A Dreamer Walking

Charlie Chaplin – An Observation – Devotion to Perfection

Posted in Film and Filmaker Studies, Observation Series, Personal Philosophy by Jacob on December 2, 2011

How could  a man with a fourth grade education, who was raised in the slums, with a father who deserted him, and a mother who went mad, become one of the greatest stars in the history of cinema? Might those hardships be why he became such a great star? Charlie Chaplin was one who demanded an audience. His insecurities drove him to perfect his art form. He wanted the audience to feel for him, to love him. Every movement he made in his films was calculated. Chaplin wanted to control everything on screen. He obsessed on small things like the art of lifting a flower and the exact way the Tramp needed to have his hat tilted. He shot scenes hundreds of times- until the actions in his films flowed like water on smooth rock. Perfection is what Chaplin wanted and it is what he got. Movies like The Gold Rush, Modern Times, and City Lights represent film at  it’s height. They got there because the artist behind them would have nothing less.

Chaplin did not go to film school. He needed to learn on the job. You can see Chaplin learning the techniques of filmmaking through his shorts and early full length features. Slowly Chaplin began to understand the value of a long shot verses a close up. The value of camera movement and invisible cuts. Every day he arrived on set he was in search of a way to tell his story better. Chaplin never knew exactly what he was going to do. He wanted his films to have an organic flow. No matter how funny the gag might be it would be cut if it didn’t make sense to Chaplin and contribute to the story. I have said before, Chaplin’s crew all agreed that if he could Chaplin would cast himself for every character in his films. His crew needed to deal with a relentless amount of scrutiny. He acted out exactly what he wanted his actors to do. If you didn’t do it perfectly you would be in for a long day. Back in the 1910’s through the 1930’s Chaplin would consistently do twenty plus takes when the common Hollywood filmmaker would do three to five.

Chaplin’s classic The Circus was originated from an idea Chaplin had of a man on a tightrope running into several unforeseen obstacles in the middle of his act. The whole rest of the movie was developed from this idea. Chaplin spent months training on the tightrope so he could be prepared for the scene. When it came to actually shooting the scene he shot over seven hundred takes trying to perfect the act. The scene now is a classic in cinema. Chaplin keeps topping himself in it. First he loses his safety harness. Then he has a bunch of monkey’s attack him. He holds us in suspense while he weaves back and forth barely managing to stop himself from falling with his balancing stick. Then his pants fall off, yet still he somehow maintains control. All the while Chaplin gives us some extremely dynamic shots- showing the distance he is from the ground and the frightening perspective the audience has watching him at such a great height. Finally Chaplin tops it all with the greatest banana gag in the history of film when he trips on a peel that one of the monkey’s threw on the rope. It took months to perfect but the result was a flawless performance.

Ideas didn’t come easily to Chaplin. When asked how one gets ideas Chaplin said, “By sheer perseverance to the point of madness”. Chaplin’s unbelievable drive is what created classic scenes like the Tramp on the tightrope in The Circus, the Tramp seeing the blind woman for the first time in City Lights, and Chaplin making his great speech at the end of The Great Dictator. All these scenes have lasted and will continue to last through the ages. Why? Because every movement made in the The Circus and City Lights scenes were pure entertainment leading to a perfect climax, and every word said in The Great Dictator speech rang true to the heart of humanity. Chaplin’s perseverance to the point of madness is what allowed him to retake, refine, and rework his films in his quest for perfection.

Chaplin spent close to two years on most of his full length productions. This compared to the average Hollywood production, which was forty to fifty days, seems quite obsessive. Yet, Chaplin has just as many classics as anyone in film History. Three of his films, City Lights, Modern Times, and The Gold Rush, made it to AFI’s (America Film Institute) top 100 American films of all time. Chaplin was a man with many insecurities and many imperfections. His personal life for most of his filmmaking career was a mess. Yet, this imperfect man created several magnificent films. He told most of his stories with no duologue and hardly any sound. It was mainly through the visuals that he needed to communicate to his audience. So he dedicated himself to perfecting the visuals. And in many cases he did. He has brought a tear to my eye more then once. He created a character who started out as just a clown meant to make us laugh and slowly turned into a character who represented the essence of humanity. Chaplin wanted to speak to the yearning of the human heart. He always felt the need to do more. He had a grand vision for the art of storytelling and he would not settle for anything less then perfection.

Charlie Chaplin – An Observation – The Outsider

Posted in Film and Filmaker Studies, Observation Series by Jacob on November 17, 2011

The Outsider In most of his films Charlie Chaplin’s Tramp is on the outside looking in. Might this be the very reason we like him so much? The huge amount of empathy Chaplin creates through his Tramp character is unmatched in the history of film. The Tramp is universal. Even now, more then seven decades after the last movie staring the Tramp was released, there are people all across the world who instantly recognize the character with over sized shoes, a tight coat, and a small bowler hat.

Most of the Tramp’s empathy is ironically created because he is an outsider. Chaplin knew this and wasn’t afraid to create stories where the Tramp never really became the insider. Not all of Chaplin’s movies end with the Tramp being accepted. Most all of Chaplin’s movies show the Tramp going through a huge amount of rejection even if eventually he is accepted. We can learn from the way Chaplin uses the Tramp. A happy ending is not always the best choice. Sometimes a character is accepted the most by an audience through being rejected in his own world.

One of Charlie Chaplin’s most memorable scenes is when he does the “Roll Dance” using potatoes for feet and forks for legs. Although executed extremely well, what creates the admiration and empathy for the scene is not the Tramp’s superb execution of the dance. The scene starts with the Tramp waiting for the girl of his dreams to accompany him for a new years eve dinner. She promised she would come. the Tramp put in a tremendous amount of work to get everything ready. The Tramp waits so long he falls asleep. Suddenly we go inside the Tramp’s head as he imagines the party in front of him. He is having a ball of a time and to entertain his imagined guests he performs the “Roll Dance”. After finishing everyone cheers and it is the happiest moment in the film. This is contrasted with one of the saddest images, when the cheers slowly fad away to the Tramp sleeping at the table alone. Right then we know nobody is going to come. The context of this “Roll Dance” scene puts the moment in a completely different and more profound light. We cherish the scene so much more because we realize we are experiencing something everyone else has missed.

So often in Chaplin’s films we see the Tramp choose to be the outsider. He rejects his hope for happiness in City Lights by giving the blind girl money to regain her eye sight, even though he knows it means he will be sent to jail. The Tramp excludes himself from the rest of his factory workers in Modern Times by rebelling and going on a crazy rant destroying many of the factory machines. He stands up against a whole nation in The Great Dictator when he makes his speech on the importance of democracy and putting values like love and humanity above dictatorship and innovation. Each step he takes away from the “in” crowd and each selfless act he makes for the sake of others, represents a connection he creates with the audience.

The truth is I don’t think Chaplin ever really felt like he was part of the “in” crowd. He was a British man living in an American society. He was targeted as a communist and anarchist early in his career. Eventually he was driven out of America because of his beliefs by J. Edgar Hoover in 1952. As early as 1925 when Chaplin came out with The Gold Rush he was accused of being too old fashion with his comedy and film style. No scene expresses Chaplin’s feelings of isolation better then the scene at the end of his 1928 film The Circus. Only months before The Circus came out Hollywood produced it’s first talkie film. Already silent pictures were being described as “a thing of the past”. Yet, Chaplin felt he would do a disservice to his global audience if he made the Tramp talk. The premise of The Circus is that the Tramp gets involved with a traveling circus and almost by accident becomes it’s greatest star. In the movie the Tramp meets a girl who he falls desperately in love with. He also makes the circus famous through his comedy routines, much like the fame Charlie Chaplin created for Hollywood through the Tramp. Yet, in the end Chaplin loses the girl. The final scene is of the circus moving out leaving Chaplin’s Tramp behind. I believe this represented the emotional state Chaplin was in at the time. He was watching a entertainment industry he helped create pass him by through the creation of sound. In the end, the Tramp walks away toward the horizon, alone, with some of his greatest silent films yet to come.

Our job as filmmakers is to go our own way. At times others will walk beside us. However, there will also be times when we make decisions both thematically and professionally that isolate us and make us and the characters we create feel alone, like the outsider looking in. Sometimes it is the outsider looking in who has the best perspective. Sometimes it takes an outsider’s perspective to change the direction of those on the inside. Chaplin changed our perspective. With his little Tramp he gave us an understanding of what it feels like to be rejected. What it feels like to love someone and yet not be loved in the same way back. What it feels like to stand up against something that is wrong even though everyone else is silent or rejects us. This little outsider represents one of the greatest reasons I want to be in the film business. He has shown me that sometimes it’s the outsider’s voice that comes out the clearest. Sometimes it’s the people who need to fight through rejection, isolation, and criticism who make the greatest impact.