THE CHAPLIN ESSANAYS


Check out the three volumes of the Image DVD edition of the
Chaplin Essanays. It's really quite overwhelming. The presentation is
stunning, probably definitive, and the work, it goes without saying, is
beyond stunning.




Obviously
Chaplin was not working at his peak here, either as director or
performer. The images are rarely elegant, the continuity is often clunky
— but in a way these faults only serve to set off Chaplin's genius.
His person alone, his capacity to transform space seemingly by moving
the smallest muscle of his face or body, create riveting cinema by the
second. Even in the same frame with Ben Turpin, a physical comic of
great skill, Chaplin seems to inhabit a different universe of plastic
possibility. (And in the boxing match sequence of
The Champion, just
try and watch the other boxer — I mean just try.)




Perhaps
only Fred Astaire has demonstrated the possibilities of performer as
auteur in quite the same way, and Astaire relied on the formal
discipline of dance, lacking the range and depth and particularity of
Chaplin's inspired alter ego, the Little Fellow.




This
character is fully conceptualized in the Essanays, if not fully
developed. There is never a moment when Chaplin the artist leaves the
self-involved, primal, eccentric persona of his creation . . . with one
exception, of course — his extraordinary female impersonation in
A
Woman
. (Chaplin could have been one of the great leading ladies of the
screen, if he'd been so inclined.)




The
persona of the tramp is, as has often been said, a clown of
Shakespearean proportions, with what Harold Bloom would call an
inwardness that makes him as real as anyone we have ever met in the
flesh, and as unknowable, as unencompassable.




In
this creation alone the whole medium of movies is defined and justified
in a stroke. Chaplin embodies and crystallizes everything that movies,
and movies alone, can do — the aspect of it we can hardly talk about,
only marvel at. When the Little Fellow is onscreen, pure cinema
happens.




I would suggest that this set belongs in every civilized home — and certainly in the collection of anyone who cares about
the movies.




(Is it redundant to add that the stuff is really, really funny?)

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