I had been feeling rather pleased with myself.
I had worked out that I’d performed thousands of live shows to over half a million people; I felt that I had a developed a high level of understanding of the process of clowning and visual comedy; and I had just finished making four short slapstick films, which I thought were “not too shabby” for a first attempt.
Then I watched a Chaplin short called “Behind the Screen”.
Suddenly I didn’t feel so special any more!
Well, it turns out that in his book Outliers, Malcolm Gladwell is right – there is a difference between capable and extraordinary!
I had come across the title reading Bryony Dixon’s essay on slapstick, “The Good Thieves”. I was delighted when I found the whole film on youtube.
Delighted… and distraught.
It turned out, my self-conceived “expertise” was nothing more than a knowledge of the absolute basics of a craft which Chaplin had taken to extraordinary heights.
Unlike my youthful introduction to Laurel and Hardy, I had never seen a Chaplin until about five years ago. Prior to that, I had the impression that Chaplin films were at best interesting curios of a bygone era and at worst saccharine and dated. But I was completely wrong.
In “Behind the Screen”, Chaplin displays an extraordinary level of physical ability, performance skill and, above all, visual creativity.
Most striking to a fledgling film maker like myself is Chaplin’s variety of visual jokes and varied visual construction:
- the angles at which he manoeuvres (and his great use of depth)
- his general movement – walking, behing lifted up
- the creation of images eg the human hedgehog made from chairs stacked on his back
- the close up character work (eg his onions reactions)
- the chaos – the huge pillar, the trap door
And then , on top of all this, is my favourite feature of Chaplin films: the consistency of “other worldliness”. The Chaplin character stands out above his contemporaries because it embodies an animal, non- human character. This allows him to behave in odd ways without having to adhere to naturalism – which, for other slapstick performers, can hinder their antics. This idea is played out in modern cartoons – invariably animated characters are non-human, allowing the creators to play around with ideas that are not restricted by human reality. Chaplin’s tramp, although “humanoid” is more like a cartoon. And our emotional reaction to this sort of protagonist is subtly different. (See my blog “Animal Magnestism”) Traditional circus clowns represent a similar detachment from “natural humanness”. And the lack of verbal language is justified by this choice.
Even when his peers moved on from the cartoon-ish behaviour of early slapstick towards more naturalistic characters, Chaplin made the decision to remain animal-like – and his impish innocence, strange costume and make up remain valid choices beyond the end of the limitations of early film technology.
Perhaps this is why, above all else, Chaplin’s films hold up under contemporary scrutiny: they are in world of their own.
Have a look at some of my own slapstick attempts here!