The Chaplin Chapters: Introduction
I wasn't allowed to watch much television when I was a child.
To some of you, this will come as a complete shock. "A childhood without television and access to pop culture?," you'll think. "Why, that's not childhood at all!" Others of you will read that and nod approvingly to yourselves, glad to know that I spent most of my time actually having a social life, playing outside with other kids, and reading my weight in books every week.
I really don't have an opinion one way or that other. For me, that's just how it was. My parents, always concerned about the type of stuff I might stumble across, forbade me from watching much of anything, no matter how much I begged and pleaded with them to let me turn on the magic box in the living room. While my friends were playing with Power Rangers action figures, I had very little idea about who the Power Rangers were, let alone why they deserved their own line of toys. Most of my television-watching experience as a kid consisted of a few hours of Saturday morning cartoons (or Pee Wee's Playhouse), with the occasional mid-week viewing of Darkwing Duck and Goof Troop in the afternoon if I was lucky. We didn't even have cable. Not that I hold all this against them, mind you - in fact, looking back, I'm grateful I wasn't left to stare at the boob tube for five hours a day like a lot of my friends. And with all the time I now spend watching films and television, it's an understatement to say everything balanced out in the end.
Since I couldn't look to television to satisfy my lust for entertainment, I frequently had to turn to my parents' small collection of VHS tapes. Mickey and the Beanstalk. The Great Mouse Detective. An American Tail. These and other animated films were viewed dozens of times each, partly because I loved them, and partly because there just wasn't much else to watch. There were a few live-action films my parents kept, all family-friendly fare rated G or PG to prevent me from accidentally popping in something that might traumatize my toddler brain. But at this point in my childhood, I didn't care much about live-action media, aside from a few PBS shows and made-for-television children's films. Why watch a bunch of real people deal with real-life situations when I could watch bright and colorful cartoons perform the impossible?
I can't remember exactly how old I was when I inserted a faded, worn copy of The Gold Rush into our VHS player, only that it would have been before I reached age ten, most likely between ages six and eight. I'm not sure why I decided to watch it. Maybe one of my parents recommended that I see it. Maybe I popped it in thinking it was something else. Or maybe I was just looking to watch something I hadn't seen before and figured anything with the word "gold" in the title had to be good.
Whatever the reason, I can only say that I remember spending the next 80 minutes absolutely enthralled with what I was seeing. There was something magical about it, some sort of spell-like atmosphere that seemed to emanate from the television as I watched. Perhaps it was the realization that I could actually understand "grown up" movies, even ones without any dialogue, and find them entertaining. Or maybe it's just that Charlie Chaplin's slapstick antics were so similar to the Looney Tunes cartoons I was familiar with. All I know is that I loved it.
I loved it in a way that transcended specific memories. Until two weeks ago, I couldn't have told you anything substantial about The Gold Rush. I remembered only a few vague flashes of that original viewing as a child. First, an opening shot of men trudging through a sea of white in a quest for gold. Second, a man with little mustache and bowler hat (who I knew went by the name Charlie Chaplin) walking through a bar and being tripped by another patron, nearly falling flat on his face. Third, a climactic scene near the end in which a log cabin is tossed about by powerful winds while its inhabitants inside were thrown wildly from one side to the other, with the same man in the bowler hat at one point dangling perilously over a cliff with nothing but a doorknob to hold onto for dear life. Yet despite having no recollection of the specifics of the plot or what led to these different situations, I still looked back on The Gold Rush with giddy nostalgia. For some reason, I still remembered it as one of the most enjoyable and hilarious films of my childhood, even though I had only seen it once and couldn't have told you anything about it other than, "It's really funny."
Such is the power of Charlie Chaplin. Even if you come away from his films not being able to remember each specific gag, or the intricacies of the plot, they leave you with a palpable feeling of ecstasy that sticks around long after the details have faded from memory. That's why, when I saw that the Carolina Theatre in Durham was holding a Chaplin Retrospective and showcasting a variety of his feature films and shorts, I knew I had to go. Janus Films was providing collection of remastered 35mm prints they were touring around the country, meaning that I'd be watching them the way they were meant to be seen, not on a faded VHS tape at home but in a darkened theater off of actual film.
I told myself that I had to see all of them, even if due to time constraints I had to resort to renting one or two on DVD, if only because it would be fun and broaded my film knowledge. But deep down, I knew that it wasn't just about seeing some enjoyable movies. What I really wanted to discover was if most of Chaplin's work still held up now that I was an adult. I needed to see if he really was as funny as my inner child remembered, or really as brilliant as my inner film scholar had always heard. I had to find out if his brand of humor still had the power to impact me on a gut level the same way The Gold Rush did all those years ago.
And so, it is with that in mind that I will be publishing a series of posts related to each of the films presented in that retrospective. As with the other series I'm still in the process of continuing - I know I'm behind, deal with it! - I'll be examing each of his major works in chronological order so that I can see how he grew and evolved as a filmmaker. And as with those other series, I should point out that I'm not approaching this as a true academic. I'll be honest: I don't know that much about Mr. Charles Chaplin. I have not read books about him, or familiarized myself with many academic papers. I have seen a few shorts of his in an academic environment and briefly studied the mechanics of silent comedy gags, but other than that, I'm essentially an amateur when it comes to his filmography. This series will simply consist of my informal analysis of these films - what I notice and find interesting just as a lover of movies, rather than some sort of expert on Chaplin.
I hope what I have to say will turn out to be interesting and worth reading, but I'll admit upfront that might not be the case. If you really want to be sure to get something out of these "Chaplin Chapters," go watch the movies. Because believe it or not, they still hold up. Even if I wind up spouting a bunch of garbage, there's still a chance you'll see one of his films and come away like I did after watching The Gold Rush as a child: not quite sure what you just saw, but filled with the type of joy that comes only after being taken by art to a place within yourself you didn't know existed. A place filled with ecstasy and possibility, where dogs can fly, love can triumph, and even the lowliest Tramp might actually be the richest of all. And trust me, that's the kind of place it's actually worth turning on the television to get to.