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January 01, 2007

The Circus


Last Friday night, I went to the circus. Throughout much of the Cyclown Circus' performance of juggling, switching hats on each other's heads, and silly acrobatics, I thought of the Marx Brothers. More specifically, I was thinking of the physical gags and general silliness that the Marx Brothers probably performed on vaudeville almost one hundred years ago. My significant other commented to me that based on the reaction of a Thai acquaintance, as well as the few other Thais in the audience, that the Thais laughed harder and enjoyed themselves much more, and more easily, than the audience which was mostly Western travelers in their 20s and 30s.

Living in Thailand, there was something else I noticed. Available among VCDs of such popular films as Mission Impossible III and Jackie Chan's Rob-B-Hood are the silent comedies of Charles Chaplin. I even saw a young girl, maybe six or seven years old, purchase a copy at the neighborhood conveniece store. Among the several films available are The Circus and The Gold Rush, made when Chaplin was at his silent era peak. I also thought back to when I saw the silent Laurel and Hardy films screened at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. Parents and grandparents brought young children who have never known a time when there wasn't color television, home computers, or DVDs, and they laughed just as hard as earlier generations. That silent comedy is still popular in the beginning of the 21st Century brings up several questions.

I feel like the concept of the "language of film" needs to be reconsidered. What is declared to be "universal" often seems to be made from a Western and academic viewpoint. I don't know if they still do it, but before each film showing, Landmark Cinema's would have a brief "bumper" with various voices in various tongues declaring that "the language of film is universal". In retrospect, it seems like a bit of self-congratulations to an audience that bothers to see films from other countries that have subtitles. I also have to wonder how intertwined the problem is that American audiences seem to prefer verbal comedy over visual comedy, or that filmmakers seem to have lost the knack for making comedies more dependent on sight gags than insults. I know for myself, the funniest parts of the recently seen Jour de Fete were Jacques Tati's pratfalls, such as bicycling into a stream, or accidentally falling through a boarded pit.

Perhaps Chaplin understood why his kind of comedy has remained popular almost thirty years after his death - "I do not have much patience with a thing of beauty that must be explained to be understood. If it does need additional interpretation by someone other than the creator, then I question whether it has fulfilled its purpose." And more simply - "A day without laughter is a day wasted."

Posted by Peter Nellhaus at January 1, 2007 10:20 PM


It's time for one of those embarrassing cinephile confessions: I'd never seen an entire Chaplin film (indeed, an entire silent film) until I lived in Thailand. As I found myself hungering for something other than the short-memoried Hollywood fare that was practically the only media available to someone who didn't understand Thai, one of the first discoveries I made was the one you've just mentioned: that Chaplin films are relatively easily found. I started with Modern Times and fell in love with it, and tracked down, one by one, all his features besides Countess From Hong Kong (which I still haven't seen) as well as a number of shorts.

I think the best lessons I ever gave as an English teacher for children (I felt much more comfortable teaching adults, but the work was less steady so I gravitated to teaching strictly kids for the second half of my stay) were the ones that I planned around an excerpt from a Chaplin short or feature. How does watching a silent film teach English, you might ask? No, it's not the brief English intertitles. A universally accessable comedic film is the perfect material to get the kids excited about expressing themselves in another language. I'd put a few questions tying the film in with the grammar topic at hand on the board for them to have in mind while watching a segment, and have them write or discuss the answers after it was over. Nothing was better at getting even the most self-conscious students to participate at a level above thier usual.

I think I like where you're going with your thoughts mourning the unpopularity of visual comedy among American audiences. Something of a Sullivan's Travels moment, perhaps? I think that when the popularity of motion pictures destroyed the viability of vaudeville, it also destroyed its own best training ground for actors and artists who could project their ideas visually across a large theatre, and whose skills are more crucial to many of the greatest forms of cinema than is usally acknowledged.

The Circus is undoubtedly one of my favorite films of all time.

Posted by: Brian at January 3, 2007 01:12 AM

It actually seems entirely consistent to me that the Thais are more openly appreciative of the humor behind a good pratfall executed at the circus. It's consistent with the cultural norms one encounters in everyday life in Thai society; if you slip on a banana peel and land on your behind in Thailand you can fully expect laughter from anyone who happens to witness it.

Whether it is at you, at the situation, at the universe which is forever delivering banana peels of one sort or another into our lives, or what, I don't know.

By contrast, here in America, while one might privately snigger up one's sleeve, past the age of about eight we are expected to be solicitous of the poor banana-afflicted fool's welfare. Is he hurt? Is he all right? Is he going to sue?

Posted by: John at January 6, 2007 09:56 AM