This day, April 16th, is not only the birthday of Charles Spencer Chaplin but his 125th birthday–a nice milestone in a year just chock full of Chaplin milestones. It’s a good day for laughter and perhaps a good day for some reflection too.
Very recently I came across a fascinating essay, entitled “Chaplin’s Vision,” written by none other than filmmaker Sergei Eisenstein, maker of Strike, October, Alexander Nevsky and the great Battleship Potemkin. The latter film was a big influence on Chaplin (indeed, the two men even ended up spending quite a bit of time together around 1930). I’m not sure if the essay is well-known to Chaplin buffs or no, but it was certainly new to me. And it’s sticking with me.
The thoughts of one giant of film about the Giant of Film were nothing less than extraordinary, putting Chaplin in a light that I simply hadn’t considered before–at least, not quite in the way that Eisenstein put it. I’ve been pondering it ever since.
Here are the most memorable excerpts. It is on the long side, but it is worth it:
The fields of vision of a rabbit’s eyes overlap behind the back of the head. He sees behind him. Condemned to run away, rather than to track down, he doesn’t complain about that. But these fields of vision do not overlap each other in front. In front of a rabbit is a piece of space it does not see. And a rabbit running forward may bump into an opposing obstacle.
The rabbit sees the world in another fashion than we.
…Not to speak of the higher transformation of vision into a look and then to a point of view that takes place the moment we rise from the rabbit to Man, with all his surrounding social factors. Till finally all this is synthesized into a world outlook, a philosophy of life.
How the eyes are placed–in the given instance the eyes of thought.
How those eyes see.
The eyes of Chaplin.
Eyes, able to see Dante’s Inferno or Goya’s Capriccio theme of Modern Times in the forms of careless merriment?
With what eyes does Charlie Chaplin look on life?
…In the following deliberation I do not at all wish to say that Chaplin is indifferent to what is happening around him or that Chaplin does not understand it (maybe even partly).
I am not interested in what he understands.
I am interested in how he perceives. How he looks and sees, when he is lost “in inspiration.” When he comes across a series of images of phenomena, which he is laughing at, and when laughter at what he perceives is re-moulded into the forms of comic situations and tricks: and with what eyes one must look at the word, in order to see it as Chaplin sees it.
A group of delightful Chinese children are laughing.
One shot. Another. Close up. Mid shot. Again close up.
What are they laughing at?
Apparently at a scene taking place in the depths of the room.
What is taking place there?
A man sinks back on a bed. He is apparently drunk.
And a tiny woman–a Chinese slaps him on the face furiously.
The children are overcome with uncontrollable laughter.
Although the man is their father. And the little Chinawoman their mother. And the big man is not drunk. And it is not for drunkenness the little wife is hitting him on the face.
The man is dead…
And she is slapping the deceased on the face precisely because he died and left to a hungry death her and the two little children, who laugh so ringingly.
That, of course, is not from one of Chaplin’s films. These are passing strokes from that wonderful novel of Andre Malraux The Condition of Human Existence.
In thinking of Chaplin, I always see him in the image of that merrily laughing little Chinese, seeing how comically the hand-slaps of the little woman make the head of the big man wobble from side to side. It is not important that the Chinese woman is the mother. That the man is the father. And it is not at all important that in general he is dead.
In that is the secret of Chaplin.
In that is the secret of his eyes.
In that is his inimitability.
In that is his greatness.
To see things most terrible, most pitiful, most tragic through the eyes of a laughing child.
To see images of these things spontaneously and suddenly–outside their moral-ethical significance outside valuation and outside judgment and condemnation–to see them as a child sees them through a burst of laughter.
In that Chaplin is outstanding, inimitable and unique.
Note: Excerpt is from The Legend of Charlie Chaplin, a fascinating collection of essays compiled by Peter Haining.