter bizarre like ants crawling out of a hand and dead cows on a piano being pulled by the man, and Buñuel absolutely nailed the dream aesthetic and the scary world of the subconscious.

But now comes “The Golden Age,” and the ultimate irony comes when you compare it to Buñuel’s later films.  You’d think the later films, complete with distinct characters and situations (albeit bizarre, dream-like situations that only Buñuel could think of, but still coherent in a film as a whole), would have a message that’s obvious as hell compared to something much more in the vein of surrealism.  Turns out, the opposite is true.  “The Exterminating Angel” and “Discreet Charm” are brilliantly clever satires criticizing the hoity-toity middle class: a message that’s obvious, but also as subtle as the little “what the fuck” moments that Buñuel intersperses throughout.  “The Golden Age,” though?  The poor little movie can’t win either way.  When it’s utterly bizarre, with nonsensical images like the cow on the bed or the long National Geographic-like introduction about scorpions or the Girl basically fellating a statue’s big toe, sure it grabbed my attention, but my eyes were rolling far more than they were bugging out. 

And on the other side of the spectrum, when Buñuel’s trying to painstakingly show you his negative views of how religion and the bourgeoisie drown out freedom of expression, the results are even worse.  It got to the point where the end was basically Let’s Make a Deal, where Door # 1 and Door # 2 contained Jesus and, well, the middle class themselves, acting like buffoons.  Buñuel doesn’t just hit you over the head with his anti-establishment message here, he peckerslaps you with it (for lack of a better term 😛 ).  I mean c’mon, this had the makings of a cute little story of lustful, unrefined starcrossed lovers hopelessly separated by the humorless powers that be, what with the nice chemistry between the lead actors (their scenes together are bizarre, but unusually sensual, and even a little innocent and touching), but instead that basic framework of a “plot” is surrounded by random crap like cows, explosions, Jesus, scorpions, a suddenly-bleeding face, and our anti-hero kicking a little dog and a blind man.  It’s funny how stuff like that grabbed my attention on the spot, but at this very moment, not even a half hour – 45 minutes after the movie’s over, I have to rack my brain like I never have to remember any of it.  “Un chien andalou” tapped into the frightening purety of man’s subconscious, and Buñuel’s later films made their surrealism more subtle, and thereby possibly more relevant to our everyday experiences.  “The Golden Age’s” random surreal shit, though?  On-the-spot shock value that pretty much fails to shock anyway, in a film where that anti-establishment message could have been, and eventually was, handled better by this growing, experimental filmmaker.


The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie (Luis Buñuel, 1972)

A surreal, virtually plotless series of dreams centered around six middle-class people and their consistently interrupted attempts to have a meal together.”

So says IMDB in their woefully lean plot description of Luis Buñuel’s “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie,” but in a way, it’s the perfect description one would need going in.  The movie is pretty much plotless, is a series of dreams, and involves six middle-class people and their consistently interrupted attempts to have a meal together.  That’s…pretty much it in a nutshell, and yet that one little sentence fragment doesn’t really begin to describe what this surreal, extremely challenging film is all about.

So yes, it’s about six middle-class people who for some strange reason or another can’t actually get into the dirty business of eating dinner.  On the surface, then, you’d think this movie would complete something of an “unable to do something at a social gathering” duology by Buñuel, to go along with the unable-to-leave-a-party-for-unknown-reasons movie “The Exterminating Angel.”  In that movie, the gimmick of snooty, middle-class party guests being reduced to instinctual animals because of some invisible wall was at the absolute forefront.  Buñuel took his time introducing the inability to leave so that you characters’ actions merely hinted that something was off-kilter, and even when that inability to leave was obvious, Buñuel exaggerated it so much that the movie became wickedly satirical and pretty damn funny: almost a parody of the “trapped in a confined space” B-type movie.  It was a gimmick, no doubt, but a gimmick that Buñuel took to the absolute extreme, and the result was wonderfully funny, almost cruel, satire criticizing the lifestyle of the middle class.

I did not associate “The Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie” with that same gimmick-reliant style and premise that Buñuel used in the earlier “The Exterminating Angel.”  Though both films clearly criticize the middle class and their hypocritically empty lifestyles, I thought “Discreet Charm” was a much more complex and more challenging film, because the gimmick wasn’t as obvious.  In fact, I pretty much disregarded the “gimmick” of being unable to sit down and eat because I didn’t think it was much of a gimmick at all.  Yes, it’s a catalyzing plot device, but the movie doesn’t rely on it, unlike “The Exterminating Angel.”  It’s the increasingly bizarre stuff going on around those potential meals that matters, so that a completely disjointed “narrative” (if it can even be called that…) exposes the empty lifestyle of the middle class.

When I saw Buñuel’s early and famous short film “Un chien andalou,” I was taken aback at how this filmmaker pretty much nailed the essential nature of dreams: just enough of recognizable real-life people and places combined with the absolutely bizarre so that the truly surreal can seem real, and the real seems impossible.  And that’s the approach I took for “Discreet Charm,” because once again Buñuel nailed that essence of dreams and their ever-circuitous nature.  When you dream, you don’t know it, because you see those people and places that you take for granted in the waking world, and therefore your subconscious accepts it as reality when those common sights undergo far from common occurrences.  Quite simply, reality and the subconscious become indistinguishable from each other, and that’s the exact illusion Buñuel accomplishes in “Discreet Charm.”  We find it bizarre when our six main characters find the body of a restaurant’s owner being mourned in the back room, or when Fernando Rey’s ambassador goes all suave, James Bond villain style, on a would-be assassin in his apartment, or when a dinner party is suddenly interrupted by a platoon’s nearby barrage.  All bizarre, but all acceptable, as if what we’re seeing is actually happening.  And why shouldn’t we take it all for truth?  Buñuel, at least at the outset, gives us no reason to think otherwise.  It all makes for completely random events that are funny, but not overly so.  Buñuel leaves it to us to find the subtle humor in all the drug deals gone wrong, the priest disguising himself as a gardener, and shooting a mechanical dog from a long distance (or if not humor, at least extreme irony): such random occurrences, yet also completely void of overall purpose.  Trust me, it’s cynically funny if you see it for yourself.

In fact, you really don’t even consider the dream angle until things get so bizarre that you see characters awaken from dreams when things get out of hand.  Even then, dream and reality become more impossibly indistinguishable.  We see, for instance, our six as guests at a dinner, being given plastic chickens, only to have the curtain go up behind them and an audience getting inpatient for them to deliver their lines.  Our six aren’t horrified at the sudden realization they’re actors on a stage, they’re horrified because, yes, they’ve forgotten their lines.  It’s an interesting breaking of the fourth wall by Buñuel, and it comes off as a cloying and obvious dig at the middle class that Buñuel targeted in so many of his films…until one of the characters wakes up from this nightmare of…drumrole…forgetting one’s place as a semi-prestigious bourgeois, and all is right with the world again.

Or is it?

It’s absolutely fascinating that Buñuel gladly gives you the safety net quite often late in the film of a character waking up, effectively negating the strange, near-impossible situation we’ve just witnessed, and yet we still can’t tell what’s real and what’s in the subconscious.  A priest’s very un-priestly revenge on an old farmer for a long-ago crime might be real (it’s certainly shown to us as realistically and bluntly as possible), or it might be imagined, a fantasy of this man of God.  Or, in an extreme example, consider when the ambassador, his two colleagues, and their wives (all six of our main characters) are arrested on drug charges.  What we see in the scenes afterward involve the six cooling their heels in a cell, denied their right to a lawyer, while in the next room we see a new character tortured in some kind of electrified piano, followed by the man who arrested the six, pale like a ghost and bloody, freeing all of the prisoners.  We even see one of the characters awaken from this nightmare, but we still can’t tell where reality ends and where the subconscious begins (or if they’re even two distinct planes of reality at all).  If it was a dream, why are they still imprisoned post-wakeup?  Weren’t they arrested in the dream, or did I miss something?  Questions like that are never answered, and the movie’s more ambiguous and puzzle-like, and wonderfully challenging and thought-provoking as a result.

Sometimes Buñuel goes overboard with the straight-up surrealism factor, where you’re supposed to know you’re in a dream, and this doesn’t fit.  This involves the description of a traumatic childhood experience and a dream by a soldier who’s only there to inexplicably tell us these things and then disappear.  They involve a Hamlet-like revenge where the ghost of a parent implores the child to murder the other parent, and a reunion with that ghost and others in a bombed-out town.  As far as I knew these had nothing to do with, well, anything.  Clearly Buñuel’s trying to tell us something here, but damned if I know what it is.  The bizarre exploits of our six Bourgeois are thought-provoking enough, why get us even more sidetracked?  It was a nice little piece of moody, surreal filmmaking, but in the end doesn’t fit in the otherwise cynical mixture of surrealism and reality that is the rest of the film.

But, when Buñuel doesn’t get sidetracked from his plotless plot, his storyless story (ironic, no?), what a jigsaw puzzle, what a Rubik’s cube, this movie is!  When things get their most bizarre, involving stuff like that impromptu stage play and that electrocution via piano that we’re pretty sure is dreamed up, we’re reminded of stuff we saw earlier that we took for granted as real, and suddenly we must question reality itself.  Late in the film we see a flurry of gunfire, and we’re reminded of earlier scenes where Fernando Rey pulls a gun on a man who insulted him, or holds his would-be assassin at gunpoint, or shoots a cute little dog toy sniper-style.  The earlier in the film you go, the more realistic and seemingly benign these events become (although the entire film has that cynically detached, blunt style that you could only associate with Buñuel), but you begin to question where to draw the line of what Fernando Rey is actually capable of and what he and the others’ subconscious only imagines him capable of.  Sometimes it gets too labyrinthine in the combination of the utterly bizarre and the completely benign (or boring, really), so that we don’t know whether we want these uniformly dull characters to live or die.  I suppose they’re supposed to be dull to accentuate the futility of their lifestyle, but does that necessarily make for good watchin’?  Maybe, maybe not, but what is interesting is how Buñuel lets actions speak louder than words, whether they’re real or imagined, and how our perception can paint an occurrence as either “normal” or “surreal.”  Either way, those blank slate occurrences involving our characters give a hell of an indictment of the middle class…I think 😆 .

I suppose the characters’ inability to sit down to a meal could mean a number of things.  Perhaps eating is the one activity that any person in any social class can do expertly, and God forbid the snooty bourgeoisie dare to leave the safe confines of their social class, right?  That’s what Buñuel was going for in “The Exterminating Angel” when the partygoers were unable to leave their haven of mild decadence (and frankly in that movie compared to “Discreet Charm,” the characters were a little more compelling and charicature-ish, and the satire a little more biting, but that’s picking hairs 😛 ).  Or, perhaps the constant distraction from eating is itself a criticism of the banal distractions of the middle-class culture that to the outside observer can seem bizarre.  Either way, Buñuel’s saying something bad about the mid-to-upper class here, but frankly I didn’t really care.  I was more into psychoanalyzing these people who frankly are probably too vapid to be psychoanalyzed anyway, so that that task is pretty much impossible.  In that same vein, “Discreet Charm” is an impossible puzzle to solve, but boy will you have fun trying and failing to solve the banal intricacies of these peoples’ lives.  Forget about the recurring image/situation of being unable to eat for a minute, and consider the films’ recurring image involving our six and an open road.  Damned if I can figure out what it means.  Are they walking towards absolutely no destination, just like their everyday lives ultimately lead to nowhere?  Are they futilely trying to escape that lifestyle, just as other supposed dream sequences show their deepest desires and flaws as an ironic juxtaposition to their outwardly genteel demeanor?  Either way, it’s an interesting little image sticking out of the rest of this sub-two hour supposed mélange of the real and the imagined.  Even more interesting, though, is how this is one of the few outright bizarre images in the film that isn’t followed up by the obligatory character-waking-up moment.  Chew on that one.


A Hard Day’s Night (Richard Lester, 1964)

What an exuberant, imaginative, exciting delight this movie was!  What a refreshingly original film to watch, especially given today’s day and age when you see so many music superstars getting milked for all they’re worth, being advertised as movie stars when they’re clearly not talented in that area and used as mere marketing devices.  “A Hard Day’s Night” is not a marketing device for the Beatles, who in ’64 were rapidly becoming music and cultural icons, nor is it a typical rock musical.  What it is is a wildly original piece of cinema, where the youthful, carefree energy of four burgeoning superstars can’t possibly be contained and the attitude of an entire era is chronicled in a single 90-minute film.  Does any of it make sense?  In terms of your typical beginning-middle-end, rising action-climax-denouement film structure, not for a second.  But that’s the point entirely: the Beatles were fast becoming a phenomenon and would later become the most successful musicians of all-time, and they themselves were caught in an absolute whirlwind of fame.  And “A Hard Day’s Night” captures that whirlwind perfectly.  You talk about a time capsule film, this is the time capsule of Britain’s young generation in the mid 60s, and I bought into it for every second.

I don’t think I could possibly explain in words the exact kind of glee that “A Hard Day’s Night” gave me, or for that matter the reason why I knew from the get-go that this was truly a great, great film.  The last film I saw that I enjoyed this much, to the point where I couldn’t put that enjoyment into words other than lots and lots of exclamation marks, was “Bonnie and Clyde.”  Ironically, that was another of what I’d call a time capsule film, perfectly capturing the Great Depression.  If the glorified, zany adventures of the screen’s Bonnie Parker and Clyde Barrow seemed exaggerated, that’s because that movie wasn’t an exact representation of an exact time and place, but rather a mindset: a subjective viewpoint of a terrible time in our history where a couple of crooks gave America hope as modern-day Robin Hoods.  That movie broke just about every cinema convention and to this day might be the best film in the genre of…what?  Crime?  Drama?  Dark comedy?  The point I’m making is that “Bonnie and Clyde” defied conventional genre to become something completely unique, and that’s exactly what “A Hard Day’s Night” does too (thought I completely forgot about the movie at hand, didn’t you? 😛 ).  It’s not a typical musical.  It’s not a straight-up comedy.  It’s not a mockumentary a la “This is Spinal Tap” (though “Spinal Tap” owes a hell of a lot to “A Hard Day’s Night”’s form).  It just…is.  I don’t know how to explain it better.  Thanks to its relatively plot-less structure and documentary-like feel, it really is like no movie before it, and just as “Bonnie and Clyde” was a snapshot of the mindset (if not necessarily the landscape) of Depression-era America, “A Hard Day’s Night” is a snapshot of the mindset of carefree, vigorous Britain on the cusp of the free-love generation.

For such a genre-bending film, the “story” structure is remarkably simple: it’s just one day in the lives of our fab four as they drift from one situation to the next, with the occasional narrative-stoppage or our boys to break into song.  What little “plot” there is involves Paul’s “clean” pest of a grandfather (Wilrid Brambell), the boys trying to keep the grandfather out of trouble, and the band’s two worrisome managers trying to keep everything in line.  But this isn’t a movie about “plot,” it’s a chance for we the audience to put the youthful, exuberant music to youthful, exuberant faces.  And what we get is a deeply personal-feeling film where we get right into the everyday lives of these four guys, despite so many wacky turns.  The cinematography and Richard Lester’s direction gets right in on the action with that herky-jerkiness you’d expect in a documentarian following a subject as closely as possible (like when they split up to look for Paul’s lecherous grandfather on a cramped train), but with enough professionalism (through excellent black-and-white cinematography, I might add) to remind you that this is after all a work of fiction, despite how real its larger-than-life subjects might seem.  But in that reality-bending world that Richard Lester (who’s claim to fame after this, sadly, was directing the woeful Superman sequels 😦 ) and his stars have created, something as mundane as The Beatles exploring a train becomes as compelling to watch as the final concert: a musical scene that’s as great as any concert film I’ve seen, where some of the best music ever sung combines with these guys’ incredible stage presence and the raw energy of the screaming, worshipful fans.

So, they could sure as hell sing (millions upon millions of albums sold to this day tells us that much), but could these four guys who look and dress the same actually act?  Actually, “A Hard Day’s Night” doesn’t answer that question, because it doesn’t even seem like they’re acting at all.  This is, after all, a “day in the life” of Paul, John, George and Ringo, so of course they needn’t do anything but, well, be themselves.  And needless to say, they excel at that.  They’re four of the most convention-bending “performances” I’ve ever seen, as they just drift from situation to situation in one wild day, with not a care in the world and with the occasional sarcastic/apathetic quip here and there (“What would you call that hairstyle you’re wearing?”, a reporter asks Ringo, and practically in an aside, he responds, “Arthur”).  And on-screen, they’re naturals.  Half the time when they were together I had absolutely no idea what they were talking about, but I suppose that’s the point.  They know each other better than they know themselves, and it shows.  They’re in on all of each other’s jokes, they know how to finish each other’s sentences, they carouse with showgirls like it’s second nature, and even when disaster looks like it’ll rear its ugly head mere minutes before the big show, there’s a uniform kind of calmness bordering on sarcastic indifference emanating from each of them.  It’s just as you’d expect them to be in real life, talking about everyday nonsense that 99% of the time would have no business being in a feature film (and kudos to writer Alun Owen for having the gumption to make his screenplay seem so improvised and unconventional, which would eventually earn him an Oscar nomination), so naturally that makes for perfect on-screen chemistry. 

And it’s that chemistry that’s absolutely vital to our buying into the absurd plausibility of “A Hard Day’s Night.”  When the camera catches something as trivial as George and his manager playing around with shaving cream in front of the mirror while John fools around in the bathtub behind them, we buy into it.  When they drop everything to all of a sudden break into “If I Fell,” we buy into it.  This is the world as they see it, and at the same time we see them the way millions of screaming fans would expect to see them.  It’s their world, so anything they do seems natural.  They might as well be one being inhabiting four bodies with how comfortable they are around one another, which is why it’s so jarring for both the remaining guys and the audience watching the film when Ringo strikes out on his own after Paul’s grandfather goats him into doing something with his life.  What follows is an incredibly touching and poignant, as well as joyous and carefree, scene where we watch Ringo wander the streets and the countryside, avoiding the gaze of adoring fans, and just observing some kids playing.  You can just sense in Ringo, and in the others throughout the film, that they’re just normal guys who want to hang out and have fun, and yet when one cog gets misplaced, the well-oiled machine that is Beatlemania is on the verge of collapse.  What appears as simply a day-long romp becomes something more, as four relaxed, innocent attitudes suddenly collide with the thrill ride of fame and adoration.

They’re never actually referred to as The Beatles in the movie (other than the logo stamped on Ringo’s drumset), and I suppose it woudn’tve been necessary to identify then as such since they were about to become four of the most famous men in the world.  But really, would it even matter to call them The Beatles?  Hell, in real life they were the symbol of an entire era, an in the wild world of “A Hard Day’s Night,” they really are the symbol of everything that the youthful, carefree generation of the 60s stood for.  It makes perfect sense, then, when the boys’ partying, set to “All My Loving”, is juxtaposed with grandfather and the other old squares, off gambling in relative silence.  When you put aside the performances of these all-of-a-sudden singers-turned-actors (for their performances are just about the only natural ones in the entire film), it’s the music that separates the life-loving youth from the no-fun grown-ups.  In a movie already bursting with energy as all four of the guys can’t sit still for a second, it helps when you include perhaps the best movie soundtrack of all time (which is pretty much a given since it’s just songs by the fucking Beatles 😛 ).  Obviously it’s not “realistic” when everything stops for an impromptu performance, but in a movie with no plot, there’s nothing to stop, so really it just makes for more opportunity to put these guys in this idyllically exciting mindset they find themselves in.  I mean, could you possibly get more wonderful and exuberantly joyful moments as when they frolic on a field after a practice session and later “rescue” Ringo from the police station, being chased by about a dozen policemen, all set to “Can’t Buy Me Love”?  Would you expect such a miracle of spontaneity to occur on any given day of somebody’s life, even if those somebodies were Britain’s superstars to end all superstars?  Probably not, which is why “A Hard Day’s Night” is indeed nothing more than a documentary-like work of fiction.  But you look at that throng of screaming teenage girls waiting to rip these guys to pieces outside their train or an even bigger mob of teary-eyed fans screaming their heads off during the big performance (and the complete exuberance in the faces and body language of the boys on stage), and I dare you to tell me that that adoration, that heavy a reaction to a culture-changing phenomenon, is fiction.


The Kid (Charlie Chaplin, 1921)

chaplin_the_kid“A picture with a smile – and perhaps, a tear.”

Boy, is that the understatement of the century.  That disclaimer of sorts is seen just following the opening credits of “The Kid,” Chaplin’s first feature-length film (if you can call 50 minutes feature-length…), and it describes some of his most famous movies like “City Lights” and “Modern Times”, and this is certainly no exception.  The “smile” (the laughs, really) are there as they always are in a Chaplin film, with the Tramp as his usual awkward, lovable self: clumsy yet incredibly graceful thanks to Chaplin’s talent as a physical artist, initially conceited only to learn a valuable lesson in compassion, that wonderfully goofy facial expression, the eternal feet-sideways shuffle, and so on and so forth.

Even so, despite being such a short movie, there are some very weird and awkward pacing problems, as if the rope holding the narrative together is frayed at the edges.  So many of the set pieces are wonderful, like the Tramp’s run-in with an amorous housewife and her jealous cop husband, the Tramp and Kid’s break a window-fix a window scheme, and the Tramp’s angelic dream…but that dream seems like a short film that was on its own that was included here to pad the already-miniscule run-time.  Other narrative-based scenes here and there, like the plights of the Kid’s mother and the man I’m assuming is her love interest but who we never see after that opening scene, also feel just stuck in there, as if from a different movie.  Small complaint, though, because Chaplin is Chaplin at his best and just about dominates the proceedings.  And this was made in 1921 for god’s sake, and was his first feature-length film, so pacing issues might as well be swept under the rug.  Miniscule complaint 🙂 .

I’m not gonna go on and on about Chaplin and his acting prowess, though.  It’s been covered ad nauseum by every critic and basic film lover who’s ever lived, even by me in my reviews of Modern Times and The Great Dictator.  Rest assured, though, young Chaplin here is indeed vintage Chaplin and vintage Tramp, so if you’ve seen one moving image of the Tramp you know what to expect here.  I won’t go on about it because shockingly, Chaplin isn’t my main focus in a Chaplin movie.  It’s young Jackie Coogan as the titular Kid.

Could this be the greatest supporting performance of all-time?  That’s saying a hell of a lot, and I’ve seen dozens upon dozens of films from each decade, but I’m not sure I’ve ever seen a supporting performance quite like this one, that so perfectly supports the main performance.  And Jackie Coogan was barely over five years old when he filmed “The Kid.”  His Kid, abandoned and entrusted to the care of the woefully underprepared Tramp, is the Tramp’s perfect parallel and his perfect foil.  Just as the Kid mirrors the Tramp’s gymnastic-like mannerisms, this outcast child is made for this iconic outcast character, and indeed this very young actor was made for Chaplin, the soon-to-be legend of cinema.

I was amazed at how effortless young Coogan’s acting seemed.  The scene of the Kid and Tramp’s window-breaking scene, for instance: the Kid throws rocks at windows and runs away, only to have the Tramp, disguised as a window repairman, just happen to stroll by just in time for the resident to plead for his services.  The Kid, with that ever-hopeful and all-knowing gleam in his eye, tongue sticking out to one side, twirls his arm and heaves the stone, reaches into his pocket for another, and reaches back to throw…only to have his arm hit the chest of a cop, standing behind him without his knowing.  In classic slapstick fashion, Coogan’s arm just floats there, as he gives off facial expressions at first signifying concentration, then ‘what the hell’s that?’, and finally ‘uh-oh.’  He tries to act natural, folds his arms, kicks the air, and finally points the cop towards something that’s not there and runs off.  Now, you’ve probably seen a sequence like this in every other slapstick movie ever made, but this is 1921, years before any of those movies came along, and this is a 5 year old kid doing all this.  And it’s a 5 year old kid who shows unfathomable composure and confidence doing funny-acting that we’d take for granted in any other situation.  Boy, how many times did this kid have his arm burned with cigarette butts to get him to do what he does on-screen 😆 ?

Coogan’s acting chops are like a comedic veteran a la the Three Stooges or even his co-star Chaplin, but the keyword for me is effortless: namely, how effortless he induces both laughs and tears both physically and facially, especially in conjunction with Chaplin alongside him.  In their shitty apartment, for instance, the Kid keeps the Tramp in line, futzing with the gas meter to get his quarter back, waking up the Tramp for breakfast, and then works in complete conjunction with the Tramp in their little scheme: always as expressive, and always as acrobatic as Chaplin.  Later, Coogan commands screen-time of his own has he gets in a fight with a local bully – again, just as physically expressive as Chaplin but on a smaller scale, even squirming and clawing at the air like the most expressive 5 year old you’ve ever seen when the Tramp hold him in mid-air for fear of himself having to fight the bully’s monstrous older brother.  I know I’ve said ad nauseam by now that Coogan’s acting is effortless, but I have no other way of describing it.  He just makes child-like physical expressiveness and tugging at the heartstrings so easy, like he’s having the time of his life, not even having to think about looking good on-screen.  I would say that it’s just him acting natural, but surely nobody, not even a happy-go-lucky little kid, acts that expressive and, well, Chaplin-esque (the only verb I could think of 😛 ) in real life, right?  If it wasn’t for Coogan’s very famous co-star and his legendary reputation, I’d be amazed that a little kid like this could make such movie-like, exaggerated mannerisms seem so natural and true-to-life.  But put together with the master of that, it feels right at home.

I’ve already said that “The Kid” may very well have the best supporting performance of all-time.  How about the best climax, too?  And that scene about 35 minutes in, when the men from the orphanage try to take away the sick Kid and the Tramp desperately tries to get him back, is where the “tear” portion of that opening disclaimer comes in.  It’s interesting I criticized the movie for some awkward pacing, because it’s the awkward pacing of the final 15 or so minutes that make the climax as powerful as it is.  There’s still about 15 minutes of screen time following the climax involving the now-homeless Tramp and Kid, the mother, and the Tramp’s dream, but it all might as well have been an incoherent whirl to me following the emotional onslaught of that famous scene.  I knew about it going in and assumed it was at the end of the film, but seeing that it wasn’t at the end surprised me.  It’s filmmaking at its finest, and nothing following it could meet up to the sheer emotion, the laughs and tears of it.  I revisited the scene many times after I finished the movie and almost broke it down shot-by-shot to get to the bottom of why it is so representative of the best that the art of cinema has to offer.  Sure, Chaplin as director tugs the melodramatic heartstrings to the nth degree with the exaggerated villainy of the orphanage man, the terror of the Kid, and the desperation of the Tramp, not to mention setting it all to his own score based on Tchaikovsky’s 6th Symphony.  It’s melodramatic, but it works because of the very essence of silent cinema, where exaggeration is necessary to convey the deepest of emotions and bring out the deepest of emotions in the audience.  Chaplin knew this and was the master of this, which is why the Tramp is one of the great enduring movie characters of all-time: he’s a silly clown, but you care deeply for him during his plights, especially when that plight involves a now-helpless surrogate son.  Slapstick physical comedy becomes slapstic-esque physicality that’s all too serious as the Tramp wrestles with these men and the Kid hits them over the head with a rolling pin.  As in his finest films, Chaplin transitions from pure comedy to pure heartbreak with the snap of a finger.

I said that Chaplin was the master of the essence of silent cinema, and for one key moment I was incredibly glad that “The Kid” was a silent film.  With the Kid now in the paddy-wagon about to be taken away, he looks out, reaching out his arms, letting out a scream in pleading for the Tramp to help him.  There’s that old horror adage that the most frightening things are what you don’t see, and in this case the most heartbreaking scream from a child is one you don’t hear.  You only see the Kid crying out, leaving you to imagine the most blood-curdling, tragic scream to end all tragic screams.  If Jackie Coogan made innocent hijinks look so effortless, then he makes mind-numbing despair look like an absolute breeze.  It’s a face I won’t forget for a long, long time.  

You have to marvel at how Chaplin directs the whole scene, as it cuts back and forth between the terrified Kid outside and the restrained Tramp back in the apartment: both wide-eyed, near tears, and with that same look of terror at the prospect of losing one another.  They’re in separate locations, but with the cutting between the two, the Kid might as well be crying, throwing up his arms, and pleading for the Tramp as if face-to-face, and the Tramp’s face shows you that he hears those pleas.  That editing, the acting, and the swell of the music as despair becomes a chase across rooftops, which eventually becomes triumph, all make for a climax that’s both tragic and celebratory, and ultimately draining.  It rivals the final scene of “City Lights” as the most tearjerking that Chaplin ever made, and there was so much more to it than simply the acting of the two leads (which was outstanding to begin with).  Pacing flaws be damned, to me “The Kid”‘s greatness comes from that great supporting performance and that great scene.  When they’re put together, it shows you how Charlie Chaplin wasn’t merely one of cinema’s great actors, but easily one of its great directors, and quite simply one of the great artists of the twentieth century.


The Great Dictator (Charlie Chaplin, 1940)

Clearly “The Great Dictator” isn’t your ordinary Chaplin for a number of reasons, namely that it’s, you know, his first full talky.  Could the enduring image of Charlie Chaplin and the last vestiges of his Tramp exist in the frightening world of sound when he proved to be that quirky god among men in a world of perpetual silence for decades beforehand?  

Eh, sort of.

It was pretty inevitable to compare “The Great Dictator” to Chaplin’s earlier films, namely from a “silent vs. sound” standpoint.  And for that reason this movie felt awfully weird to me.  It felt weird because Chaplin wasn’t playing the Tramp (other than a few scant scenes where his Jewish Barber dons the iconic small suit, cane and hat).  It felt weird because, obviously, a Chaplin movie was bombarded with dialogue and sound effects for the first time.  And it felt weird because this was by far the most politically-motivated film of Chaplin’s that I’ve seen.  I easily applaud Chaplin for trying something different (not even the Tramp, perhaps the greatest enduring character in all of cinema, could last that long into the era of sound 😕 ) and something that was so obviously important to him (opening the world’s eyes to the atrocities being committed by Adolph Hitler’s regime).  But, what results is a comedy with a message that’s often wildly entertaining but even more often wildly uneven.

As different as “The Great Dictator” was from vintage Chaplin, elements of it felt incredibly familiar, and for that I couldn’t help but feel relieved.  There’s the beginning of the film on the battlefield, where Chaplin’s Jewish Barber tries and fails to operate war machines both gargantuan and ludicrous.  This was “Modern Times” all over again, and it felt right at home in a Chaplin movie.  Other sight gags abound that you’d expect a Chaplin film to pull off with ease, and “The Great Dictator” does just that.  There’s the Barber and the injured pilot flying the plane upside-down (with the camera rightside-up), or dictators Hynkel (Chaplin) and Napaloni (Jack Oakie) having their tongue-tied food fight, or the Barber and friends eating their cakes, carefully trying to avoid a possible concealed coin that will signal one’s martyrdom.  It’s Chaplin-esque slapstick humor at its almost-finest.  Almost, because something just seems off once Chaplin enteres the unknown territory known as sound.  

In his silent films of old, comedic set pieces could go on and on seemingly forever and lose none of their comedic potency because Chaplin was such a physical artist, delivering laughs and striking emotional nerves using image rather than words, and physical and facial mannerisms rather than dialogue.  It was the human emotional experience in its purest form…just one of the reasons why the ending of “City Lights” is perhaps the most tear-inducing ever.  Now, though, “The Great Dictator’s” combination of classic Chaplin-esque slapstick and traditional dialogue-driven narrative just don’t seem to mesh well.  Now filled with sound, comedic set pieces that would feel perfect in a silent film simply go on too long.  Chaplin’s opening speech, in gibberish German, as Tomania dictator Adenoid Hynkel is delightfully over-the-top, takes full advantage of Chaplin’s still-sharp physical talent as a comedian/imitator (looks and sounds like Hitler)…and goes on at least 5 minutes too long.  That famous sequence where Hynkel ballet dances with the baloon-globe in his gargantuan office is cute..but goes on at least 5 minutes too long.  I’d have to say that other scenes, like the plane ride and the Barber’s run-in with stormtroopers and a frying pan-wielding Paulette Godard, “work,” but barely.  Throughout “The Great Dictator” the use of sound is full, but strange, and never more strange than in scenes of physical comedy like these.  You just get the feeling that Chaplin was out of his league when it came to sound, and indeed sounds ranging from a plane engine to a frying pan hitting Chaplin’s and stormtroopers’ heads and Chaplin’s cautious and unassuming voice feel added on or even superfluous, as if a different track entirely from the movie itself.  They’re very fun to watch, and visually on par with anything Chaplin ever did, but with the odd sound effect here and there, things get awfully awkward.  It’s more of the same stuff that made Chaplin so successful as an entertainer, but when it’s surrounded by sound and a traditional movie narrative, it’s exposed.  It’s a strange day indeed when the best elements of Chaplin’s talent as a filmmaker feel awkward, or dare I say inappropriate in a film made by Chaplin himself 😕 .

I realize it’s unfair of me to criticize “The Great Dictator” by comparing it to earlier Chaplins, but hell, I can’t help it.  Could you?  In the Tramp, Chaplin created the greatest comedic film character of all-time, and in the end that was both a blessing and a curse.  You just know that any attempt to deviate from that one formula and character that he perfected over decades would run him into trouble.  “The Great Dictator’s” often been hailed as a masterpiece, though, so I’m probably dead wrong, but the way I saw it, it was just a bit off-kilter.  I guess I was just greedy and wanted to hold on to the eternal illusion of the Tramp, always on the fringes of society, always showing more life and vitality than that life he unwillingly spurned.  And in those silent films, that world the Tramp spurned was exaggerated, and wonderfully so.  Here, though, Germany’s stand-in Tomania is certainly exaggerated (especially in the ridiculously cavernous palace of Hynkel, who’s storyline I enjoyed MUCH more than the Barber’s), but somehow sound decreases that illusion a bit.  Paulette Goddard, so wonderful and inspiring as the gamin in “Modern Times,” here was shrill and irritating to me once she found a voice.  The story of the Barber and his fellow ghetto residents doing what they must to survive amidst the cruelty of the stormtroopers, as awful as it sounds, bored me.  The dialogue bored me, the delivery by the actor seemed awfully mumbly, and half the time I was just asking myself when the next patented Chaplin bit was gonna come.  But, of course you gotta consider much of those story elements to simply be placeholders for Chaplin’s antics, the main attraction, so for that I give it a pass.  Also, other than the globe dance, you really don’t see that utmost physical prowess that you’d associate with the incredibly athletic Chaplin in his heyday.  But in a movie about Nazis of all things such jolliness wouldn’t really be appropriate, would it?  And I guess Chaplin was starting to get old 😛 .  So again I give it a pass.  I suppose Chaplin just had the misfortune of finding himself within the transition from one distinct era of cinema into another, and he had to scramble to adapt.

If Chaplin making the transition to sound isn’t tragic, then, then surely the abandonment of the iconic Tramp must be, right?  Actually, didn’t bother me, it turns out.  I thought his Barber was a nice quasi-substitute…just as clumsy, just as clueless, and in the end, just as noble, especially in regards to Hannah (Goddard) and his fellow Jews.  But the real selling point for me was Chaplin’s other role, as that slimy dictator Adenoid Hynkel.  Who knew a stand-in for Hitler could be so funny and so endearing?  And more shockingly, who the hell knew that Chaplin could have such acting range and natural talent when it came to – *gasp* – vocal delivery?  One minute Hynkel is a monstrous yet diminutive tyrant spewing semi-German nonsense to the masses a la Hitler, the next he’s calm and collected and speaking English, only to delve back into that showy German when competing with Napaloni, dictator of Bacteria, whether by subtly raising his barber chair or going for an all-out food fight.  He’s a bipolar little imp of a man with a Napoleonic complex, and everything about Chaplin’s performance of Hynkel is wildly unpredictable and absolutely wonderful.  And consider the cinematography of Hynkel’s palace/lair…that deep focus camera that makes his office seem so cavernous and imposing at the same time.  It says more about the disgustingly lavish lifestyle of Hynkel (and indeed Hitler), and the contradictions that define the dictator’s life and values, than any of the melodramatic dialogue that peppers the Barber’s half of the story.  In a movie full of ironies, perhaps the biggest irony of all is that its best character and story element by far is the one by Chaplin that’s completely different from the one he relied on so heavily for decades.  Go figure.

If Chaplin wanted to make an effective transition into sound long after his filmmaking compatriots, he sure as hell didn’t make it easy for himself making his first talky a send-up of Hitler and Naziism.  He did say that if he had knowledge then of the full extent of Hitler’s atrocities, he would never have made “The Great Dictator,” and certainly that makes sense.  “The Great Dictator” hints at the rise of Naziism’s evils, as we see “JEW” painted on the storefronts in the ghetto, or talk of being sent to concentration camps, and to say that putting all that in conjunction with elements of vintage Chaplin is awkward is an understatement.  But I have to say, though, that despite any unevenness that carries over from Chaplin’s transition into color, he makes a hell of a political commentary.  Somehow his endearing presence that had warmed so many hearts before adds a certain poignancy to a very serious situation at the time, and even served as a wake-up call disguised as a slapstick comedy.

But if all that was a wake-up call, then the Barber’s final speech might as well be a fucking foghorn.  Good lord, what an awful decision that was on Chaplin’s part.  Just from a logical standpoint, would you expect a lowly barber, thrust into the situation of being mistaken for a dictator, to be able to think up a 3+ minute monologue on the importance of freedom and democracy and the evils of prejudice like he does?  Breaking out a speech you’d expect the President’s Press Secretary to write is the last thing you’d expect a Chaplin Tramp-esque character to do, and at this point any final, fragile bond “The Great Dictator” held with Chaplin’s great movies of old suddenly shatters.  What was a subtle allegory on world events becomes a painfully obvious lecture.  It comes at us from left field, and from a standpoint of both a Chaplin movie and a subtle message movie, it was woefully out of place.  It’s a shame, really, that Chaplin felt the need to bring his politics to his art so glaringly.  I mean, “City Lights” to me is a flawless film: flawless because it deals simply and directly with the human condition and the importance of being altruistic, in a way that was both funny and heartbreaking, using pure and undiluted images.  Even when Chaplin started to get political in “Modern Times” with his semi-Marxist message concerning the dehumanization of the working class, that film was wonderful in at least establishing an incredibly innocent and lovely relationship between the Tramp and the gamin.  Now, though, within the realm of full sound and words, I guess Chaplin saw an opportunity to make his worldview as clear as possible.  Should’ve stuck with what gave him success before 😦 .

When you look at “The Great Dictator” in the mirror that is Chaplin’s career, of course it’ll be one of his more uneven films.  He was, after all, the last holdout in cinema’s sound transition.  But just taken on its own, I can’t dispute that it has to be one of the better comedies of the 1940s.  Sure it’s uneven, but it’s also bold in dealing with such a touchy subject manner in such a carefree way (you almost feel guilty, completely buying into Adenoid Hynkel as a great comedic character), so for that, even its faults are fascinating.  Most importantly, though, despite its unevenness, it’s still a Chaplin film through-and-through, even if you can’t quite put your finger on why.  Turns out Chaplin, the great and utterly unique  maverick of cinema, didn’t lose his ability to entertain.  Like the Barber after his little plane crashes, he just had to wade through the muck known as sound and narrative to do it.