Liking Chaplin will probably never be cool. For the Sight-and Sound-reading, suck-on-a-lemon-and-think-of-Bresson cineaste, Buster Keaton will always be their man, with his whitened deadpan and letterbox smile, his meta-movie conceits and collaboration with Samuel Beckett— those two stoics together, craggy and forlorn, staring down the headwinds of the 20th century like Easter Island statues. Then there is Chaplin with his touchiness about class and his walk and his mesmeric effect on kids, and dear oh dear, his sentimentality. “For over a century, sentimentality has been the cardinal aesthetic sin,” writes Carl Wilson in his ground-breaking, recently republished book about taste and learning to love Celine Dion, Let’s Talk About Love. “To be sentimental is to be kitsch, phony, exaggerated, manipulative, self-indulgent, hypocritical, cheap and clichéd.” The critical aversion to sentimentality— so often a disguise for squeamishness around emotion of any kind—innoculates us from the power of cinema’s early pioneers, who would no sooner have turned down the opportunity to wring an audience for tears as declined an opportunity to make them rocket out of their seats with fright, or asked them not to laugh. Why ever not? It would be like designing and building a brand new automobile and then keeping it under wraps in the garage. “Keep it wistful” advised Fred Karno, the head of the comedy troupe that first brought Chaplin to America: when you hit a man, it’s funnier if you then kiss him on the head; if you knock him over, look sorry for a few seconds. The early Keystone shorts had been crammed with people, props, gags; the actors were simply wind-up toys, uninflected by emotions like fear or greed or passion, who simply ran and ran until they met immovable objects or dropped from exhaustion—a roundelay of constant motion, or “arse-kicking” as Chaplin put it.
He did things differently. Emptying out the frame, Chaplin anchored the camera in the middle distance, the better to take in a full human figure, feet included, drawing audiences in with a single gesture – a smile, a half tear, a look. ”He had those eyes that absolutely forced you to look at them,” said Stan Laurel, another Karno regular who travelled on the same ship in 1910. Within four months he was famous, the first truly global icon, a hero of the Dadaists, an inspiration to Ferdinand Leger, and Marcel Proust who for a while trimmed his moustache in the Chaplin style. “He has escaped from the realism of the cinema and invented a rhythm,” said T S Eliot, one of many high-brows swanning around the pages of Peter Ackroyd’s new biography. That Chaplin has attracted the attention of Dickens’s great biographer is in and of itself telling. In later life, according to his son, Chaplin read and reread Oliver Twist, over and over, “as if in that novel he had found the key to his own past,” writes Ackroyd. Both Dickens and Chaplin came from poverty and childhood neglect, to achieve fame in their mid-twenties with urban fables mixed farce and sentiment, melodrama and pantomime, comedy, pathos and poetry. ”Chaplin was Dickens true successor,” he writes, “Just as Modern Times is a successor to Hard Times.”
May 2, 2014
PROFILE: CHARLIE CHAPLIN
From my review for The New Statesman:—