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Daily Plastic is a Chicago-based movie blog, a collaboration between Robert Davis and J. Robert Parks, the same pair who brought you the wearable movie tote, the razor-thin pencil pocket, and that joke about aardvarks. If you know the whereabouts of the blue Pontiac Tempest that was towed from the Plastic Parking Lot on the evening of August 7th, 2008, or more importantly if you've recovered the red shoebox that was in its trunk, please contact us at your earliest convenience.

Davis was the chief film critic for the late, great Paste Magazine (which lives on now as a website) from 2005 through 2009, and he counts this interview with Claire Denis among his favorite moments. Every once in a while he pops up on Twitter. He's presently sipping puerh in Chicago, even at this hour. Meanwhile, Parks, whose work has appeared in TimeOut Chicago, The Hyde Park Herald, and Paste, is molding unsuspecting, college-aged minds in the aforementioned windy city. Media types are warned to stay clear of his semester-sized field of influence because of the distorting effects that are likely to develop.

The © copyright of all content on Daily Plastic belongs to the respective authors.

Remember that old dude in Jurassic Park who unleashed a bunch of prehistoric beasts by reanimating them from a drop of blood that was caught in the proboscis of a mosquito who'd met her doom in a blob of DNA-preserving amber? Remember when those beasts got loose and tore up the joint, and the old dude likened it to a flea circus he'd built in his youth? And remember when Laura Dern told him that this seemingly intractable problem -- which he created -- was something he couldn't think his way out of, that he'd have to feel his through it, which is maybe the dumbest advice ever given to a mad entrepreneur in the movies? Well, he ate it up. Said, yes, he'd feel his way through it so that next time it wouldn't go so disastrously haywire.

Well, a year before that incident in the jungle, the same ass -- Richard Attenborough -- made a movie about Charlie Chaplin, and he didn't understand Chaplin any better than he did velociraptors. He feigned interest in Chaplin's art and acted like he was going to feel his way through the biography, but even though his heart swelled in the vicinity of the master, he somehow churned out a tabloid biopic of the worst kind. Little did anyone know that Pola Negri or some such starlet was so pivotal in this history. She gets some naked screen time in Chaplin, but Monsieur Verdoux and Limelight and A King in New York -- Chaplin's later films, the first an oddly chilling subversion of his most famous character -- don't exist. Attenborough barely examines the films that he does acknowledge, except to give them a cursory glance and place them into a timeline that seems to mock the entire medium. You'll find no greater fan of Chaplin than me, but it's silly to think that cinema was all about thrown pies until Chaplin alone turned it into an art form. Attenborough's 50 years in the business surely taught him that much, but the token idolatry of his film says otherwise. As far as the plot is concerned, the work is a mere psychological motivator that serves, above all, to bring the artist fame and fortune. I suspect the real Chaplin, who shot 300 hours of footage for an 82-minute film called The Gold Rush, would disagree with that assessment of his priorities.

Attenborough probably could have reanimated Chaplin from blood, mosquito, and amber, but instead he did the next best thing: he hired Robert Downey Jr. for the lead role, and this actor clearly put something more than just heart into the job, something more like elbow grease and I assume significant practice. I'm not sure how exactly he tapped into the contradictions of Chaplin's personality nor how he mimicked the physical performances with such staggering precision, but I remember thinking in 1992 that the movie, bad as it is, might be a net positive if it replaces in the public's mind the gussied up tramp of those IBM commercials with Downey Jr instead. I also get a kick out of seeing the great Geraldine Chaplin play her own grandmother in a small role, but it's Downey Jr. who makes the film more than a regrettable footnote; thanks to his out-of-band contribution, it's a regrettable footnote with an asterisk that reads "outstanding performance."

To date, Attenborough's film is the only feature-length biopic on Chaplin, and while there are several documentaries -- some of them only a tad better than this fictional feature -- the best by far is diametrically opposed to gossip. Unknown Chaplin, a three-part BBC documentary by Kevin Brownlow and David Gill, goes into the weeds and tries to divine Chaplin's methods from the footage he cut away. Brownlow and Gill show a nine-minute sequence cut from City Lights in its entirety, without talking over it, the antithesis of the highlight reel that ends Attenborough's film. Theirs is the studied gaze of knowledgeable and still-curious cinephiles who pore over shots like excited archeologists, and their unpacking of Chaplin's early short film The Immigrant is both scholarly and suspenseful, proving that the subject withstands scrutiny and holds an audience even with no mention of starlets and scandals.

A special 15th Anniversary Edition of Chaplin arrives on DVD today.

4 Responses to “DVD: Attenborough's Chaplin

  1. Girish says:

    Rob, this post reminds me that the first time you, J. Robert and I met, it was at the Queen Mother Cafe on Queen Street back at TIFF '04. Before we were through eating, we had asked each other that fated question: who are your favorite filmmakers? I remember you spoke about Chaplin.

    I have some major holes in my Chaplin-watching: for no reason at all, I'm yet to see Limelight, A King in New York, or Countess from Hong Kong. (He's probably one of the few filmmakers my parents know better than I do!) I do absolutely love City Lights, Modern Times and Verdoux. I have Unknown Chaplin and haven't seen it yet. I'd love to go take a month and do a Chaplin immersion.

    I was curious: do you have any favorite Chaplin reading: books or articles?

  2. Robert DAVIS says:

    Yeah, I remember meeting you guys at that TIFF. I believe you're the one who asked the dreaded question -- J. Robert mentioned Kieslowski and you mentioned Bresson.

    Chaplin is one of those topics that just continues to fascinate me. Most of the things you discover as a kid either fade away as you get older -- they no longer seem as good or interesting -- or they become fixed in a pantheon but don't continue to grow. But few of them continue to surprise. I've lost track of the number of times I've come across someone's brand new (to me) observation about a film I've seen dozens or hundreds of times, something that turns the whole thing upside down. It's counter-intuitive for films that seem so simple and clunky.

    Maybe for that reason I'm a little under-read in this department. I prefer the little squirts of insight. E.g. relatively recent ones: Bertolucci's commentary on the end of City Lights in The Dreamers; Slavoj Žižek's ideas in The Pervert's Guide to Cinema about Chaplin's use of disembodied voices and about the way the tramp, when he slips into the gears of the machine in Modern Times, is like a strip of film in a projector (!!); Jean-Marie Straub's appreciation of Chaplin's editing; Pedro Costa's appreciation of his steady portrayal of a class of people rarely seen in Hollywood films (a transcript is posted at Rouge); an anecdote from May Reeves (in the middle of an otherwise trashy tell-all book that was long forgotten until it was recently translated into English by Constance Kuriyama) about Chaplin as a boy coming home from school one day to find his mother gone, locked away, for telling her neighbors that a potato was her baby; and the short documentaries on the MK2/Warner DVDs, one per film, featuring sometimes interesting interviews with the likes of Claude Chabrol, Kiarostami, Jarmusch.

    One day I'll do my own commentary on The Kid with a few ideas that I can't get out of my head.

    I do have a shelf full of books, of course, and David Robinson is the standard for encyclopedic biographies, but I think I like the essays best: Bazin on Monsieur Verdoux, Warshow's essays collected in The Immediate Experience, and a book that Darren recommended by Charles Maland about Chaplin as he was viewed contemporaneously as a public figure, an unusually well-researched book that stands in contrast to the typical "mercurial artist" or "rise and fall" biography. (About Verdoux: James Agee was one of the few critics who praised the film when it was released, amid a wave of backlash against Chaplin, so the series of reviews/essays he wrote at the time can be fun to read.)

    David Thomson's latest collection has an essay on Chaplin, and it's well-written but it's the sort of armchair psychoanalysis that tends to piss me off instead of give me new things to think about.

  3. Girish says:

    Thanks, Rob--lots of great tips in there. I'll remember to come back to this post when I begin my immersion. Speaking of micro-nuggets of insight, I share your appreciation of them. I've been (only recently) trying to grab them when they fly by, and record them in a little notebook I carry in my backpack. Otherwise they disappear all too quickly.

    I can add a couple of pieces of Chaplin reading: the chapter in Andrew Sarris' terrific book "You Ain't Heard Nothin' Yet," and the observations in "Godard on Godard," a book which reads like a wonderful blog archive.

    Great to know the Warner/MK2 DVDs have interesting interviews. I'd love to hear that commentary for THE KID. I know the idea's been on your mind for a while.

  4. Robert DAVIS says:

    Ack, a correction to my comment. David ROBINSON is the biographer of note. I had Thomson on the brain 'cause I was going to mention him later. (Fixed above.)

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