|Sunnyside (1919) / Charlie Chaplin|
Chaplin is less a person and more a notion, and there really isn’t anything new anyone is saying when anyone says that. It wasn’t as if he was ever viewed as a real human being at any rate. Two years into his career, he inspired merchandise (itself pop-culture’s way of facilitating ownership/domestication of an otherwise inaccessible ‘star’ or ‘myth’ or ‘notion’), cinephilia consistently thinks of him as a cinema-deity and when they gave him that Honorary Oscar, they correctly, and trivially, discussed the possibility of his immortality (again, people are never immortal, symbols are) when they stated that he will survive as long as there is a screen and a projector. The idea that a Chaplin film may someday become a relic (like Leaud in Tsai-Ming Liang’s Face) is not entirely ridiculous. If an apocalypse hit and if intergalactic invaders had to carry home certain proof that we did exist, a Chaplin film would suffice – in that, the idea that his work from the past will transmit to the future is one in which the quality of eternal sustenance is present. Yes, Chaplin is permanent – but his permanence is not of the forever-sort i.e. to say, he is not always relevant – Chaplin, or the notion of him, has to resurface, regain importance, re-emerge or resurrect – like the feeling of fear that will leave once to return again, Chaplin will go away, but never to never return again. He is the comeback-sort: whether in his career – first as the evolved Tramp (the Tramp in Mabel’s Strange Predicament, considered the character’s debut, is rowdy, mean and a prick – he also has a complete moustache), then as an actor who can speak, and then as an apolitical nostalgist – or as a symbol that stands in different times for different things, the qualities of resurrection or at worst, redefinition must always attach themselves with Chaplin.
That is why Sunnyside is Chaplin’s shorts-era masterpiece – while A Dog’s Life is great (and a heady introduction to Chaplin’s Miyazaki-type insistence that modern life has reduced man to an animal existence) and Shoulder Arms is where the notion that ‘even in the middle of a great tragedy the human heart will beat’ is most visibly manifest – Sunnyside is where Chaplin’s skill at spiritual resurrection after complete personal erasure comes through most solidly. The mysterious penultimate scene of the film, where Chaplin crouches in front of an oncoming vehicle (even in the 20s, vehicles were already considered apt for the carrying out of a suicide) and braces himself for certain death – as you expect a sudden gag, the film quick-dissolves into a scene where Chaplin’s character is reunited with his love, and together, both of them bid goodbye to the urbane-love-rival. This could be the dying character’s fantasy (he has a similar fantasy in the middle of the film) or merely a technical snag that caused the erasure of the gag that follows the action of crouching-down in front of the car – whatever it is, in both cases, it is resurrection.
Sunnyside is also excellent for another reason – Chaplin made silent films, which apart from an occasional whimsical contribution from the overlaid soundtrack, did not feature any diegetic or ambient noises. As such, most of his gags are based on visual hysterics – things you can see. Therefore, the broader, funnier strokes in a Chaplin film are often the most easily appreciable only through looking at them (this is a quality that is inherent in the Indian Chaplin-homage, Pushpak, where most of the thrill is through entirely ‘visible’ gestures: an illusionist, a knife made of ice and such). But the narrower ones, the unobvious routine-actions aren’t necessarily dependent only on the audience’s sight, but also in their ability to imagine a sound. When Chaplin’s employer in the film walks in from the other room (this geography or understanding of the spatial arrangement of the space is crucial to the comedy of Chaplin, even more to that of the Marx Brothers) one early morning to wake Chaplin up to get him to work, Chaplin responds by sitting up almost immediately. Satisfied, the employer walks back to his own room – the sly Chaplin, assured that his master can only hear him from across the wall and not see him, plays a feign-game that entirely involves sounds: he rattles his shoes on the floor, causes an object by his bedside to clink and creates other sounds so as to suggest a departure to the listening employer in the other room. In that, Chaplin’s silent film is full of sound and noise.