From Chaplin’s autobiography, a hypothetical scenario: a man goes to a funeral. Everyone is standing while the priest reads the last prayers. The man keeps his hat on a chair beside him. When everyone sits down, the fellow next to our man sits on his hat without noticing it. No one else has paid any attention to this little incident, but between the two of them the sombreness has been lost.
I have no idea if Tati ever read Chaplin's autobiography but there's a reenactment of this in M. Hulot's Holiday. The ever-bumbling M. Hulot happens upon a funeral when his car breaks down. Dry leaves stick to one of the spare tyre-tubes in his jalopy. One of the attendants at the funeral takes it for a wreath and places it by the corpse's side. As upper-class mock-sombre people pass by the deceased in a file, air leaks from the tube and the "wreath" droops. The spell of seriousness has been broken; a screenshot in the infinite hide-and-seek between comedy and tragedy.
1) Gloria Swanson as Norma Desmond impersonating The Tramp. The forgotten silent film star and the character whose voice we have never heard. Billy Wilder’s wordy script vs. Chaplin’s reluctance to accept the talkies. Gloria Swanson returning to her Chaplin impersonation from the silent film Manhandled, returning to the director who offered her one of her first small parts.
2) First thought upon re-watching the scene of the protest in Modern Times: is there a connection to be made between Charlot being mistaken for the leader of the protest and the no-leadership paradigm of the OWS movement? It’s difficult not to put today’s time stamp on Modern Times as it’s still incredibly relevant.
Loitering in the Matrix
In Tsai-Ming Liang’s 2009 brew of personal histories: the first, of an individual, a guilt-ridden son; the second, of a cinephile, his formative influences and their eventual transformation into relics, myths, museum pieces – Tsai’s proxy, his spiritual limb, Lee Kang Sheng opens the tap. It is an act of extreme banality, but that’s all people in Tsai do – they walk, sweat, shag, limp, eat, smoke, perish. Anyways, he opens the tap, like he does every single day of his life, but his turning of the knob today causes the pressure to increase disproportionately, which in turn, leads to water bursting out of the kitchen wall in a violent spear. Unaware of the scale of the impending disaster, Lee introduces hilariously minor devices to stem the flow: a garden-cloth, a cooking pot – but the water wouldn’t have any of it. He runs out of the room to then conjure a red bathroom bucket and makes a ridiculous attempt to obstruct the torrent, but the water-stream – imagine a rugby loosehead – dodges the container and hits him straight in the face. He responds with relentless resistance – the idiot just won’t give up: he brings a stupid mop and opens the cabinet beneath the tap to do something, but as a result, the water finds a new, even wider inlet to shipwreck the whole kitchen. Shaken, Lee stutters around for a moment in a gesture of shame and fear, and then, to avoid a certain drowning, runs out of the kitchen with the water now having evolved into a super-gush. He slips and falls down next to the bucket from earlier, floating in the same stream of failure and reduced to similar detritus. It is a world of overwhelming causality.
Chaplin’s comedy could often function in a manner similarly scalar: within the space of a single scene, the difficulty facing him would tentacle into newer, unseen aspects, progressively ascending to the point where he would have to resign to one of two possible extremes: the admission of defeat (and therefore, a fade-out to black, see: Modern Times and its helpless factory-worker) or an absurd, completely vulgar conquest over prevalent circumstance (all of Monsieur Verdoux).
But the similarities between Tsai and Chaplin are only beginning. If Ozu’s An Inn in Tokyo reveals anything, it is that cinema – in its struggle to depict poverty – condemned the poor to constant mobility. The poor in film are doomed to motion, to walking, to consistent, relentless loitering (Ozu’s film equates the titular, mythical inn – a stable habitat, a place to rest at night – with the end of poverty itself). This is an idea borrowed from Chaplin though, whose Tramp is perhaps the ultimate flaneur (Patrick Keiller’s book describes the surrealists and their embracement of Chaplin), an urban loiterer supreme. A number of Chaplin’s scenes would begin with him walking on the pavement and arriving at the scene of the action (a gag, a vantage point, a situation), but the important question is, where was he before he reached there? The Tramp – and by proxy, Chaplin’s – major illusion is to affect normalcy where none exists, and the fact that no one has ever asked this question is proof that it is successful too. By being in a constant state of motion, The Tramp attempts to obscure his misery, but the grander irony is lost on him: he is moving only because he is poor. The fade-out in Modern Times – a gesture of resignation, but also an ellipse, since we realise later that The Tramp has been fired in the dark – and in the next sequence: he is unhinged again, with no factory, no firestation, no restaurant, no farm prepared to hire him, no boss to report to, and there he is, walking in the city, feigning culture and well-being. In Tsai too, the characters walk a lot - it is the very essence of their function as human beings - they must get around, they must continue to exist. But their bi-pedalling isn’t a result of economic poverty, but emotional – these are men and women of nobility, of much pride - anachronisms in a world that has no use for these qualities.
Almost everyone, stuck in the coil.