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  • DAVID THORBURN: This lecture tonight is our last chance

  • to pay attention to this process I've been calling the Fred Ott

  • principal.

  • And forgive me for appearing slightly repetitious

  • about this.

  • But to me, it's an essential aspect

  • of our appreciation of these early weeks,

  • to recognize that films like The General, or Modern Times,

  • or the film we're going to see next week, The Last Laugh,

  • Murnau's remarkable silent film from Germany,

  • to recognize that these astonishing, complex narratives

  • grew out of something so primitive

  • and grew out of something so primitive in such a

  • relatively short time, is part of what

  • makes these early films so interesting.

  • And the viewing you're going to see tonight

  • is your last opportunity to, in a concrete way,

  • experience something of that process,

  • something of that evolution for yourself.

  • Because the two Chaplain shorts that you're

  • going to see, while they are, as I indicated this afternoon, not

  • from the earliest stages of Chaplin's work,

  • they're three or four years advanced beyond that.

  • He's already mastered his medium in certain ways.

  • And these shorts are, in themselves,

  • very coherent and interesting works.

  • And I hope you'll look at them for their own intrinsic value.

  • But I also want you to recognize,

  • as you think about those short films, remarkable as they are,

  • how much richer, how much more complex,

  • how much more demanding and rewarding in many ways

  • Modern Times is.

  • And I think the same thing could be said about all

  • of Chaplin's features.

  • There's an astonishing distance between even the best

  • shorts or between most of the best shorts and the features.

  • Some of the very best shorts have

  • a kind of elegance and purity, as well as

  • a level of comic inventiveness that

  • makes them in their own way almost

  • the equal of the features.

  • But, of course, even the best of them

  • don't have quite the reach or the resonance

  • of a film like Modern Times or The Gold Rush.

  • One way we can perhaps clarify some of what I've been saying,

  • and maybe also do a bit more justice

  • to poor Buster Keaton, who I think in many ways is

  • an equally remarkable artist and in a technical sense

  • an even more interesting director than Chaplain himself,

  • is to begin with a comparison of the two.

  • Not so much because the comparison will really

  • illuminate weaknesses in one or the other,

  • but the contrast between them I think

  • will help to clarify what are some

  • of the essential qualities in each of these director's

  • work in films.

  • And I hope that you'll sort of think back

  • to the Keaton material you saw last week as I'm

  • making these comparisons.

  • One way to think about the differences between Chaplin

  • and Keaton, and also to think about what

  • is essential about both of them, is

  • to talk about the way they deal with objects and the role

  • that objects have in their films.

  • In Keaton's case, we might say that the basic objects

  • of interest are usually massive and gigantic things,

  • whole houses, locomotives, as in The General,

  • an ocean liner as in The Navigator.

  • And Keaton was interested in intricate systems

  • and in the intricacy with which these systems operated.

  • And he liked to pose his Buster character

  • against these massive systems, to see whether Buster could

  • survive them and to show us certain aspects,

  • both of Buster's resourcefulness and power

  • to muddle through, but also his comic inadequacy

  • and comic failings as well.

  • And a number of the most dramatic and famous bits

  • from The General could be said to crystallize this principle.

  • Think of that magnificent joke.

  • It's more than a joke.

  • That cosmic joke, that vision of experience,

  • that existential mockery, but also

  • affectionate mockery of human nature, that's

  • embedded in the cannon sequence at the very beginning

  • of Keaton's most important film.

  • You remember how that works.

  • It's very funny at every level.

  • But as Keaton first fails to fire the cannon,

  • then the second time reloads the cannon

  • with 10 times as much powder, then

  • gets stuck in front of the cannon

  • and it looks as if he's going to be shot.

  • But every move in that sequence is

  • full of amusing comic business.

  • But think of how as the joke builds,

  • as it keeps topping itself, something else

  • begins to happen.

  • What begins to emerge, as I suggested last time,

  • is almost a kind of vision of life, a vision of life

  • in which human agency matters.

  • You do have to struggle and do what

  • you can to try to save yourself or accomplish your ends.

  • But then when your ends are accomplished,

  • even when things work out almost exactly as you had planned,

  • remember what happen.

  • The cannon does fire.

  • It doesn't shot at poor Buster, who runs away from it and hides

  • in the cowcatcher of the engine to avoid it.

  • But why doesn't it go?

  • Because at a certain moment, the train

  • just happens to go around the bend and geography and physics

  • collaborate with the Keaton character

  • in order to create a shot that actually does almost

  • hit the engine he's pursuing.

  • And it certainly persuades the people

  • he's pursuing that they are being

  • chased by more than one man.

  • And, in fact, remember when the cannon fires

  • and we see that the outcome that results is pretty

  • much the outcome that the Buster character intended,

  • there's a double comedy there, isn't there?

  • And it's a metaphysical or an existential comedy.

  • Because what that joke is saying is, of course, what

  • the whole film also says and what

  • many other individual crescendo jokes, we might call them,

  • also say in the film.

  • Which is that we get through in life by muddling through,

  • by working hard, by engaging in all kinds of sometimes almost

  • obsessive labor in order to accomplish our ends.

  • But in the end, when we do accomplish our ends,

  • it's not entirely because of us.

  • It's because of accident.

  • And when we don't accomplish our ends,

  • it's also because of accident often, as well as

  • because of our human frailty.

  • So there really is a kind of complex understanding

  • of the world implicit in the kinds of jokes

  • that Keaton manages to tell us, as if there's

  • a sort of understanding or interpretation

  • of life embedded in the best moments of The General.

  • And this kind of vision of experience

  • wouldn't really be possible if Keaton

  • was as interested in individual encounters with small objects

  • as Chaplain is.

  • Because the distinction between Keaton and Chaplain

  • in terms of the way they use objects

  • is that Chaplain is in love not with large, gigantic

  • structures, but with tiny ones.

  • He wants to see how Charlie manipulates his cane.

  • He wants to watch Charlie interact with a hamburger

  • or with a shoe that he is pretending is a turkey dinner,

  • in a fragment from a late film of his

  • that I'm going to show you I hope in a few moments.

  • So if objects in Keaton are massive and systemic

  • in a certain way, the objects that

  • are most characteristic of Chaplin's world

  • are small and manageable.

  • And the interactions between the Chaplain character

  • and these objects are often an occasion for the exploration

  • of character.

  • When the Tramp character encounters a particular object,

  • one of the things he is characteristically tempted

  • to do is to transform its use, is to make it useful

  • some other purpose.

  • As if in the contest between Charlie and the world,

  • Charlie has some transcendent power

  • to allow his optimism to transform

  • a recalcitrant reality, to make the reality kind of bend

  • to him.

  • And it becomes especially poignant,

  • as you'll see in the passage from The Gold Rush I'm going

  • to show you in a little while.

  • It becomes especially poignant when

  • we understand how minimal are the constellations that Charlie

  • finds.

  • When he transforms this shoe into a turkey dinner,

  • he's actually starving.

  • And although it may psychologically help him out,

  • we can see his resilience facing hunger and making

  • the shoe do for a meal.

  • So what is expressed there is something of the character's

  • imaginativeness, but also something

  • of his resilience and optimism.

  • Because when he encounters the world, his relation to it

  • is one of a magician or a transformer.

  • He's always trying to impose his imagination on the world.

  • And if you watch Chaplin's films--

  • this is true of his shorts as well as his longer films--

  • if you watch Chaplin's interactions with objects

  • closely, you will see a continual drama

  • in which the imaginative world of the Tramp

  • is in some sense in a kind of conflict,

  • or a kind of collision, or at least

  • a kind of angry conversation with the world in which

  • the objects of the world are, although they may resist,

  • are constantly under the pressure

  • of the transformative power of Charlie's optimism,

  • resilience, and imagination.

  • So it's small objects in Chaplain that matter.

  • And they declare for character, rather than

  • for some cosmic understanding of the world.

  • We can get at another fundamental difference

  • and some of the strengths and the alternate kinds

  • of strengths of both Keaton and Chaplin

  • by talking about the different protagonists or heroes that are

  • characteristic of their works.

  • In Chaplin's case, let's start with Chaplain,

  • we often have heroes who have grand visions, or schemes,

  • or hopes.

  • They tend to be chivalric characters.

  • So sometimes the project they take on is rescue the damsel,

  • protect the woman.

  • In the first feature-length film or nearly feature-length film

  • that Chaplin made-- it was a film called The Kid.

  • And it actually involves a child.

  • The kid of the title is a young boy, an urchin, very much

  • like the real Chaplain in his childhood in London.

  • And the Tramp character, who is himself starving,

  • encounters the kid and has to protect him.

  • So it's actually a story of maternal--

  • there's a maternal quality to Charlie in this.

  • He's much more like a mother than he's like a father.

  • But anyway, it's in a certain sense a kind of sentimental

  • parenting fable, in which we see starving, miserable,

  • down-at-the-heels Charley defending a person who's even

  • more vulnerable and even weaker, even less able to take care

  • of himself than Charlie is.

  • And although it is a deeply sentimental film in many ways,

  • it also was a film that provides another occasion in which we

  • can see the Tramp character's imaginativenes operating.

  • Because as I suggested this afternoon,

  • one way you can also see it operating in chase sequences

  • because he makes such amazing split second decisions

  • about how to elude his pursuers.

  • And often those decisions reveal his intelligence

  • and his improvisatory quickness.

  • So almost everything that happens in a Chaplain film

  • returns in some sense to our sense of the Tramp's character.

  • And we feel that especially strongly I think in The Kid

  • because one of the things that happen--

  • I think The Kid is 1921.

  • And one of the things that happens in The Kid

  • is that we see Charlie exceeding himself