LIVE: Marc Ribot & Charlie Chaplin’s “The Kid” @ MASS MoCA, 7/9/11

You never know what’ll happen when today’s musicians apply their sensibilities to classic films of the silent era: Dave Douglas gave Fatty Arbuckle’s creations a decidedly modern twist; Steve Bernstein’s Millenial Territory Orchestra stayed pretty traditional when they backed a series of Laurel & Hardy shorts; and the ever-unpredictable Bill Frisell took sounds from both eras to add to the madness of Buster Keaton’s 1920 two-reeler “One Week.”

So what kind of original music (and accompanying style) would Marc Ribot bring to MASS MoCA’s screening of “The Kid,” Charlie Chaplin’s first feature-length film?

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My experience with Ribot was limited to the wilder aspects of his electric side, which I believe would have been entirely inappropriate for this film genre. Ribot must have believed it, too, because he mounted the outdoor Courtyard C stage with a single acoustic guitar and no backup musicians. My inherent fear of Al Di Meola’s stomp boxes loomed until Ribot sat down on the center-stage chair and began playing “Smoke Gets in Your Eyes.” It was acoustic guitar, the real deal, and I couldn’t have been happier. Ribot sat hunched over, his right ear practically inside the guitar as he mixed his muscular sense of deconstruction with a percussive flamenco style that took the standard flying over the Atlantic.

Ribot’s half-hour “opening set” was all standards, ranging from the French love song “Under Paris Skies” to Coltrane’s late-career composition “Dearly Beloved.” Regardless of tempo or approach, there was a lovely hushed quality to every piece Ribot played, increasing the evening’s intimacy by steady degrees as colored lights shined off the steel walkways that connected one building to another. The courtyard was almost completely filled by the time Ribot finished his set and moved over to the chair sitting at stage right. “Kill all the lights on me,” he ordered. “It’s time to be invisible.” The lights went down, and the film began, billing itself as “A picture with a smile – and, perhaps, a tear.”

With the manners of a gentleman and the instincts of a con artist, the Little Tramp had become a comic icon long before Chaplin began writing and directing his own films. But “The Kid” took the Tramp into the world of drama, and the transition is remarkably smooth. Through an exercise in Chaos Theory, the Tramp finds a baby that has been abandoned twice – first by his distraught, unwed mother (Edna Purviance) who leaves him in an expensive car, and then by the thieves who steal that car. Despite the mother’s accompanying note begging the finder to care and love for the child, the Tramp makes several comic attempts to get the baby off his hands. Defeated at every turn, the Tramp resignedly takes the baby back to his one-room apartment in a backstreet slum. His attempts to make the child comfortable are predictably uproarious, but at the end of the scene, the Tramp’s expression clearly says, “What the fuck do I do NOW?”

Skip ahead five years. The Tramp still lives in the same place, the Kid (now in the form of an adorable Jackie Coogan) is still with him, and they have constructed a life together. Unable or unwilling to get a “straight job,” the Tramp scrounges work as a glazier, replacing broken windows around his neighborhood – windows that were broken because the Kid threw rocks through them! It sounds unsavory, but the Tramp’s affection for the Kid is absolutely genuine. He makes sure the Kid is washed and fed, defends and encourages him when he gets in a fight with the neighborhood bully, and shows him the kind of dotage every father should give his son. The Kid returns the Tramp’s love full-fold, completely happy in the only existence he’s ever known, and not hindered in any way by the absence of his mother – an absence that may soon be filled, whether he wants it or not.

The plot takes many twists and turns, and can go from hilarious to heart-wrenching in a hot second. But Chaplin’s script also includes biting social commentary on the society of the time and its need to impose its morals on people who don’t match up to the “accepted” rules of morality. (Sound familiar?) If you think single parents get it in the neck now, take “heart” in the fact that it was ten times worse back in the Roaring Twenties. The Kid’s mother makes her first appearance coming out of a charity hospital with her newborn, her back scathed by the scornful looks of the staff members who unlock the gate. When a doctor attending to the Kid finds out his only parental unit is the Tramp, he pompously declares, “This child needs proper care and attention,” and immediately contacts the County Orphan Asylum. The authorities’ attempt to separate the Kid from the Tramp borders on horrifying, even though the accompanying scenes show the depths of the Tramp’s devotion to the Kid, and vice versa.

Ribot varied between setting a background for each scene and reacting to events as they happened. In that way, his score was similar to the “traditional” music that supported silent films back in the day; however, because the music comes from a guitar rather than a piano, the sense of emotion and drama is quite different, and packs the same sense of intimacy that ran through Ribot’s opening set. The lack of melodrama in the music means Ribot achieved his goal to “be invisible”, allowing the audience to lock into the characters that populate Chaplin’s exquisitely layered story. “The Kid” is still required viewing, but I wish it could be distributed with Ribot’s music, so new arrivals don’t have to deal with a background that subtracts as much as it adds.

Review by J Hunter

SECOND OPINIONS:
Jeremy D. Goodwin’s review at Metroland

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