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289 Epilogue The Chaplin Century I n his 1952 essay “Some Ideas on the Cinema,” which functions as a kind of manifesto for the Neorealist movement, screenwriter Cesare Zavattini names those directors he considers to be most associated with the radical new approaches to filmmaking that he practiced and advocated: Roberto Rossellini , Vittorio De Sica, Luchino Visconti. And, at the end of the essay, he cites with reverence exactly one director outside of the movement: Charlie Chaplin. The esteem in which Chaplin was held by the Neorealists was extraordinary. Rossellini could compare him to only four other figures of veneration in his life—his father, Gandhi, Nehru, and Pope Paul VI.1 For De Sica, he was simply a “monster” who had “discovered everything.” After him, he said, “the cinema has become almost impossible.”2 Federico Fellini, who began his career among the Neorealists under Rossellini, would carry the reverence even further. For him, Chaplin was an inescapable mythological figure in both a public and private sense. “Chaplin is something like Santa Claus, like the mother,” he told an interviewer for Film Comment.3 He found Chaplin’s influence “difficult to judge” because it was so originary and all-consuming.4 In fact, as Wes Gehring has observed, the Neorealists were “doubly stirred” by Chaplin, as another of their major points of influence was René Clair, himself an admitted Chaplin acolyte. Clair, whose comedies are regularly compared to Chaplin’s, saw himself as a kind of pupil of his American forerunner. When Clair’s producers considered suing Chaplin over similarities between Modern Times and Clair’s Liberty for Us, Clair persuaded them to drop the suit by reversing the direction of influence. “The whole of cinema has learned lessons from Chaplin,” he contended .5 Among French filmmakers of his generation, he was not alone in this opinion. His great contemporary Jean Renoir literally began making films on account of Chaplin, abandoning a career in the visual arts that followed in the footsteps of his luminary father, Pierre-Auguste, to pursue work in this fasci- 290 epilogue nating new medium that Chaplin brought alive for him.6 He would call Chaplin nothing less than “the master of masters, the film-maker of film-makers.”7 Jean Vigo was likewise a devoted Chaplin admirer who considered the filmmaker his “hero”; in Zero for Conduct (Franfilmdis/Argui-Film, 1933) alone he included visual quotations or allusions to The Gold Rush, Easy Street, The Kid, and Shoulder Arms.8 Clair, Renoir, Vigo, Rossellini, De Sica—these were the influences from which the French New Wave was born. And with that new movement, the extraordinary expressions of esteem for Chaplin would only be compounded. Éric Rohmer credited him not just with the discovery of new cinematic techniques but with a new cinematic language, an “‘allusive’ mode of expression” that went beyond either “spoken language or mimicry.”9 For Jean-Luc Godard, Chaplin was far more than a cinematic innovator. He was foundational to the art and transcended commentary. “He is beyond praise because he is the greatest of all,” he writes in his entry for Cahiers du Cinéma’s Dictionary of American Film-Makers. “Today one says Chaplin as one says Da Vinci—or rather, Charlie, like Leonardo.”10 François Truffaut would echo Godard’s reverence and take it even further. “Chaplin dominated and influenced fifty years of cinema,” Truffaut declares in his essay “Who Is Charlie Chaplin?”11 It was no small matter for a cinephile like Truffaut. As he famously told one interviewer, Chaplin meant more to him “than the idea of God.”12 And yet, for many of these filmmakers, Chaplin was also a highly problematic figure—both an ancestor and an adversary. When Zavattini mentions him in “Some Ideas on the Cinema,” the full citation is both praiseful and exclusionary . Chaplin is explicitly held apart from the Neorealists. “I am quite aware that it is possible to make wonderful films, like Charlie Chaplin’s, and they are not neorealistic,” he writes.13 After all, the main thrust of Zavattini’s manifesto is that “the true function of the cinema is not to tell fables.”14 In a similar vein, De Sica claimed, improbably, that the film director who “discovered everything” had influenced him “in no way.” “I detest imitations,” he declared when asked about Chaplin in one interview. “In fact, I sometimes don’t go to see a certain film for fear I’ll want to imitate it.”15...


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