Charlie Chaplin never gets old because Charlie Chaplin never got old. By a providential miracle, the Little Tramp retained in adulthood what many of us lost during our teenage years: a sense of awe and mystery toward the world and a love for living creatures. In order to remain sane in the world, it is important to revisit the little fellow every now and then, and beginning Friday, October 22nd, and continuing until November 4th at the Music Box Theatre, you’ll have your chance.
16 of Chaplin’s more than 80 films will screen over the 14 days, from 1918’s short A Dog’s Life to his first and last major role after being exiled from the country, A King in New York (1957), about which the famous Italian neo-realist director Roberto Rossellini once beautifully proclaimed, “It is the film of a free man.” It was a special career, and no matter how far Chaplin evolved from his early, silent slapstick years, his particular brand of exuberance and idealism never waned. For instance, his penultimate film (and justly the final film in the series), Limelight (1952), although about a failing, over-the-hill music hall comedian, contains all the life-affirming wisdom one man can claim.
The French film critic André Bazin was best able to capture Charlie’s essence. Bazin believed that Chaplin’s tender art would lapse into the bad kind of sentimentality were it transposed into literature. On screen, however, it achieves a tone and an accent which no other medium of expression could. Bazin leaves this mysterious affinity between cinema and a certain, rare humanist love unexplained, but after one has felt the dignity and affection that radiates from Chaplin and through every character in his movies, there is no denying its existence.
The tenderness Chaplin feels for humankind, according to Bazin, lacks any semblance of pity. Chaplin does not feel compassion for the blind woman in City Lights (1931), only admiration—not in spite of her misfortune but because of it. To Charlie, every living being possesses an inherent dignity—even, and perhaps especially, the imperfect. One need not look further than the Little Tramp character himself, an aristocrat fallen on hard times. He is evidence that, even after losing everything, after being kicked and left penniless on the cruel city streets, a man is still a man like any other.
Like all art, the art of cinema involves transforming the world to a better purpose. There are a multitude of ways the artist can go about enacting this transformation, but no matter how she chooses to do it, she must inevitably, whether aggressively or humbly, mold reality to more closely resemble her personality. It is precisely what the child does with her imagination, and it is precisely what Charlie does with his.
Nature itself and the objects in it are Charlie’s playground and are subject to his enthusiastic imagination. One is reminded of the common observation that children often find a cardboard refrigerator box far more fascinating and amusing than any manufactured child’s toy. It is as though the child senses the falsity. Why play with a toy conceived and developed specifically for the purpose of fun when it is already there in nature, with the added bonus that one is permitted to exercise her inherently inventive brain?
The most famous example of this playful ingenuity in Chaplin’s work is undoubtedly the “Oceana Roll” table ballet sequence in The Gold Rush (1925). It is hard to imagine the scene within any other artistic context. Surely to read the words on the page, “The little fellow then stuck the silverware into the rolls and made them dance upon the table,” is blasphemous in relation to the magic that confronts us on screen. A similar disappointment would arise if the scene were performed on stage, for the power lies in how the image of Charlie making the rolls dance is projected as something bigger than ourselves. At once intimate and distant, the event takes an infinitely stronger hold on our imaginations. Other arts do other things, but there are some things which the movies are uniquely suited to do—things that have to do with childhood and the interconnectedness of life. But for cinema to reach this promise, it took the heart of a grown man who preserved from childhood his unquestioning faith in the goodness of humankind. The appeal of Chaplin is the appeal of cinema itself.
You find in Chaplin the best possible cure for the cynical impasse at which our culture rests today. For it is evident that contemporary art has largely lost this sense of love. It offers us cleverness and distance when what we desire is sincerity and closeness. It purports importance to mask its emptiness. It surrenders its soul in exchange for sophistication. Oh, what humanity has surrendered in exchange for sophistication! Then again, can anyone really say that a stupefying, computer-generated effect or a solemn rumination on some abstract, academic concept is more sophisticated than a small man with a human-sized heart offering a flower and a shy smile to an audience in the name of shared aims?
Charlie Chaplin restores to us the name for what it is we want. To revisit the cinema of Charles Chaplin is to find the world, and your place in it, again. Leaving the theater after having seen a Chaplin film, the sensation one feels is of having been reminded. For it is not that Charlie has shown you something about life you never knew but rather something you knew at your core but had merely forgotten. And you feel so grateful to have been reminded of how you want to conduct yourself in the world for the brief time you have.