Wednesday, February 05, 2014

The Immigrant (Charles Chaplin) at the Agricola Church

Siirtolainen / Emigranten. US 1917. PC: Lone Star Corporation. Released by Mutual Film. P+D+SC+ED: Charles Chaplin. DP: Roland Totheroh. C: Charles Chaplin (immigrant), Edna Purviance (immigrant), Eric Campbell (head waiter), Albert Austin (a diner), Henry Bergman (artist), Kitty Bradbury (mother), John Rand (diner who cannot pay). 30 min.

SenioriFoorum / Kansan Raamattuseura and Helsingin Tuomiokirkkoseurakunta at Mikael Agricolan kirkko (Mikael Agricola Church), 5 February 2014.

The church was filled to capacity, and the audience was expecting Peter von Bagh to speak about Charles Chaplin. I tried to minimize the inevitable disappointment.

I am not a churchgoer, but I was deeply moved by the event and the high quality of the speeches of Ensio Klemi and Matti Amnell. It was J. L. Runeberg's day, and we sung his songs and hymns. Their lyrics are fine poetry also in Finnish translation.

The church, a late (1935) creation of the great architect Lars Sonck (1870-1956) has been beautifully restored and is in great shape. It is much more ascetic than his legendary Cathedral of Tampere (1907) and the Kallio Church (1912).

Chaplin's films work best with a big audience. They are edited to be laughed at successive waves of laughter, as has been brilliantly described by James Agee and André Bazin.

The Immigrant worked in a new way in a situation like this.

The theme given to me as the speaker-surrogate was "Charles Chaplin ja ihmisyyden arvostus" which I'd translate as "Charles Chaplin and human dignity".

In these weeks we are celebrating the centenary of Charles Chaplin's tramp figure. It came into being in January 1914 in one of Chaplin's very first comedies at the Keystone Studios. There had been successful comedy series since a decade in France and Italy, but Mack Sennett's Keystone Studios was the first studio dedicated to comedy.

It is a basic paradox of great comedy that the comedian can make his character utterly ridiculous, yet illuminate his inner dignity.

The well-known Charles Chaplin paradox is his essence as "The Gentleman Tramp", to quote the title of Richard Patterson's documentary biopic. The Immigrant is an eloquent case. The tramp is at the outset a carefree card sharp, but at the encounter with Edna and her ailing mother he turns into a gentleman.

Even his appearance is an embodiment of this contradiction. He is a bum with dirty and torn clothes, yet always with an attempt to appear as well-dressed.

The tramp is still a valid and topical figure. He is somebody who is marginalized, lonely, homeless, and abandoned. But Chaplin's tramp is also always full of life and energy. He never gives up. The immigrant is a profound variation of the tramp theme. It was topical at the time. Also from Finland, then still a part of the Russian Empire, immigrants went to America in ships like this. Today we read from the newspapers of African immigrants trying to reach Europe and getting drowned in the Mediterranean.

Chaplin's atavistic, primitive Keystone incarnation was "a monster from the Id", a Caliban figure, un enfant terrible, infantile, only interested in satisfying his immediate urges, ruthlessly abusing and exploiting others.

His character's evolution was from the Keystone caveman to a real human being. From primitive egoism to transcending his self, towards a concern for the other. First from "me" to "us" (the couple), and, in The Kid, for the baby.

After the Kid he made what Charles Maland has called Chaplin's trilogy of unrequited love: The Gold Rush, The Circus, and City Lights. They are comedies, but also tragedies of one-sided loves.

First in The Modern Times Chaplin found an equal partner in Paulette Goddard, and at the same time his scope widened further from "us, the couple" to the society, to the world. The Great Dictator is one of the most remarkable works in the history art. An artist who was a world historical personality, himself, interfered in the history of the world by challenging the most bestial tyrant of all times at the moment he was fearfully successful in his campaign to conquer the world.

Somewhere during his evolution Chaplin stopped being as funny as he had been. Perhaps that happened during the concluding speech of The Great Dictator. In it Chaplin stepped entirely outside the regular discourse of standard entertainment film, infinitely more radically than the Marx Brothers and Hellzapoppin in their meta-filmic dimensions.

At his funniest he was during the "happiest years" of the Mutual period, in films such as The Immigrant.

Sergei Eisenstein in his essay "Charlie the Kid" explained that a secret of Charles Chaplin was that he was always able to look at the world with the eyes of a child.

There is something in common with Charles Chaplin and Marilyn Monroe. Neither ever got to know their fathers, and both had to support already in their childhood their mothers who became mentally ill and had to be hospitalized.

The basic security essential to the development of a child they never knew.

There are other funny comedians and other beautiful stars, but what is unique in the looks of  Chaplin and Monroe is that they express a profound and infinite yearning for love.

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