Lecture Notes: Charlie Chaplin's serious work | Calendar | Chicago Reader

Lecture Notes: Charlie Chaplin's serious work 

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Better known for writing books on such figures as Richard Nixon, Garry Wills is also a movie critic. In January Wills, professor of American Studies at Northwestern University, will cover the Sundance Film Festival for Atlantic Monthly, and next spring he'll teach a class called "The Poetry of American 'Silents.'" Wills has even bought his own 16mm projector and prints, all to better savor silent cinema.

Not surprisingly, one of his favorite artists is Charlie Chaplin, but he departs from the mainstream in his choice of films. "I hold that Chaplin's greatest period was from 1916 to 1923, when he was doing two-reelers for Essanay, Mutual, and First National," says Wills. "They're more anarchic.

"In the later features--because of melodrama stories--he has to try to make a living in order to rescue the girl or the kid or whoever he's rescuing. So he has to take work seriously and try to succeed at it. In these two-reelers he's forced to work, he doesn't like it, and does it badly. What erupts into that situation constantly is some carnivalesque moment in which all of a sudden the klutz turns into this graceful free spirit. It's turning the world upside down: it could be drugs that liberate him, or sexual inversions.... There's a lot of gay humor in those films. He's in drag in three of them--he makes a very beautiful woman.

"What's fascinating is he has an artistic vision of the work ethic as imprisoning," Wills adds. "Meanwhile, he's working like hell to make these [two-reelers], espe-cially at this period. He was extremely disciplined and had the opportunity to do endless takes. He was working for perfection over and over and over, driving his actors, so he was a workaholic making movies that attacked work."

Chaplin's approach to work--in movies and in his life--is the subject of a talk Wills will give at this year's Chicago Humanities Festival, the theme of which is "Work and Play." Wills's talk, "Chaplin: The Absurdity of Work," will be backed up by members of the Chicago Symphony Orchestra, who will play Chaplin scores during video clips shown on monitors. It all happens 10 AM Sunday at Symphony Center, 220 S. Michigan. Tickets are $3 in advance, $5 at the door. Call 312-294-3000 for tickets, 312-422-5350 for information on the festival.

--Bill Stamets

Art accompanying story in printed newspaper (not available in this archive): "Modern Times" Charlie Chaplin still.

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