Charles Chaplin writes in his autobiography, "In the creation of comedy, it is paradoxical that tragedy stimulates the spirit of ridicule, because ridicule, I suppose, is an attitude of defiance: we must laugh in the face of our helplessness against the forces of nature – or go insane." Humor is a defiant defense mechanism, the mirthful nuclear option tasked against evidential absurdity and pain. Chaplin's own life was fraught with despair, loneliness, grief – and insanity. Yet he was the most iconoclastic face of comedy in American culture during the last century, certainly transcending the content of his own movies – his image as the duck-walking and dissonantly dressed "Tramp" in oversized shoes, pants, bowler hat, and a tiny mustache, is recognizable to anyone with access to a television set – which is unfortunate because as the world stumbles farther away from Chaplin's golden period, the masterpieces themselves often go unseen and important themes are muffled by the enthusiastic yet hollow alarums of pop culture. Chaplin was a very conscientious artist, with a topical vent that, once given a voice to match its images, eventually exiled him from the Land of the Free. Certainly in a time where both political wings have lost their sense of humor, and the blind embrace of new technology has outpaced any reasoned and cautious restraint in its handling, Chaplin's work and the resonance of his life are important things to wonder about.
This month the Trylon Microcinema is featuring a retrospective on Chaplin (www.take-up.org) , the final bill at the end of the month presenting The Great Dictator, which, if it isn't Chaplin's greatest film and may even be severely flawed with its naked concluding sentiments, still seems to be his grand opus and the most appropriate frame for his life and work. It is Chaplin the stubborn non-conformist finally ceding to the conquering trend of sound cinema, which had immediately taken control of the medium 12 years before. In embracing sound he also got to bite his thumb at the popular mandates of art commercialism, making a film that trumped other talkies in how well it utilized sound design, even in subtextual, self-reflexive ways, while also maintaining the superiority of the silent aesthetic with the greatest dignity, his balletic handling of space, rhythm, and music squarely evidencing how the new format of talking-heads was, in a way, killing the elements that made the picture – evolving so wonderfully in the 1920s – great. The Great Dictator is also the most significant film that relates to Chaplin as a citizen (or rather, an immigrant). Always socially conscious, Chaplin made the film because of what he perceived as an immediate threat – Nazism – which was not simply geographical, but rather was a philosophy latent in the industry, apathy, and blind nationalism he saw in democratic counties. To quote him directly, "The cells of Nazism, although dormant at the moment, can be activated very quickly in every country." The Great Dictator was a counteroffensive weapon against the Nazis, but it also gave ammunition to the American Right throughout the next decade, as it made Chaplin's politics concrete, just as his words with sound became concrete. The beloved Tramp, silenced by sound and compelled to speak a message of tolerance, was smeared, exiled, and made infamous. Chaplin's subsequent films, Monsieur Verdoux and Limelight, were boycotted, censored, and banned. The hilarity of Chaplin's downfall is in the theme of his life and work. An era of conformity and prosperity had to reject him, as the lonely Tramp had shown us all along how what he was always in conflict with was the unspoken absurdity of the "normal" that we take for granted. The vagrant Tramp found sleeping during the public unveiling of a statue at the opening of City Lights makes plain the idea that Chaplin subsequently agreed with: the Tramp is an affront to the Normal.
The most significant figure in Chaplin's life was almost certainly his mother, Hannah Chaplin. A musical stage actress, separated from Chaplin's alcoholic actor father before young Charlie could remember, Hannah decorated the poverty of Charlie's childhood with both the make believe of theatricality, and the piety of New Testament stories, with particular attention paid to how the foundation for Christ's pity and compassion was in an unorthodoxy that separated him from the strictures of Law and accepted custom. Charlie had an older brother from an unknown (apparently rich and Jewish) father, Sydney. The three of them -- Hannah, Sydney, and Charlie -- worked closely together as a family unit, their survival dependent on being conscious of one another. Difficulties accelerated, mixed with blessings. Hannah's voice gave out during a stage performance due to laryngitis, in front of an unsympathetic and hostile crowd that booed her off stage. Five-year-old Charlie, having memorized the songs performed by his mother, took the stage by surprise and picked up where she left off, winning the hearts of the drunken spectators. It was his first performance for an audience – and her last. She took to sewing, but began to suffer bouts of insanity, forcing her to be institutionalized. Charlie and Sydney were sent to the boys' workhouse, which served in fostering Charlie's distrust and dislike for authority. At other periods during Hannah's insane periods, which came intermittently like bouts of depression, Charlie and Sydney would live with Charlie's compassionate but perpetually drunk father, much to the chagrin of the father's live-in girlfriend, particularly with regard to Sydney not being in any way related to Chaplin Sr.
Because of his forebears, Chaplin was damned to show business, which was perilous as indicated by the sorry states of his parents. Hannah Chaplin warned about the make believe in theatrical life and how it was dangerous to one's spiritual awareness, her own investment into Fantastic matters – whether as actress or Christian – probably making her emotionally vulnerable so as to be destroyed by her own psychology. Charles Sr.'s alcoholism and the epidemic of alcoholism among actors was probably due to how the London theatres had bars attached to them. According to Chaplin, London stage actors were paid handsomely by theatres, because the performers would immediately flock next door after performing, spending much of their earnings while rubbing shoulders with the audience. Chaplin's father was not unique; he died of cirrhosis to the liver aged 36, when Chaplin was 12.
It was at this age that Chaplin took to acting professionally. Tutored by Sydney, and working a number of odd jobs to survive – including flower peddler, errand boy, doctor's assistant, receptionist, and page boy – Chaplin's bid to become a child actor was something of a last ditch effort to stay out of the workhouse, as his father was dead and mother institutionalized. He surprisingly got some boys' roles, and once he had them, Sydney worked him over to master the parts he won, drilling in the edict: "Don't screw this up." The meager pennies Charlie would earn would be their livelihood. It was from Sydney's pressure and demand of focus that Chaplin's perfectionism developed, which would be instrumental in shaping the type of filmmaker he became as an adult. It was also during this time that Chaplin, through the influence of his elder actors, learned to read, finding strong identification particularly with Dickens, beginning with Oliver Twist, the main character's workhouse vagabond existence vaguely similar to Chaplin's. In The Kid (1921), one can see the influence of Dickens on Chaplin.
Acting came naturally to him – though he admits that his only problem was mugging for attention. Chaplin believed that acting could not be taught, though technique was vital and had to be learned. And yet his pleasure in mugging is tied to another thing Chaplin believes in acting – and we can sense and relish in his own performers: a great actor loves himself in acting; what's difficult is the technique, because the actor must be conscious of every way in which he orients himself to the other actors and is perceived by the audience. The actor is like a musician who loves playing his instrument but knows full well how that instrument and its sound relates to every other sound in the orchestra pit – so as to create a symphony. The visual ballet of choreography with the camera's inflection is the most marked element in Chaplin's films by virtue of its perfection. There are no stand-alone "vaudeville" performances in Chaplin; he is a "character comedian." Groucho Marx, as Rufus T. Firefly in Duck Soup for example, is the vaudevillian character of Groucho Marx. The Tramp of Chaplin, however, in any number of films, is not Chaplin. It is the character of the Tramp.
The other important character of Chaplin's early life may well have been a young performer he fell in love with, though she did not reciprocate, Hetty Kelly. At age 19 he proposed to her, though she was barely 16. The few dates they had – if they could be called dates – were uneventful and unhappy for Chaplin, who was unable to earn the slimmest tender of her affection. Upon saying that he would never see her again, he was disappointed with her response: "I'm sorry," an unfortunate acquiescence to his baiting proposition. Hetty, who would die in the influenza epidemic during World War I, was for Chaplin "the one audience from the past I would like to meet again." The tenderness, fear, trepidation, and bashful affection of the Tramp are apparently reflective of Chaplin's actual shyness, though he would have many romances through his life – particularly with very young women – as if he were still trying to capture Hetty later on through life. The bashfulness of love, with its excited expectation and let-down of rejection, is featured in all of Chaplin's work, though he allows himself the fantasy of a happy ending. But as the Tramp's imagined dinner date (for which he is ultimately stood-up in reality) in The Gold Rush shows, Chaplin had a unique grasp on how often Love is often only fulfilled blissfully in solitary fantasy.
Chaplin's talents as a character comedian bloomed and his success took him with his traveling company to America, where he found himself awed, though disturbed, by the immense pillars of steel, machinery, and industry on the East Coast. "New York was a big monument to success," Chaplin remembered upon his entry to the United States, "and this annoyed me." He fell in love with the Midwest, including Kansas, Nebraska, Illinois, and the Twin Cities, spending a lot of time finally in Butte, Montana, where he was particularly struck by how the local prostitutes seemed just as respectable and dignified as so-called "classy women." At this time, Chaplin also exercised his voice as a performer, seeking to distinguish himself from the highly regarded actors in his troupe that he understudied and was to eventually replace. When motion pictures found him in 1914, the same thing would happen; Chaplin was perturbed that he was expected to follow a kind of tried "stock" practice for the bumbling character he was to play. He unorthodoxly pressed his indelibility into the generic formulas of repetition, and as such created something new.
In motion pictures and working for director Mack Sennett at $150 a week, Chaplin found himself in another circumscribed environment. Though an entertainment industry, the acting techniques regarding blocking and orientation that Chaplin excelled at in theatre were eschewed for simple photographic framing and efficiency. Sennett's practice as a manufacturer of films were quite commonplace; Chaplin describes motion picture production as a kind of sausage factory, where products were just thrown into the meat grinder, any kind of serious deliberation or attempt to play with the language of the new form being a hindrance to time management. Sennett and his Keystone crew churned out short films on an almost weekly basis.
Chaplin was instrumental in changing that – or at least, seeing how Hollywood still wants to churn out mass replications of proven success while stomping out idiosyncrasies, he showed that it was possible to create a better product with honed and careful craft with bravura enthusiasm. Again, his stubbornness and commitment to making a good product rather than merely an efficient product enabled film acting to be more imbued with a learned theatrical sense of space. Chaplin's acting was not about what was easy to capture on film, but what was better. His precociousness led him to sponge-like pick up on how films were made, from writing to editing. He made a deal with Sennett to write and direct his own shorts, working fast on Keystone's pace, while honing his own skills as the Tramp and creating a better comedy product for his backers. While giving the reigns to an actor with no directorial experience was considered risky for Sennett, Chaplin put up his own money as a bond to see that it happened. It paid off. His face recognizable all over the world, Chaplin was practical and understood celebrity, explaining to Sennett that the audience didn't care about who the director or the studio was. They cared about Chaplin, the Tramp. The only thing he needed to make a film were 1) a park; 2) a policeman; and 3) a pretty girl.
As his exposure and income increased, so did the cult of celebrity. A colleague gave him sage advice: "You'll be invited everywhere. Don't accept," adding the lesson, "You've captivated the world, and you can continue doing so as long as you stand outside of it." Chaplin not only understood celebrity, but he also knew how to sustain it. As a man who was very introverted and reflective as a youth, he observed the posh in-crowds of the rich and famous, and how it was perceived as abnormal and unhealthy to take a solitary walk. Chaplin, upon achieving wealth, saw how social dynamics were often based on false myths. As the girls in Butte proved, the rich and well-spoken were not more intelligent or more diligent than the poor. The "best people" were rarely the actual best people, or certainly the most moral and wise. Chaplin was annoyed by how so many of his famous friends needed other people around all the time. Chaplin felt more alone when he was in forced company. Two memorable quotes on friendship by Chaplin, that certainly ring true to me, are as follows: "I like friends as I like music, when I am in the mood;" and, "To help a friend in need is easy, but to give him your time is not always opportune."
Chaplin also said, interestingly, that loneliness was the theme of everyone. It is certainly the theme of the Tramp, a solitary and awkward character who pines for company while seeming to be best suited to his solitude. The Tramp, like Chaplin, is known by everyone, but seems to know no one, and seems unable to get to know anyone. He struggles like a child at play struggles – and he is a child at play. The Tramp acts with the pantomimes of nobility, tipping his hat and tapping his cane – and then opens his cigarette case to show an array of cigarette butts, the comic juxtaposition being just perfect. He is, like a child, in his own world. This is almost poetic to think about while watching The Kid, where the Tramp has his most fulfilling relationship, with his orphan child. The bittersweet relationship between the Tramp and the orphan seems like a psychological autobiography, as the Tramp, who is Chaplin's adult shadow, or an alter ego run amok in a "normal" world, is caring for an orphaned troublemaking kid – and partner in crime – who may be Chaplin's projection of his own childhood. The Tramp and the Kid complete each other; indeed, when a doctor comes over to examine the ailing Kid, the Tramp mistakes the doctor's instructions, saying "ahhh" when the doctor addresses the Kid to open his mouth. In loneliness, what we have is ourselves, past and present.
Chaplin was aware of his disposition towards loneliness and depression, traits that troubled him not only because of his mother's occasional insanity, but throughout his life, beginning as a child actor, he was alarmed by how so many clowns and comedians he knew, all capable of bringing him joy, had committed suicide: separate incidents involving gunshot, hanging, and throat cutting, and all usually without warning. The tragic and the comic formed a devouring circle, something that Chaplin understood was the spark for the best comedy. We see a shining example in The Gold Rush (1923). Chaplin had read about the Donner party, where some individuals in the cold mountains had taken to boiling their shoes for food – and eventually other people. The Gold Rush features two starving men alone in a cabin: the Tramp eats his shoe; later on, his companion gazes at him and sees a gigantic chicken. A gruesome and tragic incident (the Donner party and cannibalism) inspires hilarity in the hyperbole of madness.
Chaplin had formed his own studio and afforded himself the ability to work under his own private auspices, directing and editing The Kid on his own pace. At this point in time, Chaplin was also becoming, along with friends Douglas Fairbanks and Mary Pickford, a spokesperson for war bonds. As he describes it, no one really understood the cause, meaning, or goal of the Great War, and participating in war bond rallies as an entertainer was due to being swept up in the sudden frenzy of the war, and beyond that, simple opportunism. Chaplin was smart enough to note the absurd in the whole affair. Regarding war, he saw that obedience was primary, whereas thought secondary. The environment made him wonder if he could make a comedy about the war, something discouraged by Cecil B. DeMille who warned of the risks when an entertainer enters the terrain of geopolitics, exposing himself.
At this same time, the studios were conspiring to merge as a means of counterbalancing the power of entertainers like Chaplin and Fairbanks. The idiosyncrasies of individuals were seen as a threat to the economic bottom lines of business. In retaliation, Chaplin, Pickford, Fairbanks, and D.W. Griffith formed their own studio, United Artists. The move stopped the proposed merger, and put Chaplin and company in healthy competition with the original moguls. Chaplin was also in a comfortable enough place where he could relax. So prolific during World War I, Chaplin became selective with his projects, making only ten more features over the next half century, all but the last one (A Countess from Hong Kong in 1967) made for UA, a company that would fold in a tragically appropriate manner just three years after Chaplin's death in 1977, as the New Hollywood of the 1970s got drunk on its own excesses and the businessmen of the industry were able to claim their crown from the crazy artists.
It's these features, aside from The Kid, that form a consistent and luxuriously stable body of work, making Chaplin's legend: A Woman in Paris, The Goldrush, The Circus, City Lights, Modern Times, The Great Dictator, Monsieur Verdoux, Limelight, and A King in New York. We see the master of silent film ushered, kicking and screaming, into sound, but we can also mark the thoughts of a conscious artist creating to his own social detriment as the 20th century undergoes its own changes. The cycle climaxed in terms of the greatest commercial success midway through, with The Great Dictator, which would strangely also destroy him.
City Lights (1931) was the first Chaplin picture released in the era of sound, and with its opening, the director is eager to ridicule his aesthetically trendy foe. The first scene of City Lights is a kind of political event where the top officials in town present a new statue in the public square. They speak, but the voices Chaplin gives them are of distorted horns (think Charlie Brown's teacher), so as to suggest that all of these "words, words, words" really amount to little more than empty air and noises indistinguishable from each other. Rather than creating talking heads exchanging dialogue, Chaplin was interested in using sound to help his own ends. For example, he composed his own music score, and used sound effects like whistles and coins clanging for clever jokes, perhaps most memorable in using a bell for the film's famous boxing match, where the poor Tramp's neck is attached to a string hooked onto the ring bell; his opponent punches him, the bell rings, and the round ends, saving him. He walks to his corner, pulling on the bell, and the next round starts immediately – where once more he is pummeled hilariously.
It's also, again, a very tender story, another demonstration of Chaplin's impeccable combination of humor and pathos. The Tramp falls in love with a blind girl who sells flowers, trying to win her love by getting the money she needs to pay a threatening landlord. He also saves the life of an alcoholic and suicidal millionaire, a man who is a great friend when intoxicated, but rejects the Tramp and remembers nothing of their relation while sober. In addition to the magnificently choreographed madcap action featured throughout the story, epitomized in the boxing match which plays like a dance, the film's concluding moment is a validation and a statement of silent cinema's golden, well, silence, which transcends language. The blind girl, now with sight, touches the pathetic Tramp's hand. Her hands recognize him as her benefactor; their eyes meet and they smile at each other. It is so beautifully rendered, so perfect emotionally, that to utter a word here would ruin the moment. The expressions and sensuality in the eyes and bodies of the performers communicate volumes. The film is saying, "Oh yeah, can your talkies do this?"
The "convenience" of sound perfectly fed into Chaplin's ideas of technology, which are crucial to know. As far as he was concerned, technology was the trigger for social revolutions. However, our ability to utilize technology, using it, exploiting it, and abusing it, grossly outpaced our sense of ethics and rationality in its handling. Sound talkies marred the possibilities of cinema, just as much as it gave a new avenue of progress. Similarly, mass industrialization and factory machines did not free laborers from work, as Marx optimistically prophesized. Rather, they made humans automatons. Enter Chaplin's next film, 1936's Modern Times, a film that is about the depression era, the present, but feels like a film about the future, and may even be considered one of Hollywood's first high concept futuristic films, at times reminiscent of Fritz Lang's 1927 German sci-fi bit of futurist Marxism, Metropolis.
Modern Times sublimates Chaplin's anxieties about the depression and industrialization, dealing with this particular theme that was very pertinent to his career, seen as early as The Kid, and explicated in the final speech of The Great Dictator – a theme of "machine men with machine hearts," and how the Age of the Machine, the era that would liberate human beings, was rather making humans unnatural. The technology simply enables men to work and produce more, with more ceaseless repetition but no personal or social reward, only more profits for the business. The speed that men work in the factories is determined by the man at the controls, surveying everything with his ubiquitous screen. The bodies of the workers are docile. They are only there to produce. The Tramp is one such anonymous worker at the mercy of an immense machine, tightening the screws on pieces of metal. The machine has its own will; it has no thought of the people working with it. The Tramp is literally swallowed by this machine and run through like another piece of metal, meaning that the paid workers are indeed no different from the parts that they are manufacturing. He becomes the guinea pig for entrepreneurial inventors, who have concocted a device that will feed workers while they eat: the boss can save money on lunch hours, producing more and being more time efficient. We later see the effects of the factory's machines on the Tramp; he is unable to function as a being in control of his own faculties. He's been rendered unnatural and loses his wits. He's sent to prison.
That leads into Chaplin's abstract conception of "machine", as for him the institutions of society are also more machine-like than they are humane; the Law is full of storm troopers, not men who serve and protect. We remember how the Law wants to take the orphan away from the Tramp in The Kid, because that's the dictate of the Law; it's simply protocol, the way things are done. It doesn't matter that the kid has lived with the Tramp for five years. Any human sentiment is meaningless, and the orphan must be taken to an orphanage. Same too with the "Gamin" (Paulette Goddard) in Modern Times, a beautiful vagrant wanted by the Law for her harmless past crimes, even though she has finally found a stable life as a waitress. The Machine is Irrationally Rational.
This attitude towards institutions and industry made Chaplin an enemy of J. Edgar Hoover's newly christened Federal Bureau of Investigation. Hoover and his ideal then becomes a startling foil for Chaplin. Whereas Chaplin is devoted to non-conformity, Hoover's Bureau was constructed to epitomize conformity and obedience, to the extent that agents were not allowed to have any personal affects displayed at their desks, which were all identical. Hoover wanted a patriotic electorate; Chaplin didn't understand patriotism, sometimes even finding it comical, such as in City Lights where a ruckus of officials trying to detain the Tramp is interrupted by the Star Spangled Banner, prompting everyone to cease what they're doing and stand at attention (the Tramp can now get away). Hoover's ideology believed in respecting public officials; Chaplin worked to lampoon them.
In the 1930s, Chaplin recognized that the fascism in Germany and Italy was latent in all nations, and would recognize the same spirit in Hoover's idea for America. Chaplin also had a hard time taking Hitler seriously when he first saw footage of him – a loud and shrieking version of the Tramp! Only when Einstein and Thomas Mann left Germany was Chaplin compelled to take a closer look, being disturbed by the stirrings of anti-Semitism not only in Germany but finding ferment in the United States. Chaplin had a plan: this silly man must be laughed at.
When The Great Dictator (1940) went into production, the subject matter alone – a farce on Hitler – was not what made colleagues discourage Chaplin. Rather, American and Britain were still at peace with Germany at that time of its production (this obviously wasn't the case when the picture was finally released, and Great Britain welcomed it while America was hesitant). After fighting began between the French and Germans, Chaplin was at a dinner with former president Herbert Hoover. Addressing the problem of the Nazis, Hoover said that the United States should deliver aid and food to both sides in the conflict. Chaplin said he would support aid – but not for the Nazis. Hoover said that all sides must receive aid, to which Chaplin compromised, but with the stipulation that the people delivering the food to the starving Germans be Jews. The Great Dictator is cinematic activism, beating conviction in its satire of Hitler, here renamed Hynkel (and played by Chaplin), the swastika replaced by the double cross (a clever double entendre), Germany being renamed "Tomania". It is a story so important to Chaplin that he decided to make it his first fully sound film, and as such, he lays the Tramp, here cast as a Jewish barber, to rest. (Modern Times was technically Chaplin's first sound film, and was originally conceived as such, but in its final form it plays mostly as a silent picture – its sound work, again, being quite clever and reflexive, including the sounds of gastritis, indicating that Chaplin will give his audience sound – though not necessarily the sounds they want to hear or even acknowledge exist in their polite social lives).
Playing these dual roles, as dictator Hynkel and the Jewish barber, The Great Dictator has its own dualism reflecting the medium of film and its relationship to the sound format. The barber, though he speaks, is essentially still an embodiment of the silent Tramp, using his body to express and communicate in a way that Chaplin's audience would be familiar. Hynkel, on the other hand, with his mockeries of Hitler's speeches in a shrieking voice, microphones always pointed at him, is associated with sound and what Chaplin sees as a kind of oppressiveness in sound. Sound in The Great Dictator is always interrupting, jutting out and stomping on top of reason and beauty. The dichotomy between sound and silence is excellently rendered in a classic Chaplin joke, where the barber bursts into a room and pantomimes a warning to his fugitive friend. "Did you tell him?" Paulette Goddard, again Chaplin's leading lady, asks. "Yes." The virtues of pantomime acting have been lost in a talking head world, something sad but nevertheless ample ammunition for a great joke.
Other scenes in the picture relay the glories of silent movies, and how the bodies inhabiting the frame are indeed like dancers, the consonance of movement being like music, asking us to listen – with our eyes. A long scene with Hynkel dancing alone with an inflated globe is immediately followed by the barber shaving a man's face in rhythm to a Brahms Hungarian dance. Ultimately, I think that Chaplin believes that "listening with our eyes" makes us participatory viewers, active in the make believe world rather than lazy, automatic, and passive – and, like a fascist audience or a Milgrims control group, susceptible to manufactured political hatred. The very last scene's last word, uttered by the barber who has unwittingly been mistaken for Hynkel and so has taken his place at the microphone-laden podium, is "Listen!" And what should we be listening to? A future of love, hope, and sunshine – visually abstracted as light breaks through the clouds, the image and consolation again going beyond language. The Great Dictator captures the best of both worlds.
But the film's final speech is something important to discuss on its own. As the barber/Tramp makes his political proclamation of goodwill, he has solidly broken his silence of so many decades, and so too has the aura of comedy been broken with a serious polemic. Many critics have been cool to this concluding sequence, and still are to this day. It is as naked a didactic declaration as one will hear an artist give. Chaplin's barber is no longer the barber. He is out of character; he is Chaplin, and he is looking at us, the audience. He says, "We have developed speed, but we have shut ourselves in. Machinery that gives abundance, has left us in want." Seeing how well the fascists – and Hoover – were using the machinery of cinema, Chaplin could recognize that perhaps humanism needed an equal counter-offensive. Even if the final speech of The Great Dictator mars the film, tainting the satire as it takes off the clown mask, on its own the speech is one of the most passionate and beautiful ever featured in a movie. "More the machinery, we need humanity; more than cleverness, we need kindness and gentleness." Our machines should bring us together, working in accord with our best ideals and empathy.
The "unnatural men with machine minds and machine hearts", however, were not receptive to Chaplin. Hoover saw Chaplin's address not as decent humanistic antagonism of the Nazis overseas, but rather as an assault on the American system. As if Chaplin's friendships with socialists like Upton Sinclair, H.G. Wells, and George Bernard Shaw wasn't enough, he also held a rally in support of Russia against the Nazis in 1939, referring to the audience as his "comrades". Nor was he an American citizen. Public controversies including a paternity case served as media fodder for his enemies. His 1946 little-seen masterwork, Monsieur Verdoux, a dark comedy about a man who marries old women and kills them for their money, was actively boycotted. Verdoux's opportunism is not only a commentary on capitalism, but like The Great Dictator, there's another concluding didactic speech, where Chaplin insinuates that the opportunistic corpses in Verdoux's wake are no different from the bodies resulting from governments going to war. Chaplin was now an enemy to the "good citizens" of prosperous post-war America, and he was denied re-admittance in 1952 after a short trip to London. His film from that year, Limelight, about an aging comic entertainer, was denied release (until 1972) – ironic, considering that it was his most apolitical film in years.
Chaplin's technique as a director was afforded to him by his talent. He would work a scene over many ways, endlessly, given his unlimited resources of time and money. In this sense, he is an anachronistic filmmaker – a novelist among directors, with the power to fly above constraints of deadlines, something that he uniquely shares with perhaps only Stanley Kubrick and, in recent years, Terrence Malick. Kubrick's model, I believe, was Chaplin, and he spoke openly of his admiration, surprising to many because Kubrick, a photographer before he was a filmmaker, is assumed to be more of a formal director than Chaplin. But he has insisted that Chaplin's "mastery over content over form" was what he aspired to. In addition to themes that are dually in love with and anxious about technology, of "machine men with machine hearts" (the lunch-hour contraption of Modern Times certainly seems to have been on Kubrick's mind in realizing Anthony Burgess' Ludovico technique in A Clockwork Orange – the title itself referencing something natural rendered mechanical), they were also masters of poetic movement in the cinematic picture. Kubrick's sentiments regarding the advent of talkies are exactly the same as Chaplin's, as audiences were being told more than they were being shown things, the imagination losing out to concrete words. Both of these master film novelists worked endlessly at perfecting performative ballets of images and music, their tireless toil looking as effortless as it was awesome. 2001: A Space Odyssey is in so many ways a silent film, the spacecraft set to the rhythm and melody of classical music, and while some critics may think of its precedents as being "epics", when I see the "Blue Danube" sequences, I think of Chaplin.
Returning to the introductory paragraph of this essay, I turn back to the relationship between humor and heartbreak, comedy and tragedy. "When a world of disappointment and trouble descends on one, if one doesn't turn to despair, one resorts to either philosophy or humor," Chaplin writes. The comedian is perhaps susceptible to depression because the tragic inspiration for his product is something with which he must be intimately involved. The age of speed and apathy that Chaplin warned of has not been conquered, but accelerated. So too is the world more "clever" than feeling, while sentimental humor too often is kitsch (something Chaplin never was). Technology has continued invading all curbs of life, ushering new conformities and contracts in social behavior and even in the arts, as 3D has suddenly become a mandate for big studios in just the past year.
Chaplin saw a miracle in this thing called cinema; in how it preserved an imaginative enactment of things past. The sausage factory of production has no cause for reflection, though leaving it up to impassioned artists, stocked only with their enthusiasm, to try and hold on, being conscientious artisans in public displays of creativity, and so too as individuals warring against the repetition of seeking easy dollars and apathetic impersonal policies. It's too easy to pay lip service to an iconoclast without taking his art to heart, listening with our eyes and minds in addition to our ears, as what he is showing, though it may nearly be a century old, is still pertinent to our everyday lives. I conclude with another Chaplin quote from his 1964 autobiography, still timely.
"The accumulating complexities of modern life, the kinetic invasion of the 20th century, find the individual hemmed in by gigantic institutions that threaten from all sides, politically, scientifically, and economically. We are becoming the victims of soul conditioning, of sanctions and permits. This matrix into which we have allowed ourselves to be cast is due to a lack of cultural insight. We have gone blindly into ugliness and congestion and have lost our appreciation of the aesthetics. Our living sense has been blinded be profit, power, and monopoly. We have permitted these forces to envelop us with an utter disregard of the ominous consequences."
Chaplin takes hope, though, in the unknown future, and in that sense of the unknowable he sees laughter as he sees salvation. He believes that we must, like the Tramp, be affronts to "normal behavior," suspicious of the normal, and like Chaplin's immortal and silent hero, fall asleep on the statues of high society, play-acting on top of the drudgery of false performances that are not conscious of themselves; we should be unafraid to rest as ironic counterpoints and vagrants on their lofty if empty symbols which mean little, actively thinking and dancing to life's tragicomic ceaseless rhythm.