Friday, April 28, 2017

The Gold Rush: BFI Film Classics (2015)

by Matthew Solomon

Poor Matthew Solomon. He begins his book on Chaplin’s The Gold Rush by saying, “I have wanted to write one of these books ever since I read Peter Wollen’s contribution to the BFI Film Classics series” [Singin’ in the Rain, 1992]. Unfortunately, he’s gone on to write one of the worst books in the series . . . and that’s saying something. Right from the beginning he latches on to one of the most commonly understood realities of the silent era when talking about the film. “For most of the second half of the twentieth century, it was duplicated, distributed and re-duplicated on 8mm and 16mm film, videocassette and videodisc in dozens of different versions.” And then he proceeds to go on and on and on about the same thing for a full twenty-five pages. The book is only a hundred pages long, so for a full quarter of the text he obsesses on this idea with the only regret that he couldn’t go on about it longer. “I am interested in the shadow reproduction histories that lie behind dozens of unauthorized versions of The Gold Rush rented, sold and uploaded over the years . . . to determine their respective provinces . . . when and by whom these versions were copied, recopied, cropped and merged with different soundtracks.” A more tedious book it would be difficult to imagine, but that’s exactly what Solomon has written.

What is so incomprehensible is that he uses this as an excuse to avoid really talking about the film at all, confessing that he will only touch upon those few scenes that “are the ones most vividly recalled by viewers and most frequently remarked upon by reviewers and other commentators.” This is in marked contrast to the intent expressed by Peter Krämer in his BFI book on Buster Keaton’s The General, which is “a detailed and systematic analysis of the film’s story, themes and style.” The rest of Solomon's book is filled with fairly arcane minutia from the daily production reports, length in feet of the various cuts, and dates of various previews and premiers, along with a seemingly endless stream of legal challenges Chaplin made in the courts to control the content of his work. The book is actually maddening in its lack of discussion about the actual film, and most of what is said about it isn’t very enlightening. Solomon goes on to discuss, at length, scenes that never made it into the film, and the generic underpinnings that do very little to add to the reader’s knowledge of, or appreciation for, Chaplin’s work. The only variant of the film that really matters is Chaplin’s 1942 reworking of the material into a version that added his narration and music composed by him, but it’s obvious that this was his way of staying in the public eye and creating a film that had some measure of validity in the wake of sound films completely losing their relevance to modern audiences. And in that respect, it was no more successful than something like the sound version of Universal’s The Phantom of the Opera with a dubbed soundtrack from 1930, despite the contemporary reviews.

But Solomon’s obsession reaches the absurd when he quotes an article called “The Work of Art in the Age of Its Technological Reproducibility,” by Walter Benjamin, and before he can even get to the text he is compelled to add that this is, “an essay, it is worth noting, that exists in five distinct different versions.” Sigh. In his BFI companion to the 1922 silent film Nosferatu, Kevin Jackson spends a mere six paragraphs in total discussing the variant versions of that film, even though a court had ordered all the prints destroyed world wide. The same conditions were present for Nosferatu that resulted in the numerous variants of The Gold Rush, and there were just as many alterations made of Murnau's film as there were of Chaplin's. It’s as if Solomon were writing a book about the board game Monopoly, and spent the entire text detailing the various times he played it as a child, who won each game, how they did it, how many hotels he had on Boardwalk and Park Place in each game, the number of times he went to jail and on and on and on, without ever discussing the history of the board game itself. The cumulative effect is mind numbing.

Before long, however, it becomes painfully clear what Solomon is actually doing. He is taking the deconstructionist principles that have destroyed college literature classes and putting them to use to do the same to silent films. This actually begins earlier in the book when he states that, as far as The Gold Rush is concerned, there is no definitive version because, “how the film is remembered depends partly on which version(s) one has seen and heard.” From there he makes the tired analogy of film as text in order to further his deconstructionist agenda, by quoting Benjamin’s article.

          The finished film is the exact antithesis of a work created at a single stroke. It is assembled
          from a very large number of images and image sequences that offer an array of choices to the
          editor; these images, moreover, can be improved in any desired way in the process leading
          from the initial take to the final cut . . . The film is therefore the artwork most capable of
          improvement
.

Improvement according to whom? This is precisely the kind of lecture hall drivel that has undercut the idea of creative genius in college classrooms with the express intent of obviating students from the rigors of thinking. As Solomon says, this idea is central in “eroding the very concept of authenticity and dispelling what [Benjamin] describes as the ‘aura’ of both the original art object and the live stage performer.” In other words, the observer can make whatever they wish of the work of art and no one can tell them that they are wrong--because there is no meaning in something that has no inherent concreteness. But the reality is, the very quote he cites refutes his entire argument when Benjamin mentions the phrase “final cut.” That is the definition of a work of art. When the director has assembled the final cut, there is no other version, any more than a writer’s rough drafts call into question the veracity of the final published work. Solomon should stay in his classroom serving this pabulum to eighteen-year-olds who don’t know any better. To anyone at all knowledgeable about film, this kind of puerile posturing is highly disingenuous and pathetically juvenile.

Granted, silent films have been subject to much tinkering over the years that directors could not control, for the simple fact that they had no soundtracks to disrupt, but that in no way makes them any less of a cohesive vision once restorations are made with the express purpose of creating a version as close to what the director intended as possible. The fact that certain scenes may be slightly different--or even removed--or that different takes are used in divergent versions that are no longer in circulation in no way alters the primacy of the director’s original vision or the story the film is telling. It may alter the way it is told, but it doesn’t diminish its existence or create a completely different film, which seems to be Solomon’s point. And frankly, it’s insulting to the reader for Solomon to even suggest it. But ultimately it’s Solomon himself who refutes his own argument at the end of book, admitting that, “Since Chaplin was well known for continuing to shoot retakes long after everyone else on the set was ready to move on, some outtakes--apart from those containing outright gaffes or those shot for scenes that were eventually omitted--would be indistinguishable from the takes Chaplin originally selected to include in the film.” In essence, this renders his entire argument a moot point.

Finally, it will be no surprise to learn, Solomon also spends the last twenty-five pages of the book recounting and rehashing a seemingly endless series of variant Gold Rush prints, on film, videotape, laserdisc, DVD and digital versions, though to what purpose is mystifying. The same could be said about any number of films from the silent era without really illuminating a thing about the film itself. The author chooses instead to go into great detail about the scenes that didn’t actually make it into the film. The overall effect is as if someone took a three-hundred-page work on the film and removed all of the elements that had nothing to do with the story on the screen and put that into a separate book. There is a brief chapter on a few of the memorable scenes, but this only emphasizes the fact that there is phenomenally little else about the actual film in the entire book as a whole. But then, according to Solomon, there is no actual film so that apparently makes some kind of perverted sense. Ultimately, Solomon’s book is more than just disappointing, it’s bad. And that’s a shame. There’s a real need for a book about The Gold Rush that goes in depth about the actual film, but this isn’t it. So if that’s what you’re looking for, stay well away from this one.

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