Wednesday, April 29, 2015

Long Enough To Be Anything Else

Norman Lloyd gave away the end of LIMELIGHT and I didn’t care. Not that I should care, since when you’re Norman Lloyd you can pretty much do anything you want. Plus if, like me, you’ve waited this long to see LIMELIGHT then any risks you take are on you. Besides, a film is more than how it ends, at least that’s how it should be. This event happened partway through the second day of the 2015 TCM Classic Film Festival which by that point was already a whirlwind and there I was, about to see Charlie Chaplin’s LIMELIGHT for the very first time, preceded by a discussion featuring the legendary Norman Lloyd who appears in the film. One story he told required revealing how it ends and, yes, when he started I was taken aback that Lloyd would actually do this but let me go back a little first. It’s impossible to cover the entire TCM Festival since it’s impossible to experience the entire TCM Festival. There are always going to be films that you don’t see, appearances you don’t make it to, people who you know that you barely get to see. The blogger meet-up at the Formosa the night before it all starts organized by my friend @oldfilmsflicker takes care of that last part since once it all begins you just have to hit the ground running and not look back. This sort of marathon viewing used to be something I did much more of but you can’t keep that insanity up forever. Patton Oswalt, in his recent book “Silver Screen Fiend”, writes about attending a massive Hammer Films festival put on by the American Cinematheque (in the years before they took over the Egyptian and Aero) that took place over two consecutive weekends way back in ’95. Probably not much of a surprise but just as Patton Oswalt was I was there for every single film they played. As far as I remember, he and I never met but I look back on something like that with a combination of amazement at how I actually did that and wondering just what the hell I was thinking. I could never do something like that again now otherwise I’d go stir crazy but for whatever reason the TCM Classic Film Festival is an exception I’ll gladly make. To be honest, it was a glorious weekend.
The theme for this year’s festival which ran from March 26-29 was “History According to Hollywood”, a subject broad enough that you and I could easily program our own series filled with completely different selections. Certainly the inclusion of several John Ford films throughout was a worthy choice as were things like the recently discovered 1919 Harry Houdini film THE GRIM GAME. One point of controversy about this year’s selections were certain newer titles— in particular, Steven Soderbergh’s OUT OF SIGHT (shown with editor Anne V. Coates in attendance which is a good enough reason for me) and APOLLO 13 for its 20th anniversary with a Jim Lovell appearance. The year was also made notable by the unfortunate absence of TCM host Robert Osborne for health reasons. These subjects came up during the “Ask TCM” panel on Thursday afternoon in the Club TCM area of the Roosevelt Hotel where attendees got to ask questions of various bigwigs from the channel. It was very clear how much TCM really means to people and I guess it means something to me too since I’ve got it playing on the TV behind me right this second. As the opening night party kicked off, the big red carpet event for THE SOUND OF MUSIC was happening right across the street at the Chinese—I wasn’t there for that and that’s ok but since it’s my mom’s favorite movie I have nothing bad to say about it. I was introduced to the Bogart’s Gin sponsoring the festival so I had the first of quite a few gin & tonics over the weekend and the fun began. One obvious way my TCM Festival experience differs from others is that since I live in L.A. I already get a pretty good selection of films to see every week anyway so the chances are better that there are going to be films I’ve seen before, prints I’ve seen before. And I’d rather see 35mm prints, always. Yes, you can’t avoid the awful spectre that is digital projection no matter how much I wish things were otherwise. But my own desire to see these 35mm prints, the way the films were meant to be seen, combined with the chance to see films I’ve never seen before at all sometimes sends me away from the massive main theater at the Chinese where many of the popular choices play and upstairs to the smaller multiplex area where the funkier titles often turn up. That approach began right off with the double of the 1949 noir TOO LATE FOR TEARS (which in fairness I had already seen, but it’s so much fun) starring Lizabeth Scott who was shamefully ignored during the In Memorium segment at this year’s Oscars followed by a first viewing of the powerful BREAKER MORANT which was introduced by director Bruce Beresford.
By the time LIMELIGHT came up on Friday in theater #6 at the Chinese multiplex it was well into the day which for me started with the special presentation “The Dawn of Technicolor” at the Egyptian, an eye-popping examination of the early history of the Technicolor process and business with jaw-dropping clips of now-unknown movie musicals from the early sound era. I moved down the street to the Chinese 6 for a digital restoration of the excellent Michael Curtiz western THE PROUD REBEL starring Alan Ladd and Olivia de Havilland. LIMELIGHT came immediately after and it happened during one of the most packed blocks of the festival--Ann-Margret appearing with THE CINCINNATI KID, a digital restoration of Orson Welles’ CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT, YOUNG MR. LINCOLN with Peter Fonda appearing to talk about his father Henry, among others. I went with LIMELIGHT, not only because I’d never seen it and it was about time I had but because I didn’t want to go this entire festival without seeing Norman Lloyd, who has recently celebrated his 100th birthday, speak at least once. Norman Lloyd who at one point during a story about his early days paused to mention about someone who appeared briefly in the telling, “And that woman was Katharine Hepburn…who had yet to make a picture.” In most stories that would be the climax but here the young Katherine Hepburn was merely an aside. Such is the life of Norman Lloyd. There was no real reason why I should have picked LIMELIGHT but for whatever reason it seemed to make sense.
Much as he should be represented at something like the TCM Festival I’ve never had much to say about Chaplin before. It’s safe to say that many people of my generation have never had much to say about Chaplin before. At this point in time much of his work seems to act as little more than part of a Film History 101 syllabus—THE KID, CITY LIGHTS, MODERN TIMES, various shorts, you deal with the political fallout surrounding THE GREAT DICTATOR and then you move on, maybe back to Buster Keaton since you’d rather be watching THE GENERAL anyway. My favorite Chaplin is MONSIEUR VERDOUX, the first viewing of which is one of those memories I need to write about sometime, and since it doesn’t feature his Little Tramp character barely seems to qualify as what we think of as a ‘Chaplin’ movie. Chaplin’s LIMELIGHT, originally released in 1952, also isn’t a Little Tramp film and yet unlike MONSIEUR VERDOUX it may be impossible to consider it at all without taking his voluminous history into account. Whatever someone knows about Chaplin is likely going to inform their response to this particular film which makes it all the more fascinating in itself. Or maybe part of why I found it so fascinating was how sincere it was, how unconcerned with how old-fashioned, even for 1952, that it might be. Did part of my response how to do with my own indifference towards Chaplin? Was I confronting whatever that legend really is today or did it somehow go beyond that?
The plot is simple: It is London, 1914. Legendary music hall comic Calvero known as “The Tramp Comedian” (Charlie Chaplin) is nearing the end of his time, often drunk and with very little demand for his talents anymore when he happens upon a depressed young dancer named Terry (Claire Bloom) who has just tried to kill herself. Nursing her back to health Calvero helps restore Terry’s self-confidence and resume her dancing career. But her attempts at doing the same for him don’t prove as successful and as much as she falls in love with the much older Calvero even her attempts at featuring him in the ballet she’s been chosen to star in isn’t enough no matter how great the love between them grows. Along with that plot which mostly focuses on its two leads, the visual presentation is just as simple—the film opens with the camera moving into the setting and the final shots have the camera pulling back from the last moments which is maybe about as visually flashy as it ever gets. Chaplin once famously said, “I don’t need interesting camera angles, I am interesting.” Which is consistent with his approach to LIMELIGHT, a film which presents its story in plain, clear fashion but is a complex portrayal, as piercing as staring down into Chaplin’s own soul. A title card at the beginning tells us the film is “a story of a ballerina and a clown…” but even more than that it’s about Chaplin himself, his iconic persona, his career, his life, his own past and the way he looks at the world--I imagine it’s not at all coincidence that it’s set in 1914, the year he made his first film.
Much of the dialogue is so blunt in its statements about the glories and pain of living that the film can’t even really be said to contain subtext since it’s all spoken out loud so plainly by the characters already. Even with a few brief ornamental passages showing off the theater scene of London as well as several extended ballet sequences just about any cinematic trickery is entirely limited to Chaplin’s own comic antics. And of course Chaplin is right--he is interesting; his physicality is always fascinating to watch throughout the film and not even just during Calvero’s routines. It shows us who Calvero is through just his movements as much as anything even with all the lofty statements about life that he makes and this helps, possibly because on occasion the tone of Chaplin’s voice almost seems a bit too harsh for the moment. Aside from the two leads everyone is very much a supporting player, including the great Norman Lloyd as the sympathetic ballet director (my favorite moment of his is a silent beat when he pops a piece of candy in his mouth). Even the famous appearance by the great Buster Keaton for a sequence which teams the two legends up together for the first and only time is totally in support of Chaplin—he’s not even given a character name, just “Calvero’s Partner” but I suppose it’s not really needed since of course we know who he really is anyway. And Keaton himself seems totally aware of this in his performance which makes his visible onscreen feelings towards his co-star all the more touching.
As Calvero states near the end, “We’re all amateurs. We never have time to become anything else.” It’s one of any number of lines in the film that could be considered an authorial statement if not his own feelings about everything surrounding what he’s observed in life—the phrase “the melancholy of twilight” is heard at one point which could easily have been an alternate title of the film. So nakedly sentimental that it almost seems redundant to even point that out, the film is the work of someone who has accepted things while continually on the verge of tears over how beautiful life is. It’s a film about looking back made by someone aware that the world is very much moving forward beyond him. Calvero is worried that his is a type of performing that no one wants anymore, exactly what Chaplin is clearly worried about as well, and I suppose that means even more now that the world really has moved away from whatever he represented. At one point a character, not him, offers the observation, “What is more eloquent than silence?” as if he’s remembering what has really been lost in the type of filmmaking he knew best. To give a reason for disregarding charity Calvero offers, “It’s the tramp in me,” which is a clear reference to his famous character but also can be used to explain his own stubbornness, why he can’t make this film anything other than what it is. Calvero’s stage persona is clearly an alternate version of that, as if it’s the one Chaplin would have taken on if he had lived during that era instead—even the plot point involving Calvero changing his name so no one will know it’s him onstage is an interesting choice for this Chaplin film where he is basically playing another version of Chaplin. What we see of his act is never particularly funny, or at least isn’t in this day and age, and these scenes go on way too long but maybe that’s beside the point—it’s a depiction of Chaplin playing Calvero basically playing Chaplin.
Seemingly unencumbered by what a 1952 film is supposed to be and with much of the running time set in Calvero's tiny apartment, the deceptively simple visual style is a reminder that Chaplin as director hadn’t changed his ways at all in 30 years. A few moments that can almost be called clumsy on a basic filmmaking level, maybe a reminder that his style didn’t always translate to the modern era, almost make me more supportive for it because it reminds me the film always totally means what it’s saying about, well, everything. To both Chaplin and Calvero, the young, unsullied Terry is clearly meant to represent all that is good in the world, as well as how dangerously close an artist can come to losing their way through despair and hopelessness. He has to stop her from hating herself because of her past—it’s a film set in his own past that’s partly about the fear of being held back by that past, held back by some horrible form of regret that sometimes in life we can’t do anything to shake and it paralyzes us—in Terry’s case, literally. Totally angelic in every single one of her actions towards Calvero, it makes her more of a symbol that a person although Bloom makes her fully human in her performance. Ultimately, the film rages against her initial sorrow over “the utter futility of everything”, getting her to want to fight for happiness. The film seems to say that the search for meaning is a waste since the answer is right there in front of us all the time already--art has meaning, love has meaning. In the end, what matters more than anything is that we’ve gotten to experience just a little of this.
Reading up on how the production was relatively straightforward for Chaplin, who in earlier years didn’t hesitate shooting scenes hundreds of times, doesn’t affect our perception of the film but it is a reminder of how he had changed. Going out of style which is true now and I imagine had occurred to him then. It’s a film that means what it says, is a blunt statement by its legendary star-director of, well, everything he felt about performing, comedy, about the glory and pain of life, whatever that is, that he had learned up until that time. Adding to how personal it all clearly is, his son Sydney plays the key role of Neville the composer who is a possible love interest for Terry while his children Geraldine (her first film appearance), Josephine and Charles, Jr. appear in small roles. Chaplin also doesn’t always adhere to strict realism and his famous hesitation towards using sound is recalled in Calvero’s stage performances where we don’t hear the audience (i.e. laughter) until it’s absolutely necessary (i.e. everyone applauds so we know they love him) although the fantasy nature of some of these scenes leaves the necessity open to question as well. Like he did many years ago, Chaplin is experimenting not only with the basic use of sound but also the cinematic necessity of sound. If the result isn’t always elegant it doesn’t seem to matter.
LIMELIGHT feels designed to be a final work but although it didn’t turn out to be Chaplin’s last film (A KING OF NEW YORK and A COUNTESS FROM HONG KONG followed after his exile from the United States) it was the last one he made in Hollywood, much of it was filmed at the Chaplin Studios just a few blocks away from where the Chinese 6 now is, which makes it an end in itself. Maybe the only way that the film could be more nakedly about Chaplin himself would be if he had gotten up to deliver a speech at the premiere in 1952 and promptly fell over dead (he didn’t, for the record), making the story he was telling well and truly complete. Norman Lloyd spoke of the film but also his friendship with Chaplin during his talk with Bruce Goldstein of New York's Film Forum before the film started. Afterwards Lloyd stayed to see the film and I may as well admit that the story he told got me on its side before the lights even went down—I haven’t earned the right Norman Lloyd has to give away the film’s ending (if you must, here he tells pretty much the same story at the Academy in 2012) but it involved Buster lending unexpected assistance to Chaplin during the filming of the ending and the mental image brought on by one legend selflessly helping out another got me unexpectedly emotional even before the film had started. I didn’t care that the ending had been given away. Suddenly, at that very moment right before the lights went down, the ending was the film.
By total happenstance, my next choice after LIMELIGHT was Buster Keaton’s own STEAMBOAT BILL, JR. complete with live orchestra, giving me a chance to get the full Buster dose that LIMELIGHT only hinted at. There was more to come that weekend with other films I hadn’t seen before--it says something about me that I passed on THE PHILADELPHIA STORY in favor of my first-ever viewing of 1953’s HOUDINI because it was a last minute inclusion due to having to cobble together a print from various sources and I wanted to see it looked like (it looked fine and, as cheesy as it was in its early 50s studio gloss, I’m glad I saw that movie too). And there was more through the next few days —THE BANK DICK with TCM favorite Illeana Douglas interviewing W.C. Fields’ grandsons, Christopher Plummer speaking before THE MAN WHO WOULD BE KING, the delightful pre-code DON’T BET ON WOMEN, the early John Ford AIR MAIL. I reacquainted myself with Preston Sturges’ glorious CHRISTMAS IN JULY which I think is gaining for me as time goes on, a screening of PSYCHO that featured a very enjoyable introduction by Edgar Wright, a Club TCM discussion with the legendary Shirley MacLaine (I had missed her appearance before a screening in the Chinese of THE APARTMENT, one of my only true regrets of the weekend) the astounding “Return of the Dream Machine”, a hand-cranked projector show giving us the chance to see early silent with some jaw-dropping footage and was certainly a highlight of the festival. The closing night selection, for me anyway, was a screening of the 2014 restoration of Vittorio Di Sica’s MARRIAGE ITALIAN STYLE in the main Chinese theater that featured star Sophia Loren appearing with TCM’s Ben Mankiewicz for a loose, engaging talk before the screening. The crowd loved Sophia, obviously, but it occurred to me as the De Sica film played, and I liked it very much, that of all the times I had been to this glorious theater I had never seen a film quite like this there. It was a near-religious experience comparable in its own way to seeing LIMELIGHT in that much smaller theater—both experiences were hugely moving for me and both served as a reminder of why I was there in the first place, a reminder of how ridiculously huge my love of film can sometimes be.
All that was left following Sophia Loren was the closing night party, more drinks with that Bogart gin and getting to spend a little more time with some of the people I’d been spending time with over the past few days. Of the memories I’ve taken away with me from that weekend LIMELIGHT seems like a special one—there was even the unexpected bonding I had a day later with someone I only know slightly over how much me had loved it as well. It’s the sort of memory that gets me to still miss the TCM Festival a month later but you have to get back to reality eventually, I suppose. But there was the chance to see these films, to love them, to have them stay with me. To not forget Chaplin. Or Keaton. Or Sophia Loren. Or John Ford. Or Lizabeth Scott. As I walked off that night from the closing night party to the subway nearby I felt a surge through me over how much I loved the films I’ve seen, how much I love so many films and how happy I am that it’s given me the chance to meet more people who feel the same. And TCM is still playing behind me as I write this. Sometimes it’s ok to feed an addiction like films just as it’s a good thing to be reminded that maybe you should return to those Chaplin films that you haven’t seen in years to see what they might have for you at this point in life. And realize that they’re about much more than just the ending. It’s about how those endings, those films, stay with you no matter what. And that love continues.