Posted by David Kalat on April 2, 2016
While vacationing in Paris recently I was struck by how much Parisians love their artists. The streets are named for major cultural figures, the city is awash in museums, and at the newsstand kiosks at the entrances to the subway you can find, nestled between the tabloids and porno mags, a huge portfolio of works by Modigliani. That’s how they roll. And it’s ever been thus: once upon a time, Auguste Rodin was commissioned to do a sculpture in honor of the author Balzac. The resulting statue was perceived as being “too avant garde” and triggered outrage, public complaints, and threats of lawsuits. Has anything remotely like this ever happened in the US? Has there ever been an artist, in any media, who was so beloved and so intimately intertwined with our national sense of self that anyone would bother to complain that an honorary statue wasn’t sufficiently reverent?
(Well, I mean aside from Lucille Ball, naturally)
It’s easy to get sidetracked by jokes here, but I found myself seriously considering the question: was there ever an American artist who was truly beloved and became seen as a symbol of our national identity? We are not an art-loving people here in the US, and our heroes don’t tend to have much of a shelf life. Our national motto might as well be: what have you done for me lately?
Also, to really function as a national symbol, we need to be talking about a figure who served as a cultural ambassador abroad, shaping international attitudes about America.
I decided I should be thinking about a filmmaker of some kind. For one thing, while I generally argue that France pioneered the concept of movies as we know them today (see my blog on the subject here), the technology was developed in America. More importantly, it was Americans who turned the thing into an industry, so much so that they then decided that the words “the industry” would somehow be considered synonymous with filmmaking—as if smelting or ironworks weren’t proper industries compared to starlets trying to get noticed in the streets of Beverly Hills. Film is a truly American kind of art—populist, commercial, industrialized, ephemeral.
So, who is the American filmmaker who became a symbol of national culture and served as an international symbol to the extent that his or her artistry came to be a token of the American identity?
Here’s my argument why:
I’m not being facetious. Chaplin’s status as an immigrant is important to this calculus in two ways.
First, it exemplifies our melting pot society. With the exception of Native Americans, everyone else who calls themselves an “American” is an immigrant or the descendant of an immigrant. That’s what makes us special, and what insulates us from falling victim to the endless tribal hatreds that tore places like Europe apart. I love the idea that the truest kind of “American” is somebody who shows up on a boat one day and turns himself into a colossal success the next.
And that brings me to the second reason why Chaplin’s immigrant status is important to me: it exemplifies how America was (and still is in many ways) meaningfully different in the opportunities it offered its citizens. In England, Charlie Chaplin was an impoverished half-orphan struggling to make ends meet. He’d made a name for himself as a stage comedian, but where was that going to take him? How big a star could Chaplin possibly have become had he stayed in England?
But when he came to America and started making movies, he suddenly had access to vastly larger audiences, larger networks of resources and promotional talent—he had leverage. He was the same guy, doing the same stuff, but in America that could make him rich and famous—almost overnight. The fact that the film community was an industry made a huge difference: there were lots of film studios, all vying for position against one another, and he could exploit that competition to his advantage. Succeed at Keystone and use that to get a better job at Essanay; use that success to get a better deal at Mutual; and use that to start his own studio.
Due to its nature, silent film was especially visual. To the extent language entered into films, it was in the form of intertitles that could be easily substituted with foreign language alternatives. In the sound era, this would change—and neither the option to subtitle or to dub the films into local languages would ever be quite as invisible or effective. But until that day dawned, silent films could give the illusion of being culture-free. That is, the fact they hailed from a different culture wasn’t necessarily obvious.
And so audiences in other countries could sit and laugh at Chaplin and absorb the parts that were basically universal—in what country on Earth do people not find it funny when someone kicks someone else in the pants? Meanwhile, quietly and without fuss, the ways in which his films did casually depict American society and American life would settle into those foreign audiences like second nature.
This is perhaps easier to explain in reverse. If you have 90 minutes to spare, go watch Rumble in the Bronx. The title clearly says “in the Bronx.” That movie supposedly takes place in the Bronx. Of course, no aspect of it whatsoever actually feels genuinely American. And why should it? It’s a Hong Kong movie that was shot in Vancouver. There wasn’t anything American about it.
Now, imagine that pretty nearly every movie you watched was a Hong Kong movie shot in Vancouver, and presented as if it was American. After a while, the cultural dissonance would fade away, and you’d just take for granted this is what movies are like. You wouldn’t perceive the weirdness as being a cultural disconnect, but just part of the experience of watching a movie.
This is what Charlie Chaplin (and his cohorts in American slapstick) did for American values abroad—they made them seem ordinary.
Chaplin kept innovating as he went through his career. Slapstick evolved into satire, shorts evolved into features, character-based comedy evolved into philosophical musings on the state of the world. I’ve suggested here before (link) that Chaplin’s urge to improve was motivated in part by his need to stay one step ahead of his mimics—by constantly changing what he was doing, he made sure his copycats inevitably copying last season’s Chaplin.
But whatever caused this constant process improvement, we were all the better for it.
It started as he began to make his Tramp character more than just a vehicle for slapstick violence but a sympathetic figure—a person, with wants and dreams. He has his heart broken, time and again. And as Chaplin made that tragic canvas bigger and more detailed, he drew in more and more of the world’s ills at large. His films became about something—but without being (too) preachy.
For example, I raved here a little while ago about The Immigrant, and how in just two short reels of superb slapstick comedy Chaplin managed to make powerful but subtle points about serious issues then being debated in the society at large. Chaplin had a bully pulpit, at least as powerful as the one enjoyed by the President, and he chose to use it for the things he believed in. He used his fame and stature to try to make the world a better place—and he did so at a time when some of the most famous and powerful men in the world had decided to try to make the world a worse place.
Chaplin was a cultural force through two World Wars and the Depression in-between. There was a lot of pain and misery all around—but he found ways to poke fun at it all. Making jokes about Hitler is tricky stuff—some of the best comedians of all time tried and faltered. Chaplin almost made it look easy.
Sorry if that got a little fawning there at the end, but I came to praise Chaplin not bury him. I can think of better filmmakers, better comedians, artists who pushed the envelope into new arenas or changed what film could do, or blah blah blah. There’s none who came half as close as being that influential, that beloved. And I seriously doubt if any filmmaker will ever reach that height of national iconic status ever again.
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