Picture of the Week #80: Raymond Waters’ Haute Couture

I’ve wanted to revive the popular Picture of the Week feature for a while, but needed a spur to do so. A couple of years ago, I featured a beautiful artwork by Raymond Waters, which featured a print of Charlie Chaplin‘s The Gold Rush arranged with fairy lights. So, when Waters drew my attention to his latest exhibits, I was only too happy to show them off here once more. The dress pictured above is from the Haute Couture series, and is made of strips of film from Chaplin’s Modern Times: a closer view will reveal more:

As well as such bona fide classics, Waters creates vivid coloured outfits using particular films, including John Carpenter’s Vampires, which is clearly better to wear than to watch:

Waters’ commitment to treating the film itself (a disappearing commodity in the digital age) as aesthetic content in itself, rather than the raw material for the more important projected image, offers a genuinely novel angle on film history. We already carry films, in the form of memories of films, around with us at all times: making films into clothing gives physical expression to that fact, just as it manifests the longstanding relationship between film and fashion.

[Read more about the work of Raymond Waters here.]

Fragment #5: Hart Crane’s Chaplinesque

We will make our meek adjustments,
Contented with such random consolations
As the wind deposits
In slithered and too ample pockets.

For we can still love the world, who find
A famished kitten on the step, and know
Recesses for it from the fury of the street,
Or warm torn elbow coverts.

We will sidestep, and to the final smirk
Dally the doom of that inevitable thumb
That slowly chafes its puckered index toward us,
Facing the dull squint with what innocence
And what surprise!

And yet these fine collapses are not lies
More than the pirouettes of any pliant cane;
Our obsequies are, in a way, no enterprise.
We can evade you, and all else but the heart:
What blame to us if the heart live on.

The game enforces smirks; but we have seen
The moon in lonely alleys make
A grail of laughter of an empty ash can,
And through all sound of gaiety and quest
Have heard a kitten in the wilderness.

Hart Crane, Chaplinesque (1921)

The self of Chaplinesque is a child of the random, whose great hunger and need as signified in his “too ample pockets” have only the wind for satisfaction. He would seem to be the repository of the wind’s savings, almost as if his slithered pockets were a bank teller’s window. His wealth consist in the ample emptiness of his tattered pockets, which are always opened to the world, ready to accept and receive in love what the world offers …

This play between the world and self, between the world’s initiative and the self’s reactive powers, is the essence of the poem. If the self is not strong enough to force its way, it can exploit, by its movement of adjustment, the world’s energy to find the “recesses” of the world. The world of this poem prepares within the self the place for its acceptance. But it also prepares within itself the space by which its negativity can be relieved or transfigured. If it prepares the “ample pockets” and the “elbow coverts,” it also provides the “step” upon which the kitten finds some respite from the “fury of the street.” It also has the “recesses” and the “lonely alleys” within which the self can evade the full brunt of the fury. The solutions to the conflict have to be magical, visionary, at least in part. The self has to find its solutions within its own weakness, And this feat the Chaplinesque self performs elegantly. In his passivity he is a child of grace. He must hold himself open to something beyond his will, such as it is, even if his will should be concerned with legitimate objects. If he “finds” a kitten or sees the moon “make / A grail of laughter of an empty ash can,” it is not because he has gone, like the modern Parzival, in quest of these insignificant or significant objects. His success lies in his vagabondage, in his ability to transcend any quest or even his own clownishness. He must be available to the wind, to its gratuitous and random consolations. The “game” of life, the clown’s transformation of the world into a field of play, “enforces smirks.” It demands the compromise, the partial expression, the repression of laughter in the “smirk” further distorted by its suggestion of inauthenticity. But this Chaplinesque self is open to the pure gratuity of a vision of liberation. Beyond his need, his humiliation, and his hunger, he finds a spiritual fulfillment. Beyond the “empty ash can”—a new version of the empty receptacle and, in this case, a double negativity, since it is empty even of the burned down remains of the world’s fury—there is the “grail of laughter,” a purely naturalistic or secular redemption of the human body, the smirks and puckerings of both the cop and the clown achieving the full liberation, their consummate expressivity, in this vision.

Richard Hutson, ‘Exile Guise: Irony and Hart Crane.’ Mosaic 2:4 (Summer 1969), 77-78.

More Old Posts…

I’m still away from the usual work routine (and embroiled in a different one), so Spectacular Attractions is still on a bit of a hiatus. To tide you over, because you clearly have nothing better to do (don’t argue – you’re here aren’t you?), I’ve prepared a few weeks’ worth of Picture of the Week (I hope youenjoy the galleries of delightful, garish posters I’ve handpicked for your entertainment) and another set of posts you may have missed from the early days of my blogging experiences. Sometimes, old pieces get buried in the ever-rolling blogosphere, but you can always browse the index if you get the chance to play catch-up.

Metaphors are Attacking Tokyo!: A short(ish) piece on the use of allegory in Ishiro Honda’s seminal monster movie, analysing the special effects and monster suits that seem to convey so much meaning to so many viewers and critics. Is it really just as simple as “Godzilla = Atomic Threat”?

Precious: The racial politics of Precious: Based on the Novel Push by Sapphire are calibrated to get a strong reaction from just about everybody, and for various reasons. Is it just button-pushing issue-of-week posturing, or a truly radical portrayal of race, class and America’s education system?

Vengeance is Mine: Propelled by the grim fascination of watching a ruthless serial killer going about his business, Shohei Imamura’s brutal drama is just as concerned with the legacy of pain and shame he leaves behind for his family to deal with, as demonstrated in this analysis of the film’s closing sequence.

Begone Dull Care: Norman McLaren Randomised: I’ve always enjoyed writing the “Randomised” series of posts, and some of them have been seen by thousands of visitors to the site. Others have gone largely unnoticed, such as this attempt to randomise the frenetic abstract stylings of Norman McLaren’s exhilarating jazz masterpiece.

Elephant: Alan Clarke’s violent series of dispassionate kills is one of the most pummelling, thrilling and extraordinary cinematic experiences you can have. All the violence, none of the context. Relentless, unforgettable.

Pantomiming Chaplin’s CIty Lights: A beauteous highpoint of 20th-century popular culture, City Lights is filled with marvellous physical dexterity, and this article analyses some of the mannerisms, gestures and slapstickery that help to pull off this amazing cinematic feat.

Ohayô / Good Morning: An Introduction to Yasujiro Ozu: If you’ve never seen a film by Yasujiro Ozu, you might need a bit of steering towards a few ideas that will make them easier to understand and cross-reference. This article was written as a digest of some thinking about some of Ozu’s films for some of my second-year students who were encountering him for the first time.

Twentynine Palms: Did I hate Bruno Dumont’s erotic, vicious, rapey road movie? Even after writing this piece about it, I wasn’t sure. Perhaps you can help me decide….

Picture of the Week #10: The Gold Rush

I was looking for a movie-related image that could adorn Spectacular Attractions tonight and mark the beginning of the New Year. The Gold Rush popped into my head immediately, and I couldn’t think of any more beyond that. Can’t top The Gold Rush. It is in Chaplin’s 1925 masterpiece that he celebrates New Year’s Eve alone, imagining himself to be entertaining a roomful of beautiful women, performing the ‘dance of the rolls’:
Read on…

Pantomiming Chaplin’s City Lights

citylights-posterYou probably don’t need me to tell you how fabulous Charlie Chaplin‘s City Lights is. Even those complaints that it’s a sickly, sentimental and simplistic piece of fluff fade away when you watch it again and realise how carefully he works towards the heart-aching conclusion, how skilfully he earns that sentiment before positioning himself as a tragically noble figure. (If you’re a truly hardened misanthrope with no interest in Chaplin, you might be better off here.) I’ve always been fascinated by the mechanics of certain kinds of performance, particularly the intricacies of the best kung fu films, or a well-worked slapstick routine, so I thought I’d have another look at some of the motifs that structure Chaplin’s physical action in City Lights. I’ll assume you’re not already an expert on Chaplin, and start somewhere simple…

vlcsnap-5465By 1931, when City Lights was ready for release, the rest of Hollywood had converted to talkies. The transition had been swift and dramatic in its implications. For a great collection of online articles on the early history of film sound, you can’t do much better than the collections at Filmsound.org or The American Widescreen Museum. The conversion of theatres and studios to sound recording and playback equipment had been near-universal; for the sake of synchronised sound and music, sacrifices were made in terms of camera movement (microphones and cables tethered the action on set, and noisy cameras had to be boxed in to stop them interfering with the sound recording), and until 1931, when three-way speaker arrays to spread the sound signals were introduced, the playback was murky and sometimes indistinct. Chaplin had honed the art of silent pantomime in his films, and there was massive anticipation about how this star, whose act was so perfectly matched to wordless gesture, would adapt to the changes. As David Robinson writes:

His Tramp character was universal. His mime was understood in every part of the world. But if the Tramp now began to speak in English, that world-wide audience would instantly shrink. Moreover there was the problem of how he should talk. Everyone, across the world, had formed his or her own fantasy of the Tramp’s voice. How could he now impose a single, monolingual voice?

As it turned out, Chaplin didn’t attempt to make the transition to talkies, preferring to keep his silent craft intact. He waves away the expectation with an opening title that introduces the film as “A comedy romance in pantomime”. Time‘s 1931 review of the film quoted Chaplin’s own slightly tangential explanation:

Chaplin does not reject the sound-device because he does not think his voice will register. His objection is that cinema is essentially a pantomimic art. Says he: “Action is more generally understood than words. Like the Chinese symbolism it will mean different things according to its scenic connotation. Listen to a description of some unfamiliar object—an African wart hog, for example. Then look at a picture of the animal and see how surprised you are.”

There are a few sounds in City Lights, but they are isolated, not part of a broad fabric of ambient diegetic sound. In the opening shots, local dignitaries address an assembled crowd for the unveiling of a new statue. The PA system transforms their voices into an indecipherable, tinny squawk (a joke later echoed at the beginning of Jacques Tati‘s Les Vacances de Monsieur Hulot), which one can’t help reading as a riposte to the fad for dialogue. These electrically mediated voices end up making everybody sound the same. And everybody sounds like Sweep.
vlcsnap-5788 vlcsnap-44155Other sounds are similarly troublesome. See for instance the lovely sequence where, drunk at a party, Chaplin swallows a whistle. A fit of hiccups makes him tweet involuntarily, dismaying a singer who is trying to perform, and attracting cabs and dogs when he rushes outside. It’s a beautifully worked joke, stretched just far enough to avoid becoming tiresome, and only partially reliant on the post-synched sound effect, which appropriately disrupts the musical soundtrack, stressing the sudden, stared-at embarrassment Charlie suffers. During the boxing scene, Charlie’s neck gets caught in the bell-rope. As he falls or struggles, the bell rings, and his opponent returns to or rushes out of his corner, probably salivating like a Pavlovian pup at the same time.

Elsewhere, Chaplin is again caught out by objects that behave like other objects, as when he eats party-streamers that have dropped in his spaghetti, or tries to take a spoonful from a man’s bald head mistaken for a party snack:
vlcsnap-22756 vlcsnap-43965These recurrent, repetitive types of action add up to a mode of performance that sees Chaplin’s body in constant tension between composure and error. His body is challenged at every turn by threats to his dignity. It all begins from a logical starting point: he begins the film asleep on a statue, an unwelcome pest on an image of static decorum. For much of the rest of the film, he will struggle to stay still or posed against the tide of unpredictable movements that characterise his experience of the city.
vlcsnap-5920Much of the comedy of Chaplin’s performance style derives from his attempts to maintain his dignity, as if to deny his derelict status. He tries to behave in a manner befitting his increasingly dishevelled suit (notice how the tipping of his hit becomes like a nervous tic), while all around him see through the disguise (e.g. the paper boys who taunt him, tearing fingers from his gloves or a patch from his trousers; the butler who repeatedly ejects him from the millionaire’s mansion). His careful, fussy comportment is messed up by a series of involuntary responses to things that startle, trip or baffle him, or which taste funny.
vlcsnap-16891 vlcsnap-21876 vlcsnap-14657This may be why Chaplin loves to play drunk. What else is drunkenness (relax – it’s a rhetorical question) but a battle with one’s motor skills to prove that one is not actually drunk at all? Chaplin tries to keep an upright posture when sozzled, resisting those slips-of-the-limbs that might give the game away; when driven to distraction by watching a floor full of frenetic dancers, he leaps automatically to his feet and twirls anyone in his path to within an inch of their life, his face staying grimly fixed as if his head is a motion-sick passenger on a runaway trunk.
vlcsnap-23374 vlcsnap-23429Arthur Rankin has a wonderful take on Chaplin’s performance in City Lights. Using Sigmund Freud’s theory that there were two types of joke, the tendentious and innocent, Rankin argues that Chaplin incorporates both modes of humour in order to make barbed social critiques, and then to make them palatable (or veiled) by developing his central character into an innocent, noble figure. Chaplin’s tramp avatar was lent some credibility through extratextual appeals to his early years of poverty in London, but there would always be an irony that the highest-paid, most famous film star in the world was still drawing upon the iconography of destitution in making his anti-authoritarian satires. City Lights sees him appealing for total audience sympathy: the tramp in this version is not only brought into conflict with the law when pushed into an unjust corner, and in a final bid to get enough money to pay for the blind flowergirl’s eye operation.

Cynthia Baron and Sharon Marie Carnicke’s analysis of City Lights is also well-worth seeking out. Building on Jan Mukarovský’s 1931 analysis, they stress the importance of gestures and “ostensive signs”, those which, as I understand it, show things as they are or seem to be:

The unique operation of ostensive signs becomes apparent when one considers something like the cane that belongs to Chaplin’s costume as the Tramp. The cane itself could be represented through iconic signs. However, a picture of the cane alone would convey little information about the Tramp, whereas a single image of Chaplin striking a pose with the cane could convey a particular attitude or mental state. For example, imagine a painting or photograph of Chaplin with his left palm resting on the top of his cane. However, if one then imagines a framed picture of this pose in a scene that features Chaplin moving into position to rest his hand on the cane, the existential difference between the two types of signs comes into view.

In this model of performance analysis, we have to consider how Chaplin moves into the poses that he strikes, the facial expressions that he produces for the spectator. Movement and gesture, actions carried out with hat or cane, rather than iconic or symbolic signs presented by the presence of those costume items, become the primary source of meanings and inferences emerging from a performance. Chaplin (or at least his character) produces a series of gestures and actions which can be understood as socially legible marks of  dignified etiquette:

The perceptible elements of Chaplin’s performance can be seen as a series of interferences or disparities between Chaplin’s facial expressions, gestures and poses. The disparities among these elements make the performance visually and intellectually intriguing. They have the potential to engage audience attention because they confound expectations established by daily life; Chaplin’s gesture of tipping his bowler in apology might be followed immediately by a twirl of his canethat indicates defiance. These moments of gestural contradiction display Chaplin’s skill as a performer and can imaginatively express meanings bound into familiar axioms, quips and witticisms.

Chaplin’s anti-authoritarian physical quips arise from a rapid-fire mixture of respectable gestures of conciliation (tipping the hat, a respectful nod here and there) with more subversive behaviours (sleeping on the statue, drunkenness), best evidenced by the scene where he checks out a nude statue while miming the pretence of appreciating the sculpture next to it. Therein lies the beautifully complex performance of a man embodying socially conventionally bodily postures while revealing the basic instincts behind the hypocrisies of polite, “proper” behaviour. To a certain extent, it’s a performance about performance.

It’s probably compulsory at this point to refer to Henri Bergson‘s oft-cited mantra that “the attitudes, gestures and movements of the human body are laughable in exact proportion as that body reminds us of a mere machine.” By this he might mean that a comic body is one that is forced into automatic responses which throw it out of spontaneity and into involuntary activity that pits the organic being against environmental factors that would transpose it into “a certain mechanical inelasticity, just where one would expect to find the wide-awake adaptability and living pliableness of a human being.” (You can read the full text of Bergson’s essay here.) This would become a key part of Chaplin’s schtick, especially in Modern Times, where the automatisation of his body as part of a factory machine would make him a site of a contest between modernity and humanity, without ever losing sight of its grounding in the comic.
If this battle for decorum is a familiar trait of the Little Tramp character across a number of films, in which he refuses to assume the slovenly posture expected from him by those in whose company he is not permitted to belong (his performance of “their” gestures is an affront to their demarcations of class and privilege), in City Lights it is a major plot point, as he has to keep up the persona for the blind flower girl who has mistaken him for a wealthy gentleman. Thus, the performance of a silent pantomime, one in which gesture trumps dialogue in establishing or confirming (mistaken) identities is made to make sense of Chaplin’s decision to keep his film quiet.


P.S. You should check out the BFI’s collection of documents about Chaplin, specifically the ones relating to City Lights; a really valuable resource, my only complaint being that some of the print on the scans of the press books is too small to read. I love the exhibitors’ guides, where cinemas are given tips on how to promote the film with a series of publicity stunts, mostly involving people dressing up as the Little Tramp: the character, with its instantly recognisable agglomeration of hat, cane, moustache and eyebrows is supremely marketable.
city_exhibitor7Also see the holdings of the Bill Douglas Centre at the University of Exeter. The online catalogue has many images of Chaplinalia, some of which you can see in this virtual exhibition compiled by one of the students.