Tuesday, 27 May 2008

Limelight (Chaplin, 1952)

A portrait of the artist as an old man, then. And what a melancholy mess of a portrait this is! A self-reflexive, shamelessly narcissistic meditation on the increasing irrelevance of the fading star, this might well be the most complex and intelligent film of Chaplin's career. (As a sidenote, the fact that I watched this straight after The Gold Rush meant that I inadvertently found myself with a fascinating double-bill on my hand, esp. when one considers that it's the simplicity of the earlier film and the "Tramp" that I admire so much.) Watching arguably the greatest movie star that ever lived pour so much of himself into this project makes for a viewing experience that's as uncomfortable as it is compelling. Limelight marks the filmmaker's poignant attempt to exorcise his personal demons once and for all - and for a figure as gargantuan as Chaplin to willingly deface the mythology of his cherished past is an act of bravery that commands nothing but awe from this viewer.

The film unfolds in the tradition of grand, if somewhat bizarre, melodrama - perhaps the genre best able to accommodate the insecurities of a star such as this. Moreover, Chaplin's refusal to leave the ghost of the past behind contributes to a sense of unease regarding the film. The spectre of the Tramp manifests itself throughout: in Calvero's costumes; in his description as a "tramp" comedian; in a dream sequence where Calvero pours salt on a rose and proceeds to eat it (harking back to a similar scene in The Gold Rush); and in every one of his Charlot-esque mannerisms that only heighten the sense of awkwardness which characterizes the film. At one point, Calvero goes so far as to declare that: "There's something about working the streets that I like. It's the tramp in me, I suppose." Chaplin's nonchalant delivery belies the significance of a statement that so tellingly alludes to both the performer's vaudeville past as well as his most famous creation. And this is merely one of many instances where the text mines the depths of its author's career to deepen its own perspective - the entire film is transfused with an acute awareness of history and the artist's place within it. To this end, one finds Calvero frequently framed against self-portraits in the interior spaces of his home. Although the framing alternates between subtle and unavoidable, each composition carefully augments the inescapable hold of stardom within Chaplin's intricate narrative.

Notably for a Chaplin film, Limelight is almost shockingly devoid of humour. Whereas the director's previous features had attempted to negotiate an equilibrium between comedy and pathos, Limelight extinguishes the bright flame of the former altogether and thus allows the latter to overwhelm the film's thematics. Calvero's jokes and wisecracks simply aren't worthy of our laughter, and his comedy routines make for painful viewing. Compare, for example, the "flea sequence" with anything made prior to 1940 and the discrepancy becomes grossly apparent. It's when in his supposed element that Calvero becomes most devastatingly exposed as an outdated relic. As he attempts to bury his shame under: first, a false name; and then, one last showcase; one senses Chaplin simultaneously attempting to bury his own past in the character of Calvero, with Limelight's canvas itself functioning as the platform for the final triumph.

With this in mind, perhaps the most moving facet of the film is to be found in its examination of the relationship between star and audience. The blatant artificiality of the film's sets and the prominence given to the stage/audience delineation during the film's final third contribute to this fundamental dilemma regarding the construction of stars. However, its within the core Calvero/Terry relationship where these questions find their most pertinent voice. The aforementioned "Tramp-isms" that Chaplin brings to this role are coupled with a taste for excess when it comes to line delivery during their scenes together, thus elevating him to the level of "performer" with the bed-ridden Terry as the effective replacement for his lost "audience". At one stage, after an impassioned monologue about the beauty of life, Calvero concludes by exclaiming "Goodnight!", as if to further emphasise this mutually beneficial role-playing. It's in the comfort of the theatrical world where one receives glimpses of the real Calvero: after the revelation of an empty theatre during a dream sequence, the camera cuts to a close-up of Chaplin's devastated face. Few stars managed to film so successfully and consistently in close-up as Chaplin, and the indelible image of the heartbroken yet resilient Tramp that's recalled by this shot is difficult to dispel.

Limelight is the most structurally incoherent of Chaplin's major features (that I've seen, at least), and I imagine that the occasionally-clunky editing and bizarre tonal shifts do little to help its cause in the eyes of the general public. (And that's saying nothing of Claire Bloom's marmite work!) But this is a film that appears on-screen as a confessional outpouring of the soul. Surely then, it's cluttered narrative and confusing emotional landscapes are somewhat appropriate? It's easy to accuse Chaplin of self-indulgence here, and the decidedly underwhelming showdown with fellow silent-era giant Buster Keaton provides fuel for the fire. Nevertheless, this seems to bypass the purpose of their much-anticipated sequence together, which is designed first as a self-critique of Calvero/Chaplin's own egotism and second as a touching reminder of all that's been lost due to the cruelty of time. As Calvero himself poignantly defers: "Time is the great author. It always writes the perfect ending." Limelight is one of the saddest demonstrations of this ideal that I can imagine. But Calvero does indeed find peace at film's end, and Limelight itself benefits from that phenomenal conclusion. One can only hope that Chaplin too, managed to get rid of his own demons once and for all. Lord knows he deserves it for providing us with a Hollywood swansong as beautiful as this.

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