I’m going to be appearing next month on Studio 360, Kurt Andersen’s radio show. To this end, I was chatting with the producer about critics of the past whom I admire, and I mentioned that I thought the film criticism of James Agee to be grossly overrated (though not without merit). That opinion cuts sharply against the grain of received taste, and it’s not one I’ve always held: I used to admire Agee a lot more than I do now.
One thing that caused me to change my mind was Agee’s preposterously effusive praise for Charlie Chaplin’s Monsieur Verdoux. Turner Classic Movies has been working its way through the Chaplin oeuvre all month, so I took a look at Monsieur Verdoux the other day, and found it no more amusing on reacquaintance. But, then, I’ve never liked Chaplin, whom I simply don’t find funny at all, whereas I think Buster Keaton is not merely funny but one of the very few silent filmmakers in any genre whose best work remains fully viable today.
I got sick of writing tonight, decided to do a little channel surfing to clear my head, and saw that The Gold Rush, by common consent Chaplin’s finest feature-length film, was showing on TCM in the re-edited version Chaplin released in 1942 (he removed the original title cards and substituted his own spoken narration). I thought I ought to give the old boy one more try, so I turned it on…and I just couldn’t stick it out to the end. I didn’t laugh once.
All this reminded me that not long after 9/11, I went to see Buster Keaton’s The General at New York’s Film Forum, which isn’t all that far from Ground Zero. I wrote about the experience a few days later in my Washington Post column:
To me, it suggests a portfolio of Civil War photographs by Mathew Brady into which a slapstick comedian of genius has somehow inadvertently wandered. The Film Forum showed a handsome-looking print of “The General” two weeks ago as part of its recent Keaton retrospective, and people were lined up halfway down the block to get into the 7:30 showing, which featured live piano accompaniment by Steve Sterner. No doubt the audience was lousy with film-studies majors, but that didn’t keep them from laughing themselves silly at Keaton’s divine foolery. Where there are laughs, there is hope.
I wonder whether The Gold Rush would have made that emotionally battered audience laugh nearly so hard–if at all.
Maybe it’s just me, but it’s my impression that Chaplin’s films, unlike Keaton’s, are now widely thought to have aged poorly. As so often, David Thomson read my mind before the fact:
Intuitively, he sensed how ready the viewers were to have their fantasies indulged. But that instinct usually lacked artistic intelligence, real human sympathy, and even humor. Chaplin’s isolation barred him from working with anyone else. He needed to fulfil every creative function on a film, whether it is scripiting, composing, or directing actors. He is isolated, too, in the sense that his later films seem as cut off from any known period or reality as the earlier ones….Chaplin looked like a great instinct narrowed by the absence of the other qualities that would mature an artist.
James Agee, of course, thought otherwise. So much the worse for him, I fear.