I love movies. I have loved movies all my life. I grew up on them. When I was eight years old, I managed to convince myself I would make movies when I grew up. Now I am in the process of getting a degree in Film Studies. I write about film more than ever before, partly because I have to for my classes, mostly because I enjoy it, because I have something to write about. Sometimes it helps me understand the film better; sometimes it helps me understand myself better.
I created this blog as a place to showcase my work, and also as an incentive to keep writing reviews, analyses, and essays over breaks, when there’s no one here to grade me.
I have tried many times, and failed, to explain in a coherent manner why it is that I love films. Here is my best—and most coherent—guess.

Monday, October 7, 2013

Tillie's Punctured Romance (1914) Analysis

Tillie’s Punctured Romance, released in 1914, marks Mack Sennett’s first feature length film and his biggest Keystone project. Bringing together all the talent on the Sennett lot—and then some—the movie is also notable as Marie Dressler’s first screen appearance. An adaptation of the stage success “Tillie’s Nightmare,” which also starred Dressler, the film tells a conventional tale of a simple country gal (Dressler) who gets swindled by a shark  from the big city (played by Charlie Chaplin). “The fetid atmosphere of the wicked city” and the country’s “pure breath of open spaces” are placed in sharp and comedic opposition, while the straight-forward, uncomplicated plot—essentially the material of any one of the director’s shorts stretched out for over an hour—becomes simply a pretext for a series of gags, mounting in rhythm and intensity to a speedy culmination; Sennett, parodying both the melodramas of the time (shades of Griffith’s Way Down East) and a gaggle of intellectual pretensions, lofty sentiments and noble virtues, demonstrates once again that tense melodrama and comedic farce are not that far apart; all it takes is an alteration or exaggeration of character personalities, a scrambling of editing rhythms, and a distortion of events, and seriousness dissolves into laughter.

The prime example is the titular Tillie herself, “the pride of Yokeltown and the apple of her papa’s eye.” Reading the title cards, an image of pastoral beauty and innocence forms in our minds: backlit, soft-focused, a fair-haired, tiny embodiment of vulnerability in the vein of True Heart Susie herself. Then we get Marie Dressler. In From Reverence to Rape: The Treatment of Women in the Movies, Molly Haskell argues that comedic actresses of the silent period, similarly to dramatic performers, can be grouped into two sexually stereotyped categories: “good girls “ and “gargoyles.” Dressler did not belong to the former. As Mabel Normand’s character says in Tillie’s Punctured Romance, Dressler was “built like a battleship,” reminiscent of “one of Ringling’s elephants.”

The contrast between audience expectation and reality, between the image the words create and the one presented onscreen creates a highly comedic disconnect. Which is not to say the image would not be funny on its own; Dressler dons an increasingly ridiculous series of elaborate, flowery outfits throughout the film, each one containing at least one enormous bow, and her mannerisms are exactly those of a little girl—a very, very big little girl. The actress’s distinct brand of physical comedy results primarily from her physical appearance and eagerness to make fun of it.

The sentimentality and melodramatic nature of the title cards is further exaggerated from what one would expect in a more serious film. We can’t help but laugh when we read that Tillie’s “hitherto untouched girlish heart throbs in the answer to the call of love,” and see the character sway her hips playfully, only to knock her sweetheart down through her massive force—the size difference between the main characters is emphasized in a number of shots.

The visual knockabout is senseless and superb, lifted by insistence and inventiveness to the level of poetic fantasy. Chaplin, Mabel Normand, Mack Swain, Hank Mann, Chester Conklin, Al St. John—and even the Keystone Kops in minor roles—all get theirs: they dash, splash, crash, and smash; they’re punched, kicked, and tossed, turned into projectiles and packages whose fates  become nothing more than matters of weight, momentum, trajectory, and inertia. The sealed-off, self-contained universe Sennett creates has little to do with reality, except as a sped-up, absurd representation of it, an insult to human and physical laws, gravitational as well as geometric. In the film’s breathless conclusion, the entire cast of characters, accompanied by a division of the Water Police, dive, fall, or get pushed off the pier into the ocean, shot in silhouette in an extreme long shot. A lesser physical comedian might have left it at that, but Sennett repeatedly and rhythmically pulls them out and drops them back in, not unlike tea bags in the hands of someone unsure if they’ve been steeped quite long enough.

Tillie’s Punctured Romance, however, is not a pure Keystone knockabout farce; a parody of serious melodrama peppered with visual gags, chases, and coincidences, the film assures us that its main character is not only wetter by the end, but also wiser. Chaplin and Mabel, and then Chaplin and Tillie, pretend to be a part of high society, giving large parties, dancing the tango, and ordering the servants about, but the women are redeemed, realizing that there are things more important than wealth.  Sennett reduces all potentially serious material and motifs to predictable literary cliché and formulaic themes, and emotions are strictly conventions, merely ideas of love, jealousy, anger, greed, or vengefulness, and not realistic feelings based on character psychology or human motivation. When Tillie discovers her now husband and his partner in crime in an embrace, the response is a food fight, quickly evolving into a gun fight, as the whole party dissolves in chaos, just in time for the owner of the house, presumed dead, to return. Hell hath no fury, indeed, and in the end it is the female characters who come out on top, deciding that Chaplin’s unscrupulous, womanizing conman “ain’t no good for neither of us.”

Click here for  a comparison of Sennett's style to that of his biggest competitor, Hal Roach.

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