No villains allowed
You may take this as bragging, but it most assuredly is not: my children, ages 8 and 4, have fallen in love with silent comedies. Earlier in the pandemic — I believe it was somewhere around Month 372, although I might have to double-check my records — we reached an impasse regarding the question of villains. With schools closed and the country on lockdown, our family sought to safeguard our fraying collective sanity and the silent terror of endless empty hours to fill with the imposition of a daily 4 PM movie, or “movie show,” as the 4-year-old termed it. And we had run into some challenges regarding villains, who I came to realize were rampant in practically every film ever made, and whose very presence terrified my children. Even Disney movies, supposed safe space for fraidycats of all ages, were crammed full of evil snakes, vicious lions, nasty women who wanted to turn dogs into fur coats, and all manner of baddies.
Racking my brain for a movie that might not activate that primal fear, I seized on the idea of showing them a Charlie Chaplin movie, testing my theory that Chaplin was so astonishingly gifted as to win over audiences of any age, under any circumstances. So we turned to the Criterion Channel and put on The Kid, in which Chaplin adopts sweet-hearted urchin Jackie Coogan. The kids loved seeing “Charlie,” as they instantly took to calling him, smack police officers in the butt, hire his underage apprentice to smash windows which he would offer to fix, and accidentally set himself on fire. They were even moved when, later in the film, Charlie and his adopted son were temporarily separated from each other.
I had been white-knuckling it through the 53 minutes of The Kid, hoping we could make it to the end without inciting a revolt, but then the oddest thing happened: the kids called for more. I trotted out further Chaplins, along with Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd, Laurel & Hardy, and even later comedians like Jerry Lewis and Jacques Tati who occasionally opened their mouths but whose work was similarily physical. My 4-year-old began to quiz his grandparents on FaceTime about which Harold Lloyd movie was their favorite — a question they did not have a ready answer to. (His, for the record, is “the one where Harold is on the clock,” also known as Safety Last.)
Silent comedies were a survival mechanism. The movies had their share of nasty cops, mean landlords, cruel frat brothers, and tyrannical fathers, but the stakes were blissfully low. The worst that happened was the Tramp being hauled off to jail in City Lights — an event that takes place entirely offstage. Of course, there were nuances of these films — their attunment to subtleties of class, in particular — that were lost on my younger audience, and a screening of Keaton’s The General required an extended discussion about the classic film’s repellent Confederate nostalgia, newly repugnant in the year of George Floyd.
The truth was, when I thought about it, there were more than enough villains in my own mental life as well, beginning with the science-resistant President Donald Trump and devolving from there to all-too-real boogeymen like Rudy Giuliani, Stephen Miller, and William Barr. The country was seeming to come apart at the seams, frayed irrevocably by scientific denialism, racist brutality, and know-nothing white nationalism, and it was a pleasure to escape into movies whose conflicts were settled with a swift kick to the rear.
Screening these movies for my kids, I couldn’t help but see the appeal of these movies, which I had loved for decades, in a new light. When we first started watching these movies, our concentration was regularly interrupted by the sound of wailing sirens outside our window. Every two or three minutes, another ambulance would speed past our building, and my concentration would be shattered, thinking of the sheer mass of anguish, pain, and grief accruing in New York as we huddled indoors. My children were not yet mature enough to give such matters their full consideration. They knew, though, that they were not in school, that they were not seeing their friends or their grandparents, that circumstances beyond their control had seized their lives and brought them to a shuddering halt. These movies could do nothing about all of that. What they offered instead was the small consolation of laughter, of watching Chaplin twirl his cane and Keaton neverously adjust his hat and Laurel ponderously fluff his hair while thinking through a knotty problem. They offered the consolation of minor problems, and of familiar resolutions.
We are now, astonishingly, approaching the one-year anniversary of COVID, and of our movie shows. One set of villains, thankfully, has been disposed of. COVID life has gotten ever-so-slightly better, but our movie shows, which have now become weekly, and expanded to include Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata along with more run-of-the-mill Disney+ fare, remain highlights. I can’t help but think back to a summer afternoon when my children and I watched Tati’s 1973 film Trafic. In the movie, the arrival of a hilariously overstuffed camper car at a Dutch car show was indefinitely delayed by an unending highway traffic jam on the road from Paris to Amsterdam.
Trafic is one of Tati’s more underrated efforts in a glittering comedic career (if you have not seen Playtime, please stop reading this immediately and report back after that movie has finished changing your life), but it felt like a telling metaphor for the moment. We had been indefinitely delayed by circumstances entirely beyond our control. We were on the road between Point A and Point B, neither here nor there, stuck between exits. We would hopefully arrive soon, but we were not there, not yet.