Tuesday, May 05, 2009

About intimacy, not spectacle

When it was back down to seven dogs, Chaplin took them everywhere he went on the lot. When the payroll girl came to approve the raise for Carlyle Robinson ("What raise?"). Chaplin interrupted her to tell each dog to sit.

They worshipped him, and he lectured them about how that would never do, this was America, there were no kings here, one had to find one's own way, this demonstration that he was their hero was entirely embarrassing, he wasn't a martinet, he wasn't D. W. Griffith, they weren't making Intolerance, after all, to be a part of his crew was to be about intimacy, not spectacle, and because all were so rapt, he fed them biscuits.


"This was a good day's work," Chaplin announced to his crew that afternoon. "Carry on," he said, and since it was four o'clock, his touring car arrived. The cry "He's leaving!" went up, and Kono, the chauffeur, opened the door for him, and the whole Chaplin Studios team — seamstresses, prop master, stagehands, carpenters, lighting crew, Rollie the cameraman, the payroll girl, the assistant director, the whole art department, the portrait painter, the several men whom Chaplin had rescued from disaster and whose jobs were now ill-defined except to be of good spirits all day long, and the entire company of actors, and Vincent Bryan and Maverick Terrell, men whom no one looked in the eye, men whose jobs were mysterious (they wrote ideas for factions on slips of paper and put them into a drawer in Chaplin's desk, where they were never seen again), and Edna — lined up on either side of the gate and waved goodbye to him, and waved back with excitement, and his car pulled out of the studio. The elderly woman in the floral-print dress who closed the gate behind him — once, she had sung in the dance halls with his father and mother — waved goodbye, sadly.

Only when the car was block down Sunset did he realize he had just spent two weeks playing with dogs. They had shot a few thousand feet of film, not really that much, but little of it relating to dogs. Instead, he had a faction of the Tramp trying to get a job at an employment office and being muscled out of the way by larger, rougher workers. He'd done it to a metronome. It was adequate.

— from Sunnyside, by Glen David Gold.

I loved Gold's first novel, Carter Beats the Devil, and for years I've been checking to see if he might have something more in him.

Chaplin, of course, is at the heart of this story. He's a man I know very little about, apart from what I learned watching Robert Downey Jr's portrayal of him (and even that is kind of blurry).

He's portrayed here as a man with a vast ego but incredibly insecure about it, obsessed with his public image, plotting his every social move, to the point of preparing notes for parties.

We follow another young man, whose path crosses Chaplin's. He's worked in a lighthouse all his life, but his ego is devastatingly larger than that. He knows himself to be handsome, believes himself to be talented, and aspires to Hollywood.

This novel may be about the "dawn of the modern age," but it is also (at least, from where I sit, at about half way) very much about the making of America: The War Machine.

(I don't yet know what the title means. )

This book is funny. The set-ups are subtle and intricate, and there are sometimes pages to go before the punchline, but it's worth every word. An intimate — and genuinely clever — spectacle of a book.

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