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Romancing the Tramp

Charles Longford on the darker side of Charlie Chaplin's work

The closing scene in Richard Attenborough's new film biography of Charlie Chaplin shows the comedian, old and frail, returning to Hollywood in 1972 to claim a special Oscar. As the ceremony reaches its climax, while Chaplin waits at the podium in the darkened theatre with tears streaming down his face, the audience roars at clips of high slapstick humour from his films. The man whose comedy made millions laugh does it again. It is a beguiling message with which to end to a beguiling film.

Chaplin is a beautifully crafted and often marvellously acted film. But it is also disappointing and, in many ways, dishonest. Mesmerised by Chaplin's comic genius, Attenborough portrays a man whose life was simply about laughter. 'At the end of the day', Chaplin says in the film, 'it was about cheering people up'.

Chaplin certainly brought laughter to the big screen in a big way. But his life was tinged by much darker colours. When Chaplin returned to collect his Oscar in 1972, he was ending a 20-year exile after being hounded out of America at the height of the McCarthyite witchhunts. In the early fifties, the land where, in Chaplin's words, 'dreams come true', was no longer laughing at Chaplin's own dreams. By ignoring the darker side of Chaplin's life, and by reducing his work to well-timed slapstick humour that can be seen at any circus, Attenborough robs Chaplin of his art.

But perhaps we should not be too harsh on Attenborough. The problem of how to transform human misery into screen comedy was a dilemma that Chaplin himself was unable fully to resolve. His films depicted his abhorrence of a society that degraded the lives of millions. Yet his comic talent acted as a form of escape from the harsh realities of life, a release for the masses. Chaplin despised the rich and the powerful, but they probably benefited most from his ability to use laughter to soothe the concerns of everyday life for the masses.

'In the creation of comedy, it is paradoxical that tragedy stimulates the spirit of ridicule; because ridicule, I suppose, is an attitude of defiance: we must laugh in the face of our helplessness against the forces of nature-or go insane.' So wrote Chaplin in his autobiography, expressing the ambivalence at the heart of his work. It was Chaplin's ability to transform real-life tragedy into comic defiance that gave his most famous character, the Tramp, his appeal. The Tramp embodied the experiences of those who suffered the effects of mass unemployment and desperate poverty. In thumbing his nose at establishment propriety, the Tramp expressed a popular resentment. Through the Tramp, millions laughed at the absurdities of official morality.

Yet, in the Tramp, Chaplin also created a figure through whom we could 'laugh in the face of our own helplessness'. In this sense, Chaplin's films were as escapist as any Busby Berkeley spectacular or Errol Flynn swashbuckler, helping to ease the pain of poverty and degradation. The figure of the Tramp exposed the absurdities of the rich but also romanticised the sufferings of the poor. Chaplin's films laughed at the rich- but at ordinary people's helplessness, too.

City Lights, possibly Chaplin's greatest achievement, expresses this tension between the indictment of the rich and the romanticisation of the poor. Made in 1931, and shown throughout the Depression, City Lights contrasted the world of the sophisticated city elite with an idealised urban folk world, which Chaplin portrayed as a worthy alternative to the superficiality and moral torpor of the urban rich.

The film tells of the relationship between the Tramp, a millionaire and a blind flower girl. Entranced by the flower girl, Chaplin throws himself into a variety of jobs to provide for her. The money allows the girl to have an operation to restore her sight; but Chaplin himself is wrongly accused of having stolen the money from the millionaire and is imprisoned.

Released from prison, Chaplin trudges past the flower shop run by the now- prosperous flower girl. She observes him picking up a wilted flower takes pity on him in his bedraggled state and offers him money-the central image of the millionaire's world. He refuses and tries to leave. She comes out o her shop and offers him some flowers. Their hands meet, and through her touch she remembers and realises that this tramp, not some millionaire, is in fact her benefactor. 'You?', she asks. 'You can see now?', responds Chaplin, giving the word 'see' a double meaning.

The girl is overcome with bewilderment, gratitude-and disappointment, because until this moment she had believed that her guardian angel was a rich man. The film cuts to a close-up of the Tramp. His expression flits between anticipation, hopelessness, happiness and the bittersweet recognition of the absurdity of it all. Before we know what the outcome is, the shot fades out.

Which world will-and should-the flower girl choose, asks Chaplin. He leaves us in no doubt as to which he regards as morally superior. But equally, the Tramp is destined to remain a Tramp, and the girl is torn between her gratitude; to her real benefactor and her pragmatic desire that he had really been a millionaire.

The contradictory aspects of Chaplin's work were also troubling for the authorities. While Chaplin's parody and satire of capitalist society brought him success and made him the embodiment of the American dream, his work was always to be a source of embarrassment, an accusing finger pointed at the rich and powerful. Even though Chaplin and the Tramp personified the rugged individualism on which the myth of America was founded, this tension meant that his inclusion in elite circles was always conditional.

So long as Chaplin made the masses laugh through the Depression and, in his own words, provided a safety valve, he was welcomed and feted. But in the conditions of the late thirties, as Western society drifted towards world war, Chaplin's poignant social commentary became too hot to handle. Chaplin remembers in his book how in 1937 there was concern that The Great Dictator -a vicious condemnation of Adolf Hitler - would never be shown in Britain! If his anti-fascist sentiments were embarrassing prior to the war, his pro-Soviet sympathies caused consternation after 1945.

As the red scare seized the American imagination after the war, Chaplin's personal and political life was dragged through the mud in an attempt to discredit the critical content of his work. He was forced into exile in Switzerland. It was 20 years before Hollywood was willing to make peace with him. But what Hollywood resurrected was Chaplin the clown, not Chaplin the social critic. It is a resurrection which Attenborough's film has brought up to date - and at a time when, as we enter a new depression, the world needs to laugh once again. See Attenborough's film-but make sure that you see Chaplin's originals too.

The artist as superman

Alka Singh examines the importance of Edvard Munch in helping to create the contemporary vision of the artist

'We do not want to paint pretty pictures to hang on drawing room walls', Edvard Munch once declared. 'We want to create, or at least lay the foundations of, an art that gives something to humanity....An art created in one's innermost heart.' Munch was a key figure in the expressionist movement which heralded the coming of modernism in art. The exhibition of his work entitled The Frieze of Life, now showing at the National Gallery, demonstrates his importance both in the development of expressionism and to contemporary conceptions of what constitutes art.

Munch's declaration that art must come from 'one's innermost heart' but yet must 'give something to humanity' may seem unexceptional today. At the end of the nineteenth century, however, such a view marked a significant break with traditional conceptions of art and of the artist's role. Today, artists are regarded as individuals with unique sensibility, which allows them to stand above the humdrum life the rest of us lead and to perceive the world with particular insight. We speak with awe of Michelangelo, Rembrandt, Turner, van Gogh or Picasso as special individuals with an uncommon, and often tortured, understanding of the world.

This romanticisation of the artist is peculiar to the twentieth century. In times past the artist was seen as a normal part of society, not someone who stood outside of it. The elevation of the artist to the top of the cultural hierarchy, and the view of art as a purely subjective expression, went hand in hand with wider trends which caused many people in turn-of-the-century Europe to question the possibility of a rational view of the world.

Previously artists had believed in their ability to transcend their own particular viewpoints so as to represent aspirations and experiences held in common with others. The French artist Delacroix is a good example. In 'Liberty Leading the People', painted in the wake of the 1830 revolution, Delacroix combined universal aspirations to 'Liberty, equality and fraternity' with something specific to its time and place. It remains a powerful painting, giving us an inkling of the strength and excitement of shared ambition and action. For Delacroix, society could be a source of inspiration. Far from perceiving himself as standing outside of society, he considered that he was an intimate part of it. Delacroix committed his support to the revolt that provided the artistic inspiration for his painting.

Half a century later, such a position had become anathema to the artistic elite. Society was seen as corrupted and as corrupting of Art (with a capital A). Materialism and mass production were considered dangerous to artistic purity. The only way of preserving artistic integrity was by retreating into a personal, spiritual, mystical and emotional world. Symbolists like Baudelaire and Strindberg (with whom Munch worked closely during the peak of his artistic career in Europe) expressed this most clearly. They represented the pessimism, despair and disgust of the intellectuals at the unfulfilled promise of capitalist progress and Enlightenment hopes.

Munch's work expresses well this new subjectivity and pessimism. In the Frieze of Life, the paintings are significantly arranged around the themes of Love, Anxiety and Death. They express a morbid obsession with personal anxiety and individual suffering. Of one of the paintings, entitled 'Anxiety', Munch wrote that the inspiration was a sensation of alienation and fear of death evoked by faces in a crowd: 'I saw through them and there was suffering - in all of them - pale corpses - who without rest ran around - along a twisted road - at the end of which was the grave.'

Munch's earlier paintings are dark and brooding; in his self portraits he appears as a figure disembodied from any context. His later paintings, following his nervous breakdown in 1907, tend to be more prosaic. Broken brushstrokes, heavy impasto and vivid colours are much in evidence - but he presents himself more as a worn out man in ordinary surroundings. Throughout, however, what comes over is the intensely personal, introverted nature of the paintings. Munch is unable to use his personal experience to illustrate more universal themes because he seems to believe that all we have in common is our experience of alienation.

Munch's work had a major influence on later expressionist movements such Die Brucke and Der Blaue Reiter. More importantly, the ideas about art and the artist epitomised by Munch are now common currency. A hundred years ago Munch's exhibition caused a scandal in Berlin. Today the once-shocking 'Scream' has lost its purchase as a vision of angst - it has become a cliche, used to illustrate every Guardian feature on mental illness.

Munch's outlook and way of understanding (or misunderstanding) the world is now commonplace rather than the preserve of an elite. Just as once-dramatic impressionist images now sell chocolates and liqueurs, so Munch-like images can now be found on London Underground posters about fare-dodging. It is ironic that a movement which began by elevating the artist to superman should end up illustrating a campaign against petty criminals.

The 'living' section recently carried a critique of the new 'queer' cinema and politics by Hugh Mitchell and Kayode Olafimihan (see 'A queer view', November 1992). Here we publish a response to their arguments from Andrew R Greenlees, a Living Marxism reader from Sheffield

A different view of queer

In the absence of any broader or sustainable strategy for homosexual campaigning, it is indeed necessary to present a critique of the shortcomings of 'queer' culture and politics. Hugh Mitchell and Kayode Olafimihan's mealy-mouthed bitching really does miss the point, however. Their sectarian queeny name-calling does nothing to take forward the debate for homosexual equality.

The terminal decline of the homosexual rights movement is ultimately the fault of the left, not of homosexuals themselves, or even the fault of the 'queers'.

Mitchell and Olafimihan seriously overestimate the influence of queer politics. You get the impression from their article that homosexuals are going queer-in-yer-face all over the place; nunning around shoving their bent-antics down the throats of any unsuspecting heterosexual who happens to be there. The fact is that queers are the tiniest rump of an ever-fading band of ex-homosexual rights activists, media-queens aligned with a few publicity-seeking artists.

It has always been stretching the point to describe homosexual rights activities as a 'movement'. To assign this label to queers is in the Twilight Zone realms of exaggeration. Homosexual rights campaigning has always been a rather flimsy affair, involving a small number of activists.

The recent period has seen this so-called movement decline to an all-time low. The biggest problem is not the shortcomings of queer, but that there are hardly any comings at all.

The Queer Nation strategy of organising kiss-ins in straight bars only occurred a handful of times in the States, and even then it was a carefully manipulated media-stunt involving tiny numbers of people - not a 'mass' event. You only have to look in the British gay press to see that the British attempts at emulation were, even more pathetically attended. The Queer March on Downing Street was more an ego-massaging mince for all those make-my-name glamour pusses that you see appearing in the Pink Paper regularly.

Now, I'm not a size-queen and just because these activities have been poorly attended isn't the only problem. Mitchell and Olafimihan rightly note the diversity of opinion among queers, and it is this that is the compounding problem. This lack of direction and a lack of political discussion among queers means that their rampant activism becomes purely theatre (or art?). It has resulted in the collapse of Queer Nation, and Outrage is disintegrating at this very moment.

Does all this mean that queer politics are reactionary, as Mitchell and Olafimihan would have it? Surely not, unless you're a self-confessed ultra-leftist. The death of political discussion within the homosexual rights 'movement' is a result of years of being marginalised, and ignored by the left. Unless you believe that homosexuals have a biological predetermination to revolutionary conclusions then it must come down to the level of political influence (or lack of it) that has created the anti-politics of queerism.

To some extent, queer is to be congratulated as it is the only expression of anger and determination for change. Unlike the ever so polite lesbian and gay rights tea-parties-with-John-Major branch of homosexual rights campaigning, which should rightly be the target of those fed up with its apologist brown-nosing.

I would not want to completely slam Mitchell and Olafirihan's article - but that's what you get when you base your political analysis on cribbing from the May issue of Gay Times (and no credit to them either - tut tut!).

Homosexual equality is integral to the project of changing society. Sloppy journalism, crass analysis and (I'll say it again) mealy-mouthed bitching does nothing to add to the debate. In fact, I wouldn't be surprised if it creates a backlash from stroppy queers.
Reproduced from Living Marxism issue 51, January 1993

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