Charlie Chaplin Makes Me Cry

In one of my graduate classes we examined the subtext of Charlie Chaplin’s films and the social commentary he presented in a time when it was rather risky to do so. We watched part of Chaplin’s Modern Times in class. I had to put both hands over my mouth to stifle the uncontrollable laughter I was gripped with during the following “eating machine” scene. Tears were coming out of my eyes and my husband, who was also in this class, just laughed at me as I tried to contain my hysterics. Imagine, a silent film causing me to laugh harder than I have laughed at a film in years. That’s what I call a great time-transcending comedic art.

We plan on walking over to Chicago’s Gene Siskel Film Center this week as I am in luck – Charlie Chaplin films are currently being featured.

The context of the clip below: the men are testing out a more efficient way for a factory worker to quickly eat lunch, to maximize productivity. This was blatant commentary on industrial working conditions and employee treatment during the Great Depression.

Modern Times Movie Plot

Modern Times portrays Chaplin as a factory worker, employed on an assembly line. After being subjected to such indignities as being force-fed by a “modern” feeding machine and an accelerating assembly line where Chaplin screws nuts at an ever-increasing rate onto pieces of machinery, he suffers a mental breakdown that causes him to run amok throwing the factory into chaos. Chaplin is sent to a hospital. Following his recovery the now unemployed Chaplin is arrested as an instigator in a Communist demonstration since he was waving a red flag that fell off a delivery truck (Chaplin intended to return the flag to the driver). In jail, he accidentally eats smuggled cocaine, mistaking it for salt. In his subsequent delirious state he walks into a jailbreak and knocks out the convicts. He is hailed a hero and is released.

Outside the jail, he discovers life is harsh, and attempts to get arrested after failing to get a decent job. He soon runs into an orphan girl (the “gamine”), played by Paulette Goddard, who is fleeing the police after stealing a loaf of bread. To save the girl he tells police that he is the thief and ought to be arrested. However, a witness reveals his deception and he is freed. In order to get arrested again, he eats an enormous amount of food at a cafeteria without paying. He meets up with the gamine in the paddy wagon, which crashes, and the girl convinces the reluctant Chaplin to escape with her. Dreaming of a better life, he gets a job as a night watchman at a department store, sneaks the gamine into the store and even lets burglars have some food. Waking up the next morning in a pile of clothes, he is arrested once more.

Ten days later, the gamine takes him to a new home – a run-down shack which she admits “isn’t Buckingham Palace” but will do. The next morning, Chaplin reads about a new factory and lands a job there. He gets his boss trapped in machinery, but manages to extricate him. The other workers decide to go on strike. Accidentally paddling a brick into a policeman, he is arrested again. Two weeks later, he is released and learns that the gamine is a café dancer, and she tries to get him a job as a singer. By night, he becomes an efficient waiter though he finds it difficult to tell the difference between the “in” and “out” doors to the kitchen, or to successfully deliver a roast duck to table. During his floor show, he loses a cuff that bears the lyrics of his song, but he rescues his act by improvising the story using an amalgam of word play, words in (or made up of word parts from) multiple languages and mock sentence structure while pantomiming. His act proves a hit. When police arrive to arrest the gamine for her earlier escape, they escape again. Finally, we see them walking down a road at dawn, towards an uncertain but hopeful future. (According to Wikipedia)

About Charlie Chaplin

(Born April 16, 1889 – Died December 25, 1977) In 1915, British-born Chaplin burst onto a war-torn world bringing it the gift of comedy, laughter and relief while it was tearing itself apart through World War I. Over the next 25 years, through the Great Depression and the rise of Adolf Hitler, he stayed on the job. … It is doubtful any individual has ever given more entertainment, pleasure and relief to so many human beings when they needed it the most”. George Bernard Shaw called Chaplin “the only genius to come out of the movie industry”. He co-founded United Artists with Mary Pickford, Douglas Fairbanks and D.W. Griffith. This meant more freedom in producing his own films. His high-profile public and private life encompassed both adulation and controversy. Chaplin’s identification with the left ultimately forced him to resettle in Europe during the McCarthy era in the early 1950s. In 1999, the American Film Institute ranked Chaplin the 10th greatest male screen legend of all time. In 2008, Martin Sieff, in a review of the book Chaplin: A Life, wrote: “Chaplin was not just ‘big’, he was gigantic.

Product Placement in “Something Borrowed”

Saturday night at a wedding reception I was speaking with a guy who said he had just seen the movie “Something Borrowed” with Kate Hudson, John Krasinski, and Ginnifer Goodwin. He said it was very clear that during the first 20 minutes, as he put it, “the movie was made possible by Heineken, the official beer of this movie.” He said the product placement was overwhelming. I laughed, recalling that in my New Media Market Dynamics class we recently discussed the fact that advertisers are having a heck of a time getting in front of people like they used to. The DVR has helped make it possible to skip ads and advertisers have been trying to reassert their power with the ‘non-skip’ ads in the beginning of movies but I think advertisements are at the cusp of resurging with a vengeance their appearances in shows and movies.

Creative Loafing Atlanta also humorously recognized the “Something Borrowed” product placement faux pas.

According to the book C-Scape by Larry Kramer, the show Mad Men is a great example of this. “It was not widely known, for example, until the third season of AMC’s hit Mad Men, a drama about a fictional 1960s advertising agency, that the show not only referred to 1960s brands as part of its period storyline, but also contained products placements negotiated by still-extant brands. These included London Fog coats and Stolichnaya vodka. The endorsements by characters were sometimes explicit: in one scene, agency head Roger Sterling (played by John Slattery) not only names the brand of vodka he chooses, but he also denies it to an out-of-favor junior account agent, saying ‘Not the Stoli!’ Yet both the show’s producers and the representatives played down the use of product placements. A representative for London Fog told Brandweek.com that the company’s PR agency had facilitated the brand’s placement, yet wouldn’t reveal what compensation the show received. Andrey Skurikhin, a partner at SPI Group, which owns the Stoli brand, stated that he didn’t pay for placement. And the AMC network’s president and general manager, Charlie Collier, refused to provide any information to Brandweek about advertisements built into the show. ‘We absolutely have product integration on the show,’ he explained, ‘but you shouldn’t know which ones are paid and which ones aren’t.'”

Many people (myself included) find this kind of subliminal (or not so subliminal) selling to be disingenuous and sly. But how does the film industry strike a balance between depicting real life with real products and “in your face” product placement? Does the difference lie in how long the camera stays on the product? Or how the product is used?

Admittedly, I tolerate the show The Ultimate Fighter with the whole ad integration of “This fight brought to you by Burger King or Edge Shave Gel” and it is a perfect example of sponsors forcing your attention. But I have the ability to mute the TV and look away, don’t I?

Early in television history commercials were often performed by the actors and actresses from the shows being sponsored. Sometimes the shows would mention the sponsor brand in the course of the episode, too. From my own perspective it seemed as if the movies and shows of the 1980s were heavily loaded with products ala “E.T.” (Reeses Pieces). The “Wayne’s World” movie poked fun at overt product placement in a parody but I can think of several other movies that leaned towards brands pretty heavily: “The Italian Job” (Mini Cooper), “Transporter 3” (Audi A8), “Matrix Reloaded (Cadillac, Ducati)…and the list goes on and on. Expect to see more obvious product placement in films as advertisers attempt to do all they can to re-gain the attention of ad-skippin’ consumers.

More Resources:

The 10 Most Shameless Product Placements in Movie History

The 10 Worst Movies for Product Placement

Apple Dominates Movie Product Placement

Product Placement Rules Defined by Ofcom

Still Big Time: Peter Gabriel

Last night my husband and I watched the 2011 Oscar-winning documentary “Inside Job” about the financial crisis of 2007–2010. While the content was utterly infuriating, the skillful intro of this doc will stay with me. It starts out in Iceland, interviewing financial experts about how deregulation screwed up their economy. The Icelandic man speaking, Gylfi Zoega, says, “But this is a universal problem, huh. In New York, you have the same problem, right?” And the camera immediately cuts to sweeping helicopter shots of the New York skyline with this song blasting. This was the start of the documentary. The transition is pretty rad.

Big Time” is a song by Peter Gabriel from his 1986 album So. It was his second top-ten single on the Billboard Hot 100, peaking at #8. “Big Time” deals with a man’s efforts to achieve success. The visual style was very similar to the “Sledgehammer” video, using stop motion, claymation, and strata-cut animation (the last done by David Daniels) to show Gabriel leaving his small home town to make the big time. [Wikipedia]

I didn’t grow up with cable, so when I would visit my cousins as a kid I would love watching Peter Gabriel videos on MTV.  The claymation and quirky, jittery movements were like colorful pieces of art moving across the screen to the beat of great music. Who wouldn’t love that?

The Artistry of Pushing It

From the album Version 2.0, the video “Push It” by Garbage remains high on my all-time favorites list. The juxtaposition of the surreal and semi-mythical characters in the overtly domestic settings (grocery store, home) with lead singer Shirley Manson, is a feast for the eyes. The early and selective use of bullet-time mixed with CG effects amplified my love of this vid. And the final unmasking which reveals Ms. Manson as the real antagonist gives me a punch of feministic satisfaction in that ‘a-ha’ moment. The director’s artistic vision of this “short story” appeals to my love of cool and creepy. And it serves as a great workout song as well.

According to Wikipedia, the video for “Push It” was directed by Italian photographer Andrea Giacobbe for Propaganda Films in Los Angeles, shooting for four days in March, 1998. It cost over $400,000 to make; particularly in its use of “bullet-time” (a rotating camera that captures a subject in mid-motion). Giacobbe used many different film stock to create the different shots within the video. At points in the narrative, the video changes to sepia tone, black and white or false-color. The “Push It” video premiered internationally on April 6. The “Push It” video is the first Garbage video since 1995’s “Queer” video to incorporate a narrative: Disguised as nuns, three antagonists arrive at a supermarket where Manson is shopping with her partner (a “fuzzy” being) and assassinate him. Another team of schoolboy triplets are tracking Manson’s next partner (with a “lightbulb-head”) contacting Manson by telephone. Manson lets them into her home, where she takes possession of their brief-case (a MacGuffin device), while the triplets capture their target. After a series of shots showing Manson’s maternal relationships with her children, a disguised figure brings a balloon to a cemetery to give to Manson and her family (child versions of both “fuzzy” and “lightbulb-head”) to add to the two she already has. The disguised figure is later revealed to be Manson herself, who leaves her home with both of her now-adult children, and clutching the triplet’s briefcase. The video ends on the word Fine and was nominated for eight MTV Video Music Awards.

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Rod Serling: Man of Style and Substance

I don’t miss an episode of The Twilight Zone if I can help it. I’ve enjoyed those annual marathons and have my favorite episodes, which are: The Odyssey of Flight #33, Eye of the Beholder, Living Doll, To Serve Man, Time Enough at Last, and Nightmare at 20,000 Feet.

A dreamy and perpectually black and white man on my mythical favorites list is Rod Serling. Often with his cigarette and always in a sharp suit, he could properly set the stage of The Twilight Zone with his opulently-worded introductions and insightful post-scripts. His word art was quick-witted and poignant and it layered over some delightfully creepy imagery (remember the doll, the clock and the spinning top?) Mr. Serling was a magnificent writer who weaved social commentary and dystopian themes through his works, which also included the series Night Gallery, which I also loved. You’ll remember these general show introductions to The Twilight Zone:

SEASON 1 (1959-1960) There is a fifth dimension, beyond that which is known to man. It is a dimension as vast as space and as timeless as infinity. It is the middle ground between light and shadow, between science and superstition, and it lies between the pit of man’s fears and the summit of his knowledge. This is the dimension of imagination. It is an area which we call The Twilight Zone.

SEASON 2 (1960-1961) You’re traveling through another dimension, a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind; a journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination. That’s the signpost up ahead — your next stop, the Twilight Zone.

SEASON 3 (1961-1962)You’re traveling through another dimension, a dimension not only of sight and sound but of mind; a journey into a wondrous land whose boundaries are that of imagination — Next stop, the Twilight Zone.
 
SEASON 4 (1963…) You unlock this door with the key of imagination. Beyond it is another dimension: a dimension of sound, a dimension of sight, a dimension of mind. You’re moving into a land of both shadow and substance, of things and ideas; you’ve just crossed over into the Twilight Zone.

 

Additionally, Rod would close out the show with his epic quotes, too, often summing up in a few sentences the nature and dark side of man. Take, for instance, this little doozy from the awesome episode which aired on March 4, 1960, “The Monsters Are Due on Maple Street”.

“The tools of conquest do not necessarily come with bombs and explosions and fallout. There are weapons that are simply thoughts, attitudes, prejudices, to be found only in the minds of men. For the record, prejudices can kill and suspicion can destroy, and a thoughtless, frightened search for a scapegoat has a fallout all of its own – for the children, and the children yet unborn. And the pity of it is that these things cannot be confined to the Twilight Zone.”

I had a difficult time tracking down the introduction scripts to the shows but many of the episodes are available to watch on YouTube.

Funny enough, I know that there are other hardcore fans out there, like this artisan from Etsy who created a Rod Serling Lamp:

View Etsy listing

A little about Rod Serling, according to PBS.org:

Known primarily for his role as the host of television’s THE TWILIGHT ZONE, Rod Serling had one of the most exceptional and varied careers in television. As a writer, a producer, and for many years a teacher, Serling challenged the medium of television to reach for loftier artistic goals. The winner of more Emmy Awards for dramatic writing than anyone in history, Serling expressed a deep social conscience in nearly everything he did.

Fed up with the difficulties of writing about serious issues on the conservative networks, Serling turned to science fiction and fantasy. Through an ingenious mixture of morality fable and fantasy writing, he was able to circumvent the timidity and conservatism of the television networks and sponsors. Self-producing a series of vignettes that placed average people in extraordinary situations, Serling could investigate the moral and political questions of his time. He found that he could address controversial subjects if they were cloaked in a veil of fantasy, saying “I found that it was all right to have Martians saying things Democrats and Republicans could never say.”

The series was called THE TWILIGHT ZONE and was incredibly popular, winning Serling three Emmy Awards. As the host and narrator of the show, he became a household name and his voice seemed always a creepy reminder of a world beyond our control. The show lasted for five seasons, and during that time Serling wrote more than half of the one hundred and fifty-one episodes. But for Serling, television was an inherently problematic medium—requiring the concessions of commercials and time restrictions.

For much of the 1960s and into the 1970s Serling turned to the big screen, writing films that included a remake of REQUIEM FOR A HEAVYWEIGHT (1962), THE YELLOW CANARY (1963), and ASSAULT ON A QUEEN (1966). His most famous, however, was the classic PLANET OF THE APES (1968), co-written with Michael Wilson. Similar to his early work on THE TWILIGHT ZONE, THE PLANET OF THE APES was a moralistic tale of contemporary life told through a science-fiction fantasy in which Apes have taken over the world. Dealing with question of how we act as a society and how we view ourselves as moral beings, PLANET OF THE APES was a culmination of Serling’s career-long interests as a writer.

By the early 1970s, he found a job teaching in Ithaca, New York. Continuing to write for television, he sought to impart a sense of moral responsibility and artistic integrity to the new generation of television writers. In June of 1975, he died of a heart attack. Today, more than twenty-five years after his death, Serling’s legacy continues to grow. His television and cinematic works have reached cult status—enlivening a new interest in one of the great early writers of American television.

Listen to some of Rod’s Introductions on NPR.org