- Constructing the Eternal Present: Chaplin’s Tramp as Lived Principle of Constructivist Organization
[Chaplin] has no pathos, he isn’t monumental—this is his value for the contemporary world—he is momental.—Alexsandr Rodchenko, “Charlot” (147)
the iconography of charlie chaplin’s Tramp persona has endured for over a century as an instantly recognizable shorthand for good-natured perseverance. While aspects of his appearance such as the cane, bowler hat, and mustache reduce the Tramp to an easily imitated parody of destitution, it is Chaplin’s waddling gait that best exemplifies his creation’s ineffable resolve. This “famous clod-hopping shuffle” may convey “ungainliness personified” or even give the character “almost the appearance of a cripple,” as John Kimber argues (59). However, it also acts as a means of locomotion that favors efficient use of energy and, more importantly, facilitates the Tramp’s survival. Indeed, Kimber pinpoints Chaplin’s “transforming our stubborn, confusing reality” as “one of the most important single facts about him,” and this article argues that Chaplin goes about transforming his world in the same spirit as the Tramp sets upon waddling through his day: oblivious to circumstances that could possibly discourage his efforts (18). In this light, what could seem like a hindrance becomes instead the embodiment of persistence.
My interest with this project is to interrogate how Chaplin’s ethos of perseverance intersects with Constructivist thought, an avant-garde philosophy of art that emerged in Russia during World War I and then bolstered the Soviet Union throughout the 1920s. This era spans years that were concurrent with Chaplin’s early productivity and his ascension to an auteur filmmaker. My line of inquiry would account for why Chaplin emerged as a figure worthy of idolization for a loyal Bolshevik and ideologically driven photographer, painter, and propagandist such as Alexsandr Rodchenko. In contrast to the readily evident appeal of Chaplin for a Cubist such as Fernand Léger, whose geometric renderings of the Tramp underscore the paradoxical elegance of Chaplin’s contained gestures amid flights of wild slapstick, the connection between Chaplin the movie star and Constructivism’s social imperative is not as clear. However, I argue that Chaplin’s machine-like mannerisms illustrate a means of engaging with the world whereby even vagrancy can contribute to city life, helping to manifest its utopian and mechanistic potential. These movements, exemplified by the Tramp’s chugging waddle, demonstrate his struggle to survive in a way that bypasses the emotional register and exhibits solely a bodily response. If he has inscribed the effects of his struggle, it is only in the eagerness with which he exploits his surroundings in order to negotiate everyday problems.
To explore how these qualities of Chaplin’s performance resonate with Constructivism, we must first turn to the work of Aleksei Gan, the “most militant” of the Constructivist theorists according to Vlada Petrić (13). It was Gan who established the priority that “the first task confronting artists in the new [Soviet] society was ‘to educate the workers to accept art as an active social force, and to help them come to grips with the everyday problems that rise at every turn of the revolutionary road’” (Petrić 13; [End Page 80] qtd. from Gan’s Constructivism). Taking Constructivism’s social imperative as the basis of my analysis, I will assess how Gan’s contemporary, Rodchenko, articulates his aesthetic philosophy in part by lionizing Chaplin. Informed by his photography practice, Rodchenko expresses his interest in Chaplin as a figure toward which the camera is drawn, a consistent object of its gaze who nonetheless resists being subsumed by its objectifying power. In the same way that Rodchenko’s camera can both reflect and transform the urban landscape of Moscow, the Tramp demonstrates a uniquely transformative way of engaging with and thriving within the city environment.
The role of art, according to Constructivists, is to demonstrate the necessity of organization. As John E. Bowlt notes, Constructivists sought to put in place a “utilitarian” canon of art because as a “reflection and glorification of the individual ego, traditional art now seemed foreign to the collective society of international Communism” (13). Likewise, the very nature of the construction...