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Austin Chronicle Letters at 3AM

By Michael Ventura

AUGUST 4, 1997:  Eighty years ago, Charlie Chaplin was engaged in the improbable business of making people laugh in such a way as to remind us that every human, high and low, is capable of wonder. How well he did this for our time is a matter of critical quibbling now, but in his time there was no argument. In 1915 -- before radio, TV, and mass-market advertising -- he'd shot to international fame in a matter of months, his comedies awaited eagerly by the exalted and the humble alike, cinema's first true star. That decade saw the Mexican Revolution, the First World War, and the Russian Revolution. Maps changed, millions were killed, social systems perished, new systems were undergoing breach-births, humanity's heart was bursting. Something in Charlie Chaplin's exquisitely graceful antics, something in his suddenly beatific smiles and his swift devilish glances, made play of what was bursting. It all came out as laughter and wonder for the space of a two-reel silent movie. Chaplin didn't claim to know what he was doing. He felt gripped by mystery. He often built sets without having the foggiest notion of what he intended to shoot. "Put that staircase over there," he'd command. "No, over there. That's not right, tear it down. Put it -- there." He said: "You create a labyrinth, and then you work your way out."

Another great artist of that era was the Russian dancer Vaslov Nijinsky. The accounts are clear, corroborated by many: It wasn't that Nijinsky leapt higher than others -- it was that he stayed aloft longer. He jumped, and then there seemed to be a moment of floating. As he put it: "I go into the air, and when I want to, I come down." This was an exaggeration. Nevertheless, many had seen him hover.

Nijinsky went insane in 1919, never performed again. Not long before being hospitalized, he visited Los Angeles and asked to watch Chaplin work. The clown was delighted. As a boy, very poor, Chaplin danced for pennies in the street. Those memories never left him, and all his life he sought the approbation of "high culture," as though to prove to himself that he wasn't merely dancing in the street anymore. To be admired by the likes of Nijinsky was his dream.

So one day Nijinsky arrived at Chaplin's studio. Nijinsky watched for hours as Chaplin cavorted in front of the camera -- Nijinsky watched, but never smiled. Chaplin spoke later of doubling and tripling his efforts to make the dancer laugh, pulling out all the stops. But Nijinsky's face was impassive, the dancer didn't seem aware of anything, seemed lost in his own dream. Chaplin was crushed. And, a furiously proud man, he was mortified before his crew. We can imagine his surprise when Nijinsky approached with a humble expression and through an interpreter told Chaplin how deeply he'd enjoyed the day, and could he return tomorrow?

Chaplin was a difficult man, to put it mildly. The center and ultimate authority of a self-created world. Or so they say. Be that as it may, he couldn't dishonor or embarrass the great dancer. He said he would be delighted if Nijinsky returned, Nijinsky could come as often as he liked.

When Chaplin looked at the rushes of that day's work, he saw they were unusable. So he decided that on Nijinsky's visits there was no point in putting film in the cameras. He instructed his people to pretend they were making a movie. Everything would proceed as usual, everyone would do their work, but the cameras would be empty, and Chaplin would play for Nijinsky alone.

It's too bad, in a way, about the empty cameras. What footage that would have been! Chaplin freed from all limits, freed even from making us laugh, freeing the lights and darks of his nature to move for the delight of a mad master of movement. What absurdity, what audacity, and what poetry.

Nijinsky returned for two or three days. The empty cameras recorded it all not for posterity (for us), but for eternity. That footage exists in the world of dreams.

The clown and dancer exchanged roles, didn't they? The dancer became a mad clown, re-calibrating the world to the demands of his madness (as Chaplin's Tramp did in his films); while the clown, unconcerned now with laughter, danced for an audience of one. And it's a little like a Buster Keaton movie, isn't it? The stone-faced soul stands there with something immeasurable going on deep beneath his expression, while around him cavorts an imp of furious grace -- and a crew of rough-faced techs trying to hide their bewilderment. (I would love to have heard the comments around their lunch tables.)

Thus the madman made everyone around him beautifully and generously mad. Made them, in effect, float. And Chaplin could not resist such a call. What true clown could?

I count it one of the greatest moments of cinema.

Let what I mean be illuminated by a moment akin to it -- a moment nearly half a century later, on a Friday afternoon. The coming Monday, John Cassavetes was to start shooting what many consider his masterpiece, A Woman Under the Influence. Since his death in 1989, Cassavetes is spoken of as a great and legendary director. In life, however, he was sniped at and/or dismissed by most "name" film reviewers, and his films were ignored by most moviegoers. He, his family, and his friends painstakingly raised their own money for his bare budgets (his home was always being mortgaged anew). In the face of what many would consider failure after failure, he made one profoundly original, disturbing film after another. Even as he was dying he wrote scripts, as though daring Death itself to stop him. (His son Nick recently directed one of Cassavetes' deathbed scripts, She's So Lovely, soon to be released.)

So: It was a Friday; they were to begin A Woman Under the Influence the following Monday. Cassavetes had the script, the set, the actors, the bare-minimum crew. What he didn't have was film. It would cost, I was told, $10,000 to buy enough for shooting; but John Cassavetes was out of money. He'd tried to raise the money for days, with no success. Cassavetes worked with a savvy rough-and-tumble bunch, a gang more than a crew. They knew their jobs, labored for next to nothing, usually knew how to deal with him (an art in itself, sometimes) -- and they spoke their minds. That Friday they told him even he couldn't shoot on Monday if there was no film. To which he replied:

"We have the actors. We have the script. We have the cameras. We're going to make this picture, starting Monday, whether we have any goddamn film or not."

Cassavetes was perfectly capable of making good on those words, and his people knew it. (I have no doubt they would have gone along with it, at least for a little while: That's the kind of loyalty he inspired.) Several of that crew -- including his wife, the master actress Gena Rowlands -- told me virtually the same sentence: "You never know what to expect from John. Never."

Well, one way or another, the money materialized. I was convinced that it wouldn't have if he hadn't been willing, without apologies and without let-up, to roll those cameras without film. When he told me this story, and I expressed that opinion, Cassavetes gave me that more-than-slightly demonic smile which was one of his few looks of unqualified approval. It faded into a look that could mean anything. He said nothing further about it. Changed the subject.

Such audacity has been sentimentalized by the pleasant treacle of Field of Dreams: "If you build it, they will come." Well, they might -- but they usually don't. More applicable, in these two instances, are lines from a love poem by Boris Pasternak, written in his late Fifties: "The root of beauty is audacity/And that is what draws us to each other."

Chaplin rolling empty cameras for Nijinsky... John daring the fates by swearing he'd shoot his script without film... these were artists connected to the root of beauty, joined to that root at the deepest recesses of their natures. Chaplin's objective was a laughter that illuminated pain; Cassavetes' was to bring what he called "inner life" to the surface of our troubled common acts, so that we'd be exposed to the psyche not as an abstraction but as raw behavior. Yet behind both motives was a passion for, a connection to, a refusal to give up on: beauty. This gave them a power, implemented through their boundless audacity, to transform the most impossible dead-end situation into moments that were almost fearfully alive and pulsing with wonder.

(People incapable of such behavior sometimes call it "romantic" -- a phrase by which they're usually advertising how they themselves have given up on beauty.)

Chaplin's dance and Cassavetes' dare -- these were great moments of cinema because they revealed that the power of the camera has little to do with the film inside it, but is rather a power of focusing. An assistant calls for quiet on the set. There is stillness. Then the cry: "Action!" Something must happen, even if it's only a look or a brief change of expression. That is the command of the camera: Something must happen, right now. It concentrates life, focuses it. And it is this, even more than the fact that something is filmed, that inspires the greatest artists. Their full attention is brought to bear upon the living moment. Which is the only means toward wonder.

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