the art of imitation: the originality of charlie chaplin and other moving- image myths
By framing my thoughts in these terms it might seem that I am arguing for an approach that would eclipse Chaplin’s prominence in our histories as an individual artistic genius, a figure of unique originality. Baldly put, this is true. But what animates my efforts is an interest in dismantling the tired distinctions between “originality” or “authenticity” and its putative other, “imitation” or “copy,” a binary that has for too long taken hold of our thinking. I want, then, to investigate this wobble by entertaining a set of related questions that emerge from the historical phenomenon of Chaplin’s star status, a tale that begins in 1914 when film-goers detected amid the Keystone ballyhoo a particular performer of whom they wanted to see and know more. The story that follows is familiar, telling as it does of the clown’s startling success, proceeding with increasingly unprecedented salary hikes through sequential contracts with Essanay, Mutual, and First National, before marching onward to the formation of United Artists in 1919, each accompanied by an ever-greater, ever-more global, celebrity status. If such statistics mount the inescapable fact that Chaplin was unique and hence original, different from the rest, then I will argue that Chaplin’s uniqueness is, however ironically or paradoxically, founded on its opposite. To wit, what he excels at is the art of imitation, the mimicking of an always-absent original thing or self. In turn, it may be that what
made him the original comic star sine qua non is the simple fact that Chaplin’s performance style is endlessly imitable, prone to repetition and recycling. In both cases, the capacity to wander out of an authentic self, to be something other than one’s self, raises issues central to theories of identity directly tied to the formation of modern culture, to the status of the work of art in the age of mechanical reproducibility, and ultimately to the physiological effects, the very aesthetic experience, of laughter.