Aristotle speaks of the mimesis of the first order and the mimesis of the second order. When creating art, the goal is to distance oneself from the source. Mimesis of the first order is simply art imitating nature. Mimesis of the second order is art perfecting nature and turning it into something transcendent. That rule is certainly at play in the work of Charlie Chaplin. As Marco Grosoli points out in his essay on Chaplin, this was an artist keenly aware of his myth and in a unique position to go on to make great art from that myth. Marco Grosoli’s fascinating essay is part of a collection of essays from various writers on one of the masters of cinema, “Refocusing Chaplin,” published by Rowman & Littlefield.
There may never be another artist quite like Charlie Chaplin. However, his influence and relevance continues to evolve. And so that gives this collection of essays a great sense of urgency. In the same way that an artist of the first rank like Ray Bradbury could have anticipated social media some fifty years ago, so too did Charlie Chaplin foresee the power of a meme in a career that began over one hundred years ago. To say that Charlie Chaplin was beyond famous is an understatement. He reached the level of myth. It is not short of phenomenal that he continued to grow as an artist through a career that spanned the evolution of cinema.
In Marco Grosoli’s essay, he examines the friction between two formidable myths in Chaplin’s “The Great Dictator,” from 1940. By then, Chaplin was more than ready to leverage some of his celebrity for the sake of his art. The timing could not have been more perfect. The difference between the myth of Hitler and Chaplin could not have been more extreme. As Grosoli indicates, Chaplin was not merely imitating Hitler. Chaplin was channeling the myth of Hitler. In that respect, Chaplin was getting at a greater truth. In a work that deeply explores the power of meme, Chaplin plays both the role of Dictator Adenoid Hynkel and a Jewish barber who looks identical to Hynkel. Dictator and barber are, in a sense, interchangeable. In the proper costume and context, everyone accepts whatever the Jewish barber has to say, dressed as Hynkel, even if it is the total opposite of what Hynkel would say. Push two extremes together, Grosoli suggests, and they strangely equate each other, form a perfect nothingness.
Essays in this collection feature a wide spectrum of themes including Marxism, feminism, gender studies, deconstruction, psychoanalytic criticism, new historicism, performance studies, and cultural criticism. This critical study covers a wide reach of films including The Circus (1928), The Gold Rush (1925), City Lights (1931) Modern Times (1936), The Great Dictator (1940), Monsieur Verdoux (1947), and Limelight (1952). This collection proves to be a valuable resource on one of the leading masters of cinema.
“Refocusing Chaplin: A Screen Icon through Critical Lenses” is a 250-page hardcover, published by Rowman & Littlefield. Visit them right here.