Friday, December 07, 2007

Chaplin at the Castro

This past Tuesday night I saw 2 programs of Charlie Chaplin films at the Castro. To me, The Kid is Chaplin's first masterpiece. It's a marvel how much emotion he packs into this short film. There's an incredible cinematic moment where The Mother, on her charity rounds, sits on a stoop, cradling a baby. It's clear that she is thinking of the baby that she abandoned at the beginning of the story. Then the door opens behind her & Jackie Coogan appears & then sits down at the opposite side of the screen. At first neither character sees the other, yet each of them is the other's dream. It's a moment rooted in a physical reality, yet it also expresses each character's deep psychological desires. It's such a beautiful moment that it almost always chokes me up. One of the few movie scenes I prefer to watch alone!

I don't think I'd ever seen The Pilgram before. It was surprising that Chaplin does not appear in his Little Tramp guise through most of the movie. Lots of great stuff in this one. The church service must be a classic set piece, as well as the tea party with the incredibly obnoxious child. I recently saw the famous clip of W.C. Fields kicking a little kid, but I had no idea that Chaplin did this gag first! The ending was another terrific surprise, with Chaplin walking off into the distance while straddling the U.S./Mexico border. Politically, times haven't changed.

The final film of the evening was The Gold Rush. Again I was impressed but how many places this movie goes emotionally. It mixes the old-fashion histrionics of the Big Jim character with the realistic & somewhat cynical portrait of Georgia's flirtatious relationship with Jack. The treatment of the Little Tramp by the dance hall girls is just plain cruel. There's a fantastic cinematic moment when Chaplin first appears at the dance hall. He stands in the foreground, with his back to us, while the middle ground & the background are filled with light that shines on dancing, happy people. Visually the scene is beautiful, yet the Little Tramp's isolation is poignant by contrast. & this little scene is capped with the gag of the pretty girl walking warmly towards him, but only to get to her boyfriend behind him.

I'm a big Chaplin fan, so I was very excited to see this show & very disappointed at the sparse turn-out & the very low-key reaction of the audience. Perhaps Chaplin's brand of humanism isn't in sync with our times right now.

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