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Reading Pictures II (This Time….It’s Personal!): Art Vs. Artist September 10, 2007

Posted by Jim Berkin in Movies.
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Chaplin’s City Lights presents an object lesson in how an artist’s life influences the major themes of their work.

While Chaplin’s on-screen persona of the innocent little tramp was beloved worldwide, his off-screen life was overflowing with scandal, usually centered around his series of shotgun marriages, and the lurid stories of his sexual appetite that would invariably surface in the bitter divorce proceedings that followed a few years later. While this might be shrugged off nowadays or even embellished by a star’s own publicist, it might have served as a potential career-killer to a lesser star in the 1920s.

So then we have City Lights, where Chaplin’s little tramp wanders through some silent comedy set-pieces in the big city, but centers these around a story where the only two friends the tramp has do not truly recognize him. The millionaire must be drunk to recognize the tramp – sober, he rejects him with a cold and callous aloofness. The blind flower girl literally cannot see the tramp, and while she mistakes him for a millionaire due to some carefully choreographed “sounds,” also senses his kindness.

Us? The audience? Well, duh! We get to see everything, unless we missed something in the movie by taking a bathroom break, right? So we see his his rescue of the millionaire from a suicide attempt, and the numerous sacrifices he makes in order to raise the money the blind girl needs for her rent and magical-only-in-the-movies operation.

This all builds up to the final scene, which turns out to be more multilayered than it appears. When the no-longer-blind girl offers the tramp a flower out of pity, she only recognizes him by his touch, one of the most wonderful and emotionally moving moments in all of film (and this is coming from someone who’d snarf down a venison sandwich with glee right when Bambi’s mother gets shot). The tramp hides behind his flower and asks “You can see now?” She replies “Yes, I can see now.” She can literally see him, but she can also see the truth – the meek little man hiding behind the flower is a sweet selfless little puppy who only wants a friend.

Awwww! Don’t you just wanna hug him and forgive him for whatever possible trail of knocked-up bims in his wake? I know I do!

And isn’t that what Chaplin says to us, the audience, after our steady diet of reading about his scandals? “C’mon, you can see now! You can see the real me, just a funny little fellow making films that make you laugh and cry, I’m not what you thought I was after you read all those Hollywood slezeoid sheets…”

I don’t think it’s a coincidence that what is arguably Chaplin’s greatest work concerns the idea of discovering someone’s true inner identity, despite their outward appearance and how society as a whole looks on them. It’s what Chaplin was struggling with, in his mind and heart, throughout his very public scandals over what he saw as his, shall we say, overindulging passion for love. He wanted to find a way to show us what he felt was his real soul, underneath all that randy romanticism.

He wasn’t the first, he won’t be the last. (I’m still trying to prove to people that I have a soul… stay tuned!) Separating the art from the artist presents its problems. How horrible is the behavior of the artist? How worthwhile is the art? Should we even consider one with the other? Woody Allen seemed to reply to his fans’ disgust over his personal life with Deconstructing Harry, which I can sum up as “Okay, I’m a horrible person – but don’t you love my films?” Well Woody, I liked the “early funny” ones to be sure, and after that it’s been more hit than miss. Though I’m not sure your behavior (while worse than Chaplin’s if you ask me) is as morally repugnant as Arthur Miller’s rejection of his Down Syndrome son or – let’s go all the way and play the dreaded NAZI CARD – Leni Riefenstahl’s whoring for hitler. Though to be honest, I’ve never thought much of the “art” of Riefenstahl or Miller, to be honest. I liked Brian Dennehy’s performance in “Death of A Salesman,” but have never been crazy about the play, or “The Crucible” or The Misfits. And I bet if you link to that piece on Miller, you’ll think less of anything his plays might have had to say about the human condition, and in the case of “Salesman,” about fatherhood to be sure.

Come to think of it, if Riefenstahl had made a film, or better yet a game show, actually called “Whoring For Hitler,” I might raise her a few opinion points as well. But she didn’t, so she’s just another dead Nazi in hell.

Let that be a lesson to you all.

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