How to save the summer movie using only Charlie Chaplin

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Chaplin in The Circus (Janus Films)
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I hate The Dark Knight, last decade's most popular blockbuster, with a passion.

And now I've got an easier way to explain my hatred than launching into a tirade about how it represents the final nail in the coffin of audience attention span and visual-aural sensitivity (while riding in on the Trojan horse of a convoluted plot that some mistake for narrative complexity).  For now, I will just refer people to movies like Charlie Chaplin's The Circus.

If The Dark Knight has helped kill the summer movie, then films as soulful and thrilling as The Circus, if shown at a big multiplex instead of an arthouse like Film Forum (where it opens this week in a new 35mm print along with Chaplin's sublime short, The Idle Class), could resuscitate a movie tradition currently lost in greed and folly.

We're not talking about box office here, which is generally strong, due to the studios' trillion-dollar promotional efforts and an audience split between the desperate (returning to the multiplex on the lottery odds that they'll experience something like Star Wars just one last time) and the benumbed (reflexively buying movie tickets the way the zombies in Dawn of the Dead flocked to the mall). Nobody loves The Dark Knight or District 9, or Wanted, no more than a starving man loves canned mackerel. In a soup kitchen, you eat what's on the tray.

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The Circus (1928), of course, is one of Charlie Chaplin's loveliest, loopiest masterpieces. It finds his Tramp character on the run from the law, stumbling into a circus act in progress and ending up the star attraction. Along the way to the big showstopper and the requisite bittersweet Chaplin ending (one of the greatest in cinema history), lions, tigers, doves, geese, a crazy donkey, an army of clowns, monkeys, a narcissistic tightrope walker, and the sweetest lady aerialist you ever saw are put through their paces. The Tramp falls in love, has his heart broken, stands up to The Man, experiences success, failure, rapture, love... It all moves at lightning speed, without the help of any of today's shortcuts to velocity.

How does he do it? Well, I'll let Steven Spielberg explain: "Part of the speed is the story. If you build a fast engine, you don't need fast cutting, because the story's being told fluidly, and the pages are just turning very quickly. You first of all need a script that's written in the express lane, and if it's not, there's nothing you can do in the editing room to make it move faster. You need room for character, you need room for relationships, you need room for comedy, but that all has to happen on a moving sidewalk." Spielberg was talking about his approach to directing the Indiana Jones movies (in a February, 2008Vanity Fair article), not The Circus. But there is no better encapsulation of Chaplin's storytelling genius at work on The Circus. The film is one big series of tumbles and chases that leaves plenty of room for character and relationships.

We need this in our lives. Iron Man 2 and Clash of the Titans are not giving us what we deserve. As Chaplin himself said (albeit in a slightly different context) in The Great Dictator, "We have developed speed, but we have shut ourselves in. Machinery that gives abundance has left us in want. Our knowledge has made us cynical; our cleverness, hard and unkind. We think too much and feel too little. More than machinery, we need humanity. More than cleverness, we need kindness and gentleness. Without these qualities, life will be violent and all will be lost."

It's not just the flawed grace and nobility of The Tramp that we've been doing without; it's also the flawless grace and sensitivity with which Chaplin's camera (piloted by his ace, Rollie Totheroh) reveals plot developments. In recent times, Ho'wood has been killing off this kind of storytelling, which was once a mark of basic competence in response to even the shoddiest of screenplays. Even when screen stories do indeed provide that "moving sidewalk," filmmakers are so anxious to juice them for yet more unnatural speed that they wantonly destroy continuity of action and cumulative tension (opting for shock over suspense), with cuts that keep the eye busy while leaving the brain and heart to fend for themselves.

I part company with many of my colleagues in insisting that this is not just a perennial nuisance. It's not merely a passing fad; it's the future of mainstream commercial cinema, one which 15 years of steadily diminishing patience for what Andrei Tarkovsky called "the life of the object in the frame" has prepared us to embrace, in the way that a dope fiend embraces his dealer.

So I propose that some crazy mogul do something truly bold: Save the summer movie by bringing pop masterpieces like The Circus to the multiplex. Strike sparkling new prints of such crowd-pleasers as Buster Keaton's Sherlock Jr. (which tore the roof off the New Victory Theater when I saw it in 2001). Just as a seasoned coach can save a flailing sports team, the example of these films playing on the main stage could shame and instruct the current hapless regime of power players in the art of seducing an audience. So let's have our Turner Classic Movies option at Magic Johnson and AMC, not just the Loews Jersey City, Film Forum, the IFC Center and The Sunshine. Those of us who frequent such places waggle our heads in pity at the rabble across the street lined up for the latest 3-D diversion. We behave as if they are getting what they asked for.

Nobody asked for The Sorceror's Apprentice. Please give us something as good as The Circus, or at least try. Is that too much to ask?