Thursday, April 30, 2015

Chaplin versus Gandhi (not a Fight Club scenario)

"When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."

-The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance

"The only real question is whether you believe in the legend of Davy Crockett or not. If you do, then there should be no doubt in your mind that he died a hero's death. If you do not believe in the legend, then he was just a man, and it does not matter how he died."

-Star Trek: Deep Space Nine - "Once More Unto the Breach"

To print the legend or subvert the legend; that appears to be the question which concerns Hollywood's efforts to fashion biographical films. Usually, the legend wins out, even if the legend is not complimentary towards the subject. Certainly no one expects a biographical film about Adolf Hitler to render him fully sympathetic, but films such as Max and Downfall at least tried to unearth his human side. Films such as The Imitation Game, The Life of Emile Zola and Malcolm X are very laudatory towards their subject; I haven't seen Selma but I understand it attempts to render a nuanced portrait of Martin Luther King. Then, of course, there are times when Hollywood ignores the legend and invents their own thing (A Beautiful Mind, The Babe Ruth Story).

All of this is fine; I like to know that filmmakers are attempting to be truthful about their subjects, yet I understand it's impossible to fully render a real human being on the screen in all of their complexities. What I find interesting is how a single filmmaker can approach two different famous figures from quite different perspectives. Said filmmaker was one Richard Attenborough; the films, Chaplin (1992) and Gandhi (1982).

"Everyone has a wild side. Even a legend."

To an Englishman such as Attenborough, both Chaplin & Gandhi loom large in his culture - one, the expatriate who became the most famous man in the world by venturing into the US, only to be brought low by scandal; the other, a revolutionary whose actions steadily chipped away not only at Britain's dominion over India, but over all its empire - and thereby, all of Earth's imperialist nations.

"His goal was freedom for India. His strategy was peace. His weapon was his humanity."

The story of Chaplin is drawn mostly from Charlie Chaplin's My Autobiography and is sewn together by scenes of Chaplin discussing his life with a (fictional) biographer. It journeys from his first appearance on stage, to his troubled childhood, into his conquest of Hollywood, his scandals, exile and ends on his return to Hollywood in the 1970s. Gandhi, however, is told in a straight forward (mostly) chronological fashion, beginning with the protagonist already 24 years old as he began his struggle against racism in South Africa, then moves into his opposition of the British in India, then the formation of Pakistan, his famed hunger strike and his assassination.

The most telling difference between the two films is George, Chaplin's biographer, who frequently comments on the story, offering doubts to Chaplin's recollections of how his life unfolded. At one point he questions Chaplin about his father:

George: "Your father?"
Chaplin: "What about my father?"
George: "Well, he died during that period, didn't he? When you were 12. You don't write very much about him."
Chaplin: "I don't know very much about him. He left just after I was born, he sang on the stage, he died of drink. What else should I say?"

And we in the audience remark, "Aha! He's concealing something about his father! If only we had the pertinent Freudian details about Chaplin's life, that would be the Rosetta Stone to understanding his personality!" Yet, having read My Autobiography, I'm inclined to agree with Chaplin's response in the film - that there really isn't too much to be said (there's also more about his father in the book than this dialogue would have you believe). Chaplin's relationships with his mother and brother seem more meaningful to me simply because those bonds lasted for many decades of his life.

If you're looking for a similar amount of interrogative scrutiny into Gandhi's upbringing, then his eponymous film will leave you disappointed. There are no Freudian insights to had about Gandhi's father; as noted, the film begins with him already a grown man.

Much of Chaplin is concerned with Chaplin's scandals which - fair enough - cannot be overlooked. His many problematic marriages are brought in, along with the suspicions that he was a Communist sympathizer, all of this conspiring to his eventual exile from the USA.

By contrast, Gandhi is not terribly interested in any of Gandhi's scandals. Do such scandals even exist? I'm afraid Attenborough is my only source on his life. I know enough from 1930s radio comedies to comprehend how much disdain there was for Gandhi in the western world and a lot of that contempt is shown in the film - but always by the Bad Guys. While there's a moment where Gandhi quarrels with his wife over the Untouchables (not the Brian De Palma film) and he comes off as being very harsh in that instance, he's ultimately proved right. Gandhi is depicted as a candidate for sainthood, unlike the roguish scoundrel Chaplin.

Again, all of this is fine.

While I admire both films, there is something about Chaplin which unsettles me. If I could put it into a single thought it would be: what's so great about Charlie Chaplin? Why is he still considered a giant in cinema, not merely a figure of historical significance but one whose movies are still the subject of film studies, books and documentaries? What made him so great? Because that context is what, I think, Attenborough overlooked in his film. He didn't forget it in Gandhi - anyone who wondered why Mahatma Gandhi is spoken of with reverence would have this pondering answered by Attenborough's film. But if you wondered why we speak of Chaplin with reverence, I don't think Chaplin would settle your mind. The film leaves you thinking, "Ah, Charlie Chaplin was an irresponsible jackass who ruined his career by sleeping around." According to Attenborough, that was the legend of Charlie Chaplin. It feels rather like telling the story of Louis Pasteur but downplaying the invention of pasteurization in favour of his home life. The first film is a celebration of Great Men; the later film is about tearing down Great Men.

I still like the film Chaplin, but I feel it could have been so much more. And just as Gandhi has become the greatest influence on how we think of Gandhi, I fear the portrait of Chaplin found in Chaplin is what many people have based their understanding of Chaplin upon. His life was something more than a tabloid headline.

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