Chaplin, Metastasis

Observations on Chaplin

 | Notes |

  BY Noel Vera, Ben Sachs and Anuj Malhotra

ANUJ MALHOTRAProjectorhead

Sunnyside is Chaplin’s shorts-era masterpiece. While A Dog’s Life is great as a heady introduction to Chaplin’s insistence that modern life has reduced man to an animal existence and Shoulder Arms is where the notion that ‘even in the middle of a great tragedy the human heart will beat’ is most visibly manifest – Sunnyside is where Chaplin’s belief in spiritual resurrection after complete personal erasure comes through most solidly. In the penultimate scene of the film, Chaplin crouches in front of an oncoming vehicle (even in the 20s, vehicles were already considered apt for the carrying out of a suicide) and braces himself for certain death – as you expect a sudden gag, the film quickly dissolves into a scene where Chaplin’s character is reunited with his love, and together, they both bid goodbye to his rival. This could be the dying character’s fantasy (he has a similar fantasy in the middle of the film) or an amateur's optimistic attempt to salvage a lost scene – whatever it is, in both cases, it is resurrection.

Sunnyside is excellent for another reason – Chaplin made silent films, which apart from an occasional whimsical contribution from the overlaid soundtrack, did not feature any diegetic or ambient noises. As such, most of his gags are based on visual hysterics: things you can see. Therefore, the broader, funnier strokes in a Chaplin film are often appreciable only because they are visible (this is a quality that is inherent in the Indian Chaplin-homage, Pushpak, where most of the thrill is through entirely ‘visible’ gestures: an illusionist, a knife made of ice and such). But the narrower, unobvious routine actions aren’t necessarily dependent only on the audience’s sight, but also in their ability to imagine a sound. When Chaplin’s employer in the film walks in from the other room (this geography or understanding of the spatial arrangement of the space is crucial to the comedy of Chaplin, even more to that of the Marx Brothers) one early morning to wake Chaplin up to get him to work, Chaplin responds by sitting up almost immediately. Satisfied, the employer walks back to his own room – the sly Chaplin, assured that his master can only hear him from across the wall and not see him, conducts an elaborate spiel that entirely involves sounds: he rattles his shoes on the floor, causes an object by his bedside to clink and creates other sounds so as to suggest a departure to the listening employer in the other room. In that, Chaplin’s silent film is full of noise, full of sound.


NOEL VERACritic After Dark

Looking at it The Purple Rose of Cairo seems heavily indebted to Buster Keaton's Sherlock Jr. (for the record I prefer Keaton) but really it takes its emotional and spiritual cue from Chaplin. Cecilia is the kind of hard-luck character Chaplin used to play, threatened with abuse and abandonment from all sides, only able to escape through the use of imagination. The ending with its delicately constructed pathos is within shouting distance of the ending of what I believe is Chaplin's masterpiece, City Lights: that is, withering and enrapturing at the same time. 

BEN SACHS, Chicago Reader

I’ve seen young children at almost every screening I’ve attended of a silent Chaplin film (the sound films are another story, of course), and in every instance, those children have been enraptured. Chaplin’s pantomime is eminently readable--no wonder his movies are beloved all over the world. He might have cherished emotional complexity, but you can easily forget this because Chaplin communicates everything clearly and directly. Naturally, he was a masterful director of children, as evidenced by the performances of Jackie Coogan in The Kid and his own son Michael in A King in New York. Both actors would later describe how Chaplin essentially played their parts for them, showing them exactly how to move (and speak, in Michael’s case). And yet they seem so genuinely childlike. Chaplin spoke through them as beautifully as he spoke to them.


ANUJ MALHOTRAProjectorhead

‘When I was to go ask the studios for a greater share in the profit they made from my films, I was made to feel as if I was a worker at the GE factory, asking my bosses for a raise!’ – Chaplin, My Autobiography

The question of politics does not exist outside of Chaplin – all of Chaplin is political. His post-Tramp phase may perhaps constitute explicit, conscious political articulation, but it is in his silent, early two-reelers that his political temperament – still not tampered with by ridiculous celebrity, a mid-life crisis or the Second World War – manifests as a deeply felt, naïve personal sentiment. From the very beginning – one out of his first two appearances in The Kid Auto Races in Venice, Chaplin assumes the trajectory of a wrecking ball – a loose canon, a Boudu – and video-bombs the frame from the right, the left, from below and in a gesture that is still rare for it reveals the artifice at the heart of all cinema – from behind the camera. In doing so, he alters the very nature of the frame: destroys composition, confuses its subject, throws it off balance – but, this is even more interesting, corrupts the idealized purity of a documentary-image from early cinema (and in the process, produces a film that is more potently critical of the Lumieres than any of Melies’ films, which infact, only confirmed their aesthetic belief in the irreducibility of a single-shot).


This extends further: Easy Street, where Chaplin is on the side of the establishment, entrusted with the responsibility of sanitizing a neighbourhood of its rogue element – a surprising anomaly in his career, for the accidental bystander here becomes an authoritative figure, an actor. One wonders as a member of the audience where this may lead us, until Chaplin – always correct, always forthright – robs a sleeping grocer of his entire stock to distribute the plunder among the members of a family across the road. But there’s more: only a scene later, he reduces his new, oversized uniform into a mere symbol: he takes his badge off and pins it to the chest of a secondary character, while delivering a scene-ending salute himself (Chaplin, more than anyone else, could render nihilism casual, letting off its danger to distill it into a more potent, essential version).