When Chaplin wanted a beautiful shot, he knew how
– better than Keaton, better than anybody!”
Theo (Louis Garrel) is almost aggressive in his defence against Matthew (Michael Pitt) in Bertolucci’s ‘the Dreamers’ (2003) as they compare Chaplin and Keaton on who was/is the better filmmaker. Of course one could agree to disagree, but would that work for an apple of my eye as opposed the orange on your mind whose citrus, you think, refreshes you? Where it’s human to compare and it’s prudent not to.
Chaplin is, beyond doubt, the biggest star in the world. Frank Sinatra, Elvis Presley, Michael Jackson – they can all vie for his position, but the extents of endearment don’t quite match. Chaplin was and is the epitome of ‘universal appeal’ across time and space, a consequence of him being able to make a canvas out of film-reel and finger-print his way to a masterpiece – in every portrait, every shot; every burst of unimaginable creativity in a performance deeper than the spectacle.
The comparison between Chaplin and Keaton is almost a comparison between the head and the heart, taking two people with separate realms of influence. Chaplin has long been branded the king of melodrama, the ‘tramp with the golden heart’; the idealistic pantomime act soaked in emotion and spiced with spirit that the establishment was intolerant to, at that point in time. The biggest doubt cast on Chaplin and his quixotic endeavours, thus, is that of contemporary relevance, or any relevance, for that matter, to real world solutions as opposed to romantic notions – a doubt that doesn’t question his greatness but his pertinence. While Chaplin is the world’s biggest showman, Keaton is considered to be more.
It’s in this line that the Slovenian philosopher and psychoanalyst, Slavoj Zizek, plays a crucial role in exemplifying Chaplin as one of the most profound of filmmakers – in whose depths are layers of psychology from a man who understood humans by understanding himself. Zizek, thus, empowers Chaplin with a psychoanalytical perspective brought to those 'beautiful shots' that the world continues to be in awe of, now for more than their visual and emotional impact.
Take, for example, this shot from ‘the Circus’ (1928), one of the very few films before ‘Limelight’ (1952) with an autobiographical overtone – it can’t be denied that Chaplin slipped in elements of his own life wherever he could, his shots and sequences being statements to a world he couldn’t meet through any other means. Outside, he was the Ladies’ man, famous for his affairs and linkages. But the screen was the space where he could be what he strived to be – an idealist that the world (and himself, as a part of it) had rendered him incapable of being.
In ‘the Circus’, Chaplin plays his usual Tramp, parked, this time, beside a travelling circus. Merna Kennedy plays the girl on the sawdust waiting for the angel Gabriel to save her from her step-father who ran the circus. The Tramp starts off well, an accidental star in a show he revolutionized. The circus does have clowns, but he’s branded ‘the Funny Man’ in a show of irony. He holds his act as ransom to save the girl from ill-treatment, she reciprocates with gratefulness on her part.
As is the fate of Chaplin, the die-hard romantic, he construes kindness to be ‘love’ – that which he’s so deprived of. His love has no sexual connotations to it, and in that it is strange how conclusive he is in name-tagging it. His is an attraction without the ‘attraction’; that of being in love with a woman who “don’t even appeal” to him, like Dylan once sang.
The shot comes right after he eavesdrops on a conversation between Merna and a girl-friend of hers, about a man she’s fallen in love with. The Tramp thinks it’s him, does a jig with happy music in the background – another facet of Chaplin’s genius – and buys a ring to propose. Then he hides behind the curtain again and listens in as she tells her friend that it’s the new tight-rope walker – a tall gentleman, perennially suited-up. Reading between the lines, we see an analogy with the silent-talkie divide in a paradigm shift that broke many careers. Chaplin did sustain the turn of the tide to a great extent, though, and is one of the very few rare exceptions, that way.
The entire film is in fast-forward (Chaplin shot at 12 frames per second and projected at 24), but the action slows down for this shot. The Tramp realizes, with ring in hand, that it’s not what he thought it was. It’s minimalist with himself in the centre, as the man who brought about his own embarrassment. An interesting thing to note is that the embarrassment is not external but is a consequence of self-reflection. He hasn’t lost his face to anyone – he hadn’t proclaimed his love to the woman and been turned down, he hasn’t told anyone else about it. It’s himself who he has let down in his blind pursuit to complete one half of the jigsaw puzzle that he had completely forgotten about the other.
He bows his head in shame but his eyes assert; they speak of resolution. For a moment, we lose the Tramp as a gentleman shines out from inside the Tramp’s clothes; the gentleman who has always been there and kept reserved for moments like these. For a moment, we see the ‘Man’ outlast the concept – a Man who, in this case, loves a woman who doesn’t love him back. There is disappointment, there is pain, there is anger. And to top it all, there’s a firm resolve in the fact that he can’t do anything about it and that he, in fact, shouldn’t do anything about it. It isn’t like a Man to force anyone’s hand or to beg for the same, and he knows that.
Chaplin is raw Ego hidden behind a struggle for idealism, which is Matthew’s defence in not liking him. It can’t be denied. He hides his embarrassment behind a screen in this photograph. To the outside world (that is, Merna), he is intact and in constant performance - you'd have to split the curtains to see the man behind. For, needless to say, he is a man who keeps the best of himself hidden from the rest of the world – the side of his which is most beautiful in that it is misshapen, flawed, angry, embarrassed and truly human.