12 September, 2006


Chaplin's Limelight has got a pretty bad rep, for the same sort of reason, perhaps, as Sylvie and Bruno. Both Chaplin and Carroll produced iconic, cutting-edge works, and then at the end of their careers sludged out something perceived as over-ambitious and mired in sentimentality. The illimitably and inimitably inimical Pauline Kael, for one, slaughtered Chaplin for his narcissism in a review now apocryphally referred to as 'Slimelight'. It's a fair cop: Limelight is preachy, bombastic and pretentious κατ' εξοχήν, but its oddness somehow offsets such a demerit.

The intellectual and emotional core of the film is a two-scene sequence near the beginning: in the first, the heroine Terry adolescently laments the futility of existence, only to be reprimanded by Chaplin's character, Calvero, who insists on 'life, life, life!' In the second, Calvero is dreaming of a music-hall act with Terry as comic foil. These two scenes witness a constant hesitation, the movement towards a grandeur without irony, and then back towards farce and bathos. When asked why she can't go back to dancing, Terry sighs:
The utter futility of everything. I see it even in flowers, hear it in music. All life endless, without meaning.
This, of course, has not the ring of true speech—particularly revealing are the asyndeton of the latter two sentences, and the pronounced metric of the third, 'ăll lĭfe ēndlĕss / wĭthŏut mēanĭng'. This is Schopenhauer-lite. Calvero replies:
What do you want a meaning for? Life is a desire, not a meaning! Desire is the theme of all life.
I find this a very strange reply; it slides from an old-fashioned, commonsense 'stop bothering with silly ideas like that' response, into a gesture towards serious philosophy. Calvero's absurdist statement that 'life is not a meaning' sounds like Nietzsche-lite, or possibly Wittgenstein-lite, and his assertion that 'desire is the theme of all life' is rather Fourieresque, though one could trace it back to the Romantics. In fact, when he continues, 'It's what makes a rose want to be a rose, and want to grow like that. And a rock want to contain itself, and remain like that,' he is channelling the Aristotelian telos. But while spouting doctrine, he makes silly gestures imitating a rose and a rock—and later a Chinese tree, waving his arms and squinting, which sets Terry squealing with laughter. But it gets better—he continues:
The meaning of anything is merely other words for the same thing. After all, a rose is a rose is a rose.
The first statement is a classic statement of Wittgensteinian or structuralist nihilism—the second is a Gertrude Stein quote famous enough to have its own Wikipedia article! (Calvero adds, 'That's not bad, it should be quoted'.) Chaplin thus gropes for profundity, invoking the irrationale of Romantic poetry over any claim to a transcendent Meaning. Having just done an impression of a tree.


The second scene, a dream-sequence, pops a cap in the first scene's ass. Here Calvero relives his glory in music-hall routines: he begins with an asinine song about springtime lovers, and then Terry comes in for a bit of banter. There are some good lines too—Terry objects to a phrase in his sonnet on the worm:
Terry. A worm can't smile.

Calvero. How do you know, did you ever appeal to its sense of humour?
She doesn't like the notion that a worm could be in love; Calvero pulls a face and remarks 'Even a flea can be romantic'. (Fleas seem to be a recurrent feature of the musical interludes—from Calvero's 'flea circus' joke to his later ditty about reincarnation: 'But I don't want to be a tree, sticking in the ground, / I'd sooner be a flea'. Is this significant?) Calvero manages to work a Maeterlinck reference into a spot of cheery wordplay:
Surely you're read The Life of the Bee? The bee's behaviour in the beehive is unbelievable.
And after a host more bathetic two-liners, we get:
Calvero. At this moment I'm beginning to grasp the meaning of life. Oh, what a waste of energy! What is this urge that makes life go on and on and on?

Terry. You're right. What does it all mean? Where are we going?

Calvero. You're going South dear, your hand's in my pocket!
And finally:
Terry. Just think, all life motivated by love. How beautiful!

Calvero. By no means beautiful.

Terry. It certainly is!

Calvero. On the contrary, it's vile, wicked, awful. . . But it's wonderful.
Throughout the scene, grand sentiments are blown apart by cheap ironies, a casual savagery. It reminds me strongly of Beckett, the master of subverted romanticism. The forlorn clown, for whom the world has yielded to the solipsistic mechanics of a private wit—Calvero, whose name means skull: Beckett's everyman. And there is always a disconnect. Earlier on in the film, the maid tells him, 'Your wife won't eat', at which he quips, 'That's a blessing to a poor married man'. It takes her a couple of seconds to laugh, and then only uneasily. During his fantasy routines, the audience laughter is ghostly and stilted. Even during the final stage routine—this time for real—eerily hilarious, with a past-it Buster Keaton on piano—there is no laughter at all until the precise moment that Calvero falls into a drum, at which point it flows in torrents until the close. It is this hollow and artificial humour, puncturing sincerity, and its uncanny isolation, that permits the heavy pathos required by the film as a whole. 'The heart and the mind', Calvero says soberly: 'What an enigma'. But his last lines to the crowd are still Beckett:
This is a wonderful evening. I'd like to continue. But I'm stuck.

1 comment:

Andrew W. said...

I'm reserving a copy from the local library!

Finding the tanget, I should mention that I love the Life of the Bee! That reference alone will be worth the price of admission.