Sunday, 20 February 2011

Chaplin's world

I've almost lost count of the number of times I've planned - and failed - to get to a "coffee-time" concert at St Peter's church in Nottingham. I almost always see the notice at the wrong time or discover the concert I'd like has been scheduled for a weekend when I have other plans.

I nearly forgot the Chaplin/Keaton double bill with live organ accompaniment. But I saw the sign again as I paid a brief visit to Light Night and determined not to miss the concert. The sound tracks added later to accompany silent movies leave them seeming incomplete. A live accompaniment, whether by soloist or full orchestra, brings early films to life - somehow when the music is live it more than takes the place of speech.

The concert offered two films: Charlie Chaplin in Easy Street and Buster Keaton in One Week. Donald MacKenzie, the organist, announced his preference for Keaton but I can't agree with him. Keaton may be as physically brilliant as Chaplin - even as good an actor - but I never care about his characters as I do about the various manifestations of the Little Tramp. Keaton's character seems all about expressionless cleverness - although it masquerades as incompetence - and I'm never convinced he really belongs to the societies which provide a backdrop for his escapades.

But I can't help believing in Charlie Chaplin's world. He inhabits the fringes of a complex, recognizable society. Work is possible but gruellingly difficult - bosses employ and sack people for no evident reason. Some people exploit or tyrannise over others. Worklessness, hunger and beggary are regular dangers. This world offers no consistent reward for virtue or hard work but luck and optimism may just pay off. Charlie copes with a mixture of slyness and sympathy. He is also capable of imitating the ruling classes, even in an ill-fitting suit and big shoes.

I find Charlie's imitations of the aristocracy and those in power particularly attractive. They suggest that the easy confidence of the wealthy is no more than a mannerism which can be acquired. It has nothing to do with class superiority. In these days when too many of our rulers are graduates of the Bullingdon Club, this is something worth remembering.

Easy Street isn't my favourite early Chaplin but I like the way it both records working-class life and parodies the contradictory middle-class views of the "dangerous" working class.
There are bullies, thieves, families with too many children and - a staple of the time - a drug den supplied by an evil foreigner. Charlie, by the beautiful young woman at the Hope Mission, gives up his life as a tramp and petty thief and volunteers for the police force. But he continues to behave in his familiar way, avoiding bullies unless compelled to fight and easily swayed by sympathy for the poor, pretty and desperate. He may have joined the police but the audience knows that he's not really an agent of the law. He's taken the job and the uniform for the pay and so that he can get the girl.

As a character, Charlie never sets out to change the world. Any difference he makes it accidental. (The real Charlie Chaplin was more politically engaged and kept under surveillance by J. Edgar Hoover's agents at the FBI.) But Chaplin's films remind me constantly that I live in an unjust society where worklessness and desperation still lurk threateningly for many people.
At the end of the screening I suddenly remembered I'd meant to attend a rally and march against the privatisation of the Post Office. My mood plummeted as I decided I'd probably missed it. I went to another short concert (by the pianist Alexandra Diarescu, including an outstanding performance of Ravel's "Ondine") and did some shopping before heading for the railway station.

As I got off the train I could hear drums and whistles in the distance. After what seemed a long time I saw the marchers, banners held high. The front of the march passed me and I still couldn't see where it ended. Laden with shopping as I was, I slipped into the march and headed onward. After a while my son greeted me and friends called "hello." "How many do you think there are?" one asked. "I thought there would only be twenty or thirty. I couldn't offer a guess. Later the local paper estimated the turn-out at a thousand - not bad for a suburban town.

I didn't walk far - just as well given the cans of baked beans in my shopping bag. It was plain there wouldn't be room for everyone in the hall booked for the rally. I left the marchers who had walked the whole distance to the chairs provided and headed home. My back hurt and I wanted to sit in a comfortable chair. But I was cheered by the combination of Charlie Chaplin, Ravel and a community of marchers prepared to carry banners on a cold, grey day to defend something of value.

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