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Michael Jackson versus Charlie Chaplin

We often talk about the fascination that Michael Jackson had for Charlie Chaplin. We often see photos in which he repeats his postures, or portraits that he had made, as a child, of Charlie Chaplin. However, the links that unite the two artists, the two artistic figures, are much deeper...

@ Michael Jackson, Charlot

It inspired Off the Wall. But what else? Another artistic and archetypal reference that recurs in Jacksonian interpretations and projections is that of the character of Charlie Chaplin's Tramp. It is so important (the artist even speaks of an "obsession" with Chaplin) that Michael Jackson will incarnate himself as Charlot for a series of photos taken by Tony Prime in 1979 in the streets of Stockwell in South London, where Chaplin was born in 1889, as well as in 1995 for the HIStory album containing the cover of "Smile".

If he made many portraits of the actor, the first in 1967, at the age of 9 years, Michael Jackson was also inspired by his art of pantomime for the figure of the lean that he will resume in the short film of Smooth Criminal in 1988 and recorded, more anecdotally, certainly, the song "We are the World" in a former studio of Charlie Chaplin in Hollywood.

If the singer's fascination with Chaplin led him to these reinvestments, the parallels between the two characters are numerous: Chaplin - who, as Michael Jackson would later call his admirers "the Army of Love" - was considered a pioneering genius, one of the first to realize the importance of images and film to educate as well as entertain against a backdrop of a moral generally dedicated to human dignity and justice. Michael Jackson has taken up this principle, seeking to give impact to the images that accompany his songs and to arouse in the audience, as he himself explained, a desire for action, for change. "Man in the Mirror" is the final speech of the film The Great Dictator, based on the principle that a picture is worth a thousand words. Indeed, if, in this speech, Chaplin prophesies that the joint efforts of all the little wanderers of the world will overcome the implacable destructive mechanism that the machine men who run and control the planet have perfected, the text and images proposed by Michael Jackson in Man in the Mirror tend to show that all the threats weighing on the planet and its inhabitants could be stopped by the united efforts of individualities standing together with the same voice, like this jubilant crowd at the foot of its icon.

Charlie Chaplin - to whom Michael dedicated his cover of "Smile", including a first violin solo at the end, specially invited because Chaplin himself was a violinist - was also fascinated by Peter Pan and had asked Barrie, in 1921, to interpret his role in a film.

But beyond the "role" point of view and the passion Michael Jackson had for cinema, it is interesting to see him frequently inviting in his remarks on the subject Charlie Chaplin and his childhood. Michael Jackson, who excelled in the art of saying, without saying, never failed to explain, for example, that the roles he said he played on a daily basis, even in private, and which began each day with his wardrobe choices - determining his character for the day - were, for him, only games and not an escape from a life that was too hard.

However, he could not help but compare his taste for performance to Charlie Chaplin's vocation as an actor, pointing to Chaplin's difficult childhood - his father was an alcoholic and his mother a mental patient... In another register, even if the technological context left no other way out, let us note that it is through gesture, staging and the art of pantomime rather than words that Charlie Chaplin transmitted his humanist message, which Michael Jackson did not fail to do through his sense of scenography and costume, adding an active intertextuality and openings of meaning to his songs, without forgetting, of course, more specifically, his choreographic borrowings from the world of mime, and in particular, the backslide that would become his moonwalk.

As for Charlie Chaplin's face, the semiologist Roland Barthes considered it, in the same way as Garbo or Hepburn (and I would add Michael Jackson), as a mask, that is to say, an aesthetic surface on which society could write its own concerns. Charlie Chaplin and, through him, his character of Charlie Chaplin, are not insignificant figures of early cinema. The Tramp is associated with several archetypal figures. That of the vagabond, a sort of personification of human change, is echoed at different levels of the Jacksonian image: identification with the transformable robots and then characters of cartoons and Transformers films, the figure of the cyborg (Moonwalker), mutation into a monster (Thriller, Ghosts) or into an animal (Black or White), all of which are processes whose vocation consists of finding oneself outside of others, seeking independence, autonomy, and a vocation, all the while fearing conformity.

We find there the path of de-categorizing appearances of the singer, who, by gathering a crowd of humans around him, finds an alternative to the loneliness he seeks to escape, also leaving an oppressive situation (racial exclusion or the gaze facing his otherness) and leaving alone (by this post-modern multi-faceted image he shapes himself) to meet the unknown. If, for the wanderer, life is an adventure in the world or within himself, Michael Jackson absorbs human conditions in his physicality at the same time that he expresses, through it, his own unclassifiable identity. And it is indeed by standing outside of conformist norms that Charlot and MJ acquire their identity. Indeed, it is through his non-conformity, his non-membership and his decompartmentalizing imagination that the vagabond part of Michael Jackson encourages him to explore new ideas, to act and assume alone his emotions and interpretations of the world.

The vagabond is often self-taught and commits himself to a path of independence, ready to invest and sacrifice money to maintain it, which is what Michael Jackson will do throughout his career, in order to be able to carry out his productions with larger budgets. Finally, the image of Charlot the vagabond, always pursued by the police, and alter-ego, in his own way, of the great outlaw heroes of the cinema, is taken up by Michael Jackson in his medium-length films such as Moonwalker, where he spends his time running away from fans, police officers, and child-exterminating drug dealers, or in Ghosts or the video clip You Rock my World, where he also escapes his various detractors.

As a comic hero, Charlie regularly tramples on the taboos of social life, throwing his cigarette ashes into a lady's blouse or stepping on her dress. His childlike innocence pushes him to a kindness as well as a mischievousness both out of frame and he ignores censorship. Like a "Smooth Criminal", Tramp is good, because he obeys all his good feelings; but he is also amoral. The Tramp always steals without scruples. He is even innocently cruel. The comic hero is also a sexual innocent, generally lacking the psychological traits of virility (courage, decisiveness, boldness towards women), although he is very often in love. But, like what was sometimes reproached, sometimes admired and sublimated in Michael Jackson, this love is ideal and hypermoral, because it is not based on domination and sexual possession but generally constitutes a total gift of self, inscribed in devotion and even unconditionality, in the manner of childish love or even of religious vocation. But the Tramp is often close to the innocent martyrs, orphans or virgins of melodramas, his innocence condemning him (even in a humorous way) to the purifying fate of a scapegoat, or even to the quasi-sacred status of purifying victims and scapegoats. As the subject of a possession that goes beyond him, the Tramp represents, as a comic hero, not the profane, but the negative of the sacred, the profane.

The evolution of the character demonstrates in an almost exemplary way that the purifying scapegoat of slapstick comedy carries within him the seeds of a sacrificial, purifying hero, of the redeeming martyr, even of a god who dies and saves. By taking on evil to purify others, the Tramp virtually holds a mythical and sacred power. This figure is again akin to the Jacksonian idealist in "Earth Song" invoking heaven and earth by singing incantation, stamping his feet and scratching the earth, or, in real life, the sacrificial status earned by the artist by dying of exhaustion and wear and tear at the foot of his final scene. Moreover, if the tragic of the Tramp is ridiculous, his ridiculousness can become tragic, and even implies a permanent tragedy. We don't love him only because he makes us laugh. He makes people laugh to win their love, and here again, humor is one of the traits of Michael Jackson's private and artistic personality.


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