THE SOUND IN MODERN TIMES
The moment we started thinking about sound, we started making sound films. The moment the soundtrack stopped being an assumed quality and started being a controlled aspect of the presentation of a film, we started thinking sound cinema. The Passion of Joan of Arc is a sound film because Dreyer insisted that it be shown without a soundtrack. And Charlie Chaplin, who waited so many years to finally reveal his voice, was the one of the greatest early sound directors. Recently, while watching Modern Times for the first time in many years, I realized that it’s an exemplary sound film. In it, Chaplin utilizes the faculties of sound to achieve the desired comic effects only sound effects and music could create.
In what was at the time considered essentially an anachronistic silent, Chaplin does more with sound than almost any Hollywood director at the time (and, in fact, more than nearly anyone did until Orson Welles came along and invented what Truffaut famously called “radiophonic” cinema). As a comedian and a Socialist, Chaplin has a stunning sense of economy—a joke like Chaplin’s famous nonsense song could only be delivered with the use of sound, but we are spared any spoken dialogue in the film because it was not aspect of Chaplin’s cinematic thinking at the time (which is a far cry from his later films, when he would begin communicating earnestly and sincerely through the words of his characters).
PRINCE’S UNDER THE CHERRY MOON
Prince seems like a natural tangent. He’s a lot like Charlie Chaplin. Both are diminutive womanizers who excel in every facet of their field (Prince as a singer/songwriter, record producer and multi-instrumentalist one-man-band; Chaplin as an actor, director, producer, screenwriter and composer), and they both achieved worldwide stardom by cultivating a persona that taps into basic desires created by contemporary society while simultaneously subverting societal conventions: Chaplin’s Tramp is poor and heartbroken, and we identify with him in our saddest moments, and yet he overcomes his troubles, outruns the cops and finds food (always such an important detail in Chaplin’s films, where the hunger of poverty is felt more strongly than in any filmmaker’s work) without every ceasing to be poor; Prince is a sex symbol, fulfilling heterosexual fantasies while simultaneously eschewing traditional masculinity—he attracts women and gets to wear high-heeled shoes. Both have also used their fame to spread a humanist message (Chaplin and elementary socialism, Prince and multi-culturalism/anti-sexism) that can sometimes come across as heavy-handed. Both also dabble outside their field—Chaplin the musician and philosopher, Prince the actor and filmmaker. In both cases, the vanity projects they indulge in are their most sincere, earnest moments, free of nuance or grace and yet strangely charming.
Prince’s directorial debut was an odd film called Under the Cherry Moon, which came out soon after Purple Rain to a poor critical response. It is, to say the least, an unusual and very vain project: a black-and-white dark comedy about a gigolo (played by Prince) on the French Riviera with no musical numbers and an anachronistic aesthetic (complete with corny jokes and fades) that clashes with a particularly 1980s sensibility regarding the relationship between people and objects—a post-1970s understanding of faddism and the lack of a relationship between the past and the present that is at its most jarring in the trendier French films of the period. What’s so interesting is how much Prince eroticizes himself in the film—I can think of no filmmaker who has tried harder to turn himself into a sex object.
Another bit of fascinatingly earnest filmmaking is Casino Royale, the new James Bond movie. A great deal less campy than its predecessors (though not completely without camp), Casino Royale is a film that seems to sincerely believe in Bond’s masculinity—the exact kind of masculinity Prince subverts, a sort of suffocating gender politics in which men have to be emotionless (Bond’s harshness is frequently commented upon in the film) and essentially defined by the objects surrounding them. With no gadgets, death rays or world domination schemes, with the fantasy element (almost) gone, we are presented with a film whose grounding in “reality” is based largely around commodities, whether mental or physical.
Villain Le Chiffre is nothing compared to his stunning all-black tuxedo—an object, and one which remains unchangingly attractive even as Le Chiffre becomes less and less “cool” (and we must remember that Hollywood villains exist mostly for us to be attracted to them). Eva Green is overpowered by the moles on her own right breast, highlighted by a downwards pointing necklace—and the moles in turn force our attention to her breasts, which become commodities (whether we wish to possess them, or we wish that we had a feature so worth possessing). September 11th is invoked several times, giving the film an aspect of “fact” by using an event with predetermined emotional values—the producers have a fairly good idea of what September 11th means to the film’s American audience, and thus it becomes an “item” as concrete as something with a more defined monetary value, like the Aston Martin or Bond’s Omega Seamaster 300M Professional Chronometer watch.
This last one is of special significance, as product placement for the watch reaches new, fascinating levels—there are lines of dialogue devoted to it, and even shots where the watch is beautifully lit, its precision surface attracting more attention that Daniel Craig’s face. By “reinventing” Bond, the film’s producers finally define what Bond is—a template for the fantasies that we associate with products. He is not as much Craig or Sean Connery or Pierce Brosnan as the suaveness of a dry martini, the class of an expensive cufflink or the somber resolve of a pistol with a silencer.
In this way, Casino Royale perversely recalls the spoof with which it shares its name. In that film, all new agents are given the name James Bond in an effort to confuse the enemy—thus David Niven, Peter Sellers and Woody Allen all become “James Bond.” The new Casino Royale draws the same conclusion: anyone can be James Bond, with the right gear.
Ignatius Vishnevetsky has been a shoddy student, a surprisingly jobsworth usher and a clumsy day laborer. He lives in Chicago.