Wednesday, April 15, 2009

(Transatlantic) travels with Charlie

In which we see the Tramp get dated

The Felix Chronicles, # 17

The Immigrant (1917), a short film starring Charlie Chaplin as the Tramp, has just ended. I eject the DVD and turn on the lights. "So what did you think?" I ask the room of squinting students.

"Oh it was great," Alec says.

"Well, what did you like about it?"

Mark jumps in. "I loved the bit about the fish," he says. "When you first see Charlie Chaplin on the boat coming to America, it looks like he's retching, which is funny enough. And then you see him come in with that fish. Which then proceeds to almost bite the other immigrant's nose off."

"I liked the way he ran circles around that waiter," Joey says. "Great slapstick."

"That's the thing, though," Kim says, more reflectively than Joey, Mark, or Alec."It was all so carefully put together. It was like when the boat was rocking -- or
looked like it was rocking. That was really him looking tippy, wasn't it?"

"That's right. He created the illusion of rocking through his movement. Chaplin didn't so much act as he did choreograph his humor. Actually, he did it all -- writing, performing, editing, the whole nine yards. It was really all very complicated."

"He would shoot tons of footage," Sam says. He's a film buff who did his research essay on John Ford westerns. "I'd never seen this one. I love
Modern Times."

"Well that came a good deal later," I say. "But you're right about his perfectionism. But even by this point, Chaplin had enough clout in the movie business to do things his own way."

"That's the thing," Kim says. "We talked yesterday about how early movies were just a few minutes long, and were like these little novelties. You know, the rushing train, that kind of thing. But he's really telling a story here. I mean there's the whole immigration thing. Plus it's a love story of the kind we see all the time now."

"Yeah, well, as love stories go, it's not exactly
Titanic," Susan observes.

"It can't be," Kim replies. "It's a silent movie. Still, he manages to get the idea across."

"Actually, you make an important point, Kim. You're right that a lot of early movies were sensational -- it was, in effect, the special effects that brought people to them. But the real novelty here is that Chaplin is depicting the kind of experience that a lot of people actually had lived. You know how it is, you're watching a movie and you suddenly say to yourself 'Look! There's Union Square Park!
I've been there!' Or 'I love that hotel!'" I see a clutch of nodding heads. "But can you imagine what it must have been like for these immigrants to see their experience represented up there on a screen? The very ordinariness of it must have been thrilling. Even the cliched plot."

"I like the way that Chaplin kinda symbolizes the little guy," Tom observes.

"Absolutely. You know, there's one other thing I realized from watching this movie again," I say. "Remember yesterday when I noted that film is great for immigrants because it's silent? I backtracked a bit because Sam pointed out that there were title cards, as we saw today. But it occurred to me as we did that going to the movies might well have been a way for some immigrants to begin to learn English. They might see a word or phrase on the screen, followed by an image and say "Aha! So that
pesce he's holding is called the 'fish.'"

I'm about to go on when I see that Ellen has a sour look on her face. "What is it, Ellen? You don't like fish?"

"No, I love fish," she says. "I'm sorry, but I just don't get it. I found this movie
incredibly boring."

"Can you tell me why?"

"Well it was all so predictable. I mean, the love story was so lame. And the humor just didn't seem that funny to me. It's like he made every gesture a few times."

"That's because he had to!" Sam says. "Don't you see? It was part of the rhythm of the film!"

understand that," Ellen replies, condescending to Sam's condescension. "I just didn't find it that funny, that's all. It was so slow."

Susan comes to her aid. "I have to agree with Ellen," she says. "I mean, I understand this is great art for its time, that it's an important piece of history and all that, but that doesn't mean I love to watch it."

"It's like beer," Alec says. Tastes bad the first time you try it, but then you get the hang of it." Lots of laughter at that.

"Alec's got a point," I say, pausing, with some ongoing chuckles at the suggestion I'm endorsing his point about alcohol consumption. "But so do Ellen and Susan. Nobody
has to love Charlie Chaplin. And while lots and lots of people did in 1917, that doesn't mean everybody did back then, either. Joey called it slapstick, which is basically right, though I think of Chaplin as far more balletic than, say, Jim Carrey" (some smiles at the thought)."I love slapstick. My wife hates it. I suspect it might be a boy thing to some degree -- there's always an undercurrent of violence in seeing someone get whacked with a 2 X 4."

"Exactly," Susan says.

"But I also want to point out that Susan and Ellen's reaction is itself a kind of historical artifact. I think of it as a kind of post-MTV thing." I see a couple quizzical looks. "I can remember a time when sound bites on the evening news would run on for like thirty whole seconds," I say. "That's an eternity now. It's all snippets. Ever since the eighties, the whole
Miami Vice thing" -- I realize these kids have no idea what I'm talking about. "Anyway, we have a different sensibility about these things."

"Well, I still loved it," Alec says. "People always talk about Charlie Chaplin. Now I see why."

"The man was a genius," Sam agrees.

"Well, it is a remarkable thing when a work of art from a hundred years ago still has the power to move some of the people some of the time," I aver. "Kind of miraculous, really. Whether we like it or not, so much of what we do is ephemeral, so when something really seems to both embody and transcend a moment, it is kind of special."

"What does 'ephemeral' mean?" Lisa asks.

"Temporary," I say, looking at the clock. "Like high school."