Charlie Chaplin vs. Clint Eastwood

07/07/2010 3:45 AM |

Chaplin Festival, July 16-August 5 at Film Forum; The Complete Clint Eastwood, July 9-27 at the Film Society

“A picture with a smile&#8212and perhaps, a tear,” reads the opening intertitle of Charlie Chaplin’s The Kid (1921). It’s a preamble that encapsulates the art of our most famous big screen clown, The Little Tramp, the synonymous creation of the British slapstick mastermind, whose iconic costume alone instantly expresses such pathos. At his silent-era peak, Chaplin’s ability to present humanity’s burlesque indignities in the most recognizably humorous terms&#8212through graceful mayhem and Dickensian perseverance&#8212made him an absolute supernova, a worldwide hero barely conceivable in the age of the instantly forgotten blockbuster.

Film Forum sprinkles Chaplin’s more or less perfect shorts throughout a selective retrospective structured around features that dramatically tail off in quality. The Gold Rush (1925), The Circus (1928, the surprise opener), and City Lights (1931) are virtual highlight reels unto themselves, but starting with Tramp send-off Modern Times (1936) the sound era brought out the spokesman in Sir Charles, with courageous yet largely unfunny Hitler diss The Great Dictator (1940), hypocritical black serial killing comedy Monsieur Verdoux (1947), and self-pitying vaudeville dirge Limelight (1952), transforming the earlier underdog absurdity into sentimental morality. The final period is represented here by A King in New York (1957), a hit-or-miss reaction to Chaplin’s political exile from the U.S. that provides a disturbing image of the painful adjustment to a world that had outgrown his innocent humanism: a botched facelift.

No actor-director-producer will ever be as universally beloved as Chaplin, but Clint Eastwood has perhaps come closest. The lanky, hushed-voiced badass has doubly emblazoned his image on the cultural consciousness, first as the laconic Man with No Name of Sergio Leone’s operatic “Dollars Trilogy” (1964-66), then as the perverse title character of Don Siegel’s hateful Dirty Harry (1971), the former an intentionally satiric throwback to the loners of Westerns past, the latter an unintentional caricature of old-school justice. Thus like Chaplin, Eastwood has stood for a cinematic nostalgia both reassuring and unsettling while outlasting the age that defined him, a tension he’s frequently exploited to fascinating effect. Where he might have simply followed in mentor Siegel’s macho footsteps, behind the camera Eastwood quickly came into his own (the directorial output is the only thing “complete” about Lincoln Center’s retrospective), almost single-handedly keeping alive the classical Western while experimenting with material outside his presumable comfort zone: May/December romance Breezy (1973) is disarmingly tender, traveling Wild West circus comedy Bronco Billy (1980) charmingly loopy.

Often earnest to a fault, the living legend has periodically come down with prestige picture-itis after the defining success of anti-heroic elegy Unforgiven (1992), and has even played the self-glorifying martyr as shamelessly as Chaplin (Gran Torino, 2008). Lately he’s best when delivering enjoyable if preposterous crime thrillers and soulful female-centered melodramas (the role of women in his work deserves more attention). Still turning out a film per year at 80, he might well continue his recent string of clunkers, but just like the aging yet inexorable on-screen roles he inhabits it’s just as safe to assume Eastwood has at least a few more good shots left in him.


2 Comment

  • “… hypocritical black serial killing comedy Monsieur Verdoux …”

    Hypocritical? OK, not finding The Great Dictator funny is a matter of opinion, but the above comment on MV makes no sense. But I’ll bite, how is making a serial killer film hypocritical?

  • Due to space limitations I couldn’t quite expound on the point I only briefly raised, but in essence I find it highly questionable that the Monsieur Verdoux character takes the world to task for its systematic violence and then defends his own killing of women on the grounds that he was just supporting his wife and child: “Wars, conflict — it’s all business. One murder makes a villain; millions, a hero.” I’m pretty sure the majority of the human race considers Adolf Hitler a villain.