Andre Bazin on the Films of Charlie Chaplin

Andre Bazin Assesses Chaplin

 

Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush (1925) is often cited among his most popular and critically praised films. How might the French film theorist Andre Bazin have assessed this film, especially as regards its treatment of realist and neorealist technique? Writing chiefly in the 1950’s, Bazin developed an implied system for evaluating cinema. His new standard was objective reality, and consequently it stressed the concept of the “invisible” director, one who would not interfere with the spectator’s interpretation of that reality. This meant that the inanimate camera was to remain the only instrumentality between “the originating object and its reproduction” (I, 13). It followed that the director should make any intervention as non-intrusive as possible, so as not to sully the “virginal purity” of the object (I, 14). “All the arts are derived from the presence of man, only photography [and by implication, the cinema] derives an advantage from his absence” (I, 13). The requirement to avoid mediation of the image led to a preference for fewer scenes, filmed with long takes and deep focus, in contrast with the “classic” style that tended to fragment scenes into a series of shots. The Gold Rush stands at the point where, according to Bazin, film directors began to choose to either “put their faith in the image,” or to “put their faith in reality” (I, 24). Chaplin leaves a foot in both camps.

Bazin’s stance virtually rejected the classic practice of manipulating the screen image through montage editing and overt camera techniques, and it placed Bazin in direct conflict with the film theorists of the preceding generation, who had encouraged such treatment to achieve aesthetic effects. Consequently, he embraced Italian neorealist emphasis on less-structured narratives in order to capture the essence of phenomenal reality. In his review of Fellini’s The Nights of Cabria (1957), for example, he said “theme and character alone are the final determinants in the story now, to the exclusion of all else; story has nothing now to do with what one calls plot” (II, 84). Neorealist films avoided montage effects designed to trigger a learned response from the viewer. Bazin criticized any camera movement or technique used to direct the spectator’s attention within a scene. Thus, in his essay on William Wyler, he expressed the desire “to render the set and actors completely and simultaneously present so that the action never detracts from them.” Such austerity would inevitably “provide [the viewer] with the means to observe and choose” (II, 57).

One way to understand Bazin’s approach is to extract specific elements he applauded in De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves and Renoir’s Rules of the Game, and apply them to Charlie Chaplin’s The Gold Rush. De Sica’s film achieved a naturalistic approach to “realism” by employing non-professional actors, shooting on location to avoid sets, and focusing on working class themes. This approach produced not only “the disappearance of mise en scene” but also “the disappearance of a story” (II, 57, 58). Bazin argued that this film took on meaning “only because of the social position of the victim” (II, 50). Here as in other essays, Bazin pointed to the “ethical dimensions” of a film, by which he meant a sympathetic regard for the working class (II, 53).

Jean Renoir represented an alternate path by which an auteur could achieve realism. In The Rules of the Game, and in contrast to De Sica, Renoir employed a professional cast and a combination of interior sets and location shooting. He achieved a sense of verisimilitude by using deep focus and staging in depth across multiple planes of action. Bazin applauded Renoir for his “casualness” toward scenario and action, and his ability to extract “humanity” from actors performing against type (Halsey, 74, 81). He further concluded that Renoir created “a carrousel of themes [in which] reality and the moral plane reflect each other” (Halsey, 83). Both De Sica and Renoir used longer takes than those in commercial Hollywood films, thus challenging such conventional techniques as shot-reverse shot and montage to influence spectator interpretation. Both avoided film practices intended to direct attention to specific elements within the mes.

General observations on The Gold Rush.

Bazin frequently lauded Chaplin, employing such words as “sublime”, “marvelous”, and an artist “in the vanguard of cinema” (II, 124, 127, 129, 139). But although he wrote about other Chaplin films such as Limelight and Monsieur Verdoux, Bazin never subjected The Gold Rush to a rigorous critical analysis. Since Chaplin ignores many of Bazin’s realist standards, we must assume that the critic silently applies different expectations to comedy. Alternatively, Bazin may simply permit his appreciation of “humanism” to override some of his other standards. Despite realist lapses, the Tramp becomes “a mythic figure…like Ulysses” (I, 144).

Bazin applauds Chaplin’s ability to portray a fundamental “humanity,” which in this sense refers to kindness and consideration for one’s fellow man (I, 29). Although this elusive quality runs the risk of dissolving into sentimentality, Chaplin manages to avoid the kind of bathos that Bazin would find unrealistic. He achieves this feat by avoiding pity for any of his characters. As an example of this finesse, Bazin points to Chaplin’s handling of the Blind girl in City Lights (II, 114). The Tramp admires her fortitude and poise, but he does not ask the spectator to pity her, as other directors might have. A similar approach is shown in The Gold Rush where even the rough prospector Big Jim is revealed to have a generous nature. The Tramp himself is a poor man who aspires to wealth and love. Although he is constantly foiled in their pursuit, he avoids envy and dejection. Bazin alludes to this quality when he notes that the Tramp reveals “the interior constants that are the true constituents of character” (I, 145).

Like De Sica’s film, The Gold Rush has a working-class protagonist. As in Rules of the Game, the plot is merely used to tie together a series of comic incidents. Both Rules and TGR touch on the human games of flirtation, betrayal, and misunderstanding. TGR shares with Bicycle Thieves the themes of quest and failure. Even Rules contains a failed quest in the sense of Octave’s unrequited love for Christine. Bazin would see these similarities as examples of the humanism inherent in all three works. In any other film, however, he would be unlikely to approve of the extraordinary events Chaplin uses to propel his story: storms, teetering cabins, and gold strikes.

Bazin praises De Sica for selecting non-professional actors. Chaplin, like Renoir, uses professionals. Nevertheless, he seeks to universalize his characters, thereby reducing the effects of stardom and performance. Certainly this is a challenge with a character as widely known as the Tramp, but the very crafting of this character as an Everyman lessens the effect. Further, the remaining actors in TGR do not carry strong associations of past roles, nor star presence.

Bazin would probably find fault with Chaplin’s habitual use of a stationary camera, which threatens to render many scenes as if filmed on a theatrical stage. While this restriction can be partly ascribed to the limitations of 1920s technology, it is particularly evident for scenes at the miners’ cabin and the saloon. True, Chaplin does vary these scenes with a mix of interior and exterior sequences. While these are in all probability constructed sets rather than natural locations, the effect is not easily discerned. Further, the scenes shot out of doors, and those on the deck of the ship, mitigate the impact of artificial sets.

Bazin endorsed Flaherty’s long takes in Nanook of the North for their capture of realism at the expense of spectator patience. Consequently, the Tramp’s long opening trek through the snow would please the critic. Chaplin’s frequent use of the long shot, and even the extreme long shot, demonstrates Bazin’s wish to present as much physical reality as required to place his character in the context of his environment. He would therefore approve of showing the Tramp and a potentially threatening bear in the same frame, rather than in a montage of separate shots, which would be a more Hollywood norm. The bear actually follows the Tramp, rather than being simulated by montage, which would be a further violation of Bazinian realism (I, 45).

The Tramp’s first visit to the saloon.

The Tramp’s initial visit to the saloon features a deep focus establishing shot of the crowd in which he is first obscured; then revealed as the crowd parts. His choreographed isolation is similar to that achieved when Antonio and Bruno huddle in the rain in Bicycle Thieves, ignored by the seminarians. The repeated theme of isolation would win approval from Bazin, but not as used in one particularly artificial scene. When the Tramp returns to the saloon on New Year’s Eve, he stands outside in the cold while the patrons sing Auld Lang Syne. The deliberate setup for this shot, in which the camera combines an iris effect with a window framed by darkness to emphasize the Tramp’s separation from the celebration, would concern Bazin. He would not approve such overt artificiality.

Although orchestrated, the stationary camera captures what one might see as a patron at the saloon. Several fields of action proceed simultaneously and the camera makes no dramatic shifts to focus on specific individuals. The spectator chooses what to watch. This use of multiple fields of action somewhat echoes Rules, with the important difference that most of these ancillary actions are not material. Simply having many people in a scene – laterally and in depth – seems to be an artifact rather than a nod to realism. Since Bazin specifically points to Wells as the starting point for rejection of the classical Hollywood style, with his staging of important action at various depths in the frame, Bazin must not have treated Chaplin’s saloon scene as an example of Renoir-like or Wellsian shot construction (Orson Wells, 57).

If we accept that peripheral action is necessary to render the saloon scene natural, then it satisfies Bazin’s “law of aesthetics” that “when…a scene demands the simultaneous presence of two or more factors in the action, montage is ruled out” (I, 50). The absence of crowd fragmentation is a virtue. Further, the breadth of the scene shows the Tramp and his actions within the context of a larger world, “in its physical and spatial reality” (I, 49). For this reason Chaplin generally avoids close-ups which would remove that larger context. We might also note that since Chaplin uses his entire body to characterize the Tramp, any repeated use of close-up would make montage impractical. When the camera does move into a close-up, it is to permit us to view Georgia and Jack having a spat, and have the Tramp presented as an ignored comic alternative. Again, the camera does not engage in classic shot-reverse shot, but permits the spectator to select which character and action to focus on.

In a related scene, Georgia starts toward the Tramp with a wave, and he interprets this as a greeting, not realizing she gestures at Jack. Only the use of a long shot adequately captures the physical humor of Chaplin’s response, as his body makes a slight forward movement. A Hollywood interpretation, employing a montage of shot-reverse shot and changes in camera position, would tell a different story, disappointing Bazin. The scene as shot by Chaplin permits an “ambiguity of expression” between the characters which montage would make explicit (I, 36).

The failed New Year’s Eve party.

The camera dwells on melted candles at the Tramp’s failed Christmas party. The medium close-up, combined with time compression, suggests the passage of time, lost hope, and resignation – all “humanist” qualities. Since Bazin likes to see events unfold in real time, without overt direction of our attention, this time acceleration appears to violate his critical standards. Similarly, Chaplin often uses variable frame speed to create “accelerated motion” in order to emphasize comic anxiety, as in the Tramp’s scramble to balance the teetering cabin on a snowy precipice. Despite these artificial effects, however, Bazin’s blanket approval of Chaplin suggests that he suspended his misgivings about comic intrusions on realism.

Chaplin’s use of constructed sets also violates a Bazinian principle. Certainly the cabin interior is a set, but many mes touches add a sense of “reality.” For example, the presence of the small gifts for the no-shows and the melted candles suggest a desire to render a realistic scene. Far less pleasing to Bazin would be the fade that transitions the Tramp in and out of his dream. This overt declaration of cinematic effect would be far too intrusive for him.

Regarding the famous dancing rolls scene, Bazin points to this “strange use [of] familiar objects” as “beautiful” (I, 145 – 146).  Note that the scene relies on performance rather than camera effects. The medium close-up manages to capture the comic drama while still permitting the spectator to ponder the Tramp’s expression of sublime pleasure at entertaining his imaginary friends. The spectator sits at the table as one of the guests. The duration of the take permits the entire action to play out without a montage or camera movement. As Bazin would appreciate, this extended scene gives the spectator time to shift attention between action and reflection, and to ponder the fundamental humanity of the character.

Scenes at the prospector’s cabin.

Exterior shots of the cabin are obviously a constructed set, while those in which the cabin teeters on the edge of a precipice use a miniature. This sort of artificiality would seem to violate Bazin’s demand for reality, but his frequent approval of Chaplin’s comic invention suggests that he would relax the rule in order to achieve a psychological effect. It is much more in keeping with realism to simply mislead the spectator through camera angle or by simply withholding information. For example, when the Tramp’s queasy feeling is revealed to be caused by the cabin’s tilting movement, the spectator has been fooled in a similar fashion to the capture of a fish in The Immigrants, which Bazin applauded.

During the fight sequence between the Tramp, Big Jim, and Black Larsen, a stationary camera and a long-shot constantly reveal all three characters. The comic effect is achieved by having the shotgun point at the Tramp no matter how he tries to hide. A classic Hollywood approach to this scene might insert close-ups of his face to show alarm, or focus on the gun barrel as it loomed menacingly over his head. Chaplin avoids this alternative. All the action is constantly within our view. A similar approach in Thieves occurs when Antonio finally steals a bike and is captured by pedestrians. Both scenes combine a long shot with a single take, with no montage or classical editing: two different emotional registers, one Bazinian technique.

The classic scene in which the Tramp eats his shoe invites the spectator to impose a societal critique on a comedic scene. Like Arnheim, Bazin would see this as a commentary on social class. Unlike Arnheim, he would interpret the Tramp’s aspirations of gentility as a sign of his “humanity.” The effect of the scene is to acknowledge the Tramp’s courage in transforming hunger into an artful and distracting deceit. The close-up permits us to appreciate the subtlety of Chaplin’s performance as a starving man determined to act out a fantasy of plenty.

The shipboard sequence

The Tramp may have become a millionaire, but he cannot break the old habits that define his social class and his “humanity.” He picks up a discarded cigar butt, showing us that he still retains his lower-class nature. This attention to character and social class is pure Bazin (I, 49-50). Bazin would likewise approve of the ambiguous ending to The Gold Rush. Although Georgia believes the Tramp to be poor, and offers to pay his steamship fare, his impulsive kiss does not convince us that love has triumphed. Doubt prevails. We cannot tell if the Tramp has finally won Georgia’s heart, or if true to character, he will lose both his girl and his new fortune. This lack of complete resolution prevents the film from being classified as a “classic” Hollywood screenplay of the sort so scorned by Bazin.

A conventional film of the silent era would tend to “type” its characters, and it is unlikely that they would exhibit much character growth over the story arc. Chaplin presents the saloon dancer, Georgia, as someone who does not fit this predictable silent film model. Georgia begins by using the Tramp to annoy Jack. But her feelings mature and soften with the discovery of the Tramp’s failed New Years Eve party. When she unselfishly offers to pay his ship fare, even before learning of his new wealth, this change in her character has been achieved in part by the Tramp’s relentless goodness and his naïve faith in the power of love. Bazin would undoubtedly see this as a more realistic rendering of character than the typical Hollywood approach.

 

 

Conclusion

Andre Bazin’s desire for unmediated objective reality appears to be at odds with his enjoyment of Chaplin’s clever manipulations. Regardless, his admiration for the Tramp’s essential “humanity” clearly overrides the criteria he has established for other genres. Consequently, the application of Bazinian standards to Chaplin’s work is a challenge. A practical approach is to apply a realism critique to most drama, but recognize that any rule can be broken if it produces a good aesthetic.  This clearly worked for Bazin, and it works for us.

The Gold Rush ends with the eternal Tramp right where he began. He has triumphed over many threats, reached for love and fulfillment, and failed. Even so, he remains optimistic and unbowed. These are the kind of “human” qualities that Bazin so admires. Chaplin’s long-term success and his unique style would certainly meet Bazin’s definition of auteur. Indeed, although Bazin does not apply this title to Chaplin, he is the silent screen director most worthy of it.