Friday, June 27, 2014

The Little Fellow

An odd essay By Ignatiy Vishnevetsky at the A.V. Club about why Chaplin still matters. Certainly a worthy topic, especially since Chaplin started appearing in films a century ago.  But where does this come from:

His post-silent films—which include his two most enduringly popular features, Modern Times and The Great Dictator—reflect his own attitudes more than the feelings of American audiences at the time.

So these are his two most endearingly popular features, end of discussion?  At the very least I would think The Gold Rush and City Lights are at the same table.  (And personally I find The Great Dictator to be much weaker than these other three.)

But Vishnevetsky has odder things to say about Chaplin's style:

The other popular comedians of the slapstick were big movers—acrobats, daredevils.  Chaplin's physical comedy, on the other hand, was naturalistic; for the most part, his routines operated within an average person’s range of motion. This helps explain why Chaplin would become the most imitated person of his time. 

I think he was the most imitated because he was the most popular, not just because he was easy to imitate. As for his work, it's true his actions were smaller, finer, more subtle than others--not that he couldn't be acrobatic when the plot required--but to say he operated within the average person's range of motion is missing the point.  More important, I'd say, is he was able to do things with a grace, wit and finesse that no one else could come close to.

The Gold Rush’s iconic "Oceana Roll" endures not only because it’s funny and, like much of Chaplin’s comedy, easy to replicate, but also because his face—which is concentrated during the performance, but breaks into a boyish laugh when he’s done—captures the feeling of wanting to perform. It lasts, because it was built to.

Much of his comedy easy to replicate?  In the same way, I suppose, that anyone can learn trumpet but not many can play like Louis Armstrong.  In fact, in Chaplin's heyday there were numerous onscreen imitators--some literally trying to pass themselves off as the man himself--but none endured, because they didn't have Chaplin's genius.

We may be able to relate to great clowns, but it's because they do something beyond what we can that they endure.

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