Double Exposure

Charlie Chaplin as Author and Celebrity

How to Cite

Goldman, J. E. (2004). Double Exposure: Charlie Chaplin as Author and Celebrity. M/C Journal, 7(5).
Vol. 7 No. 5 (2004): 'fame'
Published 2004-11-01

I. Happy Endings

Chaplin’s Modern Times features one of the most subtly strange endings in Hollywood history. It concludes with the Tramp (Chaplin) and the Gamin (Paulette Goddard) walking away from the camera, down the road, toward the sunrise. (Figure 1.) They leave behind the city, their hopes for employment, and, it seems, civilization itself. The iconography deployed is clear: it is 1936, millions are unemployed, and to walk penniless into the Great Depression means destitution if not death. Chaplin invokes a familiar trope of 1930s texts, the “marginal men,” for whom “life on the road is not romanticized” and who “do not participate in any culture,” as Warren Susman puts it (171). The Tramp and the Gamin seem destined for this non-existence. For the duration of the film they have tried to live and work within society, but now they are outcasts.

This is supposed to be a happy ending, though. Before marching off into poverty, the Tramp whistles a tune and tells the Gamin to “buck up” and smile; the string section swells around them. (Little-known [or discussed] fact: Chaplin later added lyrics to this music, resulting in the song “Smile,” now part of the repertoire of countless torch singers and jazz musicians. Standout recordings include those by Nat King Cole and Elvis Costello.) It seems like a great day to be alive. Why is that? In this narrative of despair, what is there to “buck up” about? The answer lies outside of the narrative. There is another iconography at work here: the rear-view silhouette of the Tramp strolling down the road, foregrounded against a wide vista, complete with bowler hat, baggy pants, and pigeon-toed walk, recalls previous Chaplin films. By invoking similar moments in his oeuvre, Chaplin signals that the Tramp, more than a mere movie character, is the mass-reproduced trademark image of Charlie Chaplin, multimillionaire entertainer and worldwide celebrity. The film doubles Chaplin with the Tramp. This double exposure, figuratively speaking, reconciles the contradictions between the cheerful atmosphere and the grim story. The celebrity’s presence alleviates the suspicion that the protagonists are doomed. Rather than being reduced to one of the “marginal men,” the Tramp is heading for the Hollywood hills, where Chaplin participates in quite a bit of culture, making hit movies for huge audiences. Nice work if you can get it, indeed. Chaplin resolves the plot by supplanting narrative logic with celebrity logic.

Chaplin’s celebrity diverges somewhat from the way Hollywood celebrity functions generally. Miriam Hansen provides a popular understanding of celebrity: “The star’s presence in a particular film blurs the boundary between diegesis and discourse, between an address relying on the identification with fictional characters and an activation of the viewer’s familiarity with the star on the basis of production and publicity” (246). That is, celebrity images alter films by enlisting what Hansen terms “intertexts,” which include journalism and studio publicity. According to Hansen, celebrity invites these intertexts to inform and multiply the meaning of the narrative. By contrast, Modern Times disregards the diegesis altogether, switching focus to the celebrity. Meaning is not multiplied. It is replaced. Filmic resolution depends not only on recognizing Chaplin’s image, but also on abandoning plot and leaving the Tramp and the Gamin to their fates.

This explicit use of celebrity culminates Chaplin’s reworking of early twentieth-century celebrity, his negotiations with fame that continue to reverberate today. In what follows, I will argue that Chaplin weds visual celebrity with strategies of author-production often attributed to modernist literature, strategies that parallel Michel Foucault’s theory of the “author function.” Like his modernist contemporaries, Chaplin deploys narrative techniques that gesture toward the text’s creator, not as a person who is visible in a so-called real world, but as an idealized consciousness who resides in the film and controls its meaning. While Chaplin’s Hollywood counterparts rely on images to connote individual personalities, Chaplin resists locating his self within a body, instead using the Tramp as a sign, rather than an embodiment, of his celebrity, and turning his filmmaking into an aesthetic space to contain his subjectivity. Creating himself as author, Chaplin reckons with the fact that his image remains on display. Chaplin recuperates the Tramp image, mobilizing it as a signifier of his mass audience. The Tramp’s universal recognizability, Chaplin suggests, authorizes the image to represent an entire historical moment.

II. An Author Is Born

Chaplin produces himself as an author residing in his texts, rather than a celebrity on display. He injects himself into Modern Times to resolve the narrative (and by extension assuage the social unrest the film portrays). This gesture insists that the presence of the author generates and controls signification. Chaplin thus echoes Foucault’s account of the author function: “The author is . . . the principle of a certain unity of writing – all differences having to be resolved” by reference to the author’s subjectivity (215). By reconciling narrative contradictions through the author, Chaplin proposes himself as the key to his films’ coherence of meaning. Foucault reminds us, however, that such positioning of the author is illusory: “We are used to thinking that the author is so different from all other men, and so transcendent . . . that, as soon as he speaks, meaning begins to proliferate, to proliferate indefinitely. The truth is quite the contrary: the author does not precede the works. The text contains a number of signs referring to the author” (221). In this formulation, authors do not create meaning. Rather, texts exercise formal attributes to produce their authors. So Modern Times, by enlisting Chaplin’s celebrity to provide closure, produces a controlling consciousness, a special class of being who “proliferates” meaning. Chaplin’s films in general contain signs of the author such as displays of cinematic tricks. These strategies, claiming affinity with objects of high culture, inevitably evoke the author.

Chaplin’s author is not a physical entity. Authorship, Foucault writes, “does not refer purely and simply to a real individual,” meaning that the author is composed of text, not flesh and blood (216). Chaplin resists imbuing the image of the Tramp with the sort of subjectivity reserved for the author. In this way Chaplin again departs from usual accounts of Hollywood stars. In Chaplin’s time, according to Richard Dyer, “The roles and/or the performance of a star in a film were taken as revealing the personality of the star” (20). (Moreover, Chaplin achieves all that fame without relying on close-ups. Critics typically cite the close-up as the device most instrumental to Hollywood celebrity. Scott J. Juengel writes of the close-up as “a fetishization of the face” that creates “an intense manifestation of subjectivity” [353; also see Dyer, 14-15, and Susman, 282]. The one true close-up I have found in Chaplin’s early films occurs in “A Woman” [1915], when Chaplin goes in drag. It shows Chaplin’s face minus the trademark fake mustache, as if to de-familiarize his recognizability.) Dyer represents the standard view: Hollywood movies propose that stars’ public images directly reflect their private personalities. Chaplin’s celebrity contradicts that model. Chaplin’s initial fame stems from his 1914 performances in Mack Sennett’s Keystone productions, consummate examples of the slapstick genre, in which the Tramp and his trademark regalia first become recognizable trademarks. Far from offering roles that reveal “personality,” slapstick treats both people and things as objects, equally at the mercy of apparently unpredictable physical laws. Within this genre the Tramp remains an object, subject to the chaos of slapstick just like the other bodies on the screen. Chaplin’s celebrity emerges without the suggestion that his image contains a unique subject or stands out among other slapstick objects. The disinclination to treat the image as container of the subject – shared with literary modernism – sets up the Tramp as a sign that connotes Chaplin’s presence elsewhere.

Gradually, Chaplin turns his image into an emblem that metonymically refers to the author. When he begins to direct, Chaplin manipulates the generic features of slapstick to reconstruct his image, establishing the Tramp in a central position. For example, in “The Vagabond” (1916), the Tramp becomes embroiled in a barroom brawl and runs toward the saloon’s swinging doors, neatly sidestepping before reaching them. The pursuer’s momentum, naturally, carries him through the doorway. Other characters exist in a slapstick dimension that turns bodies into objects, but not the Tramp. He exploits his liberation from slapstick by exacerbating the other characters’ lack of control. Such moments grant the Tramp a degree of physical control that enhances his value in relation to the other images. The Tramp, bearing the celebrity image and referring to authorial control, becomes a signifier of Chaplin’s combination of authorship and celebrity.

Chaplin devises a metonymic relationship between author and image; the Tramp cannot encompass the author, only refer to him. Maintaining his subjectivity separate from the image, Chaplin imagines his films as an aesthetic space where signification is contingent on the author. He attempts to delimit what he, his name and image, signify – in opposition to intertexts that might mobilize meanings drawn from outside the text. Writing of celebrity intertexts, P. David Marshall notes that “the descriptions of the connections between celebrities’ ‘real’ lives and their working lives . . . are what configure the celebrity status” (58). For Chaplin, to situate the subject in a celebrity body would be to allow other influences – uses of his name or image in other texts – to determine the meaning of the celebrity sign. His separation of image and author reveals an anxiety about identifying one specific body or image as location of the subject, about putting the actual subject on display and in circulation.

The opening moment of “Shoulder Arms” (1920) illustrates Chaplin’s uneasy alliance of celebrity, author, and image. The title card displays a cartoon sketch of the Tramp in doughboy garb. Alongside, print lettering conveys the film title and the words, “written and produced by” above a blank area. A real hand appears, points to the drawing, and elaborately signs “Charles Chaplin” in the blank space. It then pantomimes shooting a gun at the Tramp. The film announces itself as a product of one author, represented by a giant, disembodied hand. The hand provides an inimitable signature of the author, while the Tramp, disfigured by the uniform but still identifiable, provides an inimitable signature of the celebrity. The relationship between the image and the “writer” is co-dependent but antagonistic; the same hand signs Chaplin’s name and mimes shooting the Tramp. Author-production merges with resistance to the image as representation of the subject.

III. The Image Is History

“Shoulder Arms” reminds us that despite Chaplin’s conception of himself as an incorporeal author, the Tramp remains present, and not quite accounted for. Here Foucault’s author function finds its limitations, failing to explain author-production that relies on the image even as it situates the author in the text. The Tramp remains visible in Modern Times while the film has made it clear that the author is present to engender significance. To Slavoj Zizek the Tramp is “the remainder” of the text, existing on a separate plane from the diegesis (6). Zizek watches City Lights (1931) and finds that the Tramp, who is continually shifting between classes and characters, acts as “an intercessor, middleman, purveyor.” He is continually mistaken for something he is not, and when the mistake is recognized, “he turns into a disturbing stain one tries to get rid of as quickly as possible” (4). Zizek points out that the Tramp is often positioned outside of social institutions, set slightly apart from the diegesis. Modern Times follows this pattern as well. For example, throughout the film the Tramp continually shifts from one side of the law to the other. He endures two prison sentences, prevents a jailbreak, and becomes a security guard. The film doesn’t quite know what to do with him.

Chaplin takes up this remainder and transforms it into an emblem of his mass popularity. The Tramp has always floated somewhat above the narrative; in Modern Times that narrative occurs against a backdrop of historical turmoil. Chaplin, therefore, superimposes the Tramp on to scenes of historical change. The film actually withholds the tramp image during the first section of the movie, as the character is working in a factory and does not appear in his trademark regalia until he emerges from a stay in the “hospital.” His appearance engenders a montage of filmmaking techniques: abrupt cross-cutting between shots at tilted angles, superimpositions, and crowds of people and cars moving rapidly through the city, all set to (Chaplin’s) jarring, brass-wind music. The Tramp passes before a closed factory and accidentally marches at the head of a left-wing demonstration. The sequence combines signs of social upheaval, technological advancement, and Chaplin’s own technical achievements, to indicate that the film has entered “modern times” – all spurred by the appearance of the Tramp in his trademark attire, thus implicating the Tramp in the narration of historical change. By casting his image as a universally identifiable sign of Chaplin’s mass popularity, Chaplin authorizes it to function as a sign of the historical moment.

The logic behind Chaplin’s treating the Tramp as an emblem of history is articulated by Walter Benjamin’s concept of the dialectical image. Benjamin explains how culture identifies itself through images, writing that “Every present day is determined by the images that are synchronic with it: each “now” is of a particular recognizability”(462-3). Benjamin proposes that the image, achieving a “particular recognizability,” puts temporality in stasis. This illuminates the dynamic by which Chaplin elevates the mass-reproduced icon to transcendent historical symbol. The Tramp image crystallizes that passing of time into a static unit. Indeed, Chaplin instigates the way the twentieth century, according to Richard Schickel, registers its history. Schickel writes that “In the 1920s, the media, newly abustle, had discovered techniques whereby anyone could be wrested out of whatever context had originally nurtured him and turned into images . . . for no previous era is it possible to make a history out of images . . . for no subsequent era is it possible to avoid doing so. For most of us, now, this is history” (70-1). From Schickel, Benjamin, and Chaplin, a picture of the far-reaching implications of Chaplin’s celebrity emerges.

By gesturing beyond the boundary of the text, toward Chaplin’s audience, the Tramp image makes legible that significant portion of the masses unified in recognition of Chaplin’s celebrity, affirming that the celebrity sign depends on its wide circulation to attain significance. As Marshall writes, “The celebrity’s power is derived from the collective configuration of its meaning.” The image’s connotative function requires collaboration with the audience. The collective configuration Chaplin mobilizes is the Tramp’s recognizability as it moves through scenes of historical change, whatever other discourses may attach to it. Chaplin thrusts the image into this role because of its status as remainder, which stems from Chaplin’s rejection of the body as a location of the subject. Chaplin has incorporated the modernist desire to situate subjectivity in the text rather than the body. Paradoxically, this impulse expands the role of visuality, turning the celebrity image into a principal figure by which our culture understands itself.

Author Biography

Jonathan E. Goldman