Seventy-five years of the Garneau Theatre (sounds a lot better than “dodranscentennial!”). The only early-modernist picture-house still operating in Alberta (going from Famous Players to a repertory theatre to a cinématheque now, thanks to Metro Cinema). Wow.
I’d like to start with my memory of seeing Jacques Tati’s Playtime, but that was actually at the Metro’s old digs, in what was then the slightly grotty bowels of Zeidler Hall, near the pedway and above underground parking lots and tucked in the Citadel Theatre just beyond the lobby’s odd labyrinth of ferns and tropical plants. That whole straining, patchwork effort at modern urban living in downtown Edmonton likely made my first viewing of Tati’s gentle comic spoof of a modern design-for-life, up there on the big screen, all the funnier.
My fondest movie-memory of the Garneau has to be Michael Haneke’s Caché at the 2005 Edmonton International Film Festival—probably only the third time the film had been screened in all of North America thus far—with a few friends. I’d read the glowing reviews out of Cannes, and read about the ending (a long shot where a stunning, cryptic twist is offered up to the keen-eyed), and then … I couldn’t spot it. I strained, I scanned, I stared, but I hadn’t seen it! Out in the lobby afterwards, gathered ’round to discuss this great new thriller, my three fellow filmgoers had all spotted it, while I, the supposedly eagle-eyed film critic who’d urged them to come and shepherded them down the aisles for the Big Event, had utterly missed Haneke’s last little tweak to the tale.
But forget me. A tribute to a movie-house on its diamond jubilee should be about movies. And there’s no film better for reflecting on this film-forum—the importance of a place where people can gather to watch together, but separately, a sustained flash of art in the dark—than another comic masterpiece, by another great director, taking on modern life and tweaking bourgeois sensibilities with more artistry and passion than even Tati or Haneke. That film is Chaplin’s The Great Dictator (1940)—Metro’s smartest, most necessary choice of all in its Garneau celebration series.
I’ve written before about how Chaplin turned his splayfooted choreography into a satire of goosestepping conformity and flipped his Tramp-ishness into tyranny in his first talkie—and cinema’s most important political satire. The champion of the little, the down-and-out, became the opposite and opponent of the little man who only championed the strongest and the triumph of the will while lethally targeting outsiders. In the film, Hynkel’s spitting, firing gibberish alone is a scathing parody of Hitler’s ranting oratories. This moustached maniac’s a manic-obsessive, vainglorious fool, full of sound and fury but signifying far too much. And Chaplin’s famous climactic speech—a denunciation of greed, hate, cynicism (“We think too much and feel too little”), nationalism and “machine-men”—vocalizes his art’s constant concern: the elastic, anarchic possibilities of the individual versus the rigid, controlling mechanisms of the state. Taking a step back to re-examine Nazi Germany for the inhuman absurdity it was, Chaplin reveals how “Life is a tragedy when seen in close-up, but a comedy in long-shot.”
And there’s also the brilliant meta-ness and self-satire, with Chaplin sending up directors—he himself was one of the most controlling and meticulous—as petty dictators. (Both Chaplin and another famously all-overseeing director, Stanley Kubrick, long wanted to do films about that French dictator, Napoleon; Chaplin, though, turned this obsessive, consuming interest into mockery and perhaps self-mockery when The Great Dictator’s childish Hynkel and the buffoonish “Benzino Napaloni”—parodying Mussolini—undiplomatically engage in a food-fight.)
But it’s how The Great Dictator time-capsules us back to 1940 that matters most, I think, in revealing greatness and littleness. Here’s a great film that screened in picture-palaces across the nation on the very first year that a new, little theatre in a remote northern city was being built, along a dusty, wide 109 Street slowly becoming dotted with more storefronts and tenements. And so many little, unknown people, whether on the homefront or as they shipped out, were becoming swept up in a great war, doing their little part to turn a great tide of blood and suffering, to calm the world’s waters again, though it would mean so much dying to do so.
Chaplin later said that, had he known the true extent and horror of the Nazis’ camps, he wouldn’t have been able to make his Hitler-satire, but then almost no one in the world, even by September 1939, as the film was being shot and Germany occupied Poland, was much aware of the Holocaust horrors that had begun. But Chaplin saw Hitler as an “obscenely comic,” grotesque imitation of him and his Tramp figure, this moustached man twisting Chaplin’s worldwide humanitarian movie-messages into a self-interested call-to-arms, trumpeted at Germany’s Aryan “race.” He was a dangerous actor, mimicking the mime; the political was personal. (There are conflicting accounts as to whether or not Hitler himself saw the film.)
Chaplin remained prescient and circumspect enough to make a comedy lashing out at a tragedy’s progenitor, taking the failed artist-turned-genocidal-tyrant seriously enough to mock him on-screen. (Chaplin realized that stonily self-serious right-wingers tend to hate, most of all, people laughing at them.) From the 21st century’s first celebrity and cinema’s first great comic visionary, this was a feat of artistic ambition and bravery, in the face of a brutal fascist nightmare, that hasn’t been matched since in commercial movie-making. The script was one of the greatest in Hollywood history, running more than 300 pages. Isolationist sentiment in the US was against Chaplin; studios were being discouraged from making obviously anti-Nazi films. FDR himself complained the film could hurt America-Germany relations. And, soon after, the FBI began monitoring Chaplin closely, with Hoover’s organization eager to out him as a Red.
Through this film, then, we can look back on the contradictions and cross-currents of 1940: the Nazi threat the world would have to face (and some were already facing—The Great Dictator proved quite popular in besieged Britain) but many didn’t yet want to; the courage of one projector-focused artistic vision versus the torpor, slowness, and uncertainty of everyday life; even the Cold War soon to emerge in the wake of the uneasy Second World War alliance between the Soviet Union and industrialized democracies.
There beyond the street-side marquee, within a nice old cinema, flickering away in the dark, a great film can illuminate troubled times and little lives, no matter the era. As critic Kyp Harness notes of that food-fight between Hynkel and Napaloni: “Riding upon the jabbering of these two ludicrous baboons are the destinies of millions of people, and the utter foolishness of the dictators is as tragic as it is comic—within it are all the reasons one needs to pity all of humanity.” V