Saturday, 3 July 2010

Slapstick is born - 1907 - Début d'un patineur (The Unskillful Skater) - Louis J. Gasnier

The cinematic development of slapstick comedy can be traced back to films such as Début d'un patineur. As Linder’s character flounders in his skates and later gets chased by a group of children who are far superior skaters than he is, the endless possibilities for this genre, particularly during the silent era, becomes readily apparent.

Even though it had been only a year since he filmed Le premier cigare d'un collegian, it is clear that Linder’s style and comedic timing had evolved. Despite the impressiveness of the latter film, Début d'un patineur is a better orchestrated and funnier film. Most importantly it makes better use of the visual medium.

Whereas Le premier cigare d'un collegian was based around the experience of Linder’s character smoking a cigar, which did not lend itself particularly well to visual comedy (although Linder did an excellent job of portraying the effects the cigar has on him), the decision to base this film around Linder’s character attempting to skate opens itself to a greater array of visual comedic possibilities.  

The opening shot of Début d'un patineur demonstrates the magnetic effect of Linder’s  Parisian boulevardier persona. The camera focuses on a pathway in a busy park as various Parisians walk by. As Linder wanders into the shot, even from a distance his languorous movements draws the audience in. From Méliès Voyage Dans La Lune to Tait’s The Story of the Kelly Gang, many of the movies of this era relied on an ensemble cast to portray the film’s storytelling. Linder though, somehow manages to create a persona that captivates his audience almost single-handedly.

As mentioned in the previous post on Linder, movement is crucial to the effectiveness of Linder’s persona. Whereas previously we admired the subtleties of Linder’s movement, on this occasion it is his crass movements, for example, as he first attempts to use the ice skates, which must be commended. And it is this form of physical action that lends itself ever so well to silent film. Such action rarely requires exposition and can thus exist independently of language. It is no coincidence that the silent films that have endured among mainstream modern viewers are usually Chaplin or Keaton films. 

Despite Linder’s character clearly having little idea of how to balance himself on his skates, the audience is always left with the impression that Linder the actor is in complete control of every action. One might suggest that this is giving Linder too much credit; however, the comic timing of Linder’s acrobatics are almost perfect, which suggests that he knew exactly what he was doing.

The decision to show the entire process of Linder’s journey, from entering the park up to attempting to skate, only adds to the humour of his skating antics. His character clearly stands out among the usual skaters, and the look of bemusement of the men renting the skates is shared by the audience. It is in these scenes where Linder’s brilliance truly shines. There is embellishment that does not slip into exaggeration, everything is measured.

Perhaps the highlight of the film is when a more experienced skater attempts to help him up and the two of them engage in an accidental dance. As good as Linder is when he is performing a comic routine by himself, his comic chemistry with this other character suggests that his finest moments in his future films will come when he is placed in such scenarios.  

Finally, the film also played a key historical role in regards to recognising the author of a film:
"Les Debut d'un patineur" (1907) is remarkable because Linder's confused snob appeared for the first time. When in his credits for the movie "Max et la doctoresse" appeared the following text: "written by Max Linder and played by the author". It was the first time in film history that there was mentioned an author in connection with a cinematic work.
Their is a delicious irony to this milestone - Linder was not yet a director! Which in turn asks important question about who actually authors a film, particularly in the case of a slapstick comedy. The fact that this post has not mentioned this film's director even once suggests that I agree with the crediting of this film. But in a broader context, the question of authorship becomes far more ambiguous. 

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