Smile

This is a repost of sorts, parts of this piece culled from a couple of previous posts, prompted by Thursday’s Turner Classic Movies schedule. Every year in August TCM does Summer Under the Stars where they dedicate each 24-hour period of programming to one actor or actress. Yesterday, it was Charlie Chaplin, and boy, I needed him.

charlie_chaplindChaplin was one of the world’s greatest comedians, and yet, I rarely laugh during his films. I am, however, captivated by his sublime artistry and touched by his sensitivity – he was a genius. There is something about his Little Tramp character that to me is not only timeless, but very Buddhist.

Although I’ve tried and I’ve tried, I have not been able to find a connection between Charlie Chaplin and Buddhism. Well, except for the Cao Dai (“high place” or altar) sect of Vietnam that worships Charlie. Perhaps it’s a bit of a stretch to say they worship Chaplin, but they do revere him as a saint, and then Coadaism is not exactly Buddhism, it’s a monotheistic religion that James P. Harrison describes in The endless war: Vietnam’s struggle for independence as “claiming inspiration from all the great religious thinkers from Buddha and Confucius to Jesus Christ and Muhammad to Victor Hugo, and even Charlie Chaplin.”

Now, at one time Chaplin was about as close as you can get to sainthood while still breathing. From the late teens of the last century and into the 1930’s, he was arguably the most beloved man on the planet. Almost everyone could relate to Charlie in one way or another, especially everyday people, working class people, folks who were closer to the bottom than the top. Charlie represented them. He was all of them, packed into one baggy pair of pants. When he kicked a cop or tricked a bullying boss or hit a pompous rich man in the face with a custard pie, he did what they wanted to do – strike a blow against authority. Charlie’s Little Tramp character was usually left with the short end of the stick, rarely got the girl he loved, and at the end of many of the films, he wandered off alone, lonely and a little sad.

Because his films were silent, they transcended language. People the world over considered Charlie to be one of them. The upper classes could appreciate his artistry and use of pathos, while the lower classes could cheer him on. St. John Ervine, in a 1921 article for Vanity Fair, wrote, “Mr. Chaplin has conquered the world because he has remained of the world.”

While there may be no direct connection between Chaplin and Buddhism, he did have a connection to Gandhi. He was a great admirer of the Mahatma. The two met in London in 1931. Gandhi was staying at Kingsley Hall Community Centre, operated by Muriel Lester, a Christian pacifist. In her 1932 book Entertaining Gandhi, she relates this story in which it seems Gandhi was one of the very few people who had not heard of The Little Tramp:

Chaplin sitting next to Gandhi 1931

One of my clearest mental pictures is of Mr Gandhi sitting with a telegram in his hand looking distinctly puzzled. Grouped round him were secretaries awaiting his answer. As I came in, the silence was being broken by a disapproving voice saying ‘But he’s only a buffoon, there is no point in going to meet him.’ The telegram was being handed over for the necessary refusal when I saw the name.

“‘But don’t you know that name, Bapu?’ I inquired, immensely intrigued. ‘No’ he answered, taking back the flimsy form and looking at me for the enlightenment that his secretaries could not give.

‘Charlie Chaplin! He’s the world’s hero. You simply must meet him. His art is rooted in the life of working people, he understands the poor as well as you do, he honours them always in his pictures.’”

Off-screen, Charlie was not all that saintly. He had his peccadilloes, so to speak, which I will not go into here. But on-screen, as the Little Tramp, he seemed to perfectly capture the essence of the human spirit. He once made the Buddha-like statement, “Loneliness is the theme of everyone.” Chaplin knew loneliness, he knew suffering. He grew up in a hard era – the end of the austere Victorian age – his father an alcoholic, his mother* mentally ill, Charlie and his half-brother Sydney labored in a workhouse and lived in a home for orphans and destitute children. Charlie Chaplin knew more suffering by age 10 than most of us have known our whole lives. He understood in the depth of his being that when someone makes a declaration of no surrender and sticks to it no matter what, amazing things can take place in that person’s life. That sentiment is superbly  expressed in the transcendent final scene of his last ‘silent’ film, Modern Times.

Usually, it’s not a good idea to show the final scene of a film, but in this case it may inspire any who have not yet seen the movie or experienced Charlie Chaplin to make an effort to do so. You probably know the background music, you’ll say or sing the words in your head as it plays, a song written by Chaplin . . .

One of the most enduring, and touching, images in film . . . the Little Tramp – and this time, he gets the girl – and they walk off together down that long, dusty road . . .

Smile though your heart is aching
Smile even though it’s breaking . . .

 – – – – – – – – – –

* A somewhat interesting aside: Chaplin’s mother, Hannah, had an adulterous affair with a man name Dryden and 3 years after Charlie was born, she gave birth to George Wheeler Dryden, who in 1938 became father to a certain Spencer Dryden, later the longest-serving drummer for the Jefferson Airplane.

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Men at War

I watched a very good film last night, the moving black and white 1956 version of Kon Ichikawa’s Burmese Harp. It’s the story of a Japanese soldier during WWII who repulsed by the horrors of war becomes a Buddhist monk dedicated to performing a rather extreme and solemn task concerning the war dead. The film subtly criticizes the military madness that fueled Japan’s expansionist policies in the first half of the Twentieth Century, and was one of the first films to focus on the war from the Japanese soldier’s point of view.

WWII-era poster depicting Japanese soldier as a monkey-man threatening a white woman.

I suspect it was also one of the first times movie audiences outside of Japan were presented with a portrayal of Japanese soldiers as average men, battle-weary, hungry, and not a little bit forsaken, as opposed to image that still prevailed in the 1950s, held over from the previous decades, as in the poster on the left.

At the beginning of the film, we are introduced to a Japanese infantry company in the Burma campaign. Private Mizushima has learned how to play the Burmese harp. He uses it to signal back to the company when he is scouting ahead, and as an accompaniment when the men are led in song by their captain, a former choirmaster, songs sung to raise their spirits. Mizushima will eventually become the Buddhist monk.

The film deals with a big issue, the brutality of war, in a personal and thoroughly humanistic manner. I suppose you would me an anti-war kind of guy, but I must admit I’ve seen more than my fair share of war movies. I’ve found that the best ones are not about great battles, but rather the small moments of life and death, courage and fear. In the end, there is, to borrow a phrase, a thin red line between those opposites.

How does a person continue when he, or she, has engaged in a barbarous act such as war, and has fully realized the horror of it? To participate in something unthinkable can taint you, if you allow it. Average men and women seldom are able affect history, but they can create a personal history. This is the lesson learned by Pvt./priest Mizushima, who at one point writes,

Burmese HarpMy heart was racked with questions. Why must the world suffer such misery? Why must there be such inexplicable pain? As the days passed, I came to understand. I realized that, in the end, the answers were not for human beings to know, that our work is simply to ease the great suffering of the world. To have the courage to face suffering, senselessness and irrationality without fear, to find the strength to create peace by one’s own example.”

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Being Everywhere

The Time Warner Cable/CBS dispute continues, with all CBS programming blacked out. The two multimillion dollar companies fighting are squabbling over a $1 per customer increase and digital rights. And it is we, the viewers, the people, who are suffering. Naturally.

Cover of my 1946 Bantam paperback edition.
Cover of my 1946 Bantam paperback edition.

For the second week in a row I was unable to watch Dexter or Ray Donovan on Showtime (owned by CBS), so I watched The Grapes of Wrath on TCM instead. That’s the 1940 film based on John Steinbeck’s novel by the same name, his protest novel about how capitalism is a ruthless system of exploitation. How fitting.

I hadn’t seen the film in a long time. It’s been even longer since I read the book. The Grapes of Wrath tells the story of the Joads, an Oklahoma family forced from their farm by the Dust Bowl during the Great Depression. They journey to California along with thousands of others in search of work and a new life.

John Ford was the director, an odd choice because The Grapes of Wrath was regarded as a “leftist” novel, and Ford was a staunch right-winger. But he was also a humanist, and no doubt identified with the plight of the migrant workers in the same way as he did with his ancestors who suffered through the Irish Famine, and with the struggle of the Welsh coal miners whose lives he depicted so beautifully in his 1941 film How Green Was My Valley.

Although his conservatism, and at times, his brand of patriotism, is not my cup of tea, I consider John Ford a great filmmaker. It seems to me that his version of The Grapes of Wrath follows Steinbeck’s novel closely, even the political part. The film was produced 73 years ago, and yet it is a thoroughly realistic portrait of that time, rather atypical for films of the period. Shot in glorious black and white, Ford’s cinematographer was Gregg Toland, who a year later would perform the same duty for Orson Welles on Citizen Kane.

Watching the film this time around, I was stuck by the scene where the Joad family finally finds some work in California. They’ve already been preyed upon, and they show up at a ranch where work is a sure thing. The migrants drive through the barbed wire gates of the ranch in their overloaded vehicles, past the guards who act like Nazi thugs – it’s more like a German concentration camp than an California work camp, an eerie parallel considering not much was known about the Nazi camps in 1940. And, at the same time, a premonition of the Japanese internment camps two or three years later.

The first night, young Tom Joad meets up with some “agitators” who are planning a strike against the oppressive landowners, and he ends up killing a deputy who has in turn killed his friend, the former preacher, Casy.

Henry Fonda plays Tom Joad, the basically decent man who finds himself thrust into some violent situations that turn him into an outlaw. Tom Joad’s journey is not just from Oklahoma to California, but also from self-interest to selflessness, and as he becomes a fugitive, his sense of family grows larger to include all humanity.

The climactic scene in the film is when Tom has to say goodbye to his Ma. He figures that since he is already an outlaw, he might as well go out and “do something, maybe find out what’s wrong.” The words he says to his mother are not word for word from the novel, but close enough. It’s doubtful that either Steinbeck or screenwriter Nunnally Johnson had Buddhism on their minds, but I’ve always thought Tom Joad’s short speech is about as good a description of the Buddhist concept of interconnectedness as I’ve ever heard.

Ma Joad accepts that Tom must leave but how will she know where he is and if he will be all right?

grapes-fondaTom Joad: Well, maybe it’s like Casy says. A fellow ain’t got a soul of his own, just little piece of a big soul, the one big soul that belongs to everybody, then . . .

Ma Joad: Then what, Tom?

Tom Joad: Then it don’t matter. I’ll be all around in the dark – I’ll be everywhere. Wherever you can look – wherever there’s a fight, so hungry people can eat, I’ll be there. Wherever there’s a cop beatin’ up a guy, I’ll be there. I’ll be in the way guys yell when they’re mad. I’ll be in the way kids laugh when they’re hungry and they know supper’s ready, and when the people are eatin’ the stuff they raise and livin’ in the houses they build – I’ll be there, too.

Ma Joad: I don’t understand it, Tom.

Tom Joad: Me, neither, Ma, but – just somethin’ I been thinkin’ about.

Being everywhere . . . being a piece of something that belongs to everyone . . .

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“so long as ignorance and misery remain on earth”

I don’t know about you, but I’ve watched my fair share of Oscar telecasts and Sunday’s agonizing spectacle I could have done without. Seth MacFarland’s sexist jokes fell flat with me, the opening musical number objectifying and denigrating women was offensive, and the sexualization of that 9 year old girl inappropriate to say the least. Ironically, the high points of the show all featured women: Charlize Theron’s dancing, Shirley Bassey’s triumphant reprise of “Goldfinger,” First Lady Michelle Obama, Adele, and even Barbra Streisand, whom I normally don’t care for.

The best comment about the Oscar program was also by a woman, Brenda Chapman, who won for her animated film “Brave,”: “I’m just a little tired of the fifth-grade school-boy humor. It’s running rampant in Hollywood and I’m over it. Can we move on and be intelligent again?”

What Hugo would have looked like if he had to sit through this year's Oscar show.
What Hugo would have looked like if he had to sit through this year’s Oscar show.

“Les Miserables” won only three Oscars, for supporting actress (Anne Hathaway), sound mixing and make-up. I single out “Les Mis” for the reason that today is the 210th anniversary of the birth of Victor Hugo, who wrote the classic novel the film is based on.

I have to admit that I haven’t seen the film, or the stage production, or even read the book. I have read other works by Hugo, most notably The Hunchback of Notre Dame and Ninety-Three, along with much of his poetry. I’ve started Les Miserables a number of times, but its length, and the fact that I know it makes numerous digressions from the storyline usually stifles my desire to read it. One of these days, though . . .

From the original edition of Les Misérables (1862).
From the original edition of Les Misérables (1862).

Now, aside from his greatness as a writer, what makes Hugo an interesting historical figure to me is his commitment to championing the rights of society’s downtrodden. In his personal life, Hugo, a leftist, was politically active and published many pamphlets protesting the death penalty and other injustices of French society. I think it is noteworthy that his two most famous characters were a deformed man, the hunchback, and a peasant hunted by a vindictive police officer.

Since most of you have seen Les Miserables, or read it, you probably don’t need me to tell you that Jean Valjean represents humanity purified by its struggle against opression. He’s a bodhisattva-like figure. After his release from prison, he devotes his life to honest work and helping others.

"Starring David Janssen as Dr, Richard Kimble . . ."
“Starring David Janssen as Dr, Richard Kimble . . .”

I feel confident writing about what Valjean represents because I am very familiar with his modern carbon-copy, Dr. Richard Kimble, TV’s “The Fugitive”: “an innocent victim of blind justice . . .  reprieved by fate when a train wreck freed him on route to the death house, freed him to hide in lonely desperation. . .  to toil at many jobs . . . freed him to run before the relentless pursuit of the police lieutenant obsessed with his capture . . .” It’s the same story. And, each week while on the run, Kimble ended up getting involved in the lives of the people he encountered, and he would help them somehow, often putting his freedom at risk in the bargain.

The preface to Les Miserables is famous, and it sums up the spirit embodied by Valjean and Dr. Kimble, and the writer, Victor Hugo:

so long as there shall exist, by reason of law and custom, a social condemnation which, in the midst of civilization, artificially creates a hell on earth, and complicates with human fatality a destiny that is divine; so long as the three problems of the century – the degradation of man by the exploitation of his labour, the ruin of women by starvation and the atrophy of childhood by physical and spiritual night are not solved; so long as, in certain regions, social asphyxia shall be possible; in other words and from a still broader point of view, so long as ignorance and misery remain on earth, there should be a need for books such as this.”

Even now, there is a need for such books as Les Miserables, and one of these days, I’m going to finish it.

– – – – – – – – – –

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The Religious Sect That Worships Charlie Chaplin

Maybe you saw Google’s video tribute to Charlie Chaplin on his 122th birthday yesterday. Maybe you know a little about him. Filmmaker, comic actor, composer, kicked out of the US for his left-wing sympathies, returned 20 years later to accept an Honorary Award at the Academy Awards where he received the longest standing ovation in Oscar history (lasting twelve minutes). Maybe you saw Robert Downey Jr.’s outstanding performance as Chaplin in the 1992 film directed by Richard Attenborough.

Cao Dai main temple

Betcha didn’t know that Chaplin was a religious icon. Yes, the Cao Dai sect of Vietnam, described as a “monotheistic religion”, worships the immortal Charlie Chaplin. In The endless war: Vietnam’s struggle for independence, James P. Harrison writes,

[The] Cao Dai (“high place” or altar) was a remarkable syncretic religion, claiming inspiration from all the great religious thinkers from Buddha and Confucius to Jesus Christ and Muhammad to Victor Hugo, and even Charlie Chaplin. Founded in 1919 and organized after 1925, it established a “Holy See” under its Grand Master at Tay Ninh, southwest of Saigon.

Okay, perhaps it’s a bit of a stretch to say they worship Chaplin, but they do revere him as a saint. And actually, at one time Chaplin was about as close as you can get to sainthood while still breathing. From the late teens of the last century and into the 1920’s, he was arguably the most beloved man in the world. Almost everyone could relate to Charlie in one way or another, especially everyday people, working class people, folks who were closer to the bottom than the top. Charlie represented them. When he kicked a cop or tricked a bullying boss or hit a pompous rich man in the face with a custard pie, he was doing what they wanted to do – strike a blow against authority. Charlie’s Little Tramp character was usually  left with the short end of the stick, rarely got the girl he loved, and at the end of many of the films, he wandered off alone, lonely and a little sad.

Because his films were silent, they transcended language. People the world over considered Charlie to be one of them. St. John Ervine, in a 1921 article for Vanity Fair, wrote, “Mr. Chaplin has conquered the world because he has remained of the world.”

I don’t know if Chaplin had any interest in Buddhism, but I know he was a great admirer of Gandhi. The two met in London in 1931. Gandhi was staying at Kingsley Hall Community Centre, operated by Muriel Lester, a Christian pacifist. In her 1932 book Entertaining Gandhi, she relates this story in which it seems Gandhi was one of the very few people who had not heard of The Little Tramp:

One of my clearest mental pictures is of Mr Gandhi sitting with a telegram in his hand looking distinctly puzzled. Grouped round him were secretaries awaiting his answer. As I came in, the silence was being broken by a disapproving voice saying ‘But he’s only a buffoon, there is no point in going to meet him.’ The telegram was being handed over for the necessary refusal when I saw the name.

“‘But don’t you know that name, Bapu?’ I inquired, immensely intrigued. ‘No’ he answered, taking back the flimsy form and looking at me for the enlightenment that his secretaries could not give.

“Charlie Chaplin! He’s the world’s hero. You simply must meet him. His art is rooted in the life of working people, he understands the poor as well as you do, he honours them always in his pictures.

It took me many years to learn how to appreciate Charlie Chaplin’s artistry. Watching silent movies is a different sort of filmgoing experience than watching “talkies.” I’d see a Chaplin movie and feel that it didn’t live up to the hype. Then I saw a three-part documentary, Unknown Chaplin, by film historians Kevin Brownlow and David Gill (and narrated by the late James Mason), that shines a light on Chaplin’s filmmaking methods and techniques. Using rare footage and previously unseen outtakes, the documentary shows Chaplin rehearsing and experimenting, and reveals how he developed many of his gags. I got it after that.

For those who are unfamiliar with Charlie Chaplin and want to check him out, (in addition to the documentary) I recommend Modern Times, as it may be his most accessible work for us modern folk. Although it’s a comedy, it’s also a social protest film, a commentary on technology and economics that is just as relevant today as it was when he made the film in 1936. It’s also the film that debuted the classic song, written by Charlie, “Smile.”

Here is a clip from one of my favorite Chaplin shorts. It’s a gag you’ve seen many times before. I doubt Chaplin invented it just I doubt that anyone has ever done it better. Filmed in 1918, A Dog’s Life:

 

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