A Dreamer Walking

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.

The “Nobody”!

Posted in Uncategorized by Jacob on February 21, 2011

I have already written a paper on one type of protagonist we commonly run into in film, that being the Diamond in the Rough. I explained how the Diamond in the Rough protagonist is seen in a negative light at the beginning of most films and through out the picture is able to find redemption, both in his life and in the way the audience sees him. This is done well through appealing acting and constant characters that are placed around the main protagonist.

Today I want to talk about the second type of protagonist we commonly see in the movies. Unlike the Diamond in the Rough protagonist, the Nobody is a character that the audience usually have no quarrels with. In fact the Nobody protagonist is often appealing because of how pathetic he or she is at the beginning of the film. Usually the greatest obstacle for the Nobody character is having everyone else take him or her seriously. At the beginning of the film we the audience think of them as Average Joe’s at best. Along with the rest of the characters in the film, we do not believe that they are capable of anything spectacular.

We see Nobodies all over film. Usually it is the geek who has the brains but can’t get the girls or sometimes it is a person we consider sort of stupid but has a pleasing personality. The Nobody is the most appealing of the three main types of protagonists (the Diamond in the Rough, the Nobody, and the Fallen Hero), because we are able to relate with him so well. Unlike with the Diamond in the Rough and the Fallen Hero, there is no need for the Nobody to be redeemed in the audiences eyes. The Nobody has never done anything big enough in order to need redemption from us. He starts on a clean slate with the audience.

Let’s use Hiccup (top left of the picture) from How To Train Your Dragon as our first example. Hiccup is a viking that acts and looks very un-vikingish. He is scrawny and clumsy. He is never in the right place at the right time. Worst of all he is not good at killing dragons, the main activity for his viking village. Quickly the movie expresses how clumsy and out of place Hiccup is. In the first fifteen minutes of film we see Hiccup constantly get into the rest of the Vikings way, burn down half the village, get told by numerous people that he is not good enough, and fail to kill a dragon.

One key part of having Nobody characters work is seeing the movie from their point of view. Because we see from Hiccup’s point of view we can sympathize with him. We know Hiccup wasn’t trying to get in the other vikings way. We know that burning down the village was a total accident. And, we saw first hand the reason why Hiccup could not kill the dragon. This however does not change the fact that Hiccup is a outsider looking in when it comes to the world he lives in.

Hiccup would continue to be a misfit in the viking village if he just went on with regular life. The key is Hiccup did not go on with his regular life. Something happened that changed everything. Hiccup befriended a dragon. With a Nobody character we usually see someone who is neglected and lives a somewhat sad existence. Most likely the Nobody’s life would go on being sad if fate (or you as a good storyteller) didn’t bring in something that changed everything. With Hiccup it was running into the dragon Toothless and not being able to kill him. With Peter Parker (top right) it was being bitten by a radio active spider that gave him superpowers.

Peter Parker, just like Hiccup, is a perfect example of a Nobody protagonist. He is the ultimate geek who is denied by everyone at school, which includes his high school sweetheart Mary Jane. However, a bite by a radio active spider gives Peter Parker powers. These powers change everything. The second third of the picture is about Peter learning how to use his powers. Peter has never been considered a hero, the movie is about him learning to own the hero role. Because Peter started out as a Nobody, we the audience are able to relate with him in a very personal way. His journey is our journey. Unlike the Fallen Hero, we don’t see Peter Parker as a hero that has fallen and needs to get back up. Unlike the Diamond in the Rough we do not need to learn to like Peter, we already do. With the Nobody it is a journey rather then a expectation or a reexamination. We get personal with them through seeing a lot of our own problems and values in them.

Forrest Gump (bottom left) is a great example of a Nobody who is just a joy to watch grow. In no way is Forrest Gump supposed to be special. At the beginning we sort of see Forrest as a nice person who is slightly dim and out of place. However, throughout the movie we see Forrest succeed through one extraordinary twist of fate after another. Unlike most Nobodies, Forrest Gump does not seem to see himself as out of place, he doesn’t really feel the need to be part of the in crowd, this is unusual when it comes to any type of protagonist. However what is common with Forrest and other Nobody protagonists is the innocent view he has on life. We have no angle that we are seeing the world from. The Nobody does not know how it is to be on the inside like the Fallen Hero does. And the Nobody has not built up a inherent grudge with the rest of the world like the Diamond in the Rough has. Because of this we are allowed to see the world more clearly through the Nobody’s eyes. As with Forrest, he never tried to fit in, but with any Nobody protagonist after they stop trying to “fit in” they bring a view to the world that changes both the characters in the story and the audiences perspective on life. In essence the unique perspective the Nobody has on life is what makes him or her the hero.

Let’s take a look at our last example, Rocky Balboa (bottom right). Rocky can easily be considered one of the greatest Nobody’s in cinema. Rocky is a washed up boxer who is past his prime. He lives in a crummy one room apartment and works as a enforcer for a lone shark. He does not seem to be able to relate with anyone, especially the person he cares for the most in Adrian Pennino. However fate changes everything. He is picked to take a shot at fighting the Champion of the World in Apollo Creed. It is Rocky who we the audience falls in love with. However, Rocky doesn’t seem to love or even believe in himself. Like most Nobodies, Rocky is bogged down by society. He has begun to listen to what they have told him and think that he can’t be anyone special and is destined to live a sad and lonely life. This leads to the last key factor that you need to make a Nobody work.

Even though most of society denies the Nobody, there needs to be at least one person who learns to believe in the character. For Rocky it is Adrian and Rocky’s trainer Mickey Goldmill. Unlike for the Diamond in the Rough protagonist, you do not need these characters to be perfect. They just need to show belief in the Nobody and be an influence in their lives. For Peter Parker it was his uncle, for Hiccup it was his dragon Toothless, and for Forrest it was his mother. As soon as Rocky begins to believe in himself he becomes the hero we all end up looking up to. Rocky goes from the depths of being a Nobody to standing on his own with the champion of the world for fifteen rounds.

The Nobody character is usually the character that inspires me the most. I am able to relate with them very easily. I end up sharing the Nobody’s pains and joys all the way through the movie. I remember watching Rocky for the first time and rooting with all my might for him to keep fighting Apollo. For him to keep standing up round after round. The Nobody protagonist ends up standing up for us all. That is the true beauty of the Character. They end up being the savior of the very same people who denied them.