Tim Allen to infinity

Tim Allen to infinity

In May 2021 Hillsdale College staged its one hundred and sixty-ninth Commencement Address, and the speaker was actor/comedian Tim Allen.

I’ve often thought that selecting a speaker for commencement addresses is an interesting and potentially perilous undertaking, because in addition to an absorbing speaker you have to find some relevance beyond mere celebrity. I have now discovered that Tim Allen, in addition to the huge menu of work in his resumé, in addition to being the voice of Buzz Lightyear, is the voice of Michigan in the state advertisements entitled Pure Michigan. Hillsdale College is in Michigan.

Nevertheless I suspect there’s a lot more for us to learn.

The speaker for an event of this profile should have a very senior introducer, and Larry Arnn the college President does the honours. We’ve seen him introducing before. He takes no prisoners. Does Tim Allen have any idea what’s coming?

Nope! He is overcome! “How in hell am I supposed to follow that?”

He’s neatly identified my problem here. How in hell am I supposed to critique this?

The fact is that being a comedian – a proper one with a Vegas routine that his agent warned him not to use here – he is comfortable with narrating a stream of consciousness. At least it comes across as a stream of consciousness whereas it conforms to an orthodox structure – chronology. He’s telling his life story with the emphasis, because he’s talking to a college, on his stressful relationship with his teachers. Anyone could follow that structure, but what makes this special is that he colours it all with his over-the-top personality. He’s a comedian – a proper one – and this is lovely stuff.

He’s even funny about how he went astray and wound up in a penitentiary for two years.

To the wider world he’s undoubtedly more famous for his acting because movies get more butts on seats than even the vast auditoriums in Vegas, but he’s a little dismissive of that part of his work. It pays the bills, it pays a hell of a lot of bills, but it doesn’t have audience contact. This is an artist who relishes audience contact and it shows.

The better they are the pickier I get. The least effective sections in this talk are when he moves into worthy areas. He probably thinks he should, and and he’s probably right, but it feels to me as if he’s strayed out of his back yard. But that’s very picky indeed.

I loved this.

Charlie Chaplin – a little dated, but hey!

I was invited to look at the final speech in the Chaplin film, The Great Dictator. How could I resist? A critique of a fictional speech is a first for this blog, and it has been hailed in some quarters as the finest speech of all time.

Is it? No. There could never be any such thing. Nevertheless, of its time it is a pretty fine example.

Bald opening! And you thought the concept was revolutionary!

Are you surprised that, for a star of silent movies, his enunciation is so good? Don’t be. He was not always a movie star: he paid his early dues on the live stage, and you didn’t get anywhere in those pre-radio-microphone days without having learnt this facet of your craft. I know his vowels, to the modern ear, are a little pale and clipped, and also he’s part-rolling his ‘r’s (a little like Olivier in the same period); but listen to how he always speaks right to the end of every word, never swallowing a syllable. If you found yourself having to speak in a large hall with a PA system that had broken down, that is how to enunciate. And he’s not over-enunciating. At 0:45, “Human beings are like that,” the final ‘t’ is barely touched…but it’s there!

I mentioned the paleness of his vowels, but it’s not with all of them. Yes, at 2:30 he speaks of people being treated ‘like kettle’, but that vowel was the fashion of the day. Also the fashion was to make the long ‘o’ sound desperately pale, almost like a long ‘a’. I once heard someone address Noel Coward, calling him “Nail”. However listen to Chaplin at 2:20. The ‘o’ in the first syllable of ‘soldiers’ is really quite dark, and there’s a reason for this. He learnt to enunciate correctly from the front of his mouth, and that always darkens the ‘o’ sound. I feel myself getting on too much of a hobby horse here, so I shall cease this subject. I cover it all in my booklet, Every Word Heard.

Chaplin’s eyes are fixed to a little below the camera lens. Is this supposed to represent humility, or is there an idiot-board there?  I don’t know, but let us remember that he directed this film, and directing steals a hell of a lot of the time that could otherwise be spent learning your lines.

When he gets worked up towards the end of the speech is when the age of the film really shows. No speaker could get away with that sort of ranting, stylized oratory in front of an audience of today. The man he was lampooning, Adolph Hitler (or Adenoid Hynkel, as they called him in the film) got away with it – but that was then.

What about the value of the speech’s message? My problem is that because it calls for all sorts of obviously desirable things – freedom, happiness (or, rather, heppiness), brotherly love, etc. it can be cited as supporting any political doctrine that claims to achieve those things – i.e. all of them. It wouldn’t surprise me if even Soviet commissars used to wheel it out to promote their disgusting creed. I know that it calls upon people to throw off dictatorial yokes – a consummation devoutly to be wished – but how many dictators would admit to using yokes? This ain’t aimed at me, guv, honest!

I know what I choose to assume the speech means, and I like it for that reason; but …

At 3:40 he calls for the doing away of national barriers, and immediately I’m onto another hobby horse. That concept is superficially very seductive, but withstands no examination whatever. Consider: someone has to run things. In order that they do so on behalf of their fellows and not on behalf of themselves or anyone else, they need to be accountable chiefly to their fellows. Tyranny thrives on distance between governors and governed, because accountability diminishes proportionally. Administrative units should therefore be as small as practicable. World government would be guaranteed to become tyrannical, exploitative, incompetent and corrupt. Look at the EU, and then multiply several-fold. What a ghastly prospect!

All right, I have attempted to encapsulate a very complicated matter into a single paragraph. I concede there is more to it than that, but be in no doubt that sovereign national barriers are A Good Thing, particularly if the national administration fosters localism. Good! I’m glad I got that off my chest!

I’ve never seen the whole film of The Great Dictator. I think I shall get it.