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!


Jamie said...

As I read this essay, I was struck by another part of "City Lights" that I think I missed completely when I first watched it. While he's not a major character, the film does show interactions between The Tramp and a black boxer. Could this be one of the first examples of a film where a black actor is used as an extra and is NOT either a slave or a stereotypical caricature?

I guess a thought like this adds to your assertion that the film is interesting. By no means is it a landmark for African-American actors, but it could be an interesting sidenote.

jpb said...

I was struck by the relatively progressive use of a black actor in this film, too (although having him as a boxer isn't exactly "breaking the mold" when it comes to stereotype).

Mentioning this, though, reminds me that I want to take a look at King Vidor's 1929 film Hallelujah, which has an all-African-American cast. That's something that anybody interested in early racial representation in film (like you and I) should take a look at.