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Establishing shots

Silent Traces Discovering Early Hollywood Through the Films of Charlie Chaplin John Bengtson Santa Monica Press: 304 pp., $24.95

October 08, 2006|Glen David Gold | Glen David Gold is the author of the novel "Carter Beats the Devil." His new novel will look at Hollywood during World War I.

JOHN BENGTSON'S "Silent Traces" is a delightfully obsessive piece of artistic detective work. It's an aggressive act of deconstruction, performed in such a loving, relentless, mindful way -- no theory, only practice -- that it would make the ghost of Jacques Derrida weep with pleasure.

Bengtson has gone through 43 of Charlie Chaplin's movies made between 1914 and 1940 and figured out where he shot nearly every exterior location. Where possible, he has found contemporary photographs to show what the locations looked like when put to their daily use and current photographs to show how they look now. There are also maps, diagrams, stills and images from various archives to flesh things out. His text walks you through Chaplin's career, Hollywood geography and architecture and city planning, and Bengtson's own 2005-era detective work.

For instance, Page 178 gives us a frame from the famous 1918 "Shoulder Arms" sequence in which Chaplin, disguised as a tree, runs from a German soldier and hides among other trees. Having seen this film, I had wondered where such a distinctive windbreak of eucalyptus trees was to be found. Bengtson has the answer, with a 1920 aerial shot of Beverly Hills and an arrow toward a Black Forest-sized stand of eucalyptus trees running parallel with Wilshire Boulevard, a.k.a. the battlefields of France.

Turn the page and there's a breakdown of Chaplin's awful 1919 pastoral, "Sunnyside." This was shot during his first marriage in what looks like the middle of a rustic idyll. And yet the author compares a mountain range in one frame with the view from the intersection of California Street and Alameda Avenue in Burbank and finds a perfect match. In other words, he points out what we already knew: What was once farmland is now the NBC Studios.

And so it goes, film after film, with distinctive skylines and rooftop advertisements and street signs circled like defense exhibits, belly to belly with real-life photographs of the same places, the before and after of an extreme makeover.

I stand in awe, the way you might when encountering a model of Paris made of toothpicks. Which is limiting -- obsession usually carries its own self-propelled meaning and then grinds to a halt. Though there's a treasure trove of previously unknown information about the silent-film era, the book does not pontificate much on, for instance, how its findings help us to understand Chaplin's art form. So why bother with this project, particularly when the author has already done a similar job with the films of Buster Keaton ("Silent Echoes")?

The foreword by Kevin Brownlow suggests that the project can help us understand early Hollywood history. Which is true. It's startling to read, for instance, about the destruction of old Chinatown (where Chaplin frequently shot). But there's more to it.

Many students of film first encounter the phrase "diegetic effect" in Noel Burch's "To the Distant Observer," a study of Japanese cinema. It refers to the process by which art ceases to be brush strokes, words on a page or sequential camera angles and becomes instead, through the psychological machination of our perceptions, a reflection of reality. When we watch a movie that we like, we are absorbed in the story, accepting close-ups, dissolves, cuts and pans without being jolted "awake."

Unless you live in Los Angeles. Because should you go see a tear-jerker, in the midst of a painful goodbye scene, you might just hear someone in the audience whispering, "That's my house in the background!" Our paradise carries some interesting narrative baggage, and simply seeing a certain vista in the right light can pop the process of absorption like a water balloon. Bengtson's work is a daring finger in the diegetic eye, asking everyone, Angeleno and otherwise, to stop looking at the story and instead pay attention to trolley tracks, reflections in windows, signs of exterior life.

When Chaplin shot films here, they were universal tales as resonant to a Ceylonese laborer as to a member of the Duma. Simultaneously, they were staged against a landscape that stood in for the Lambeth section of London, where Chaplin spent his abominable childhood. Because of that, there is something of dream logic in trying to determine what identity a building actually has. Take "The Fireman," shot at Lillian Way and Eleanor Avenue in 1916. The sets were at the studio, but the fire station was a real fire station, No. 29, which Bengtson has located on South Western Avenue. The top floor is now a carpet store, and the ground floor is a Korean bridal shop.

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