Thursday, May 19, 2011

Timeless

This month I've been delighted to dive headfirst into a Charlie Chaplin retrospective playing in town. Assuming I'll be able to make it next Thursday, I'll have seen prints of all but one of his feature films--his last--and a few of his shorts. Before this series I'd seen a few of his key films but only one on celluloid. Being able to view a significant chunk of his work as it was meant to be seen, and in a concentrated period, has been rewarding even if it's been quite time-consuming.

I've been heartened to see not only how well most of the screenings have been attended but also the diversity of the audiences. The "newest" film to play is more than fifty years old. The oldest is more than ninety years old. Regardless, these movies still play, whether to a cinephile like me or to the kids whose parents have brought them.

I like complex and challenging films--I've seen one or two this week--but what I'm enjoying about these Chaplin movies, especially the silents, are the simple pleasures available in them. The laughs come freely and easily. Watching him move is such a joy in and of itself. Plus, for all the mischief his Little Tramp gets into, these are gentle movies overflowing with warmth for humanity. These are generous films in which his character engages in the universal pursuits for food, shelter, and love. How could they not hold up through the years and across cultures?

Popular culture is disposable by its very nature. Much of what I come across isn't likely to have a long shelf life, even some things that I like. This week I saw and generally enjoyed Hobo with a Shotgun, a low budget throwback to '80s exploitation films, but I hold no illusion that its appeal will be long-lasting in the popular consciousness or that there will be much, if any, interest in it five years from now, let alone fifty or ninety.

To see many of these Chaplin films is to be reminded of the power of great art to transcend the moment of its making as well as social and cultural boundaries. At one time he was one of the most recognizable people on the planet, and I'd venture to guess that Chaplin as the Tramp is still an exceptionally familiar image, even for those who may have never seen his work.

So much of what gets made today is divisive in that it's tailored for segments of populations rather than everyone. (Admittedly, the so-called four quadrant film is difficult to produce in the current marketplace.) It's nice to look back and be dazzled by movies that strove to--and succeeded at--entertaining anyone anywhere (and now) anytime.

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