Books From the Slush Pile: ‘Charlie Chaplin, Director’

Review Copies

The reject pile! Aspiring authors, avert thine eyes!


This is a sample of review copies that are cast aside in bins to be rummaged through by the staff. Usually they are contemporary genre fiction (“50 Shades of Stealing Maps for the OSS/CIA/NSA/FBI Written by Tom Clancy From Beyond the Grave”), self-help books (“Lose Those Stubborn Last 50 Pounds While Raising Young Einsteins in Five Days!”) and scholarly works (“The Socio-Cultural Effect of the Introduction of the Crimped Bottle Cap in the Belgian Congo.”)

But occasionally there are books that seem somewhat interesting. At least interesting enough to lug back to the Daily Mirror HQ. Because it’s sad to see them junked by the cartload.

charlie_chaplin_director

Here’s today’s entry, a new book from the Northwestern University Press on Charlie Chaplin.

The back jacket tells us that author Donna Kornhaber “is an assistant professor in the department of English at the University of Texas at Austin.”

To which we wondered: “Hm. Why is an English professor writing about film?”

But let’s move on and take a look.

After plowing (there is no other suitable term) through the first few pages of the introduction, it’s clear that this is a densely written exercise in academic writing that is going to be very slow going for the average film enthusiast.

By don’t take my word for it. Here are Pages 26-27, chosen somewhat at random:

It is tempting to think that Chaplin simply carried with him a theater artist’s mindset from his recent days in the British music hall, where action must al­ways conform to the limitations of an unchanging proscenium, viewed and viewable along only a fixed axis. Chaplin’s compositional decisions in creating Twenty Minutes of Love seem especially to suffer from a theatrical handicap. The film largely adheres to the tradition of shot-scene correspondence that marked many of the earliest narrative films. Chaplin essentially refuses to cut within a scene. The camera remains unmoved during each of the comic bits-the encounter with each pair of lovers, the stealing of the watch-waiting for the action to transpire before cutting to the next comic moment, again filmed in whole. It is typical to say of these early shorts that Chaplin is “just filming the action,” but what is perhaps more accurate is that he is just filming the Space.’ Chaplin does in fact prove willing to interrupt the action of a given scene. In the film’s opening bit, the Tramp encounters a pair of overeager lovers on a bench and mimics their passion by swooning over a tree. The action of the scene is all of a piece, but Chaplin readily cuts between the lovers on the bench and the Tramp next to the tree because the spaces can be held distinct. Though they are presumably near each other, the lovers are not aware of the Tramp’s mockery; he can be construed to be standing at a remove, in a separate space. Yet as soon as the Tramp invades the lovers’ space and attempts to take a seat on their park bench, the camera remains unmoving for the duration of their extended fight. Chaplin’s film is organized around its spaces.

Or, put another way, the film is organized to privilege spatial unity over the narrative. In one of the key plot points of the film, Chaplin’s Tramp surrepti­tiously steals a watch from a pickpocket who is gloating to himself at his new acquisition. The logic of the sequence demands that the pickpocket remain unaware of Chaplin’s presence, like the earlier lovers on the bench, but also that the two figures stand next to each other and occupy the same screen space. Chaplin proved perfectly willing to cut between the Tramp and the lovers on the bench so long as their spaces could be held distinct, but he will not cut between the pickpocket and the Tramp. If ever there was a moment in the short to cut between two figures in the same space it is here, providing a much-­needed emphasis on the pickpocket’s obliviousness to the Tramp’s presence, as Chaplin did in the film’s opening sequence between the bench and the tree. But Chaplin films the bit in one continuous take, the pickpocket and Chaplin on opposite sides of a tree. The logic of spatial coherence insists that the scene be unbroken and the space of the action not be segmented, regardless of what the narrative demands. A similar approach is employed in the short’s climactic chase, when the Tramp must try to evade just about every character he has met during the short. Chaplin breaks up the action but he will not break up the space. Each shot is tied to a particular location in the park-next to the lake, away from the lake, on a path; he cuts back and forth between them but never breaks up the action within them. As in many of the earliest “chase films” that dominated the cinema some years before, Chaplin privileges the coherence of the spaces that make up the chase above the generalized action of the chase itself.

Throughout the film, then, an uncompromising logic of spatial coherence predominates: once a radius of space is defined by the frame, it cannot be fur­ther subdivided. Action is broken, segmented, and divided into parts, as wit­nessed in the chase or in the cutting between the lovers and Chaplin’s mockery of them. Time is even broken in the film. Although it is titled Twenty Minutes of Love, the short lasts only about ten minutes, and there are several instances of intercutting that complicate our sense of elapsed time, as when one of the lovers searches for his lost watch while Chaplin tries to use it to woo his par­amour in what may be construed as an instance of simultaneity. But space remains the indivisible unit of the short, unable to be compressed or rear­ranged once it is established. The limitations that Chaplin places on the actors’ movements can be seen as a reaction to this basic fact. Unwilling to subdivide space for narrative emphasis, Chaplin pushes all the action to the front, where it cannot be lost. He would rather mask the actual dimensions of his space and play each bit in only one plane than allow our perspective on that space to be altered or redirected by a cut. Chaplin conforms his diegesis to a perfect uniformity and coherence of space within a scene, even to the point of robbing that space of its natural depth.

Twenty Minutes of Love is journeyman work, filmed in a single afternoon hardly two months after Chaplin had made the switch from acting onstage to acting in film. But it was also a proving ground. According to later accounts, Chaplin had quickly grown tired of acting under other filmmakers’ direction; Only months after starting his job at Keystone he is said to have put his entire life’s savings-fifteen hundred dollars-on the table to guarantee Mack Sennett, Keystone’s founder and studio head, that he could direct a film that would be worthy of release if Sennett would only give him the chance. If it is far from a major work in the Chaplin canon, Twenty Minutes of Love was certainly pivotal in Chaplin’s career. So it is perhaps all the more remarkable that the film is so out of step with many of the filmmaking trends of the time. The problem of how to deal with the often competing demands of space and narrative was, in effect, already “solved” by 1914, worked and reworked by a number of film­makers during the rapid transformation of cinematic form between approxi­mately 1907 and 1913, when techniques of analytical editing like crosscutting, cut-ins, eye-line matches, and shot/reverse-shot sequencing, as well as tech-

I could go on, but I think you get the idea. I’ll pass on this one.

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About lmharnisch

I work at the Los Angeles Times
This entry was posted in Books and Authors, Film, Hollywood and tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

6 Responses to Books From the Slush Pile: ‘Charlie Chaplin, Director’

  1. Eve says:

    One thing I miss about working for women’s mags is the swag table. I used to get review copies of books months before they were released . . . clothes the designers “forgot” to retrieve . . . I have a fabulous $3,000 coat and some Charles Jourdan pumps that were laying around on the swag table.

  2. Benito says:

    Turgid prose alert! I bet she proceeds to compare Chaplin’s editing techniques to Eisenstein’s. They always do.

  3. I just the other day saw this book on display in the window of a bookstore near UC Berkeley, so someone thinks it’s worth selling. Maybe the ideas have merit, if the reader can get through the grad-school jargon to uncover them.

  4. Joe Vogel says:

    English professors write about movies for the same reason they write about theater: movies are drama and drama is a branch of literature. Almost thirty years ago at Pasadena City College I took an English class called Film as Dramatic Literature. That was also the title of an essay by Richard M. Gollin, published in the professional journal College English in 1969. I don’t know if professor Gollin was the founder of the field or not, but he was probably among its pioneers. In any case, movies have been part of the college English curriculum for decades now— so long, in fact, that English professors are clearly having to dig into the most picayune details to find anything to say that hasn’t been said before. Publish or perish is a curse on academia.

  5. Eve says:

    One of the reasons I hate self-publishing . . . Every schlemiel with a laptop can hit “send” and call herself a “published author,” with no editorial oversight or actual acquisitions person to say, “no, you do NOT have a book in you.”

  6. Dan says:

    Perhaps the corrected proof is an improvement?
    Ms. Kornhaber states that the film in question was shot in an afternoon (probably the last time Chaplin achieved such a feat). Seems like it didn’t leave him much time to split shots, cut to close-ups, or much of anything else except shoot the thing…
    Merits of arguments notwithstanding,, I’m grateful to you Larry, for your cogent review. Printing a couple of pages does tell us all we need to know, and more.

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