13/04/2016

The Kid - Chaplin's Fourth Wall

Thoughts On: The Kid

Chaplin's debut feature-length film is about a Tramp who finds an orphaned boy and raises him as his own son. This is 'a picture with a smile - and perhaps, a tear'.


If anyone is in need for an introduction to silent cinema, Chaplin is the place to start. For me, true cinematic magic is embodied by silent films. Their purity, their simplicity, makes for something more real than the realist films such as Saving Private Ryan, 12 Angry Men, or Departures. Films that are supposed to capture reality, make you feel like what is happening is more than flickering frames, do so by putting you in the action, by using cinematic language. We can take a recent example of The Revenant here and see techniques adapted from Saving Private Ryan. Both films characterise the camera. You're a soldier or a frontiersman. Both Inarritu and Spielberg force us into constant POV, using natural lighting and a 'head on shoulders' kind of camera movement. This is done through handheld and steady cam, after all, life is perceived little more than a steady cam long shot. But, the realism in cinema has always chased after, especially since the birth of talkies and films being considered more than moving pictures, is, in some respect, pointless. The Kid is one of the most realistic films of all time because, like Saving Private Ryan or The Revenant, it employs cinematic language to present a type of perception we are so familiar with. Without steady cam, without eloquent cinematic diction, The Kid does something magical. We are made to be a fly on a wall. The beauty of this film is in the way the camera is a silent bystander. This is true of all cinema, but the further back in time we go the more instinctual it becomes. This is easily explained through the idea of giving someone a camera and telling them to 'go ahead'. Give a camera to someone who's seen a film, that watches T.V, uses the internet, and what you will probably get will be a film without nuance - Star Wars in a back garden, Die Hard in a park. Give a camera to someone who's never heard of cinema, a camera, T.V, video and you may well presume you'll get something like a simple shot of people getting off a boat, walking down the street, leaving work, a train coming into a station. There is little nuance there too at face value, but where would they place the camera? How would they light the shot? How would they frame, block? They'd work by best guess, by how they think they'd see things. This is why silent films are flat. First, they mimic theatre, allowing actors to perform to a camera. But, what they better represent. especially with outside of sets, is the bystander. We can see this with The Kid. We stand at the corner, across the road, on the opposite side of the room, with inserts being used to indicate focused attention. The magic of silent cinema comes with blurred line between the literal everyday and the manufactured everyday of modern (post 30s) cinema. The magic is in their acceptance of the fact that they're a film - and with the movement over the last 90 years away from the 'lie', the accepted 'artifice', that was early cinema, only came fabrication. This is because cinema is inevitably fantasy. That, however, leaves early cinema, to the modern viewer, as alien at worst, but pure and true at best as it accepts that fact.

All of that coupled with the ideas about character and audience I explored with Sunrise: A Song Of Two Humans makes The Kid astoundingly powerful. When it says it's a story with 'perhaps, a tear' you better believe it. Like Sunrise it deals with the theme of relationships, but The Kid explores this idea with focus on the fourth wall. Of course Chaplin was one of the silent era's greats, especially in regards to comedy. But, who he is always compared to is Buster Keaton. Both were silent clowns. Keaton is thought of as indifferent to his audience, he didn't want their sympathy for it was through self-derision that he got laughs--he was almost laughed at. Chaplin was the first to create a truly sensational character that was known nationally and internationally--his Little Tramp. Chaplin wanted the audience's sympathy, his films were manufactured to have you fall in love with his character. In short, he was the better story teller, but Keaton was the better filmmaker. To understand this we only have to look at a masterpiece such as Sherlock Jr and compare it to The Kid. I won't go too deep into that though because Keaton's and Chaplin's worlds are very different and so I'll have to look into Keaton's at a later date. But, to get into the meat of The Kid we need to look at Chaplin's fourth wall and the way he made films in regard to character and situation. Most average movie goers under the age of twenty, probably would have gone to Deadpool and seen a whole new way of making films. To a 12 year old who snuck into Deadpool, breaking the fourth wall is something you see in cartoons a lot, but film is a completely different thing. That 12 year old however would have seen the post credit scene and not had a clue what was going on (probably), whilst anyone familiar with the 80s obviously would have got the Ferris Bueller reference. And, to most, Ferris is the prime example of a fourth wall breaking character. Someone a little more versed in cinematic history would rather point to Goddard and the French New Wave for the revolution in film underpinned with movie references and of course fourth wall breaks. But silent cinema is where it all started. From the very get go, Chaplin played with the camera. You can see this with the fourth wall being broken as the gag to Kid Auto Races At Venice. So, yeah, Deadpool is not a new way of making films as this has been done for over 100 years (in film alone). That's so surreal in my mind as I'm sure it would be in the mind of that 12 year old who snuck in to see Deadpool.

Anyway, we're not just going to talk about breaking the fourth wall, but the whole idea of walls in Chaplin's films. It's from Chaplin that we can best learn how to make characters loveable, to embrace the audience and emote. Everything from the Looney Toons, to the French New Wave, to Ferris Bueller, to myself (insert shameless promotion) has it's roots in Chaplin and his style of filmmaking. This is because, as flies on the wall, Chaplin can turn to us and say that he needs us, 'look at this', 'WTF?', 'can you believe this?', 'help!' and so on. He forms a relationship between us and himself in a way that transcends narrative whilst enhancing it. This links into the similarities between books and silent films. Books imply with words, they can never truly show you an image of a character in a literal sense. Instead they give you the feeling of them. Silent films can't give you a character's voice, but makes up for this by letting them speak with body language in the same way characters in books have their mind and thoughts put on the page. It's with ambiguity that an audience member can substitute themselves, or the things they like, into a character and make it their own. We can see this idea manifest itself in modern cinema with a respect for an audience. An example is that Inception trusts an audience, assuming they can and will follow the complex plot. The likes of The Avengers or the later Mission Impossible films also show respect to an audience in their attempt toward self-critique. It's Hawkeye pointing out the absurdity of a guy with a bow on a floating city, fighting alien A.I things (I might be mixing movies up). Either way, it's also Benji or Hawkeye in a suit without a bow explaining away questionable plot devices like swimming away from bullets by floating a light in a direction opposite to you (fun and self-aware, but, not enough for the writer to have just written something better). By breaking the fourth wall, by leaning on the audience, we grow closer to characters. This doesn't always work though. If we stay with Marvel, they are constantly leaning on the fourth wall. The whole concept of a comic book movie shatters walls. By this, I mean to talk about fan service. A Marvel film knows you want Hulk to smash and them giving it to you leans on the fourth wall like Chaplin allowing character nuances, such as the cigarette kick or the Tramp's walk, to pass over all his films does. But, pure fan service doesn't always work and we all know examples of this and so shows that you can lean a little too much on a fourth wall sometimes.

You may be thinking that marketing and knowing your audience has nothing to do with breaking a fourth wall, and it doesn't directly, but making a blockbuster is all about you - and you are the fourth wall. Most films have the standard fourth wall, quite a lot have one you can lean on - you find these mainly in comic book movies, horrors and comedies - and a select few have a wall of their own. Chaplin, Keaton, Goddard, Fellini, Truffaut, Tarantino(ish) all have unique walls in their films. Chaplin's is characterised by most of the things we've discussed so far. There's the forced perspective, the breaks and the consideration of the audience. Mix this with the image of the Tramp and there, more or less, is Chaplin's wall. But, what matters and to understand the point of having this wall, we need to consider it in relation to the film's themes. The Kid is about the concept of parenthood (click here for more on this theme). More specifically, it is about being a parent. The film opens with a mother unable to care for her child. In an attempt to give him a better life, she leaves him in the car of a rich family. However, the car is stolen and the baby abandoned, giving the Tramp opportunity to take him in. Meanwhile, the mother feels she has made a mistake and goes back to reclaim the child - only to find that the car and baby are gone. This film is a metaphorical projection the mother's anxieties. Without a father, without money, raising the kid would be very tough - she may have to resort to crime to feed and clothe the child. This is the Tramp's situation, but veiled in levity. Despite the cold mornings, chasing police officers, empty pockets and gas metre that had to be broken into, the two get on in life. Circumstance is transcended by the bond the two share - the same bond that made the mother want to take her boy back. The film is then a sequence of growing conflict about the father and son culminating with the heart wrenching scene where the Kid is taken from the Tramp and he has to fight to get him back. To me, is the most powerful scene cinema has ever produced (if you disagree, tell me yours in the comments). This is because of the bond Chaplin established through the idea of parenthood. We all have parent figures and some of us have children. We are all hard wired to understand this concept. But, let's not jump ahead, after escaping the authorities, only to have the Kid taken from the Tramp as he sleeps, we come to the fantasy sequence.

I know I started this by citing the realism of film, but only meant this in terms of direction and camera placement. So, the fantasy scene is again another projection of an unforgiving world for a parent. This mirrors the mother's short journey and the Tramp's--it's also quite surreal and, to the movie goer who doesn't much care for meanings and interpretations, it's quite the non-sequitur. But, what the fantasy sequence does is project a heavenly world whilst implying that the Tramp has died--possibly committed suicide or just succumbed to cold and the bitter nature of poverty because he's lost his son. In giving up, the Tramp can dream, just like the mother, sat on the bench in the beginning of the film having just abandoned her child, supposed and hoped. The Tramp sees an idyllic world where he is alone, but with his boy nonetheless. He quickly comes upon a young girl--a lover, a possible mother for the Kid. She however is naive and young. She succumbs to demons and cheats the Tramp, leading him into an authoritative trap. The police man and stuffed bully represent the cycle of violence and incarceration found in dire situations of extreme poverty like those of the mother and Tramp. The world seems to be against them. This is what the film tells us three times over and is a universal feeling we all share time to time--some more than others. The cycle however is only broken when from tragedy comes success and from struggle comes a gem of the past. In other words, the mother goes onto be a successful singer, but ultimately unfulfilled because of the scar of leaving her son. However, by chance, her baby was saved and the Tramp did what she probably couldn't have done at the same time as raising the boy. With The Kid, Chaplin asserts that people need support despite their circumstance. After all, in 1910s/20s, impoverished single mothers or unofficial surrogate and single fathers wouldn't have received much aid in raising their child. You could argue the same of today. It's with these earnest, tragic, but not fatalistic, concepts Chaplin's fourth wall really shines. He appeals to most empathetic parts of ourselves without seeming desperate. (Fan service doesn't work at times for this reason - desperation). Character's can't be sympathised with without concepts that we all understand--that may say the obvious--but that are presented in a complex and emotive way.

Bringing everything together, Chaplin's direction, his acting, character and situation building, his lack of shame to look into the camera and ask for help, is what imbues his pictures with magic. All in all, Chaplin's tone and understanding of who the audience is in relation to himself and the Tramp is what will make his last forever and his contribution to cinema echo throughout the ages.




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