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Posted by on Dec 30, 2014

Book Review: Charlie Chaplin by Peter Ackroyd

81tBVvyFo2L._SL1500_.jpgHalfway through A Brief Life: Charlie Chaplin, author Peter Ackroyd quotes British writer Thomas Burke, whom Chaplin met during his first homecoming to London since he had achieved fame in the United States:
“‘…he is first and last an actor. He lives only in a role, and without it he is lost. As he cannot find the inner Chaplin, there is nothing for him, at grievous moments, to retire into.'” Ackroyd then adds him own comment: “Millions of words have been written on Chaplin, but perhaps none as pertinent as these.”
Burke’s comment becomes the theme, or the hypothesis, that Ackroyd sets out to prove. “A Brief Life: Charlie Chaplin” is an engaging, concise and unsentimental look at the life of the silent film star and innovator of cinema. The narrative follows Charlie Chaplin from his impoverished youth in London slums, through his rise to “the famous man in the world,” his decline in popular esteem and eventual exile in Switzerland, and, finally, his eventual return to the United States and his honorary Oscar.
When addressing Chaplin’s personal life, Ackroyd highlights the turmoil and the often cruel nature of Chaplin’s character. He utilizes accounts from Chaplin’s friends, acquaintances, ex-wives and lovers to paint a portrait of a self-absorbed, verbally-abusive, often paranoid man. When discussing his professional life, Ackroyd emphasizes Chaplin’s stubborn and totalitarian approach to directing. When a continuity team tells Chaplin that an electrician accidentally entered a frame, he assures them that viewers will only be focused on him and not notice the blunder. Ackroyd quotes Marlon Brando, who wrote of his experience filming A Countess from Hong Kong with Chaplin: “Chaplin was a fearsomely cruel man…probably the most sadistic man I’d ever met.” And this is Marlon Brando saying that.
Ackroyd, however, always ties events in Chaplin’s personal life to his work. His poor upbringing in London, for example, would influence some of his most iconic films, including The Kid; later in life, his exile from America would inspire his box-office flop a A King in New York. Chaplin, as Thomas Burke alluded to, was only comfortable when he was working, and Ackroyd’s assessment is that it was precisely Chaplin’s flaws as a person that made him the genius that he was. The very fact that Chaplin was “flawed and frail and funny” is what informed his art and why people, world-wide, embraced him.

Recommendation: A good read, especially for fans of silent film and Chaplin. For those who are fans of Chaplin the man, the self-professed “peace-monger,” Ackroyd’s book is a refreshing look at the dark side of his genius.

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Posted by on Dec 26, 2014

Bob Clark’s A Christmas Story

As its titled would imply, A Christmas Story is generally considered a holiday movie. And I admit, I usually only watch it during the Yuletide season. But really, it’s a film about childhood; Christmas is just the timeframe that screenwriters Jean Shephard, Bob Clark, and Leigh Brown impose on the story to serve as an anchor, a period for which to confine a series of incidents that depict just how a young boy sees the world. Few works have been able to capture the perspective of a young boy as masterfully as A Christmas Story does (as I write this, only Boyhood, The 400 Blows, and the short-lived TV-series Freaks and Geeks come to mind).

Adults have the benefit of hindsight; we can realize how truly trivial so many of our worries as children were. But even for those who had the most carefree childhood, it never seemed carefree at the time. And you couldn’t convince a child of that. They have to learn it. Getting in trouble at school was scary. Breaking a jar in your house and having to confess to your parents. That was scary.

The protagonist of A Christmas Story is Ralphie, a nine-year-old boy growing up in Indiana in the late 1930s/early 1940s. For Christmas, all he wants is a Red Ryder BB Gun. Some of Ralphie’s biggest worries were getting in trouble at school for his part in daring a friend to lick a frozen pole, getting punished for swearing in front of his parents, and facing his mother and father after breaking his glasses. Looking back, these incidents aren’t terrible sins. But that’s looking back. Where A Christmas Story succeeds in capturing a child’s perspective is with its non-judgmental narration, provided by Jean Shephard, whose life the stories are based on. The narrator, an adult Ralphie, doesn’t trivialize the woes of his younger self, but, rather, sympathizes with him, recognizing that, at that time, these things were a big deal. The narrator further aligns himself with young Ralphie by going back and forth between speaking in the past and present tense. At one point, he says, “What happened next would become a family controversy for years,” thus, speaking from the perspective of the future. But, in other moments, adult Ralphie turns into nine-year-old Ralphie, yelling at the radio announcer to hurry up with a commercial. The narration, then, becomes confusing: Is it adult-Ralphie reflecting on his past? Or an interior monologue of a very precocious nine-year-old with a high level of vocabulary?

Even though we were all children at one point, we often forget just how wild our imaginations were. In several instances, A Christmas Story delves into Ralphie’s fantasies and daydreams. I have to admit that part of what makes me identify so much with Ralphie, and therefore the film, is that his fantasies were so similar to mine. When given an assignment to write a theme, “What I Want for Christmas”, Ralphie describes the Red Ryder BB Gun so elegantly that he believes his teacher will give him an A+++++ and lavish him with praise in front of his whole class. In reality, Ralphie receives a C+ and a note: “You’ll shoot your eye out!” (A chorus echoed by his mother and a department store Santa Claus.) I can empathize. In 4th grade, our history teacher had us write an assignment on the Lenni Lenape, a Native American tribe from modern-day Pennsylvania, New Jersey, and Delaware. I submitted mine in the form of a book, with text and an accompanying illustration on each page. I genuinely thought it was professional, and expected my teacher to call me up after class to say she was going to submit it for publication. In the end, I think I received something like 9/10. A good grade, but hardly a book offer.

In another scene in A Christmas Story, Ralphie imagines what he’ll do with his BB Gun: protect his family from black and white clad home intruders. It’s not very far off from a fantasy I had as a 10-year old: I had seen the movie Goldeneye and I imagined Bond-like villains invading my school while I was in the bathroom. I had it all figured out: I would hide in the stall, and when one of the henchman came to inspect the bathroom, I would kick the stall door into his face, knocking him out. I would disarm him and (in a scenario very similar to the plot of Die Hard) I would be in possession of one of the bad guys’ weapons and single-handedly protect the school. An unlikely result, but just as unlikely as Ralphie protecting his family with a BB Gun. We believed those fantasies. We had hope that they would become a reality. We all had innocent, uncynical dreams like those. Many films like to focus on the coming-of-age story, but A Christmas Story rests idly in that area before adolescence, when these fantasies could thrive. It doesn’t deal with loss of innocence; instead, A Christmas Story preserves and celebrates it.

I love films about childhood. Other than the movies I mentioned above, Stand by Me, Radio Days, and the Sandlot are favorites, but these are told from the perspective of an adult looking back on their youth. Amarcord, another favorite, weaves memory and reality, from Fellini’s adult perspective. Do you have any suggestions for other films that truly capture what it feels like to be a child, in the way that A Christmas Story does? I realize that all the films I mentioned here are about boys (I am a male, after all). How about movies from a young girl’s point of view?

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Posted by on Dec 23, 2014

Madrid’s National Cinema: the Cine Doré

Even though it seems like only yesterday, it’s been over 2 and half years since I lived in Madrid. One of my favorite things about that city was how much there was to do. The Museo del Prado, the national art museum, had a two-hour window every afternoon when admittance was free. I got out of work early Thursday, and I made it a weekly activity to go to the Prado for an hour, until I saw every piece of art in that museum. Why not? It was free. Every day, the free subway newspaper Viente Minutos listed some of the week’s cultural activities, including free art exhibits at one of the cities various fundaciones. The city has so many free or inexpensive cultural activities to offer, it was easy to live there on a shoe-string budget.
My favorite place in Madrid was the home of the Spain’s national film archive: the Cine Doré, a renovated-theater originally completed in 1923. While admission wasn’t free, tickets only cost only 2.5 euros, or 2 for students.
I first learned about the Cine Doré in Viente minutos. Fritz Lang’s silent classic Metropolis was screening that very night. Plans canceled, schedule cleared. Metropolis was the first silent film I had seen in a theater, and I knew its grand-scale necessitated a big screen. I took the metro to the Antón Martín stop and walked to the theater, arriving with about 20 minutes to spare. Anyone who knows me knows I hate being late for movies. Turns out I was terribly late; I misjudged Spaniards’ passion for cinema. There was a line around the block! Literally. Everyone in line to see Metropolis. I didn’t get in, but I wasn’t upset. It was encouraging to know that a silent film could sell out a theater in 2012.
The Cine Doré quickly became my second home in Madrid. Their monthly programming usually offers retrospectives on several directors’ careers, a spotlight on a Spanish filmmaker, a survey of a foreign country’s most iconic movies, and a selection of family-friendly films. (As I write this right now, I’m frustrated that I am not in Madrid: January 2015’s programming including a selection of Billy Wilder’s films!). The Cine Doré is where I first became exposed to the work of the Dardenne Brothers and had the opportunity to hear them speak on their then-latest film, The Boy with the Bike. It’s where I tried to engage in a debate with Swiss documentarian Richard Dindo about what I felt was irresponsible filmmaking in his documentary Marsdreamers. (He didn’t seem to want to hear my opinion.) It’s where I saw the Marx Brothers’ Duck Soup, dubbed in Spanish, in a theater packed with adults and children alike. It was inspiring to hear the roars of laughter from the audience.
The Cine Doré’s beautiful interior and atmosphere is a delight for cinephiles. The main hall is equipped with a bar and cafe, a book store, and grand staircase that leads to the upstairs balcony seats, and it’s all illuminated by a bright skylight. When you walked through the foyer, you got the impression that the sweater-wearing intellectuals sipping coffee and engaging in typical Spanish conversation (i.e. everyone talking at the same time) were Spain’s most preeminent film critics. After all, Madrid is the nation’s capital and this was the National Cinema.
I always favor seeing a movie in a theater as opposed to at home, and the Cine Dore made this practice affordable, thanks, in large part, to the Spanish Ministry of Culture, who invests in an institution like this. For anyone living considering living in Madrid, or for any film-lovers just passing through, the Cine Doré is a great way to spend a few hours. As I make the move to New York City from Denver, I’d love any recommendations from readers for free or inexpensive film screenings.

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