Last week, filmmaker Robert Milazzo invited me to speak with his students at the Lee Strasberg Theatre & Film Institute, and I happily agreed. Milazzo has been reaching out to critics and filmmakers to discuss various "innovators" in film history (he recently secured an event on November 8th at MoMA wherein he'll interview Jorgen Leth about Godard's "Vivre Sa Vie"). I settled on Charlie Chaplin.
While the prospects of doing justice to such an iconic name within the limitations of a brief onstage conversation proved daunting, I wanted to simplify matters by merely focusing on Chaplin's tricky navigation of sound technology in "City Lights," which also happens to be my favorite Tramp film. It's illuminating to compare the ways Chaplin evaded dialogue in "City Lights" with, say, the approach Alfred Hitchcock took in his first sound film, "Blackmail."
But Chaplin did more for the medium than simply escape the pressures of a new technology. Milazzo wanted to focus on "The Gold Rush" as a better overall representation of Chaplin's oeuvre, and I agreed. I love "The Gold Rush," if not as much as "City Lights," but it's still wonderfully indicative of Chaplin's unique physicality and calculated, emotionally satisfying storytelling techniques. Both movies involve romantic confusion, and end (at least in the original "Gold Rush," rather than the inferior sound version that Chaplin released in the forties) with the Tramp in a close-up facing his newfound female companion. Chaplin knew bittersweet better than anyone; he practically invented it.
Eighty-five years young, "The Gold Rush" is still an effective tear-jerker. Speaking with Milazzo's class, I mentioned an alleged contemporary hook suggested by the Alamo Drafthouse's Tim League a few weeks back at an Austin preview screening of footage from "Jackass 3-D." Introducing an appearance by Steve-O, League said that the group's stuntwork would have rivaled Chaplin in his day. On the level of pure physical energy, that argument may have some merit. Dennis Lim's recent feature in The New York Times makes an effective case for taking Jackass seriously. But when was the last time one of their bits made you cry? You can admire the brazen (stupid?) behavior all you want, but nothing in Jackass comes close to the adorable innocence of the Tramp when he stumbled.
Chaplin wasn't an ambitious filmmaker. His camera rarely moved and he almost never indulged in montage trickery or elaborate effects (the human chicken illusion in "The Gold Rush" was done in-camera). But he still epitomizes the power of the moving image because of his ability to package the full range of its visceral effects on the viewer within the context of a universally accessible narrative. (His later sound works veered away from this simplicity and thus have plenty of flaws, although they're fascinating for that very reason.)
In the YouTube era, audiences -- myself included -- often anoint the latest sneezing panda phenomenon as comedic gold. Unless I'm missing something, however, nothing online has come close to matching the mixture of affectionate fragility and seamless comedic inspiration perfected by the Tramp. But that panda is still pretty cute.