Tag Archives: Charlie Chaplin

Three Paragraphs of Near and Far

No doubt you read about the recent suicide of Alireza Pahlavi, younger son of the former Shah of Iran. Last week I had lunch with a coworker whose father had been a high-ranking minister under the Shah. His position required that he travel with armed guards and two cars, one a decoy. As a boy my friend kept “a string of polo ponies.” He was seventeen at the time of the revolution and the family fled to India where they spent ten years (“the happiest of my life”) before coming, finally, to California. It’s hard to imagine such irrevocable dislocations. I wonder sometimes about the circumstances of my own family’s removal to the colonies three hundred years ago. It can’t only have been for the delight of living in the then-wilds of New Jersey. I suspect that we kept very few polo ponies back in Britain.

If box office stats were drawn from movies screened in our living room, Charlie Chaplin and Harold Lloyd would still be the world’s biggest stars. Last week we premiered Chaplin’s Modern Times (1936). The Tramp’s improvised version of Leo Daniderff’s Je cherche après Titine was a big hit. Its first audiences, I think, had never heard Chaplin’s voice on screen before. This past weekend we also watched Lloyd’s Speedy (1928) for the second time. It’s one of my son’s favorites. The chase scene with the horse-drawn train car through the streets of New York, the Coney Island sequence, the taxi ride with Babe Ruth, the street brawl of blunt-nosed toughs and octogenarian Civil War vets: it’s as much an education as an entertainment.

I took my five-year-old daughter to the park recently. I watched her play a while and then we sat on a bench to eat apple slices and pretzels. She had just told me not to stand so near her while she was playing (“I might want to make a friend,” she explained) when behind us we saw a great blue heron, no more than a dozen feet away. We were mesmerized, in the presence of an alien intelligence. We admired the way it scanned the grass for insects and how it craned its neck at a wary tilt when a hawk passed overhead. The heron was about the same height as my daughter, and wearing the same color. It seemed to share her concern about my proximity too. I tried moving a little closer for a photo but it drew the line at about eight feet. I used that for a rule back at the playground and had no further complaints from Miss Gimmespace.

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Serious Frivolity

In a box at my parents’ house is a photograph of me and my brother with our faces painted like Gene Simmons and Paul Stanley from Kiss.  It must have been Halloween, 1979 or ‘80.  As I recall, the question of what to be for Halloween was never easily resolved.  It could plague or delight us for weeks on end.  It could consume the entire month of October.  It was a very seriously considered bit of frivolity.
 
This year my son shouldered the burden of choosing Halloween costumes for everyone in the family.  All four of us, he said, would be Charlie Chaplin.  His sister agreed to it.  So, this past weekend we found ourselves at a costume and party supply store buying bowlers and moustaches and bamboo canes.  I don’t think the vampire working the cash register – gore dripping down her chin and neck – was especially impressed.

I was reading to my son the next day from Dino Buzzati’s The Bears’ Famous Invasion of Sicily and came to the chapter where the morally ambiguous Professor Ambrose leads King Leander and his unwitting bears to Demon Castle.  Like a holiday haunted house, the place is just bursting at the seams with ghosts.  Ambrose hopes the simple-minded bears will be literally frightened to death at Demon Castle, but it doesn’t work out that way.

Instead, thanks to their animal simplicity, the bears aren’t frightened at all, merely amused.  They laugh and puzzle at the floating sheets, queer vapors, and spooky voices that rise from dark corners, assured by instinct that there’s no real threat.  Then one of the ghosts – the ghost of a bear, it turns out – recognizes King Leander.  Others crowd around.  There is a general reunion as the bears embrace, or attempt to embrace, the spirits of comrades fallen in a recent battle with the Grand Duke’s army.  Wine is fetched from the cellar and bears and ghosts dance and sing together all night.

My son enjoyed the first half of the book: the conquering of Sicily, the overthrow of the Grand Duke, and King Leander’s reunion with his kidnapped son.  The latter half of the book, however, was more difficult for him.  Thirteen years later, we see that the bears have adopted human ways – even dressing and accessorizing like men: with top hats, suit jackets, monocles, and canes.  They’ve lost something of their wild nature and, to King Leander’s dismay, prove thoroughly corruptible.  The king himself is not immune.  Then, in the midst of defending his subjects from an outward threat, there comes a mortal betrayal from within.
 
Before he dies and goes to join his ghostly friends, King Leander begs the bears to throw off their human clothes, leave everything, and march back to the mountains.  He reminds them, frightened as they are at his loss, that no one is really indispensible.  Looking at my son, I thought, that must be a hard idea for a seven-year-old.  It’s hard enough for an adult.  But maybe there’s freedom in being unnecessary.  Even if life is a cosmic frivolity, we can still strive to choose our costumes wisely.

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Horoscope

I wonder if astrologers down the years have mistaken the influence of the seasons for that of the stars, or if rather than identifying ourselves by place of birth we ought to call ourselves natives of spring, summer, fall or winter.  Perhaps it’s because I was born at the equinox that I feel a sort of homecoming at the entrance of autumn, that melancholy season in the first three months of life having tempered my infant soul to its character.

This past week, during a bit of late summer vacation, we flushed a pheasant from the grass while bicycling in the Bay wetlands.  At the Sierra gold-rush town of Columbia we bowled several frames down a crooked antique lane.  We tried, and failed, to visit Jack London’s former ranch while en route to my parents’ home in Sonoma County, then kept the children up late to watch Charlie Chaplin’s The Circus.  Next day we enjoyed a successful afternoon at the natural history museum in San Francisco, where I stared hard into the eyes of the basilisk and managed not to die.

It seems on the surface unreasonable but I never read as much on vacation as I manage during the regular course of work and home life.  This past week I continued my tour of post-war British fiction with Muriel Spark’s A Far Cry from Kensington and am mid-way now through Barbara Pym’s A Glass of Blessings.  To aid the digestion with some more American fare – and in the interest of philosophical good health – I also consulted Will Cuppy’s Decline and Fall of Practically Everybody.  Otherwise, two weeks since finishing Anthony Powell’s Music of Time, my shelf of unread recent acquisitions remains untouched.

A common critique of Powell’s books suggests that he relies too heavily on coincidence in the lives of his characters.  Asked about this in a 1978 interview for the Paris Review, Powell offered the familiar observation that real life, in fact, abounds in coincidence even while fiction rejects it.  I recall a morning this past July when I was surprised by reading in W.G. Sebald’s The Emigrants a description of a scene from Werner Herzog’s The Enigma of Kaspar Hauser which I had just seen for the first time the night before.

I doubt that we are subject to occult manipulation in any of this.  But as my native season comes round again and I see my children discovering some of the same places and enthusiasms I shared at their age, I want to agree that admitting the action of serendipity is simply being realistic.  The cosmos, as we learn, is not really infinite but its expansion and folding back onto itself again is something like a working definition of time.  It is a part of the comfortable poverty of the universe in which we live that forms and ideas are bound to recur if only we keep a look out.

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Introducing Children to the Holocaust

I once met a woman whose job it had been to remove gold fillings from the mouths of the dead.  She was a small person with short dark hair and an accent, a younger friend of my grandmother, and it was by that gruesome occupation that she had survived the concentration camps.  I couldn’t shake the awful image of it.  I was eleven or twelve at the time; she must have been a girl about my own age then, turning over corpses with a pair of pliers in her hand.

My son worships Charlie Chaplin.  But he wasn’t sure, at seven years old, that The Great Dictator was a film he could appreciate.  I had explained to him that it satirized Adolf Hitler, a very bad man, and Nazi Germany at the beginning of the Second World War, which (I reminded him) two of his great-grandfathers had fought in.  “Maybe I should be a little older before I see it,” he said.  But we started the movie and by the time we reached Adenoid Hynkel’s macaronic speech under the banner of the “double cross” any hesitation had been conquered by hilarity.

He was baffled and disturbed, however, by the scenes in the ghetto when storm troopers marched through the streets painting ‘JEW’ on the windows.  They bullied shopkeepers and women and pushed and threatened Chaplin himself, in his role as the unnamed Jewish barber.  Why are they all being so terrible? he wanted to know.

I gave what could only feel like a weak explanation.  How, I wondered, does one go about introducing the idea of the Holocaust to a seven year old?  He knows something about the history of slavery in the United States, about President Lincoln’s emancipation proclamation and the American Civil War.  But these things must seem far away compared to the horrible conflict that touched, one way or another, the lives of his parents’ own grandfathers.

We want to protect our children from damaging knowledge.  We also want them to understand the kind of world they live in.  The danger of the first is that we leave them defenseless in their innocence.  The danger of the second is that their souls are poisoned and they surrender later in life to that despairing notion Moses Herzog rails against in Bellow’s novel, that “the truth is true only as it brings down more disgrace and dreariness upon human beings, so that if it shows anything except evil it is illusion.”

My grandmother’s friend never talked to children about the war, but she silently showed me the fading blue numbers the Nazi jailers had tattooed on her arm.  It’s less and less likely my children will ever meet survivors of the death camps.  But if there is a way of introducing the Holocaust to a child without at the same time depriving him of natural hope, perhaps Chaplin’s movie is it.  George Santayana wrote that “between the laughing and the weeping philosopher there is no opposition.”  Chaplin, I think, is proof of that.

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