Comic timings: Chaplin as Calvero in the 1952 film Limelight. Photo: Magnum
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Tears of a clown: Peter Ackroyd’s biography of Charlie Chaplin

Chaplin's previously unpublished novella and a new biography show the makings of his melancholy genius

Charlie Chaplin 
Peter Ackroyd
Chatto & Windus, 272pp, £14.99


Footlights 
Charles Chaplin
Cineteca di Bologna, 226pp, £25

 

Liking Chaplin will probably never be cool. For the Sight and Sound-reading, suck-on-a-lemon-and-think-of-Bresson cineaste, Buster Keaton will always be their man, with his whitened deadpan and letter-box smile, his meta-movie conceits and collaboration with Samuel Beckett – those two stoics together, craggy and forlorn, staring down the headwinds of the 20th century like Easter Island statues. Then there is Chaplin with his touchiness about class, his walk, his mesmeric effect on kids and – dear, oh dear – his sentimentality. “For a century or more, sentimentality has been the cardinal aesthetic sin,” writes Carl Wilson in his recently republished book about taste, Let’s Talk About Love. “To be sentimental is to be kitsch, phoney, exaggerated, manipulative, self-indulgent, hypocritical, cheap and clichéd.”

The critical aversion to sentimentality – so often a disguise for squeamishness about emotion of any kind – quarantines us from the power of cinema’s early pioneers, who would no sooner have turned down the opportunity to wring an audience for tears than have declined an opportunity to make them rocket out of their seats with fright or laughter. It would be like designing a new automobile and keeping it under wraps in the garage. “Keep it wistful,” advised Fred Karno, the head of the comedy troupe that first brought Chaplin to America. When you hit a man, it’s funnier if you then kiss him on the head. The early Keystone shorts were crammed with people, props and gags; the actors were wind-up toys, uninflected by emotions such as fear or greed or passion, who simply ran and ran until they met immovable objects or dropped from exhaustion – a roundelay of constant motion, or “arse-kicking”, as Chaplin put it.

He did things differently. Emptying out the frame, Chaplin anchored the camera in the middle distance, the better to take in a full human figure, feet included, drawing audiences in with a single gesture – a smile, a half-tear, a look. “He had those eyes that absolutely forced you to look at them,” said Stan Laurel, another Karno regular who also travelled over on the same ship in 1910.

Within four months of arriving in the US, Chaplin was famous and soon became the first truly global icon, a hero of the Dadaists and an inspiration to Fernand Léger and Marcel Proust (who for a while trimmed his moustache in the Chaplin style). “He has escaped . . . from the realism of the cinema and invented a rhythm,” wrote T S Eliot, one of many highbrows swanning around the pages of Peter Ackroyd’s new biography. That Chaplin has attracted the attention of Dickens’s biographer is telling. In later life, according to his son, Chaplin read and reread Oliver Twist, “as if in that novel he had found the key to his own past”, Ackroyd writes. Both Dickens and Chaplin came from poverty and childhood neglect and achieved fame in their mid-twenties. Both produced urban fables that mixed farce with sentiment; melodrama with pantomime; comedy and pathos with poetry.

“Chaplin was Dickens’s true successor,” Ackroyd writes, “just as Modern Times is a successor to Hard Times.” Coming in at a slim 272 pages, his book has no ambition to supplant David Robinson’s definitive 1985 account of the comedian’s life, Chaplin: His Life and Art, and nor does it; but, aided by his novelistic appetites, Ackroyd has turned in the best account of Chaplin’s formation beneath the teetering chimney stacks of Victorian London, fragrant with the odour of “vinegar, and of dog dung, and of smoke, and of beer”. Boy, is he big on whiffs, from the delicate bouquet of “oranges, beer, of unwashed bodies and tobacco” that clings to the theatres where Chaplin, a seven-year-old in knickerbockers, first learned how to turn corners with a one-legged skid, to the lodgings on Pownall Terrace, “foul with the stale slops and old clothes”, where he lived with his mother before she was institutionalised for what seems likely to have been late-stage syphilitic madness, contracted from work as a prostitute.

“She died there,” Chaplin liked to tell people once he was safely ensconced in Hollywood but, Ackroyd writes, “This was perhaps less than fair to his mother, who was still very much alive in Peckham House hospital,” where she remained, with intermittent periods of lucidity, for another 17 years. The dryness of “perhaps less than fair” proves that Ackroyd is just the man to puncture the whoppers with which Chaplin embroidered his past, without being too much of a scold.

When, aged 38, his father drank himself to death, Chaplin, “with black crape on his sleeve, sold narcissi in the local public houses, lamenting in a whispered voice the death of his father. Who could fail to be moved by the grieving boy?” The vibrato swell lets us know Ackroyd is on to him and his habit of self-dramatisation – the sense of being always “on”, void of any experience that isn’t witnessed by another – that made for a performer of genius and also, in the words of a reporter for the New York Times, “the unhappiest and shyest human being I have met”. Or as another writer put it, even more bluntly, “The bulk of him is ice.”

A lifelong reader of Schopenhauer and “the gloomier philosophers”, Chaplin was a creature of pure will and wisp. On-screen, the Tramp was indomitable, endlessly resourceful and adaptive, impeded but never defeated, bowed but not broken, raising his arms in the final scene of Police in Christlike exaltation, as if to say: “Look, I have come through.” His Favourite Pastime paired him with Fatty Arbuckle, only to confirm how fully he was a solo performer, going over or around the heads of his fellow actors to commune directly with the audience, making eyes at them from within that expanse of white make-up.

Ackroyd picks up on the solipsism of all this. Protected by the bubble wrap of the audience’s attention, Chaplin is haughty with anyone who brushes his sense of dignity. He collects resentments like moss. From the spectacle in One AM, in which Chaplin gets into an argument with a bed and the pendulum of a grandfather clock, to the grand panoply of Modern Times, he seemed intent on taking the entire world personally.

Is it any surprise that in his private life he proceeded to do the same? The book tails off in its second half; all Chaplin bio­graphies do. His life tailed off, a dying fall to echo those in his comedy. Ackroyd’s account takes it at a canter – the coming of sound, the failure of the 1947 film Monsieur Verdoux, Chaplin’s entanglement with the House Un-American Activities Committee, the teenage brides and paternity suits – and in the final furlong achieves a steady gallop of just under a year per page.

For those wishing for a more thorough spelunking of Chaplin’s psyche at this point, help is at hand in the form of Footlights, a recently unearthed prose work, published with an accompanying essay by David Robinson and presented as Chaplin’s first and only novella. It isn’t really: it’s more like a 34,000-word extended treatment for Limelight (1952), the last film he made in the US before his exile in Switzerland, about the platonic romance between an old clown named Calvero and Terry, a beautiful young ballet dancer troubled by a psychosomatic illness whom he nurses back to the stage.

That Chaplin felt impelled to flesh this out in prose form is indicative of his maudlin frame of mind at the time. Heavy with backstory, the book recounts first Terry’s plaintive history, then Calvero’s – as booze, women and a nervous breakdown curtail his career, leaving him sour with the fickleness of audiences: “a motley confusion of cross-purposes, like a monster without a head”, he rails. “They’re guinea pigs! They react to whatever injection you give them!” She responds: “You talk like a lover who’s quarrelled.” Potentially, this was promising material. When popular performers misfire, the collapse is total and baffling, the tender ministrations with which the performer once unlocked his audience now recalibrated as loathsome presumptions, a form of artistic rape.

The trick, as Jerry Lewis showed us in Martin Scorsese’s The King of Comedy, is to have the courage of your misanthropy and to let the mask slip completely. But the one note missing from the mauve-and-violet prose effects of Footlights is that of honest and accurate self-appraisal. The prevailing tone is of self-pity; the overall impression is that of gloom leavened with froth, as Calvero invokes “the elegant melancholy of twilight” and “dinners under saffron skies on a balcony overlooking the Thames” to get Terry on her feet and dancing again. Who could have guessed that when one of the great clowns of the silent era finally spoke up, he would come out sounding so much like Barbara Taylor Bradford?

Words were never Chaplin’s medium. He knew next to nothing about the Tramp, not even his name (he referred to him as “the little fellow”). His art was one of radical attenuation, Euclidean subtraction, the winnowing and carving out of gags from thin air – “shaking the tree”, he called it – to reveal the form hanging there like dust motes in sunlight. He worked tirelessly to secure the audience’s sympathy, our pity for him freeing him from the bother of feeling it for himself. When Chaplin exits the final reel of The Tramp, he walks dejectedly down the road before perking up with that little jig and quickstep of his, ready once again for the adventure of life. “His little dance upon the road is a form of self-definition,” writes Ackroyd. “He is free.” Iris in, fade out. 

Tom Shone’s new book, “Scorsese: a Retrospective”, will be published by Thames & Hudson in September

 

This article first appeared in the 01 May 2014 issue of the New Statesman, The Islam issue

David Brent: Life on the Road
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Ricky Gervais thinks his latest brand of David Brent comedy is subversive and clever. It’s not

Unlike The OfficeDavid Brent: Life on the Road is lazy, cheap, dated, and appeals to the lowest human impulses.

I love The Office. This is not a controversial statement. Who doesn’t love The Office? Just this morning, the series came second in a BBC poll of the greatest British comedies of the century. I loved The Office so much as a teenager that I watched every episode so many times I knew them by heart. I even knew parts of the DVD special features by heart. Still, now, if I want to cry with laughter I’ll watch Martin Freeman cracking up in bloopers. If I just want to cry I’ll watch the Christmas special.

It’s the toughest possible act to follow. Ricky Gervais has had to state over and over again that it would be crazy to try and recreate it at this point, and that the David Brent-starring works that have followed the series are not meant to be The Office. Still, the latest instalment, Gervais’s film David Brent: Life on the Road, begins in a (new) office, with the same mock-doc format as the television series. We see Brent making bad taste jokes with colleagues, telling the camera about his love for entertaining, embarrassing himself regularly. This is where the similarities end.

Perhaps deliberately, Life on the Road rejects every structural feature of The Office that made it such a celebrated programme. The Office stuck pretty rigidly to the documentary format, and used the constraints that format placed on the drama to its advantage (with scenes glimpsed through plastic blinds, or filmed from slightly too far away, feeding into the observational nature of the show). Life on the Road never bothers to commit either way, with cinematic shots and documentary style film-making meeting awkwardly in the middle alongside talking heads that would feel more at home in an overly earnest toothbrush advert than a tour doc.

The Office team knew that the best way to deepen our empathy with their characters was to hint at their emotions without ever fully giving them away. The most excruciating feelings in the show remained out of shot and unsaid, with glances across rooms (or the lack of them) becoming as dramatic as a high-octane argument in the rain. The romantic climax between Tim and Dawn in the second season comes when they disappear into a meeting room and take their microphones off – the audience never gets the satisfaction of hearing an explicit conversation about how they feel about each other.

Life on the Road takes the opposite tack – at every turn its characters tell the camera exactly how they feel, or how Brent feels, in detail. A receptionist we barely see interact with him at all wells up as she feels Brent is “bullied”, another female colleague notes that she can see the sadness behind his smiles, and Brent’s band repeatedly explain why he behaves in certain ways (He’s bad around women because he’s insecure! This man is strange because he’s desperate to be liked!) when they really don’t need explaining. It’s the ultimate example of telling instead of showing.

All the drama of the film unfolds this way. There is no real narrative arc to the story (the plot can be summed up as Brent goes on tour, it’s not that great, and he comes home), so instead, it uses talking heads to tell the audience how they should feel. Brent’s backing band are in effect a voice for the audience – they say how cringeworthy Brent is after he does something cringeworthy, they express pity for him in his more tragic moments.

“I didn’t quite know whether to laugh or cry,” one says to camera after Brent injures an audience member at a gig. “There’s been quite a few moments like that.” It’s a line that feels like it could have been written for the trailer – clearly, this is where the makers of this film position their ideal audience.

Of course, there comes a point where this film wants you to have more empathy for Brent. When this time comes, the script doesn’t bother to show any change in behaviour from him, or show him in a more redeeming light. Instead, it shrugs off the issue by getting a few band members and work colleagues to say that actually, they find him quite funny, and that really, he’s not so bad, he just wants to make people laugh.

As Brent reaches the end of his tour, he begins to feel that it’s all been a bit anti-climactic. (So, too, does the audience.) Already in debt, he wants to waste even more money on a snow machine, to provide his tour with “a magic moment”, but is persuaded against it. “I just wanted a magic moment,” he repeats to camera, just so we all get what is coming. In the very next scene, while on stage, he is surprised by falling snow – a bandmate has bought a snow machine for him, and thus the film’s magic moment arrives. But in actuality, it feels limp. You can’t create “a magic moment” by simply telling your audience that it is one. The Office would never speak in such cloying terms in the first place.

All these problems pale in comparison to the issue of Brent himself. The Office realised that the beating heart of the show was not David Brent, but the other office members and their relationships (basically, Tim and Dawn), Life on the Road doesn’t make even a half-hearted effort to engage with any peripheral characters, instead choosing Brent as its emotional centre. Trying to encourage an audience to empathise with such a dislikeable character is tricky territory, but not impossible to navigate. But Life on the Road barely even tries.

In The Office, Brent is a pretty horrible character offered occasional, heartfelt moments of redemption – when he stands up to a sexist, bullying colleague, or challenges his own patronising and cruel approach to dating after he meets a nice woman. In Life on the Road, Brent is self-absorbed, mean, sexist, racist, homophobic, ableist, delusional and exploitative. There is nothing, except the tragedy of his life, that even begins to counterbalance that.

Let’s start with the sexism. Life on the Road has a few female characters who fall largely in to one of three categories: women who we like and see as good because they put up with all of Brent’s shit, and even like him for it, because he’s “funny”; women who don’t like him at all and are therefore condemned as sullen bitches with no sense of humour (men who don’t like Brent, in contrast, are allowed to exist on a spectrum of sensible to awful, heartless cunts); and fat women. And fat women, of course, have no worth, outside of their capacity to be a punchline. Brent’s only response to fat women is to shake his head in disbelief: he does it about a fat woman he accidentally shoots with a tshirt gun, a fat woman he tells us he used to date, and a fat woman he invites into his hotel room.

It’s easy here to claim, in Gervais’s defence, that the joke is actually about Brent’s own sexism, but when the punchline of a scene repeatedly involves zooming in on a fat woman as she eats chocolates and crisps (and focusing in on the wrappers again the next morning), it feels less and less defensible. The portrayal of women as either personality-less voids that take on the burden of Brent’s sexism by constantly making excuses for him, or as tight-lipped, po-faced and joyless (as a woman who doesn’t “get” the point of Brent in his current form, I’m confident that Gervais would see me as one of these), shifts the blame away from Brent and onto the women around him, perpetuating the idea that offence is simply taken, not a product of offensive acts.

Racism functions in a similar way. Brent uses the black people around him as props by which he can demonstrate his own progressiveness – bringing his friend Dom (Doc Brown) to work to “prove” that he is not politically incorrect after he is disciplined for a racist impression of an Asian stereotype (a Chinese man called Ho-Lee Fuk, a character my cinema screening found pretty funny). While Dom is one of the most developed characters (which isn’t saying much) in this film, it sometimes feels as though Gervais is doing the same thing – when Dom excuses Brent for his use of the n-word, the audience is invited to as well, which feels uncomfortable to me.

So, too, does ableism. In what I found to be the most egregiously offensive scene in the film, Brent sings a song called “Please Don’t Make Fun of the Disableds”. The song’s lyrics include references to those “mental in the head or mental in the legs”, “the ones with feeble minds”, “the awkward”, and reminds the listener to “understand you might have to feed the worst ones through a straw: it’s basically a head on a pillow”. Rarely do we hear disabled people dehumanised quite so violently as this. If the joke here is how deeply offensive Brent’s behaviours are, why is he never condemned for his actions? (All that happens at the end of this song are a few pained expressions from bandmates, and an awkward raised pint of semi-thanks from a wheelchair user in the audience.)

No, the joke here is simply the shock of the language, and when you say that shock is funny for shock’s sake, regardless of who you target, you encourage the grimmest forms of oppressive humour. Sadly, the belief that people with severe disabilities are essentially subhuman is far too common to be handled flippantly on screen – never mind perpetuated and left uncriticised. The bad taste of the whole thing rancours even further when you remember Gervais has a history of using ableist language casually. It’s not edgy. It’s lazy, cheap, dated, and appeals to the lowest human impulses.

We also see Brent being occasionally homophobic, and generally inconsiderate towards all those around him. He’s a bad friend, buying people’s time rather than stopping and thinking about how his behaviours make people unhappy to be around him. When Dom, who has consistently and inexplicably supported Brent, starts to become successful, he offers him none of the same kindness and rejects him. He expects endless generosity from his fellow man, but sees no reason why anyone should receive the same from him.

Despite all his stunning flaws, we are meant to love him. “I don’t think there’s any real racism on David’s part,” a band member tells us. “He just doesn’t quite get it.” Clearly, we are meant to agree. On The One Show, Gervais confirmed that he does not see David Brent as genuinely bigoted.

“He’s accidentally offensive. He tries to please everyone, he’s trying to say the right thing, and because he’s not sure . . . It’s about that white, middle-class angst where he knows about political correctness and he doesn’t want to put his foot in it. And he’s not racist, and he’s not homophobic, and he’s not sexist, but he panics, and he digs himself into a hole.”

Let’s be clear, David Brent is all of those things. Life on the Road is not an interrogation of white, middle-class anxiety. It’s a portrayal of a racist, ableist, sexist person who we are encouraged to forgive because he has “good intentions”. I know a saying about good intentions.

When confronted about homophobic impressions, Brent responds, “I never actually specify whether he is a homosexual or not, so that’s in your mind.” Like Dapper Laughs, defences of Brent rest on the idea that if you find him offensive, the joke’s on you – that Brent as a character is actually mocking the Brents of real life. But in Life on the Road, it’s too unclear where the joke truly lies, and Brent is simply let off too easy. Personally, I wish I’d stuck to re-watching The Office.

Anna Leszkiewicz is a pop culture writer at the New Statesman.