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
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
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
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
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
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