800 Characters or More

by adam_mcgovern on May 31, 2011

In thoughts on the diminishment of the aura of the artifact at a time which tends toward mass-distribution and miniaturization of the image, the sound, the movie and the text to the dimensions of personalized entertainment devices, not as much consideration, even now, is given to the artist in the age of mechanical reproduction. The countrywide apparition of Chaplin at the start of Sunnyside is a spontaneous projection showing that at this early stage in the progression of both his career and the mass-media canon there already were as many “Chaplin”s as there were perceptions of and perspectives on him.
“Image control” is a buzzword of modern PR, but any image by its nature is ephemeral, and disperses and refracts in the way Chaplin’s personality does at the beginning of the book. Not only does the work “have a life of its own,” but the maker himself is out of his own hands.

Sunnyside is bounded by two mass sightings of celebrities; at the end, the hysterical revelation of Chaplin in people’s minds has been domesticated into the filmed vision of Pickford on screens the world over. But each appearance, like the literal if ghostly avatars of Rebecca Golod, is an emissary of the original that is walking the earth more or less independent of that original’s intent or knowledge. The electronic record atomizes personality and ramifies meaning.

Sunnyside in some ways is an act of reassembly after its subjects have largely evaporated from the public consciousness. Like Oz’s too-often-invoked man behind the curtain, the fabrications of publicity and the open-source contributions of fan idolators don’t distort their model so much as detach from it, keeping the artist’s core personality safe from a multiplicity of meanings, and sheltering the author and theorist in the very task of deploying those multiple interpretations.

The early film analyst commenting from within the book (but only so capable of measuring the tree while it’s still falling), T. H. Münsterberg, can conceive of connections formed by the audience for a work of art that is completed in the mental airspace between the intention and the reception, but not of a text morphing on its own, independent of a creator’s conscious purpose and contingent on the context of time and culture. The colloquial concept of “getting something new” from a text upon each rereading, of a work “having something to say” to successive generations, of extracting message in the light of shifting historical perspectives and social emphases and, as it were, culturing meaning in the medium of accumulated knowledge and evolving experience, is something accepted by contemporary academia and instinctually understood in mass culture, though from the vantage point of the cult of authorial intent it can seem an arbitrary attitude toward the creator and a shapeless, noncommittal approach to creativity.

The, yes, chaplain at the funeral in the book’s epilogue allows for the possibility of all narrative structure being assigned by needy human intelligence, not divine logic, and the grand designs and clockwork coincidences of Sunnyside’s major narrative orbits suggest a shape but not a coherent purpose to lives and events. The smile fixed into the infant corpse’s face is an act of supreme imposition, but Chaplin, who will restart his homelife and revise his works and legacy for the next 60 years, has an intuitive understanding of second and third acts.

Much of what is seen in Sunnyside – the transient landscapes, the once-living legends – exists only on fading celluloid and in the retinal phantoms of the collective imagination. In the churning, ahistorical psychic and physical space of America, recorded memorial most often substitutes for material monuments. A moment, as American Pulitzer-winner Edward P. Jones has proposed, is dead as soon as it passes, along with the person you were that minute and the world that person lived in; if the past is another country American media is its natural history museum, stuffed and mounted and moved on from. It is the baby’s bad timing and unrewriteable tragedy to only die once, but Chaplin is reborn and vanquished – like the fastforward sequence of as-yet unfilmed cliffhangers Gold has him envision at book’s end – every time one of the messages in genie’s bottles that are his movies and public statements and enduring scandals is reopened.

In this Chaplin is subjectively revised but not unnaturally expanded; having been distilled into those old bottles he is decompressed in a book like Sunnyside, which serves to restore the scope of a real life in an era where everyday experience is glutting our mass media yet is mostly encoded into trivia; 140 characters and precious little personality. But where spontaneous social media is opaque, Sunnyside, even in its deceptive sprawl, is selective. If patterns of event and behavior are chaotic at best, connecting them in nonsequential paths is not categorically irrational.

The storyteller Spalding Gray once said to me (and probably many others) that he was not a memoirist but a collage artist, creatively shading and repositioning memory; instructively for the case of the 800 Chaplins, he also said that the main character of his own monologues was someone his own brothers did not recognize (and that he was a stranger to himself in his brothers’ versions of the same stories). Perhaps all ordering of reality is folly, but reordering experience may unlock – or assemble – a code we can live by.



qb 05.31.11 at 7:00 pm

In thoughts on the diminishment of the aura of the artifact at a time which tends toward mass-distribution and miniaturization of the image, the sound, the movie and the text to the dimensions of personalized entertainment devices, not as much consideration, even now, is given to the artist in the age of mechanical reproduction.

Revise to: fap fap fap fap fap.


Keith 05.31.11 at 7:27 pm

qb: that is of course the sound of the loose end of a spent film real, having run out (whether before or after the audience has left the theater is left up to your imagination).


qb 05.31.11 at 8:03 pm

It cannot be denied that it is not without some token of solemnity, some sparse sprinkling of heartfelt pity, some sense of sweet remorse, that I must explain, nay even decree, that the image of which you spoke in your previous comment, notwithstanding its patient charity and easy humour, was nevertheless not what I meant–lo, not what I meant at all.


nick 05.31.11 at 9:25 pm

actually, there’s nothing particularly, shall we say, self-indulgent, about the first sentence–it’s just absolutely wretchedly written…..


tomslee 06.01.11 at 2:06 am

Several of the essays have looked at the self-referential style of Sunnyside – using techniques that match the subject of the early days of film – reality and its simulation, the 800 Chaplins as projection, fictional characters based on real people, and so on. I’m not really a literary person, so I wonder what this achieves? Your final sentence suggests it is enlightening or educational (“may unlock – or assemble – a code we can live by”) but I have found it more of a way of producing entertainment – the puzzles and Easter eggs adding layers to the stories themselves – and that while I learn some things from the book, I see it as more an entertainment than a treatise. Am I missing something?


John Holbo 06.01.11 at 5:21 am

The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction: “I am big. It’s the picture-makers who got smaller.” Or ghostlier.


maidhc 06.01.11 at 8:35 am

When I was young there was a television show that took silent comedies and replaced the titles with narration. I watched it regularly, and I suppose it was a bit of a formative experience. I don’t remember the name of the show, but it always used to end up with the narrator saying something like “on strips of film where time stands still their shadows walk forever”.

Those ephemeral comedies have become historical documents. We’re as likely to say “Wow, look at the streetcars they used to have in Los Angeles!” as laugh at the gags.

I recently read an article that said young people are unable to understand many of the references in reruns of The Simpsons.


garymar 06.01.11 at 3:36 pm

The show was called “Fractured Flickers”, by the creators of Rocky and Bullwinkle. I was reminded of it when I first saw Mystery Science Theater.


El Cid 06.01.11 at 4:42 pm

I loved Glen David Gold’s Carter Beats the Devil. Just a tremendous amount of fun. Quite a lot of heartbreak, too, for a 1920s century magician adventure novel. Wish a movie of it had been made before the other late 19th / early 20th century magician movies — the Illusionist, the Prestige. In this novel, another touchstone figure, Houdini, brings the magical threads together. And other stuff. None’a yer dang fancy reviewin’ words.


Doug K 06.01.11 at 11:11 pm

“Perhaps all ordering of reality is folly, but reordering experience may unlock – or assemble – a code we can live by.”
I read this as analogous to absurdism (Camus) – we invent stories by imposing an order on our experience, and meaning the same way.

Parenthetically, the night that Spalding Grey committed suicide, he saw the Tim Burton movie Big Fish. This ends with the line,
“A man tells a story over and over so many times he becomes the story. In that way, he is immortal.”

Also from the interview with Glen David Gold that Maria linked to, some of Munsterberg’s thoughts that did not make it into the book, may pertain:
“The brain, mighty Hephaestus, forges connections between disparate objects to find, thusly, narrative—not just object A next to object B, but the meaning of their interspace, which forms an intangible, C. When two separate viewers agree on the existence and form of C, the resulting tension is a kind of alchemy. For the audience, by agreeing to proceed, becomes the very author of the work.

Any work can juxtapose two objects, and an audience will work to see their relationships. The unexpected genius of film is the introduction of a third: here is a cabin full of settlers, here are some Indians crouched behind a log, here—now what is this?—is the cavalry on horseback—there is no real link among these three different images except the agreement that a narrative is proceeding, which is an agreement among civilized men that there is meaning in the world, not just chaos. “

Comments on this entry are closed.