I return to this blog after many months away unsure what to even say. I have no good excuse for letting it lie fallow: I had many plans and machinations for things to do with it, and then suddenly my taste for writing about films dried up completely. I saw an incredibly low number of films in 2013, instead spending my time reading and playing games and starting other projects that I hope will never get as out of my control as this blog once did.
That said, I have a stated goal in 2014 to write about every piece of media (be it a book or movie or game) that I consume, and so I return here to talk about the movies I watch, albeit in a much briefer form than before. These aren’t really reviews and I doubt they’re anything one might consider criticism, but they are more for me than for any audience I might once have had. If you stay with me, thank you. If you’ve already forgotten this less-than-notable space of the internet, I would never hold that against you.
The Great Dictator (1940)
I’ve had this on Blu-Ray for months, waiting for a good opportunity to crack it open and give it a first watch. The New Year seemed like as good a reason as any, and thus I open my year with one of Chaplin’s most notable works. This is a movie I went into knowing nearly everything about, having seen the speech in videos in the internet and knowing the history of its production and many of its most notable scenes going in. Difficult and unfair things for a movie to contend with, to be sure.
The thing, then, that I’m brought to (as I always am with Chaplin) is just how human his movies are. The evils are banal and equal turns full of bravado and only accidentally effectual. The good is often cowardly, selfish, but ultimately compassionate. What makes Charlie Chaplin a genius of a filmmaker and an actor isn’t that he is profound, but that he reveals the profundity within the honest intimate truth of human interactions. It isn’t surprising that the call to arms that ends the film is a plea for compassion and hope, because he seems an artist constantly obsessed with both. It is only the cumulative efforts of the small deeds of people who stumble into the opportunities to do good that saves us all from the void, and one has to believe that that’s enough. It’s a very anti-heroic statement, but we have always (despite our best efforts to pretend otherwise) lived in anti-heroic times.
I will say that the sheen of history has made it very strange to see Nazi propaganda and the plight of the Jewish people made so light of in the movie. 1940 was a time when the true understanding of what was happening in Germany was very limited, but that’s not really relevant to my point. It is more that the evolution of how comedy is done in mass market entertainment means that contemporary portrayals of the boogeymen of our times are rarely handled with such buffoonery. Nobody ever made an Osama bin Laden caricature on the level of Adenoid Hynkel (and even lazy attempts to try like Team America only lean into racist stereotyping more than actual parody), and I’m not sure anyone of Chaplin’s caliber would ever try again.
It seems shockingly aggressive for such a mainstream style of film, and initially I was taken aback by it all. While we’re used to silly Hitlers (The Producers, or even Inglourious Basterds) rarely do they also contain within them moments portraying even a smidge of the actual fear and oppression suffered under that regime. The Great Dictator has no such qualms about holding up both the moments of comedy and the unflinching honest truth of tyranny. Which is probably why it endures, when so few pieces of outright propaganda have done so.