On first looking into Chaplin’s humour

Gilbert Adair, from Time Out

The death was announced last week of Gilbert Adair, the essayist, critic, screenwriter and novelist. He was aged 66. Adair’s talent was wide-ranging, with much of it touching on cinema. He was a cinéaste to his fingertips. He wrote the critical history Hollywood’s Vietnam and Flickers: An Illustrated Celebration of 100 Years of Cinema, wrote the novels Love and Death on Long Island and The Holy Innocents which were turned into films (the latter as Bertolucci’s The Dreamers), wrote film scripts for Raoul Ruiz, and wrote many essays, reviews and thought pieces on film.

It is his essays, collected in volumes with mocking titles such as Surfing the Zeitgeist and The Postmodernist Always Rings Twice, that have long been favourites of mine. Though he never quite attained the originality or depth of insight shown by the French writers (Barthes, Derrida and co) whose work he deeply admired, his essays touch omnivorously on so many aspects of modern life, with never a dull sentence and many a true observation. He weaves in films, and that includes silent films, in his survey of our times with knowing enthusiasm, and by way of a tribute I’m going to reproduce part of his 1985 essay ‘On first looking into Chaplin’s humour’ (a typically knowing and punning Adair title). This takes on the Chaplin vs Keaton debate with imaginative style. Keaton, for Adair, was ‘an aristocrat’ (you will have to read the full essay to judge why he thinks so); Chaplin stood for something else.

Charlies Chaplin remains, in his posterity, what he never ceased to be in his lifetime: a maverick, a dissident, a mischief-maker. Persecuted for almost six decades by the self-appointed arbiters of moral, political and ideological orthodoxies, he now finds himself posthumously assailed in the one category in which one had always supposed him to be impregnable: the aesthetic. For his detractors, apparently, Chaplin usurped the rank once universally accorded him as the century’s supreme clown. Not only are his films politically naive, flawed by an excess of pathos and not all that funny (sic), he himself was a boorish, mean-minded man, ungenerous ‘to a fault’ and consumed by jealousy of his co-performers … There even exists a suitable candidate for the pedestal from which Chaplin will be ejected when the dismantling of his reputation is complete: Buster Keaton … Yet Chaplin’s achievement seems to me a living model for our impoverished contemporary cinema; so that I would like to propose, not a theory (I am far too partial and subjective for a theorist’s severities), but, at least, an accessible back door or tradesman’s entrance into his deceptively transparent oeuvre …

The Immigrant, … one of his earliest masterpieces, is as good a point as any for my modest thesis. Chaplin, it should be recalled, himself had entered the United States as an immigrant Englishman; and, in his autobiography, he would savour the poverty he had suffered as an infant with an almost parodially Dickensian relish. On the other hand, he was soon to become the cinema’s single most prominent luminary, and as such was assuredly familiar with Soviet propaganda classics and the warped and jagged creations of German Expressionism. What he absorbed from the latter movement, however, was not the signifier – weird perspectives, evilly brewing shadows and all – but the signified, the thing filmed: the ghetto. Chaplin was, and stayed, the film-maker of the ghetto experience; of, in a word, dirt.

‘Dirt’, as a suffusive visual odour, so to speak – the scurfy piggishness of Stroheim, of Buñuel in his Mexican period, of the French directors Clouzot and Duvivier on occasions – is a filmic configuration for which the cinema would seem to have lost the formula. The ‘sordid’ it knows how to film (Raging Bull, La Lune dans le caniveau), if by that we understand either flamboyant putrefaction or a rafish, idealized, strobe-lit squalor … But, in Chaplin’s films, certainly up to Limelight, the sets are (or impress one as) grimy, the very light is filtered through the clinging, festering haze of the slums – and in a sense unintended by his critics, they stink. And Charlie himself? Naturally, he stinks. How could the paradigmatic ‘little man’ not do so? Crudely phrased, one’s apprehension of gamey underclothes is often quite overwhelming; and a reader tempted to dismiss such a contention as altogether uncouth and trivial might be reminded that, technically, underclothes constitute an immanent kind of off-screen space and may therefore be regarded as a minor aesthetic parameter (as indeed was the case with Stroheim’s fabled and finicky vestimentary perfectionism).

… It was from this total identification with the lumpenproletariat, with the material and physical realities of its quotidian existence, that Chaplin’s admittedly sometimes off-putting sainthood derives. Keaton was a great artist, to be sure, and his niche in the history of cinema is an elevated one; but Chaplin belongs to history itself.

The essay is reproduced in his 1986 collection, Myths & Memories, which I warmly recommend.

Time Out has a touching tribute to Gilbert Adair, written by Geoff Andrew.

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