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New book takes an intellectual look at Charlie Chaplin's work

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Refocusing Chaplin: A screen icon through critical lenses


Academic, intellectual approaches to cinema can frequently offer a perspective that is too esoteric for the material covered. Some filmmakers, however, have left behind work that extends beyond their superficial entertainment value, even their contribution to cinema's history. Their work has a scientific component that offers layers of substance that can be effectively peeled back and addressed individually, examining the ingredients of each production and analyzing their impact on, and response to, the prevailing culture.

"Refocusing Chaplin" (Scarecrow Press), is a collection of scholarly essays examining Chaplin's films (predominantly his features, but also a few short films are explored), the attempt by the editors (college professors Lawrence Howe, James E. Caron, Benjamin Click) to offer different perspective on the subject that can be presented as a cohesive discourse.

The introduction explains how Chaplin's significance to popular culture remains solid, and that previous studies of Chaplin's life and work (this has penned two of those himself, one for this same publisher) are lacking in the academic component, failing to "address the complexity of his filmmaking." Only some of the contributors appear to have a background in film studies. Many are professors of English, Science and Technology, Anthropology, and Theater.

The scholarly essays that follow make some fleeting attempt at a linear structure so as to present the evolution of Chaplin's character and approach to filmmaking. It is interesting when author/editor Caron makes comparisons to Buster Keaton and Laurel and Hardy's approach to character (as their work is similarly enduring), and when he points out a scene in "The Floorwalker" (Mutual, 1916) where Charlie is confronted by a lookalike, he states, "Their mutual mimicking of the other can be read as a comic presentation that momentarily makes visible the irreducible fact of a relational self." His more extensive appreciation of this concept appears in a chapter entitled Chaplin's "Charlie" as Merleau-Ponty's Phenomenological Everyman: Or How Bodily Intelligence Manifests the Personae, Styles, an Fable of Slapstick.

Cynthia J. Miller's essay A Heart of Gold looks at how Charlie falls in love with beautiful women on screen, stating "their iconic chaacters provide not only visual and symbolic contrast for Chaplin's downtrodden figures, but also function in support of his underlying social and political commentary. Ms. Miller gives ample attention to Edna Purviance who did most of her work in Chaplin's short films, and also looks at the tramp's relationship with Georgia Hale's dance hall character in "The Gold Rush."

Other chapters explore issues of masculinity, presence, the paradox that exists within "The Great Dictator, etc. Perhaps the most interesting chapter, chiefly because it deals with elements outside of performance and filmmaking, is Lisa Stein Haven's look at Chaplin and the Static Image. This chapter explores the marketing strategies, use of text and photograph illustrations, to promote the movies and Chaplin's image. This is a significant factor in the solidifying of Chaplin's enduring status as a cultural icon, and very little of it is discussed elsewhere.

This is not a book that would likely be recommended specifically to the comedy buffs whose terminology does not extend past terms like "heavy," "double-take," and "pratfall," as their response to classic cinema stops at the surface of its entertainment along with trivial historical statistics. "Refocusing Chaplin" is recommended for libraries and research centers, especially at the University level, for its intelligent, thorough examination of perhaps the most important figure in cinema's history.


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