Memorial Memory – Charlie and Chaplin
The other day I got to see one of Charlie Chaplin’s most extravagant gags, one so wryly that only history – and much less the screen – could provoke. I was on the Swiss Riviera, somewhat haphazardly, to present a small, pocket-sized retrospective of Věra Chytilová’s comedies, at the invitation of the Vevey International Funny Film Festival, whose honorary president is none other than Laura Chaplin.
The gag’s mise-en-scène: at the beginning of the fifties, after a long time in which he had been hounded by the press and the American authorities for his supposed communist sympathies, that had arisen during the Second World War, the filmmaker, after leaving for Great Britain for the premiere of Limelight, discovers that he is no longer welcome in the United States. Anyways, things manage to work themselves out somehow – he finds out the news while together with his family, his European prestige intact –, but this did the act of returning to his California studio impossible. So, in a way, this meant that he was forcibly retired by the age of 63.
The book penned by French critic Georges Sadoul, Charlot. The life, times, and films of Charlie Chaplin “ends, by the nature of things, like in an old Chaplin film. A small man takes the high road, once again. We don’t know where his tragic adventures, his fate as a persecuted artist, will lead him tomorrow.” On the 12th of October 1952, that is.
On the 5th of January 1953, already faced with the fait accompli, the “red” Chaplin, otherwise well-known for his tendency for tax evasion, moves into a superb villa in the small Swiss town of Vevey, where he would spend his last years together with Oona O’Neill and their eight children. Of course, at least by protocol, the festival’s theme has to do with the great local pride of having hosted such a famous inhabitant. Still, nobody insisted too much upon this fact, even though it rhymes quite well – Maryke Oosterhoff, the artistic co-director of VIFFF, told me that their main goal is to release comedy from the grasp of the escapist cliché by showing the particular kinds that were still willing to confront realities; thoroughly Chaplinesque.
Coincidentally (or not), the hovel in London where the filmmaker was born has not become a memorial house, just like, in general, ruined houses elude the memorial memory. Chaplin’s life was extreme, from zero to zeroes, and traversed multiple societies, economies, and, finally, cinematographies of two very different worlds, separated by the World Wars – a period of time in which scandals and successes were successively born from the other. The Vevey manor, along with its connected museum, is part of the so-called Chaplin’s World, a museum owned by the filmmaker’s inheritors together with politicians of the local riviera, so it was already somewhat clear to me that the biographical narration of Chaplin presented here would be ideal (so nothing about his almost, or outright underaged wives, the controversies that followed his lack of enrollment in the two wars, his unpaid taxes), while the national narrative, i.e. the Swiss one, will have been cavalier.
And even so, the museum holds up, balancing between an amusement park and an in situ survey of Chaplin’s career, while the memorial house (a concept I’ve never been entirely sympathetic to) is perfectly reasonable. The recently inaugurated “Studio”, that is, the actual museum, is crammed in a corner to the left of the entrance, while the villa lies on the right, surrounded by the beautiful little park that used to be the filmmaker’s garden(!). Unsurprisingly, the idea of “life and work” has been used once more as the building block of a tourist attraction.
Intuitively, the tour begins in a small chamber that features the screening of a biographical found-footage documentary, at times didactic, at times a supercut of gags, only for the screen to rise up and unveils a corridor flanked by set pieces inspired by his early films that are rather impressive. The windows of the imitation hovels that have been immortalized in the background of films like Easy Street (1917) or The Kid (1921) show sequences of these very films, illustrating the “interior” easily enough, so that a street sequence, which runs on a screen at the end of the corridor, comes across as a continuation of the room into the beyond. Curatorially speaking, much more could have been done from the very significant fact – logistically, artistically, as well as ideologically, that Chaplin shot large parts of his films outdoors.
The next rooms also use set pieces, inspired either by concrete films – the arena from The Circus (1928), the factory from Modern Times (1936), the barber shop in The Great Dictator (1940) –, or by several films at once, giving shape to some Chaplinesque landmarks (the street bench, the prison, etc.). The details have enormous differences, from pop trivia regarding Michael Jackson’s affinity for Chaplin up to the filmmaker’s legendary perfectionism, explained by the length of the raw film stock that he used, compared to how long the final cuts were. The best part is that the museum understands itself like a film museum, meaning that it has no – or very little – original exhibits, giving viewers the minimal liberty (that is all too often denied by “common sense”) to touch, forage, search and, finally, to convince themselves that what they have in front of them is nothing but an illusion. The bad part – when it’s not up to an honest show, like that spatial montage featuring various versions of the pie-in-the-face gag, which is arranged spherically in the circus arena room – the museum tries its best to steal one’s eyes with set pieces and wax figures, giving the impression of a poor, instagrammable Dino Park. Chaplin has always been an artist of proportion with a great visual economy, and this Studio that is dedicated to him gets lost in its own geography.
Just as expected, the memorial house had many things crammed inside of it, but very little to show. I won’t insist on the splendor of such villas, with their cutlery and furniture and crystalware and paintings, kept in the present-continuous of the past-perfect moment, which is otherwise nonexistent when everything is in its right place. The tradition of conserving and presenting the houses of giants in an artificial state of grace, as if they were uninhabited, wasn’t founded in Vevey, nor will it end there, but this was the one thing that particularly destabilized my experience, especially because it tried to come across as sympathetic by spreading funny-looking wax figures across every room: Chaplin to the left, and Chaplin to the right, Chaplin as an object, rather than a subject. Thank goodness for those truly marvelous home movies, screened here and there between the pieces of furniture, testaments of the simple sensibilities that the filmmaker had towards cinema, essentialized in these poor little minutes shot on 16mm that, without being in control of the camera’s time and space, C.C. still knew – felt? – when and where the gag might happen. Therefore, clear his museum up; make some more room for the gags.