Thursday, 28 October 2010

Charles Chaplin

the autobiography.

Charlie Chaplin! The name is magic. I'm not sure why I picked this book up from my (excellent) local Oxfam B&M, being more of a Buster Keaton man, but pick it up I did.

A memoir will almost always make you like the person involved, if you didn't already. At least, that's the case with me. If people tell me they are nice, I tend to believe them. If they tell me they are not nice, I think the happy paradox, 'he's not only nice but honest as well. Hot stuff.' But I started taking a dislike to Charlie over the course of this beast of a book -- a dislike that slowly gave way to pity.

Reading an autobiography from a public figure is a very different experience when you know nothing about said figure's career, and even less about said's public trials. You end up with a lot of 'that Hearst-Davies affair, of which I have nothing to add, except to say the story as it became known was 100% false.' If you don't know the story as it became known, that sentence is high in unsaturated intrigue and low in information. Which is unhealthy.

Unhealthy but addictive. This lack of knowledge is what kept me reading the book. Chaplin is a perfect example of an unreliable narrator, setting up a state of affairs an author would maim owls to emulate. He was my only source of information, and at first -- oh! how naive I was, back then -- I took him to be reliable.

But then, slowly, other narratives began to suggest themselves. Hidden in the background, the simple shape of events tell a different, contradictory tale. Over time, over pages, my suspicions rose -- the suggested story, what Charlie is trying to rewrite, is the truer one. And the gap between the two compels.

So I started to think Charlie was a bit full of himself, and not as smart as he thought. He's not great to the people around him, either. Not nasty, just defensive, ignorant and uninvolved. Here's a little example that made me gasp (in my head) mid-text.

CC is talking about how he works up a film idea. He starts filming lots of comedy routines around a basic subject/set/genre, until a narrative emerges. Then he casts off any of the funny stuff that doesn't fit. He stops talking about this for a short paragraph:

"During the filming of The Gold Rush I married for the second time. Because we have two grown sons of whom I am very fond, I will not go into details. For two years we were married and tried to make a go of it, but it was hopeless and ended in a great deal of bitterness.
The Gold Rush opened at the Strand Theatre..."

In 530 pages, this is the only mention of these people. Well done for not opening up old wounds, but... an aside? In a rather irrelevant anecdote about a film? Flipping heck.

But I didn't think Charlie a bad man, by the end. What comes across most, through his defensive attitude, his incomplete and ill-concealed retelling of events, his lack of understanding of others, and his fundamental incompetence in bonding with people, is how lost he was.

It's all there, in his childhood, though he doesn't tell it that way; he never got the chance to grow up. He was just a boy, gifted and lucky and greedy enough to become loved all over the world, and completely without the maturity necessary to deal with it. He was just a kid, man. The kid. I'm off to watch The Kid. 

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