Friday, October 01, 2010

Tom McCormack: Madness and Civilization -- Monsieur Verdoux and the meaning of Chaplin's cinema

Madness and Civilization: Monsieur Verdoux and the meaning of Chaplin's cinema
by Tom McCormack
Moving Image Source


My argument is that, in ways both subtle and blatant, Monsieur Verdoux, in terms of its content and the public reaction it garnered, foreshadowed the cultural tumult of the late 1960s and 1970s—and that it recasts Chaplin's previous work in a way that reveals the deep cultural roots of the radical agenda of "the '60s." Take another look at Agee's language in analyzing the film. Verdoux has "estranged his soul." His wife and child are "shut away in a home which is at once a shrine and a jail; and there, immobilized, they become an ever more rigid dream." This isn't like the language that would be used, in the 1960s, to attack the suburban dream; this is that language. Of course, in 1947, anti-bourgeois sentiments were not new. If anything was new it was the flavor of Agee's language and the popular platform—this was happening in movie theaters and the pages of Time and The Nation. Agee wrote, "Like many businessmen who feel unloved, or incapable of full enough love, he can only propitiate, and express, his love by providing for his family as handsomely as possible." "Only his satisfaction really counts, in this household—his wife and child scarcely exist for him except as a self-vindicating dream." We come across, again, this idea of a dream that is in fact an excuse, a lie. Even when discussing Verdoux in formal terms, Agee's writing reeks of the '60s. Verdoux "looks handmade, not machine-turned." Agee praised the film for "atmosphere, authenticity, and beauty in mock formlessness." He might well have been talking about folk music, appreciating the scrape of the fingernails against the strings of the guitar.

There are more treasures to be found in Agee's review. He writes that Verdoux is a "Responsible Man," "a metaphor for the modern personality—that is, a typical ‘responsible' personality reacting to contemporary pressures according to the logic of contemporary ethics." Verdoux may very well be the first in a line of 20th-century characters—the model citizen as homicidal maniac—that stretches through Bertolucci's Marcello Clerici in The Conformist and up to Bret Easton Ellis's (and Mary Harron's) Patrick Bateman in American Psycho. The unifying text for this type is probably Hannah Arendt's Eichmann in Jerusalem: A Report on the Banality of Evil. Serialized in The New Yorker in 1961, and revised and expanded into a book in 1963, Eichmann in Jerusalem argued that Holocaust villain Adolf Eichmann really was as boring as he seemed to be, that he merely thought he was being an upright citizen—that it was possible he was, by many definitions, an upright citizen, "a typical ‘responsible' personality reacting to contemporary pressures according to the logic of contemporary ethics." Arendt quoted psychiatrists who spoke with Eichmann and claimed that his outlook on his family was "not only normal but most desirable." Another said Eichmann was "more normal, at any rate, than I am after having examined him." Half a dozen psychiatrists examined Eichmann and all of them settled on: normal. A minister said he was "a man with very positive ideas." Because Arendt took Eichmann at his word, instead of assuming that his normality was a mere façade, her book aroused a furor among Holocaust scholars, one that has lasted to this day. But Eichmann in Jerusalem quickly found a following in the counterculture of the 1960s—not so much because it shed any light on the Nazis (though it might have), but because it seemed to confirm a deeply rooted feeling that many intellectuals had after living through the 1950s: that conformity could be, and perhaps usually was, as wicked as the most dire transgression, that transgression might actually be preferable, that not only might evil be banal, but banality itself—the banality of, say, Levittown—could be viewed as a force of evil. (This latter sentiment is a misreading of Arendt, but it's not very hard to get there.)

If we put Eichmann up against Verdoux certain facets of the film snap into place. I believe that, when Chaplin loaded Verdoux's mouth with clichés, he knew exactly what he was doing. When Verdoux's son plays a little too rough with the household cat, Verdoux chastises him, "Violence begets violence, son." I don't think his self-justifications at the end of the film are meant to be any less deluded, and that Chaplin wasn't far off when he called Verdoux "the cleverest and most brilliant film of my career." A penchant for cliché was the defining quality of Eichmann. "As long as he was capable of finding, either in his memory or on the spur of the moment, an elating stock phrase," Arendt wrote of Eichmann, "he was quite content." She could have been writing of Verdoux. And the complaint about Verdoux, echoed by many modern critics, that Chaplin relies too heavily on cutaways of trains—obviously this takes on an eerie resonance. The trains don't just refer, obliquely, to the Holocaust; they also symbolize order, industrial progress, rationality—all things that found themselves under attack in the counter-enlightenment thought that gestated in the Frankfurt School and bubbled over to the surface of American culture about 20 years after Verdoux was made. The train wheels are sister objects to the gnashing machinery that chews up and spits out the Little Tramp in Modern Times.


The counterculture that embraced Eichmann in Jerusalem found an academic arm in psychiatrists like R.D. Laing and Thomas Szasz, and in philosophers like Michel Foucault and Gilles Deleuze; people who argued, among other things—and yes, I'm abstracting some general sentiments from a broad, heterogeneous group of thinkers—that what society called insanity, maladaptation, was actually a valid way of life and that what society called sanity was in fact madness or worse. That we are all potential Eichmanns, because every regime is a fascist regime, different only in the extent to which methods of control are hidden. (It's worth pointing out that the title of AMC's Mad Men, which offers a view of the early 1960s from the perspective of the later 1960s, is no accident.) Critics of these thinkers tended to regard these ideas as unprecedented, a kind of radical anti-culture—and proponents of this thought, with a natural sense of self-promotion, often nodded along. But how new was this kind of thinking? How unprecedented were the 1960s? That one can find premonitions of this thought in the realm of high modernism—and in art and philosophy generally—is beyond dispute. That one can find premonitions in popular culture is more interesting. Certainly this attitude toward madness and sanity, adaptation and maladaptation, finds its popular apotheosis in the 1950s in the pop writing of the Beats, but it goes back much further than that; one can see it at work in many of the comedies that came out of early Hollywood, particularly in the work of the most popular entertainer who ever lived, the first universally recognizable symbol in the global village: Charles Spencer Chaplin. Issues of sanity and madness were on Chaplin's mind when he made Verdoux. In an interview, he called Verdoux a "madman," and said, "When a thing is overstated it becomes ridiculous. This is the salvation of man's sanity." At the press conference for Verdoux, Chaplin stated, "We are going to grow up a bunch of neurotics."

Bazin is right when he says, "Monsieur Verdoux casts a light on Chaplin's world, sets it right and gives it a new significance." Verdoux is superadapted and he's a madman. The Tramp is maladapted—and if we follow the logic insisted on by Bazin—he is supremely sane. James Agee—who a colleague once described as "a sort of hippie a generation prior to the hippie era," and who, a friend noted, "got more delight out of factory-second sweaters and a sleazy cap than a straight dandy does from waxed calf Pearl shoes"—said that the Tramp "indicates what is obviously the good way to live: to live that way would mean a complete ‘withdrawal from the world' for each individual; would mean the destruction of the world as is."

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