The Tramp Turns 100, Kamil Turns 4 (Web Exclusive)
by Nafis Shafizadeh
At supper that night, as many times before, his father said,
“Well, spose we go to the picture show.”
“Oh, Jay!” his mother said. “That horrid little man!”
—James Agee, opening lines of A Death in the Family
As the twenty-first century ticks on, so do the centennials of many moments from the cinema’s early history. For more than one hundred years now, the Lumiére workers have been strolling out of their Lyonnaise factory, the train has been arriving (though perhaps not as terrifyingly as it once did) at La Ciotat station, and the waddling Tramp has been swinging his cane and giving a swift kick in the pants to the forces of oppression.
This last one was a particularly prominent centennial: the birth of the Tramp, the character spontaneously born from the mind of Charlie Chaplin—the cinema’s most universally beloved artist—and a character that James Agee referred to as “the most humane and most nearly complete among the religious figures our time has evolved.” And as the cinema is now well on its way into its second century, the proverbial questions of what will last, what has real cultural value, and what we will be watching a hundred years from now, are being answered with regards to the first few decades of its history. Though it was clear long ago that this day would come, it has been one hundred years and we are still watching him.
Recently, the Cinefamily, a now-defunct theater in the Fairfax district of Los Angeles, celebrated the Tramp centennial with a nearly month-long Chaplin retrospective. The showings included a collection of his short films, plus The Gold Rush, The Circus, Modern Times, The Kid, A Dog’s Life, and City Lights. When I learned about it, I immediately thought of taking my recently turned four-year-old son Kamil to a screening. I thought of the opening pages of Agee’s A Death in the Family, of Jay and Rufus Follet, father and son, sharing a Chaplin screening. Describing their walk home from the theater, Agee writes, “each meant more to the other, in this most important of all ways, than anyone or anything else in the world; and that the best of this well-being lay in this mutual knowledge, which was neither concealed nor revealed.”
This would be a formative event for Kamil. He would remember it as the first time he went to see Chaplin with his father, the first time just the two of us went to the theater, and it would become one of the first tender memories of shared experiences with his father. In short, and fully aware of the high expectations I was putting on the event, the Tramp would become Kamil’s Proustian cliché-filled madeleine, evoking memories every time he saw his distinctive shuffle. Or at least that’s how I imagined it.
One thinks of these things, imagination running wild. I know that Proust’s madeleine and Agee’s Follet family belong to another world, the spiritual refuge of art—a world we enter to redeem our actual one. But what is one to do? There’s the banality of daily existence and there’s the madeleine and the Follet family, one has to marry them somehow if one wants to get by.
A few weeks before the showing, I asked Kamil if he wanted to go see a Charlie Chaplin movie with me. I had decided on The Gold Rush, both for scheduling reasons and because I thought it would be the most suitable for a four-year-old (father and son seeing The Kid would be too cliché, even for me). I took him to the framed still of Chaplin in our home and asked him if he wanted to go see this movie, just the two of us. The response was, surprisingly, enthusiastic. For the next two weeks, he told his preschool teachers, his playmates, his grandparents, even the bank teller one day, that he was going to see Charlie Chaplin with his daddy. My plan was working. The day of the screening, I went to pick him up from his art class and the teacher asked me which Charlie Chaplin movie we would be seeing. Apparently, that was all Kamil could talk about the entire lesson.
I thought we had left with plenty of time, but with the unpredictable LA traffic and the difficulty in finding parking, we got there just five minutes before showtime. We parked several blocks from the theater. I hurriedly unbuckled his carseat and carried him to the theater, briskly walking and working up a sweat in the eighty-degree LA heat. I wasn’t alone in thinking that the shared experience of Chaplin would result in good father/son bonding—the majority of patrons were fathers with their sons, though most of the children were several years older than Kamil.
We bought our popcorn and took two aisle seats. Kamil sat in his chair, feet barely dangling off the end of the seat, bustling with anticipation, swallowing popcorn by the handful. He looked around the theater and looked at me and smiled. The movie began.
The Tramp, as the Lone Prospector, shuffled across the screen. I leaned over and told Kamil, “That’s Charlie Chaplin.” Kamil tugged at my shirt sleeve, asking me what the intertitles said. Oh, I had forgotten about the intertitles! I read and translated them into four-year-old idiomatic language. He grew restless and frustrated. I put him on my lap and whispered them into his ear. I whispered explanations of the scenes he was too young to follow. It didn’t seem to help, and, thirty minutes into the movie, he told me he wanted to go home. Disaster. I told him there was not much left and held him closer. I hoped he would settle into the story, that the Tramp would win him over.
We watched the Tramp navigate his way through all the cruelties the Klondike had to offer. We watched him boil and eat a leather boot to fend off starvation. We watched all the revelries of the mining-town dance hall: the singing, dancing, laughing, the crude advances of Jack the lecherous ladies man on Georgia, the Tramp’s love interest. We watched when the Tramp first walked into that dance hall—a microcosm of the world and all its possibilities, its pleasures and its cruelties—his back to the camera, staring at the revelry, excluded as an outsider: the Tramp and the world expressed in a single shot, a single still! We watched him flirt with Georgia, try to win her over, oblivious to her and her friends’ teasing. We watched him work hard to prepare a modest New Year’s Eve dinner party for her, only to be crushed when she and her friends did not show up. We watched him fall asleep in sadness, dreaming of a party in which Georgia was happy and loved him. We watched the famous dance of the bread rolls. We watched Georgia’s remorse upon seeing what she had done. We watched the Tramp stumble upon a gold fortune, and, homeward bound as a millionaire, find Georgia on the ship. They lovingly embraced, and we watched the movie end as they kiss.
We left the theater. I wasn’t sure how much of it he had followed; he had spent the last hour jostling around in my lap, restless and fidgety. I asked him what was his favorite part and he said, “when Charlie Chaplin jumped out of the house and found the gold.” Maybe he got some of it, I thought to myself, maybe he hadn’t been so bored.
Several weeks went by, and there was no more talk of Charlie Chaplin in our home. One day I came home from work and my wife said she had had an interesting conversation with Kamil’s teacher. She had remembered that Kamil was going to see the movie with his father and had suddenly realized he hadn’t said anything about it. When she asked him if he had had a good time at the movie, he spent the next five minutes enthusiastically recounting it to her. It was all there. That Charlie Chaplin was cold and hungry but a nice man gave him a place to live and food. That Charlie Chaplin was nice to the girl even when she and her friends laughed at him. That Charlie Chaplin kept coming back to the party, even though no one wanted to talk to him. That Charlie Chaplin made the bread rolls dance and that it was funny. That he found the treasure with his friend and that in the end the girl was nice to him. His teacher said he had described some scenes in great emotion-filled and emotive detail, and, as my wife retold them to me, I realized that it was all accurate, and that the narrative was nearly complete. I smiled. It reminded me of what Chaplin told Jean Cocteau in 1936,
The dance of the bread rolls. That’s what they all congratulate me on. It is a mere cog in the machine. A detail. If that is what they specially noticed, they must have been blind to the rest.
Kamil had remembered the entire film, his eyes open to it all, and when he recounted the movie, the dance of the bread rolls was just one detail in a series of images that made the whole movie, that resulted in the total affect he was trying so earnestly to communicate to his teacher. He explained to his teacher that Charlie Chaplin kept coming back, kept being Charlie, no matter what. No matter how callous the girl or mean the rich man or uncaring the dance hall or frigid and unforgiving the winter. The Tramp lives with an indestructible optimism, he was trying to explain, with an undying belief in living with dignity. That no matter how cruel the iniquities of an unfair world, no matter how fetid the shit of oppression, a human being retains his humanity by virtue of an inalienable light shining within. My son was four years old and had experienced, and was even morally instructed by, a great work of art, even if he had been restless and fidgety, and yes, probably even at times bored.
Perhaps the movie’s only flaw is its ending. In The Gold Rush, the happy ending is a result of some cosmic justice—the Tramp and his friend are millionaires by stumbling on a gold mine, and the Fates allow the Tramp and his girl to cross paths by chance, resulting in the final happy embrace (a scene that Chaplin changed in his 1942 sound version). In most other Tramp films, there is a happy ending without any cosmic justice. In the famous ending of City Lights, the flower girl is cured of her blindness because of the Tramp’s generosity, but he is even more destitute than when the movie began. In the final scene of Modern Times, Paulette Goddard, weary from her hardships, asks, “What’s the use of trying?” The Tramp encourages her to live willfully and happily, and they walk off together arm-in-arm, in happiness and renewed belief, the mountains in the background not looking so oppressive and unyielding now, but gentle and inviting. The ending fills the theater and its audience with joy and optimism, even though the Tramp and his girl are still impoverished, the owners of capital have remained the bosses, and those with nothing but their labor to sell have likewise remained the same. There is happiness with truth; the audience isn’t lied to about the presence of some cosmic justice at work in the world.
Maybe that’s why The Gold Rush is so good for a four year-old. Kamil will eventually learn that the world is more like those other Tramp movies, but for now let him remember The Gold Rush.
Nafis Shafizadeh lives and writes in Los Angeles and his work has appeared in the Los Angeles Review of Books, Film Quarterly, and Senses of Cinema, among other places.
Copyright © 2018 by Cineaste Magazine
Cineaste, Vol. XLIII, No. 2