Thursday, November 8, 2012

Inimitable

In 1977, in a bizarre twist to one of the most incredible rags-to-riches stories in history, the dead body of Charlie Chaplin was dug out of its grave in Switzerland and kidnapped (1) by two unemployed mechanics. After Chaplin's widow refused to pay a ransom, police caught the two body-snatchers, located the re-buried body of Charlie, and returned it to its proper grave, this time in solid concrete.

For a few years, I have waited with quite morbid curiosity to see the results of experiments with CGI (Computer Generated Imagery) in the duplication of well-known celebrities like Elvis, Marilyn Monroe, and Michael Jackson. Having seen some of the results, I am quite unimpressed. Such technology still has quite a long way to go. It is one thing to re-create these deceased people on film using their own expressions and gestures with which we're familiar. What will be disturbing, not to mention totally out of line, is when the images can be made to do or say things that Elvis or Marilyn or Michael never did, and perhaps would never do. Because, quite aside from the images these people have left behind in the public domain - the same ones Andy Warhol played with in his Pop Art - they once belonged to living, breathing human beings who were, needless to say, proprietary and careful of their use.

Having seen a few samples of the new French-made computer animated series Chaplin & Co., I feel obliged to state categorically that, while it certainly isn't the first time animators have capitalized on Chaplin's timeless Tramp character,(2) the French cartoons ought to be the last. As Arnold Bennett once put it, they are "as hollow as a drum and as unoriginal as a bride-cake." Aside from the fact that the cartoons are uniformly dumb and dull, the assumption that one can take the moustache, the bowler hat, the cane, and baggy pants and regenerate such an inimitable artist as Chaplin is completely stupid. Yes, there is the amusing anecdote of Chaplin entering a Charlie Chaplin look-alike contest in Monaco and coming in third. But it doesn't mean that genius can be bested by an imitator, no matter how talented. Whoever it was who judged that look-alike contest must've been a moron who hadn't watched Chaplin's films very closely and who had no understanding of what it took for him to create them. And, in this case, Chaplin didn't just act in his films - he wrote, directed, and edited almost every one of them.

What if it were possible for a computer to re-create the music of John Coltrane or Billie Holliday? The practice assumes that one can separate art from the person who created it. Or how about writing novels like Dickens or Bellow? As George Orwell wrote, "What people always demand of a popular novelist is that he shall write the same book over and over again, forgetting that a man who would write the same book twice could not even write it once."


What if, as has already been implied, a computer could be built that has encoded within it every note ever recorded of Coltrane's saxophone, that could then be programmed to play Coltrane differently? Something on the order of this was perpetrated by Clint Eastwood for his film of Bird, in which Charlie Parker's saxophone solos were isolated in a recording studio, and new musicians, including John Faddis, Ray Brown, and Walter Davis, Jr., were enlisted to play backup. Not only did it show a total disregard for the playing of Parker's original combos, it betrayed the era and the very idiom it was seeking to glorify.     

Here's an idea: why not devote all these technical energies to creating original work?          
Here is one of the trade statements for Chaplin & Co.: 

"Brand manager PGS Ent. has announced a new raft of sales for the CG-animated 104 x 6’ 3D series Chaplin & Co. Produced by Method Animation, MK2 TV, DQ Entertainment Limited, Fabrique d’Images and commissioned by France Télévisions and RAI Fiction, the new comedy series follows the adventures of the irrepressible silent screen legend and his best buddy, The Kid, are always getting themselves into trouble.

The short-format series with no dialogue marks the first time Chaplin has been animated and perfectly recreates the slapstick genius of the master himself for kids and families. Emmanuel Gorinstein and Alexandre de Broca are responsible for the graphic adaptation, while Mathieu Kendrick and Vincent De Mul are the script writers. Cyril Adam and Julien Charles are directing the toon and Franck Roussel and Nicolas Richard deliver the series’ music."


(1) Kidnapped - a last, sad irony for the creator of The Kid.
(2) The producers of the series seem oblivious of the fact that animated cartoons of Chaplin have been around almost as long as Chaplin himself.

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