Saturday, February 6, 2010

Charlie Chaplin is Eating His Shoes

Last night after a dinner of shrimp risotto, we settled down on the couch with the kids to watch Charlie Chaplin's "The Gold Rush." I'm sort of surprised that the kids find these silent movies compelling (in fact, I'm delighted), but as the movie progressed, we found that Charlie Chaplin had later added a voice track and dialogue. This completely ruined it for us. "Awww!" we all moaned. My son, Hudson, was the most irritated. "Why do we need words?" he asked. We zoomed the volume down, but then we lost the music that provides such nice tension and pacing. My daughter, Lily, sat tucked under my arm, her feet wiggling in contentment. I kept watching her watch.

At one point, Chaplin picks the nails out of his shoes, chews the leather bits off of them, then sets them aside as if they're bones. Next, he twirls his black shoelace onto his fork like spaghetti and eats it. Lily began narrating. "Look, Charlie Chaplin is eating his shoes," she said. "He thinks his shoelace is spaghetti!" And it struck me that, as a relatively new reader, Lily is learning how to construct her own narrative from Chaplin. She is "reading" and "writing" the story in front of her by providing words to pictures.

I couldn't help think about the new Graphic Novels literature course I'm teaching. The first book we're studying is David Small's Stitches, which has been called "a silent movie masquerading as a book." Panel by panel floats by in grayscale without a word. The presentation of Detroit, Small's family living room, his parents, are delivered to us silently. It's pure synesthesia to portray silence visually. The effect is moody and hellish but ultimately beautiful. Might it work, I wondered, to bring in some Chaplin movies to the class? Might the students learn how to read graphic novels with more complexity by watching silent movies?