January 9, 2020

 Bazin, Domarchi, Moullet, Biette



by André Bazin
France-Observateur, no. 390 
October 31, 1957
(Transl. Jean Bodon)

There are some circumstances in which my work as a critic is painful. First, of course, is when I have to write on films which do not merit being mentioned, and secondly is the contrary, when the work is so rich that it creates in me contradictory ideas and feelings. I then dream about the happy rest of the spectator [1] who does not have to judge what he sees for pleasure. 

We already understand that A KING IN NEW YORK belongs in the second category, and I would rather let my impressions grow by listening to others than by putting my thoughts in order. Since, however, it is my duty, I will make the effort. 

Thus, I do not much like A KING IN NEW YORK, but I must nonetheless express why my admiration is mixed with reservations. To simplify things, we can say that the film can be clearly divided into two parts. The first part, exclusively burlesque using gags, is a satire on modern American life. Nothing intellectual is suggested in it; all of that part rests on recognizing a comic technique similar to the style of the Charlot of old. The second part, stemming from the meeting with the child prodigy who becomes the author's spokesman, is thus more clearly ideological, even though interrupted by two very long gags woven into several comic scenes: one on plastic surgery and the other on the Un-American Activities Committee.

Before going into depth, I will admit that I laughed heartily in the first part, even though all the gags did not seem to me equally good. I also got very bored one-fourth of the way into the second part where Chaplin stops putting laughter on his side. 

An interesting coincidence is happening. Doniol-Valcroze [2], who is sitting just next to me, is reviewing A FACE IN THE CROWD, the comparison of which with A KING IN NEW YORK is imperative because of the opposition of genre and style. But how much more convincing and effective is the satire implied in Elia Kazan's film, even if its author not long ago collaborated with the Un-American Activities Committee. It is, of course, because both Budd Schulberg and his screenplay are deeply enmeshed in American reality, whereas Chaplin attacks it from the outside with irritiation if not sometimes with anger. Objectively, that is, by seeing it as outside the realm of the Chaplinesque phenomenon, which I will of course come back to, the film is no better than a Georges Duhamel or Marcel Aymé.

Could it have been any other way from the instant his satirical project was motivated by the need to settle his own personal grievance? During his press conference in London, Chaplin did not hide from it: "Will I let them insult me without reacting?" He did in fact react, but what is the meaning of Chaplin's revenge with the historical importance of his phenomenon at stake? 

In that case, the most ridiculous or the most involuntary, perfidious eulogy to do on A KING IN NEW YORK would be to praise it for the effectiveness of its anti-American satire. Its sole anachronism would suffice to disarm it. Chaplin lost complete touch with America when he left in 1952. Since that time, Hollywood has produced 20 anti-McCarthy films [3]. But in between, there was Budapest [4]! And it is certainly not America that one thinks about upon learning that the idealism of the young Rupert was broken in order to turn him into an informer. 

Definitely not. One need only look at the ideas expressed, even those in his own defense; all this is not serious, and it even comes close to foolishness. 

But it is a Chaplin film, and it is as absurd to make an abstraction of it as it is to be blinded by idolatry. 

Although derived from a different unity of technique and scenario, THE GREAT DICTATOR was not much more solid ideologically, but it indicated the grandeur of its author's power. It was already a matter of settling accounts: for Hitler having dared to plagiarize Charlot, the film's bottom line was only the prodigious trial over the royalty of a mustache. MONSIEUR VERDOUX was also a personal matter between society and Charlot, disguised as his opposite to take it by surprise [5]. Charlot escaped between the cop's legs; Verdoux only looks through them. LIMELIGHT at least marks the divorce and the end of the myth. Calvero wipes off his chalk and charcoal mask: "Ecce Homo." 

Age would have cracked his mask if Chaplin had not had the ingenuity to make his decrepitude the matter and even the subject of three masterpieces. But we understand that beyond LIMELIGHT, this scenario is no longer possible. Condemned to play without a mask but having said everything about tearing it off, Chaplin again became an actor, remaining a god figure in our memories. Chaplin is in a false state of affairs, and I discern the reflection of his contradictions in A KING IN NEW YORK. 

I can only see one way to like the film. It is to be enthusiastically carried through its spectacle; it is to identify it with his myth. I mean that the very weakness of the scenario helps the careful viewer discern his techniques of mise en scène and his directing of the actors. That it is sublime does not surprise us, and of course still ravishes us. Above all things that one can say about the pros and cons in all the film's parts—burlesque, pathetic, dramatic, or insignificant—the Chaplinesque universe remains a fascinating beauty. The degree of denudation that strikes at first is perhaps greater than that in MONSIEUR VERDOUX. The sharpness of gestures, the trenchant elegance of performance, the concentration of irony, the vivid economy of ellipsis, release a fabulous charm that acts much like hypnosis. I felt it particularly on seeing the film a second time, when the second part still seemed to have endless tunnels. The sole element that subsisted in me was the imperative contemplation of a sort of luminous geometry with a radiating presence of both a human and abstract character at its center [6].    

I especially remember the open and closed doors, the stage entrances and exits, the hats purposely forgotten on an armchair to allow a return to the field [7]—in short, a sublimely ineffectual agitation, a dance. Thus, all depends on how one watches the film. If it is through its scenario or even its "message", I think that it cannot stand up under analysis and its value rests only on Chaplin's prestige to avoid being ridiculous. But if it is through Chaplin and his ingenious directing, there is obviously more to admire and learn in A KING IN NEW YORK than in one year of cinema [8]. 

Chaplin is still Chaplin, but now he is just Chaplin. 

ENDNOTES (by Jean Bodon)

1. Bazin has written elsewhere: "Film is not like the other arts, aimed at an elite, but at several million passive spectators in search of a couple hours of escape." Bazin was not belittling audiences but establishing the need for film criticism.  
2. Jacques Doniol-Valcroze co-founded the Cahiers du cinéma with André Bazin in 1951. Doniol-Valcroze began his career as a music critic. In 1946 he worked for La Revue du cinéma under Jean-Georges Auriol. In 1949 Doniol-Valcroze and Bazin began working at L'Observateur, a cultural monthly. There they reviewed films, which at the time was considered out of place in a cultural magazine. This article on A KING IN NEW YORK appeared Oct. 31, 1957, a year before Bazin's death. On November 14, 1958, Doniol-Valcroze arranged for Bazin's funeral with the help of the Cahiers resources.  
3. In "The Evolution of the Western" (What is Cinema?), Bazin writes that Zimmerman's HIGH NOON put McCarthyism under scrutiny. Films such as Lumet's TWELVE ANGRY MEN (1957), Preminger's THE COURT-MARTIAL OF BILLY MITCHELL (1955) and others dealing with injustice could also be interpreted as anti-McCarthyism films.  
[These examples are parables and allegories of McCarthyism, the finest of them not noted by Bodon: SILVER LODE (1954) by Allan Dwan, where the villain who whips up collective hysteria is named "McCarty"; scriptwriter Karen DeWolf and Dwan merely removed an 'h'. In A KING IN NEW YORK Chaplin directly attacks HUAC; something only possible outside of U.S. film production, distribution, and press. One of Chaplin's small adjustments: he renames the "House Un-American Activities Commission" the "Congressional Committee on Un-American Activities" and through this implicates all Congress, i.e. both House and Senate united, in the repression. —A.R.] 
4. On Feb. 14, 1956 at the 20th Soviet Communist Party Conference, Nikita Khrushchev attacked the policies of the late Josef Stalin. Insurrections in several central European countries followed Khrushchev's denunciations. Over 100 demonstrators were killed in Poznan, Poland while protesting the economic conditions imposed by the Soviet government. Hungarian students throughout October 1956 expressed their solidarity with the Polish protesters. On Oct. 23 at Budapest's Bem Square, students holding a rally were joined by workers and crowds of people demanding a democratic government. The rally turned into a revolt which spread across Hungary, resulting in an invasion by the Soviets (16 divisions, 2000 tanks). The United Nations General Assembly passed a resolution condemning the Soviet intervention.   
[Bazin's intimation that therefore A KING IN NEW YORK is dated in its political target is now itself dated. Since 1957 the U.S. has far surpassed the Soviet Union in social control, repression, foreign intervention and occupation, surveillance, imprisonment, the destruction of all alternatives to itself, etc.. Bazin would not have known the full extent and consequences of the Marshall Plan's cumulative victories, of Vietnam etc., or that precisely at the time of his writing the C.I.A. was covertly influencing American culture in a very sophisticated ways, funding ineffective socialist publications against more effective ones, molding the academies, swaying art world tastes and practices away from social realisms and figuration itself towards Abstract Expressionism, mostly through the "Congress for Cultural Freedom". —A.R.]  
5. [In 2003, Jerry Lewis put it in slightly different terms: "The common man and Chaplin. Chaplin being beneath the common man. The Tramp. Chaplin could have never driven the message across to the public without the Tramp. Proof: Chaplin got in trouble when he pressed his pants. My own opinion. (...) I was talking about MONSIEUR VERDOUX." From Jerry Lewis by Chris Fujiwara. U. of Illinois Press. 2009. —A.R.] 
6. "luminous. . .center." This expression refers to the silver screen, i.e. the rectangle of light with Chaplin at its center. Bazin considered LIMELIGHT so great that he lifted Chaplin's art beyond the gravitational pull of cinematographic art (the silver screen). With this film, Chaplin re-enters the realm of cinema by being just a good director.  
7. Within the camera's field of view.  
8. In 1957, a year before his death, Bazin had to narrow his interests, knowing that he would soon die. Only two American filmmakers interested him: Chaplin and Welles, perhaps because they were exiled from Hollywood (which might explain such a strong statement from Bazin).     

Essays on Chaplin
 A. Bazin, ed. Bodon
New Haven Press. 1985

The Immigrant
by Jean Domarchi
Cahiers du cinéma no. 77
Dec. 1957
(Transl. Andy Rector)


Another more attractive interpretation would be to say that Chaplin wanted to exorcise the myth of Charlot. Shahdov, the hunted king, will only be the shadow of the great clown and his role will be to destroy the phantom whose cumbersome life absorbs that of its creator. A KING IN NEW YORK would then be Chaplin's protest against the universe of Charlot. The proof of this desire for destruction would lie in the choice of gags, all of which, with the exception of one, stand out for their scabrous side, their intentional rudeness and sometimes their monstrous ugliness. Again, I will add here that this view doesn't account for the whole film, it does not give us the essential key. That Chaplin reflects on the character he has been, no one doubts this, but I believe that his intentions are not only autobiographical, that the film is not only for him to regain lost time. Time regained for him is MONSIEUR VERDOUX, and above all LIMELIGHT. With A KING IN NEW YORK it is about something else, which does not especially concern America or Charlot, but the vision that Mr. Charles Chaplin has of the world. Mr. Chaplin, age 65, full of honors, immensely wealthy, father of a large family, owner of a sumptuous villa in Switzerland. One thinks, unspeakably, of Voltaire. Chaplin comes to London and Paris to present his latest film, as Voltaire accompanied "Zaire" to receive his crown of laurel-wreath. And indeed A KING IN NEW YORK is a philosophical tale whose approach is of exceptional rigor, of extremely pure design and disconcerting depth. What's astounding about this? After all, Chaplin is English and we know that in the genre of storytelling he can count Swift as an illustrious predecessor, Swift whose curious destiny it has been to amuse little children all over the world with a book, GULLIVERS TRAVELS, that was both a virulent satire of England, George I and the Whigs, and a disillusioned view of the world and the condition of man.

A KING NEW YORK is also a point of view as general as possible on the condition of man in modern civilization. Chaplin expects the worst of this civilization, because it destroys man. It is the carrier of germs that doom man to inevitable destruction.....

Some will say that this idea is not new, that Chaplin does not have a monopoly on pessimism, that Fritz Lang, for example, professes a similar point of view. No doubt, but A KING IN NEW YORK's demonstration of it is very original and you'd have to look far and wide to find a film as tonic, as full of vitality, and as devoid of illusions. Chaplin indeed describes a process of gangrene. He shows how a civilization, after having contaminated the body, destroys the soul, eats away at individuality, leaving behind only an anonymous man dominated by fear. 


Chaplin does not believe in progress or, more exactly, he does not assume that technical progress will necessarily be accompanied by moral progress. Hence his condemnation of the intellectual manifestations of this progress and, consequently, the technical inflation (hypertrophy) that characterizes advanced civilizations founded on the industrial mode of production, rationalized to the extreme. Too much technical reason quickly leads to unreason. But that, no Marxist can accept, since what he calls into question is not technical progress or the development of the productive forces, but the the private appropriation of the means of production. Chaplin, by the importance he attaches to the tangible manifestation of this appropriation, the money considered by him as a necessary evil, is poles apart from a militant communist, and moreover his condemnation takes a sufficiently general form (technical progress and information control methods are common to capitalism and Soviet socialism) to encompass more or less all the countries that sacrifice themselves to the myth of efficiency. I note in connection with this that the King decides to return to France, because France, in the eyes of the Anglo-Saxons, is one of the countries with outmoded methods that one can, according to one's mood, consider with condescension or with tenderness..... 


Austerity of Style 
by Luc Moullet
Radio Cinéma Télévision no. 408 
10 November 1957. 
(Transl. Srikanth Srinivasan)


In this quixotic narrative, whose only point of reference is the central character, various themes intertwine as they do in music. This style goes hand in hand with the expression of a complex reality that words can hardly express: everything can be both irritating and pleasant. “Life would be dull without all these worries”, affirms King Shahdov. Hiding behind the hysteria of rock’n’roll is the beauty and sensitivity of a night club singer. Polemist, Chaplin still is, but having become wiser and more lucid with old age, he towers over events and ideologies. 

His style? He presents facts without technical affectation and in a very concise manner (see the revolution scene), but lingers over that which seems secondary to us. Every other scene is a discussion in a hotel room, an interlude but also a reflection of reality: modern life alternates action with the rhythm of a telephone. The triteness with which the scenes are presented without relief only increases the force of the smallest original notation, be it dramatic—the young hero’s tears—or comicDawn Addams’ leg play in the shower—or the king’s abrupt emotional attack. 

Like all creators, Chaplin forces himself into extreme austerity. Dramatic surprise is avoided, the gags pitilessly dissected with the end effect predictable from a long way away (see the fire hose). Product of subtractions more than additions, the result is better, bringing to cream pies their intellectual coefficient. 

Piges choisies
Luc Moullet
Capricci. 2009
(book translated 
in full here
Merci Srikanth)

by Jean-Claude Biette 
Cahiers du cinéma no. 298, 
Mars 1979. Column: 
(Transl. Andy Rector) 

In 1957 Chaplin declared: "A KING IN NEW YORK is a film to make people laugh. I hope it will be the best film of my career. It was eleven weeks of shooting in London. I work quickly on the set, but it took me two years to write the script and gags." On the release of the film, Bazin, who gave us the best analyses ever written on Chaplin, admitted in France-Observateur his slight disappointment with the film and divided it into two irreconcilable terms: the mise en scène, which is "sublime", and the "message" (the quotes are A.B.'s) which he believed would not stand up under analysis. As a response to this article, Jean Domarchi defended the film in Cahiers no. 77 ("The Immigrant") with a long and enthusiastic text, and a worthwhile read, if one can find it. The view that this film, contrary to what Bazin wrote, defies analysis requires two or three remarks, given here in no particular order [1] : 

 — that comedy, far from being the universal language that we pretend, is relative, limited by time and according to the person, in short, it divides. How many times have we heard it said of A KING IN NEW YORK, "Anyhow it's just not funny!" But today I laugh more at this film and MONSIEUR VERDOUX than any of Chaplin's silent films (where emotion and enchantment prevent me from laughing; also for the possible reason that the laughs gradually weaken on multiple viewings. It requires either the ignorance of the first viewing, or forgetting what we've already seen and experienced). Why this particular laugh? Because Chaplin, and perhaps he alone among all the investigative filmmakers of the political sphere (champ politique), makes psychological and moral portraits of individuals caught up in ideological confrontations wherein their lives and integrity are at stake, and he dares to suggest that everything ideal works as a huge means of pressure exerted by individuals upon other individuals (in this iconoclasm he prefigures SALO by Pasolini), that he's in a straitjacket of life in the present (and cinema is the art par excellence that expresses life in the present), and that he dares to make of this a spectacle of all high comedy. Here there is no hero: King Shahdov runs away like a shadow, which is certainly a way of being but also a way of adapting the Chaplin cinematographic form of the 50s (the grand romantic and melodramatic narrative), of rediscovering the casualness of the Tramp of yesteryear, with a bowler hat, cane, and little mustache. Chaplin, who knows its cost, does not like martyrdom either: on the verge of death Verdoux has the heart to savor an unknown joy and tastes the rum. And his characters are those of ordinary human suffering: those who crack (like the King under a false face, like the child under the stiffness of dogmatism) and those who seek flight (even if Verdoux was caught); 

— that great art consists of the perfect expression of what we want to express (this is why some see Keaton as a purer artist than Chaplin), but that it's greater when it strives with more ardor to transform its original material from top to bottom so that everything contributes to the making of a true organum cinematographicum (as did in those years THE THOUSAND EYES OF DOCTOR MABUSE by Lang, THE TESTAMENT OF DOCTOR CORDELIER by Renoir, and EYES WITHOUT A FACE by Franju), and that it's greater still when the elements that make up this material seem impossible to render (here: ideological persecutions, the manipulation of children [2], New York by night, palace life, atomic energy, cosmetic surgery, the triad cinema-television-advertising, etc.) and that the film perfectly regulates its counterpoint: the simple and classic style of editing in Chaplin's films (fixed shots and reframing pans) is the logical consequence of a thought and a know-how to convert and combine all the irreconcilable components of a film where the density of the narration is interrupted and breathed thanks to the sometimes laconic, sometimes full development of gags. The film is a supple and discreet coating of this thought, the freest that the cinema has known to date. A thought that does not adorn itself with any artistic effects, because the slightest effect would be felt as an obstacle between the spectator and the movement of life reconstructed in the film. It's what Renoir, strangely, called a screen. 

[1] Recall that when it came out A KING IN NEW YORK was particularly unwelcome and that from this lack of success, no doubt, was born the legend of a weak Chaplin, just as historians of cinema often transmute public successes into important films (eg. LA KERMESSE HEROIQUE, Clouzot films, etc.), they forget, if they even repair certain injustices, that SENSO, LES CARABINIERS, and PARIS NOUS APPARTIENT were flops. 
[2] In this film we have the most heartbreaking child character ever seen in cinema, comparable only, in a negative register, to the child in GERMANY YEAR ZERO by Rossellini, who gathers up, with no other expression in the film, his suicide.

A KING IN NEW YORK screens this Saturday, Jan. 11, 2020, 8pm, at Kino Slang at the Echo Park Film Center, alongside shorts by Pasolini and Ivens.

Top photos:
Chaplin conducts his
"Mandolin Serenade"
for the score of

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