Film, Charlie Chaplin & American Culture

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     There is no greater purveyor of culture than film. Its mass appeal world wide establishes an endless desire to watch and make movies. Technological advances that have eroded informational borders have only served to propel the art of movies. It is through film that allows us to catch a glimpse of a distant land, like Iran or Afghanistan or China. From film's inception, it has had the ability to share stories to a much wider audience than any other storytelling visual art form.
     The American film industry has been the model from the beginning. Movies have been a staple of our entertainment diet for over 100 years. And, barring the Mayans' calendar translating to the apocalypse, it will stay that way. Whether it be short films, blockbusters, independent and/or 'artsier' films, whatever, our culture is on display. Hopefully, the rest of the world doesn't see Michael Bay as our majority representative cultural ambassador (although he does seem to entertain the masses quite well!).
     In a historical context, we can look back over the decades and sniff out which cultural movements or themes were swirling about. The start of the film world evokes Charlie Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and DW Griffiths among others. Charlie Chaplin is probably the best known film icon of the silent era because he was the biggest entertainer of his day. Comedy seems synonymous with entertainment and in that vein, he was king! Chaplin attained world wide fame and when one becomes a symbol such as he, there is a certain culture that that artist is portraying through his art. He was not just an actor, but a writer, producer, director and even co-founded United Artists as an alternative to the big studio way of things.
     Charlie Chaplin is the forefather of comedic cinema. Slapstick and a pinch of emotion will never truly go out of style. Chaplin started his filmmaking career in 1914, a year in a time when America was the even younger kid on the block. Our youthful exuberance showed through in Chaplin's films, as well as our sense of innovative spirit and ingenuity. Yet this trail of comedy Chaplin left us also beholds some criticisms of our culture and others', no where on more display than "The Great Dictator." 
     Film is such an effective tool in broadcasting messages. It's no wonder it can be used for good and bad and the grey in between. But it is amazing and refreshing to see that a Charlie Chaplin was there as film took flight as an entertainment for the masses, and had the foresight as an artist to be so effective as an American cultural icon.

by Baxter Martin

About the author


Baxter Martin has a B.A. in Cinema Studies from American University. Historian and scholar of international & American cinemas. Baxter Martin is contributing to Film Annex by researching silent films and other classics that should have a greater audience in the film world. Baxter is also an adviser for the…

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