"ONE AM" BY CHARLIE CHAPLIN: BEST FILM OF 2009?
Happy new year. As the long introductory weekend dwindles with less and less to concern us re: xmas and New Years plans (and let's face it who really cares about football teams like Arizona and San Diego?), movies become dominant once again in conversation. Nearly every social encounter reduces itself to a quick checklist of the end-of-year glut of "awards movies" and everyones feelings about them. I hate these conversations. No matter how lousy a movie is, I know how hard it was to A) write, B) get the star to commit, C) find the money, D) make the damn thing. In fact I've come to believe that movies are the hardest pursuit man has invented for himself. Getting to be President is nothing compared with getting a movie made.
That said, I heartily enjoyed "The Wrestler", rather liked "Frost/Nixon", was disappointed with "Defiance" and thought "Milk" a job well done. If I don't like a movie, I prefer not to mention it. However the best film I've seen this year so far wasn't sent to me by the studios, hopeful for a vote. Indeed it wasn't even made this century. In fact it was barely made in the last century--1916 being much closer to the nineteenth than the twenty-first century. Charlie Chaplin's "One AM', shot and released before the U.S. entry into the first world war, is a perfect piece of work--as formal, composed, simple and profound as Bach. It stars Chaplin and, except for the cab driver in the opening scene (Albert Austin), NOBODY ELSE. It's a solo study of a tipsy gentleman engaged in a war with the eccentric collection of objects in his home. Or is it his home? I've watched "One AM" a few times this weekend, due to my son's infatuation with it...(his first exposure to Chaplin, an Essanay short called "His First Job" was only a modest success; he was more interested in the fact that the actors moved their mouths but couldn't be heard than he was in the film, which isn't a particularly strong one)...and one of the peculiarities of the film, the more I watch it, is how strange Chaplin's behavior is in relation to the stuff in what we presume is his house. He has so little familiarity with the objects, the stairs, the clock that keeps banging him in the head and the immortal Murphy bed which utterly annihilates him in the last five minutes of the film, that I 've begun to think that the real plot of "One AM" is that of a man who enters the wrong house (he does have to use the window in the opening to gain entry) and is too drunk to realize what he's done. See the film, posted below in two parts, and give me your thoughts.
"One AM" is the third released comedy in Chaplin's "Mutual Comedies" period--his third studio (the first was Sennett, the second Essanay) and the most important in terms of his artistic development. The Mutual's are, to my mind, much more consistent and inventive--he was given more time per film and began to experiment with his "rough draft" technique of shooting which later developed into something of a mania with him, causing him to take years between films. Essentially, what this came down to was Chaplin filming routines not as an end in and of itself but as a way for him to study the film and alter the routine; I feel quite certain that the Murphy Bed routine that closes out "One AM" is as good as it is because he gave it a few try-outs, watched the pacing and the pattern of reversals and surprises, and honed the routine. Notice too that, aside from a single cutaway, the routine is captured in one take. In his autobiography, Chaplin remembers his two years making films for Mutual as a particularly rosy time:
"Fulfilling the Mutual contract, I suppose, was the happiest period of my career. I was light and unencumbered, twenty-seven years old, with fabulous prospects and a friendly, glamorous world before me. Within a short time I would be a millionaire--it all seemed slightly mad. Money was pouring into my coffers, The ten thousand dollars I received every week accumulated into hundres of thousands. Now I was worth four hundred thousand, now five hundred thousand. I could never take it for granted..."
Well, yes. But it also happens that most great artists have a brief moment where they realize their potential and are not yet burdened by it--it has yet to become a responsibility to be fulfilled and remains something more akin to a spasm, an involuntary response to the sudden flaming of genius. This is what the Chaplin Mutual period seems to me to be; coming after the delightful but uneven early years, and pre-dating the wonderful but obsessive and often self-important "great years" ("The Gold Rush", "City Lights", etc). The Chaplin Mutual's are unpretentious, unemotional and just a bit smarter and more profound than you might expect. Pay special attention to the moment when Chaplin mounts the stairway to the right side of the room, sees the stuffed bear and immediately turns and walks back down...a truly marvelous and early example of what makes his comedy still so powerful; the sudden introduction of well-earned cowardice within the facade of impenetrability. Did I just describe you? I certainly just described myself...
Posted by Raymond De Felitta at 1:48 PM