The Importance of Being Outcast: Chaplin’s Circus and the Future of Storytelling

In Alain Aguilar’s first film Cog, which I wrote and starred in, there’s a brief montage of me in London smiling big beside the bronze statue of Charlie Chaplin in Leicester Square. The smile was all acting back then (I hated silent films prior to 2001), but Chaplin has since had a most profound impact on me as a storyteller and filmmaker.

Two nights ago I saw The Circus on the big screen at the Film Forum in New York City. It’s a movie I’ve seen twice before (since it’s included in one of two boxed sets of Chaplin’s films crowning my modest DVD shelf), but whenever I can watch that imprudent “funny man” do his thing amongst a packed house of Tramp junkies like myself, I leap at the chance.

The Circus
Old school poster art for Chaplin's The Circus.

Most of Chaplin’s films are no doubt about the role an outcast plays in society. The outcast, you say? Yes. Of course, I’m sure we all view this word negatively––I mean, who wants to be an outcast? But whether Chaplin’s iconic hero enters the three rings of a circus stage, steps into a camera’s frame in Kid Auto Races at Venice, or helps a blind girl in City Lights, when he exits he leaves a muddied footprint on the once bleach white tiles of normality.

The Little Tramp is not a natural part of the circus at the start of the film; he’s a poor and starving fop (and as always, finds himself in the wrong place at the wrong time early on). Shortly after he stumbles into the big top and becomes a smash sensation to the house packed with yawners and head shakers. Through the film, he tries to fit himself into the mold of performer, trying everything from a slapstick shaving skit to carrying dishes as a lowly props master, but he never truly blends in. To make matters worse for our hero, the Ring Master’s beautiful equestrienne daughter, whom the Tramp falls in love with, doesn’t reciprocate his feelings and instead falls for a strapping tall, dark etcetera named Rex, a tightrope walker. Nothing seems to be going quite right for our “funny man.”

Just as Shakespeare’s greatest coxcomb-sporting personas like the Fool in King Lear and Touchstone from As You Like It live to expose the folly around them, our Little Tramp does that and more. He tries to assimilate himself into that world. But after all is tried and trunked, our lonesome hero is, by choice, left behind in a billow of dust as the circus trolleys off to its next stop. It’s in the final moments of the film that it all makes perfect sense. The Tramp squats on a trunk in a faded ring; the dark sheep pondering the society he tried to fit into but couldn’t, and now only a muted memory remains. Yet as he won’t soon forget the circus, the Ring Master, his daughter, Rex, even the clowns won’t soon forget him.

The same theme is present in Chaplin’s The Idle Class, which preceded The Circus, in which our beloved outcast is mistaken for a wealthy “twin” and is transported from his poverty-stricken world to the ballroom of a large estate. After the expected comedy of errors is set right, he is thrown out of the estate. But when one of the wealthy men is made to apologize to our hero for his poor treatment, he responds with a handshake and a swift kick in the pants before scampering off into the horizon.

In both films, Chaplin’s hero knows he can never truly be a member of the society he invades, but he also knows that he is not above it, either. He simply is. And what exactly is he, you ask? He is something different. Something that stirs up the social norm into something new and exciting. Something that shakes the bare branches of boredom until they grow big and ripe with fruit. He is something that’s inherent in us all. The part of us that’s excited to be accepted into something even though we know we don’t really belong. He was in me when I wrote Cog, so proud that I was writing something “just like 2001: A Space Odyssey” and was also with me when I realized that I had written something “just like 2001: A Space Odyssey.”

After The Circus let out, Alain and I fell into one of our deep discussions about the future of film––how Hollywood is dying of complacency, a terminal disease; how the term “indie” suffers from identity crisis; how 3-D is the next evolution of the filmgoing experience. Far too many filmmakers and screenwriters spend their time either pontificating about all these technological developments or trying to fit in to either of these two anachronistic models of moviemaking. Look deep into the heart of any Chaplin film, there is one thing only: An original story.

At day’s end, when The Circus trailers trundle away, what we are left with is an experience and a story. Everyone is a born storyteller or memory priest penning words and snapping stills. But today it’s important to not just be another storyteller, but one who moves the fundamental ideas behind storytelling forward. One who takes risks as a pariah of pure cinematic storytelling (“pariah” because it literally means “drummer,” a person who dances to his own beat). One who tells a different story, not just one that is told differently.

You’re probably thinking that Christopher Nolan is a prime example of this. And you’re absolutely right. But he’s practically the only one in Hollywood. And more importantly, there are so many more of us outcasts out there with ideas as innovative as Inception, and probably just as timeless as The Circus.

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