Wednesday, October 29, 2008

city lights, by charlie chaplin

So after last week's dip into Chaplin's body of work, by way of Modern Times, Film Club opted to try contrasting it against what many consider to be his masterpiece, City Lights (1931).

Just to give you some idea of the degree of reverence City Lights has generated, this master list of the top 1,000 films of all time—generated by aggregating a wide variety of "best lists" made by different critics—ranks it as No. 21. (In the year and a half that Film Club has been convening, we've only watched one film more highly ranked on that list: Carl Dreyer's The Passion of Joan of Arc, checking in at No. 16.)

It's easy to see why people are fond of City Lights: it's a very charming early example of the romantic comedy. Essentially, you have Chaplin's tramp falling in love with a blind flower-girl:

Due to an accident of circumstance, she comes to believe that he's actually incredibly wealthy. The Tramp spends much of the film maintaining this illusion, plying her with gifts and cash, and eventually working to finance an operation which will restore her sight.

Part of the reason he can keep this up is because he's saved the life of an eccentric (bipolar?) millionaire. Out of gratitude, the millionaire assumes a sort of patron role in the Tramp's life, loading him up with ample cash, and even taking him out on the town on occasion, which leads to a whole series of fish-out-of-water gags:

Those gags are often quite winning, and some of them are essentially cornerstones in the physical comedy playbook. At a formal party, for instance, the Tramp accidentally swallows a whistle just as some musicians are about to begin a performance. A screenshot doesn't really do the sequence justice:

...but you don't need a screenshot to tell you how it plays out: eighty years of follow-up comedy make the gag obvious, possibly even a little bit tired. (In fairness we should remember that for its time it's technically inventive—the gag hinges on the use of synchronized sound effects, which only break into motion picture history around five years earlier (with 1926's Don Juan)).

So there's a sweet love story in it, and everybody loves a good gag. But is there more to like about this film? The narrative is set up in such a way that it could, if it wanted, add some dramatic tension to this situation. For one thing, the millionaire's memory is unreliable, so sometimes he can't remember that he's supposed to be pals with the Tramp; for another thing, if the eye operation goes as planned, the blind girl will learn that the Tramp isn't wealthy. These are elegant narrative devices, but Chaplin isn't Hitchcock, and by and large he seems disinterested in exploiting these devices for anything resembling suspense. (The millionaire always eventually remembers, and even when he's out of the country for a spell the Tramp can still find a more-or-less effortless ways to keep the flow of gifts going.)

Modern Times, the companion piece we're working with, isn't exactly a masterpiece of taut narrative tension either, but it's rewarding to think about deeply because of its thematic complexity and interesting ambiguities. Those signs of a mature filmmaker, however, are almost completely absent from City Lights. Ask what City Lights is "about," in a thematic sense, and one comes up weirdly blank.

The title gives us a potential clue, suggesting that the film might have something to say about Depression-era urban life... and the opening scene of the film, in which a couple of nabobs unveil a statue dedicated to "Peace and Prosperity," suggest that the film may have a few satirical cards up its sleeve:

...but the film doesn't really have any interesting observations to make about urbanism, peace, or prosperity. Class is present in the film, obviously, but it's tough to glean a coherent stance on the topic from the unsustained way that Chaplin uses it. The Tramp is out of work, then he finds work, then he's out of work again: it sounds like commentary, but it doesn't really carry any narrative or conceptual weight. He's a poor person who befriends a millionaire, but the film uses this relationship only as a way to generate gags (see above), and in this way is no more "interested" in class than, say, a Three Stooges routine.

This even carries over to color the relationship between our two primary characters: there's a very real way in which you could say that the film isn't even really "about" the relationship between the Tramp and the flower-girl. Their scenes together often generate considerable pathos (fledgling Blade Runners out there might consider using the final scene as part of your Voigt-Kampff tests), but they're both essentially ciphers. We love the blind flower-girl because she is a Noble Poor Person, straight from central casting, not because we think of her as a real human being. (When you think about it in that light, some of the pathos begins to curdle into sentimentality.)

So is this film about? At its core, this film is about one thing, and one thing only: Chaplin himself. It's his prodigious physical gifts that carry the film, in scene after scene after scene. And it's easy to decide that that's OK. Who needs fleshed-out characters, or complicated thematic observations, when we can just go and enjoy the spectacle of Chaplin, say, running rings around some palooka in the boxing ring?

The sequence has next to nothing to do with the narrative, but in terms of the pleasure it yields, it's pure gold. And yet... well, let me put it this way. It's a maxim of Film Club that a film we watch doesn't have to be good, it only has to be interesting. And, indeed, we've watched our share of films that are interesting, but ultimately pretty bad. (Hell, we just watched Showgirls a few weeks ago.) City Lights, however, may be the first movie we've watched that gets the honor of being good, but... not interesting.

Better luck next week? We'll be sticking with Early American Comedy, but turning to the Marx Brothers. A Day at the Races (1937), coming right up!

Friday, October 24, 2008

my 100 favorite films

As some of you might know, I've been maintaining a complicated Film Viewing database which contains an incomplete (but growing) list of basically every film I've ever seen. One of the fun aspects of doing this is that I've set up a filtered view of this database which selects the films that I've given a rating of 9 or 10 to... thus auto-deriving a list of my "favorite" films.

As of today, when I added Jane Campion's The Piano (1993) to the database, the number of films on the "favorites" page hit exactly 100. Check it out.

It's organized chronologically, and you'll notice that it skews a bit towards recent films, in part because the 2000s have been a pretty good decade for film and in part because this database primarily (although not exclusively) reflects films I've watched or re-watched in the past two years. That said, there are definitely some blind spots: I'm sure there were some masterpieces produced between 1944 and 1954, but I'm not sure I've seen them.

This list reflects my personal favorites, and not necessarily the films I'd consider "canonical," although there is some overlap. (My 100 canonical films list, which could use some revision around now, can be found here.)

Comments and suggestions are welcome...

Tuesday, October 21, 2008

modern times, by charlie chaplin

When Film Club last convened, it was to watch (of all things) Paul Verhoeven's Showgirls. Viewed through a certain lens, Showgirls is "about" the way that modern centers of capitalism (Las Vegas and Los Angeles, specifically) seek to transform the human body into a commodity to be consumed.

This week we move to Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times, a film which is also very interested in the human body, and the transformations that capitalism enacts upon it.

Unlike Showgirls, however, Modern Times is not really interested in the body as an object for consumption. What is is interested in, however-- and these are, of course, related --is the body as an agent of production, contemporary industrialized mass production in particular.

As the film opens, we're treated to the sight of Chaplin's Tramp working as a bolt-tightener on an assembly line. In this early sequence, the film explores, to great effect, the spectacle of working bodies synchronizing or de-synchronizing with the unvarying industrial pace of the belt. This shot, from late in the sequence, should give you the basic idea:

OK, so this is used for grand comic effect, but the underlying point—about the relationship between man and machine—is deadly serious. The machine is unvarying, which means that the component in the industrial production process that needs to be "corrected" is the worker. In effect, the worker needs to become more machine-like.

The assembly line ends up warping the Tramp in precisely this way: in these early scenes, he's been so hard-wired to tighten bolts that even when he's not working on the line he continues to automatically seek bolts to tighten, coming to resemble nothing quite so much as a robot run amok.

This is fairly prescient, given that the very concept of the robot was only given a name for the first time in 1921 (in Karel ńĆapek's play R.U.R.), and is presented in film for the first time in 1927, by Fritz Lang's Metropolis.

The film grows even more prescient if you consider the Tramp-and-machine system less as an early cinematic example of the robot and more as an early cinematic example of the human-robot hybrid, the cyborg (a concept that wasn't even named until 1960). The film does feature some pretty arresting images of human-machine hybrids, which, divorced from their comedic contexts, border on the nightmarish:

Thinking about Modern Times's prescient aspects in this way leads one to consider the possibility that the opening twenty minutes of Modern Times fit squarely within the tradition of the science-fiction dystopia. If that sounds odd, check out some of these shots, which seem, to me, like they could be slotted comfortably into Metropolis, Alphaville, A Clockwork Orange, or Brazil...

Oddly, despite all its futuristic trappings, it's worth noting that at the time Modern Times was likely experienced by audiences as something that was engaged in a bit of looking backwards as well as a bit of looking forwards. The Tramp had long been a mainstay of silent cinema, making appearances as early as 1914: by 1936, when Modern Times is released, he's a figure with a twenty-year history. Furthermore, he's a figure largely associated with the silent era, which, by 1936, is definitively over—as sound had debuted in 1927 and been largely embraced by the industry by 1929.

Modern Times is not, strictly speaking, a silent film—it utilizes synchronized sound effects, and delivers some lines of dialogue through loudspeakers, radios, and song—but it delivers the majority of its dialogue through intertitles, and is still shot at the silent rate (19 frames per second). These choices are interesting, given that as early as 1931, when Chaplin released City Lights (next week's pick, btw), he was allegedly worrying about whether audiences would still be open to silent films (at least that's what this Wikipedia article says).

If the use of silent film conventions might have seemed dated in 1931, then by 1936--nearly a decade into the development of sound film --it must have seemed willfully anachronistic, nostalgic even. By approaching a movie very much about the future with this sort of determined focus backwards, Chaplin makes an interesting point about "the present"—the "modern times" of the film's title. He seems, in essence, to be saying that the present is always the sum total of our memories and experience of the past and our thoughts, feelings, hopes and fears about the future. That is as true today as it was in 1936, and Modern Times, in its best moments, still works to capture that peculiar ambiguity.

Thursday, October 16, 2008


My Film Club collaborator, Skunkcabbage, has been on the road for the last few weeks, so that's the main reason why this blog has been quiet for a while. We should be watching our next pick (Modern Times) this weekend, and the semi-weekly routine should pick up shortly thereafter.

Also: as part of my redesign thinking, I'm considering porting this whole blog over to In fact I've already done it, just to see: take a look. Is there any good reason, beyond aesthetics, that I should choose one over the other?