Monthly Archives: October 2015
In the twenties, Charlie Chaplin was sitting on top of the world. An international star and owner of his own studio, he had complete control over the films he made. Chaplin worked at his own pace, taking as much time as he needed to get things right. He might spend days on a single scene, and if later he decided it wasn’t right, he’d go back and shoot it all over again. If he felt like he needed a break in the middle of shooting, he’d shut the production down and go back to it when he was ready to resume. I can’t think of another commercial filmmaker who had the same freedom.
Chaplin started out making shorts in the teens. His early efforts were rough, but by 1920 he’d mastered the medium, and it’s important to understand what the medium was in those days. In the silent era, commercial filmmaking relied on characters that were easily recognizable stereotypes, and stories that were told in the clearest possible terms. Without dialogue to help define more complex characters and situations, filmmakers had to use a visual language that was simple and direct.
When Chaplin came on screen as the Tramp, audiences recognized the character immediately. He was the little guy, the ordinary fellow who didn’t want any trouble, and spent most of his time just trying to get by. Put him next to a burly roughneck or an elegant society woman and the situation was clear right away. Without a word being spoken, it was easy to see he was either dealing with an antagonist or an aristocrat, and audiences would naturally be rooting for Chaplin, the underdog. The plots were just as simple, setting up blunt contrasts between love and hate, kindness and cruelty, selfishness and self-sacrifice. They appealed to the audience’s most basic emotions, and at their best, the silent films of the studio era had a primal power that was irresistible.
City Lights is one of the prime examples of this kind of filmmaking. The story is real simple. The Tramp falls in love with the Blind Girl who sells flowers on the street. When he finds out she needs money, he (sort of) steals the cash to help her out, but ends up going to prison for the crime. You can’t get much more melodramatic than that, but Chaplin uses this soap opera storyline to create a film that’s funny, beautiful, and sometimes heartbreaking.
These days there are lots of people who complain that Chaplin’s work is too sentimental, and even in his own time there were critics who held that view. All I can say is, it works for me. If I thought that he wasn’t sincere, that he was just trying to manipulate the audience, then I’d be angry at this fraud who was tugging at my heartstrings. But I think Chaplin absolutely believed in the world he created on the screen. Not to say that he believed it was realistic, because he certainly knew that his movies relied heavily on artifice. The reality he was reaching for was an emotional one. Even if the situations were sheer fantasy, Chaplin tried to make the emotions ring true.
One of the reasons Chaplin was so good at putting us in touch with his characters’ feelings is that he understood the relationship between the performer and the camera. For his comic scenes, he spent endless hours shooting rehearsals so that he could fine tune every gesture, making it fit precisely within the frame. The sequence where we see him gazing at the statue in the store window is a classic example. The whole thing is shot from one angle, but it’s absolutely the right angle. Chaplin shot reel after reel of rehearsals, slowly working out a subtle choreography that can wring laughs out of the smallest gesture. In the scene where he meets the Flower Girl, played by Virginia Cherrill, it starts out sweetly charming, then there’s a sense of wistful longing, and suddenly we’re laughing at a slapstick gag. Chaplin accomplishes all this with the simplest set-ups, but he always makes sure that the camera is positioned to pick up everything the actors are doing. It’s not just the expressions on their faces, it’s the way they stand, the way they walk, the way they move their hands. The storyline may be pure melodrama, but scenes like this are a subtle, complex dance.
City Lights shows how completely Chaplin understood silent filmmaking, but he never figured out how to deal with sound. His art was built on the poetry of popular melodrama. The images were so simple you didn’t need words. When he finally started making films with dialogue, the words seemed like excess baggage, weighing everything down. He certainly has some interesting things to say in movies like The Great Dictator and Monsieur Verdoux, but in those later efforts it seems like he’s trying to explain himself, rather than trusting us to understand. In City Lights he doesn’t need to explain anything. We don’t have to hear what Chaplin is saying. We can feel it.
The animation of the studio era settled early on into a comfortable pattern. These short cartoons usually showed funny animals doing crazy things. While you might find a few examples of verbal humor, for the most part the comedy was intensely physical, with characters chasing each other, hitting each other, and sometimes blowing each other up. You really wouldn’t use the word “subtle” in talking about the cartoons of that time.
Until Chuck Jones came along. Jones started out in the early thirties on the bottom rung of the animation ladder, but by the end of the decade he’d become a director, working under Leon Schlesinger at Warners. His early efforts were uneven, with just a few hints of his personality showing through. It wasn’t until after WWII that he really hit his stride, but by 1950 he had created a style that was completely his own.
Every director who worked in the Warner Bros. animation department had their own take on the stock company of characters. Bugs Bunny imagined by Bob Clampett was not the same as Bugs Bunny imagined by Friz Freleng. But Bugs Bunny imagined by Chuck Jones was something else altogether. Instead of relying mostly on madcap slapstick, Jones imbued his work with subtle shadings you didn’t see in other cartoons. Daffy’s wild ranting would suddenly melt into a pathetic display of helpless incomprehension. Jones would take a moment between gags to show us Porky cock his eyebrow in a small gesture of weary disdain. In the split second before a bomb went off, we’d see the Coyote overwhelmed by total despair.
Jones reshaped the Warners stock company to create his own, very personal, fantasy world. His way of drawing the characters was distinct from the other directors at Warners. Instead of the crisp, sharp lines that previously defined Bugs, Porky and Daffy, Jones’ lines could be fragile, sinuous, twisted, eccentric. In the course of a seven minute short, Jones would take you from displays of raging hysteria to scenes that were oddly touching.
What’s Opera, Doc? is one of Jones most complete efforts. It’s certainly not the first time cartoons parodied the world of opera, but in Jones hands’ it’s not just a parody. Sure, he’s making fun of the mythic heroes and doomed romances, but with its vast landscapes and dramatic vistas, this short cartoon revels in the gorgeous excess of opera. Jones is in love with the very thing he’s satirizing.
In the first scene we see a warrior’s majestic shadow cast on the side of a towering cliff. Then the camera descends to show us that the shadow belongs to Elmer Fudd, decked out like Siegfried in Wagner’s Ring cycle. In this case, Elmer’s not out to destroy the evil dragon Fafnir, but to hunt down Bugs Bunny. The story is the same one we’ve seen in dozens of other shorts that feature these two characters. The comedy comes from seeing them play out the same routines against the extravagant backdrop of grand opera. Instead of hunting Bugs with a shotgun, Elmer now summons the destructive forces of the storm to hunt his prey. When Bugs goes into his familiar drag routine, this time he’s not just a sexy vixen, he’s Brünnhilde, lying on a divan in an elegant pavillion.
In animation, everything we see on the screen has to be created from scratch, and the best animation directors have always relied on teams of talented people who make this happen. On What’s Opera, Doc? Jones had top-notch crew, all of whom had worked with him for years. It’s worth mentioning them all by name. The story comes from long-time Jones associate Michael Maltese. The animation was the work of Ken Harris, Abe Levitow and Richard Thompson, with Maurice Noble doing the layouts and Philip DeGuard taking care of the backgrounds. Editing and sound are by Treg Brown. Milt Franklyn did an excellent job of condensing the music from Wagner’s massive Ring cycle into just about seven minutes. Elmer’s voice is by Arthur Q. Bryan, and of course, Bugs’ voice is provided by the incredible Mel Blanc.
What’s Opera, Doc? came toward the end of Jones’ tenure at Warners. The studios that had animation departments were shutting them down, and it wasn’t long before Jones and his crew were shown the door. It’s a shame, but it was inevitable. Over the course of three decades the animators at Warners created an incredible body of work, turning out some of the most imaginative cartoons you’ll ever see. But making those cartoons was becoming increasingly expensive, and after 1950 the studios were doing everything they could to cut costs. Jones went on to some excellent work on television, but the golden age of studio animation was over.
As Porky would say, “That’s all, folks.”
Can we ever understand our parents? Probably not. When we’re young they seem impossibly clueless and unfair. As we get older, as life starts beating us down the way it did them, we may start to empathize with them. We may begin to get some insight into why they were so angry and frustrated. But we can’t ever really understand what they went through because we can’t ever understand the times they lived through. Inevitably, their world is different from ours.
Still, we have to try to put ourselves in their shoes, if only to understand ourselves better. When we’re young, we see ourselves as the center of the universe and the setbacks we suffer seem horribly traumatic. When we get older, hopefully we start to realize that other people have suffered, too, and that when we put it all in perspective, the difficulties we’ve experienced often pale in comparison.
Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song is generally credited with starting the blaxploitation cycle that flourished in the seventies. Certainly it made Hollywood aware of the fact that there was money to be made off black audiences, but the film itself has little to do with the routine genre flicks that followed. Melvin Van Peebles made Sweetback because he wanted to create a hero for an audience that didn’t have any movie heroes. He was sick of having his community misrepresented, when it wasn’t being completely ignored, by Hollywood. And so he decided to make a movie that would inspire Blacks. The movie he came up with was cheap, raw, and ragged, but it was also lively, imaginative and burning with anger. Black audiences had never seen anything like it, and they flocked to the theatres where it played.
I’m a little skeptical of Mario Van Peebles’ claim that he initially didn’t want to play his father in Baadasssss!, the story of the making of Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song. To my mind, he’s the only one who could’ve played the part. There were probably other actors who could have done a fine job with the role, but no one else could’ve brought the same intense commitment to it. Maybe the idea scared him at first, but whatever his reservations, I’m glad he took the part. Seeing the son play the father sets up a resonance that vibrates throughout the movie. This isn’t just another film inspired by true events. This is Mario Van Peebles conjuring up the demons that possessed his father.
And his father was possessed by many demons. A smart, proud, angry man, he was determined to make Sweetback no matter what it cost him, and it cost him a lot. We’re not just talking about money, either. Melvin’s obsession with putting the story on the screen put a tremendous strain on his family, especially his son. In Baadasssss!, we see Mario being recruited by his father to play the young Sweetback, and how the boy’s initial enthusiasm turns to extreme discomfort. He wants to be a part of what’s going on, but he’s obviously freaked out when his dad asks him to play a pretty explicit love scene with an older woman. When Melvin makes Mario go through with it, it’s clear the boy is wounded. And the film’s strange reflexive quality makes the sequence especially poignant. This is Mario, playing Melvin, telling his own story within his father’s story.
But I don’t want to make Baadasssss! sound like some depressing psychodrama. It’s actually really entertaining. This improbable story of how an outsider with no money made a hugely successful independent film is totally engaging. The script, by Mario Van Peebles and Dennis Haggerty, is full of outrageous episodes, all of which are apparently based on the actual facts. The early scenes, where Melvin and his friend Bill are trying to raise the money they need, are very funny. We’re introduced to a huge cast of characters, and it’s a sign of Van Peebles’ skill as a director that he not only makes them all distinct individuals but he also shows us how the relationships between them develop. When the shooting begins, everybody’s excited and enthusiastic. By the time they wrap it up, they’re all completely fried, ground down by the grueling schedule and the overwhelming obstacles they’ve had to face. But the ones who stick it out have all grown from the experience. None of them will ever be the same after having taken this journey.
I think it’s a journey Mario Van Peebles had to take. Watching the movie, it’s clear that being the son of a rebellious iconoclast like Melvin Van Peebles could be really tough. But watching the movie it’s also clear that Mario has a growing awareness of the fact that his father’s intensity and anger were a reflection of the era. As a child, Mario must have thought at times that his dad was completely crazy. But then, he never could have made Sweetback if he’d been completely sane.