Monday at the Michigan

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A Monday in April, as another Michigan spring inches its way teasingly towards the warmth of summer. On April 11, 2011, I thought I’d take the edge off the beginning of the workweek by taking in a double feature at the Michigan Theater, which is near where I work in Ann Arbor.

I had planned to see Monsieur Verdoux, the latest movie in the Charlie Chaplin series that the Michigan has put on since February. When I looked at the always informative Michigan schedule, I noticed that it was also showing what looked like a new stylish, clever comedy, Certified Copy, starring Juliette Binoche, whom I’ve admired in many movies at the Michigan and Detroit Film Theatre in the last 20 years.

After parking at the very top level of the Liberty Square parking garage—my reward for looking for a parking space in downtown Ann Arbor at 4:30 in the afternoon—I bought a ticket for the 4:45 showing of Certified Copy. After I bought my dinner—a medium-size popcorn and diet Coke—I walked into the main auditorium, where the spacious melodies of organist Andrew Rogers gave me a unique magic feeling about being at the Michigan. I felt thankful that I could go straight from the routine of the workday into such a pleasant setting.

Certified Copy was set in Italy, and was unique in that it was the first film by Iranian director Abbas Kiarostami set outside his native country. As the story unfolded, I was glad that I had experience with the filmmaking style of many Iranian filmmakers—a deliberate, straightforward, almost real-time style where the camera lingers on situations in a way that forces you to look clearly at what’s going on. I also found myself thinking about another filmmaker who favors long takes and minimal camera movement—Yasujiro Ozu, whose Tokyo Story appears at the Detroit Film Theatre on April 23.

At times, Certified Copy really tested the patience, and if I wasn’t experienced with such filmmaking, I would have been bored and unhappy with the style of the movie. But I stayed with it, and the ending was powerful and throught-provoking, and didn’t wrap things up cleanly, instead letting the audience continue thinking about the lives of the characters after the end of the credits.

Certified Copy was a beautiful travelogue of Italy, in particular the lush landscape of the Tuscany area. Other scenes were set in ancient and well-preserved courtyards and building interiors.

Juliette Binoche impressed me with the skillfull way that she moved among three languages (English, Italian, and French), and lead actor William Shimell was very realistic in the ways he reacted to interesting and surprising situations to which he was led by Binoche. And a speech by Juliette Binoche towards the end of the movie about the ordinary challenges and satisfactions of relationships reminded me of similar comments she made about 20 years ago in the Three Colors trilogy, which I first saw at the Detroit Film Theatre.

Monsieur Verdoux

The two movies of my Monday double bill had several things in common. Both explored identity, role-playing, and masquerades. There were also comparisons of similar behaviors in different settings. In Certified Copy, the lead characters talked about the difference between a young child saying “So what” to life, and a full-grown adult saying the same thing. In Monsier Verdoux, Charlie Chaplin explored the differences between death by a serial killer and death during wartime. And, in a curious coincidence, both movies had scenes where corked wine helped change the course of a conversation between a man and a woman.

I had never seen Monsier Verdoux, not even on television, and I tried to put myself in the place of a filmgoer of 1947, when this film was released. This was Chaplin’s first film in seven years, after The Great Dictator, in which audiences first heard his voice. It was the early postwar period, when moviegoing was at its peak.

Monsier Verdoux also starred two familiar comic faces of the era. Martha Raye had appeared in movies with Bob Hope, and William Frawley that year also appeared in the Christmas classic Miracle on 34th Street, years before Frawley’s most famous role as Fred Mertz on I Love Lucy. After the movie, I heard someone reminiscing about Martha Raye’s appearance in denture commercials on television. How differently it all looks now compared to how it looked then.

And the movie also introduced Marilyn Nash (a Detroit native), playing The Girl, in one of only two movies that she every appeared in. She had mixed talents as an actress, but she had a friendly smile that immediately grabbed your attention every time she flashed it.

Monsier Verdoux maintained Chaplin’s usual high standard of filmmaking, and I was impressed by the precision and grace with which he built up different gags. There’s also something unique about the sound engineering and film processing in his movies, something I’ve also noticed in Modern Times (1936) and The Great Dictator (1940). They have a distant, formal texture that seems to give more importance to the story.

Chaplin played a sophisticated, clever serial murderer, in a story to which Orson Welles contributed. I’m sure Chaplin got a perverse thrill out of pushing the limits of the production code that existed in 1947, when audiences had much less experience with dark comedy than they do in 2011. And like in his first “talkie,” The Great Dictator, Chaplin used the final scenes to make political points about world peace.

I’m looking forward to the last movie in the Chaplin series, Limelight (1952), which plays in two weeks, on April 25. I’ve never seen that movie either, and it will be a delight to see Chaplin helping audiences rediscover another great comedian of the silent era—Buster Keaton (who makes a return to the Michigan on May 15, in the Family Friendly Film Series, in Sherlock, Jr.).

Also, this blog entry marks five years of blogging for this web site. Interestingly, the very first entry was about the Michigan Theater screening of a group of silent Charlie Chaplin short films from the 1910s (The Beautiful Sounds of Silents). That seems appropriate, considering the rich variety of programming that Charlie Chaplin has provided for the Detroit Film Theatre, Michigan Theater, and Redford Theatre.

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Copyright © 2011 by Robert Hollberg Smith, Jr.

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