Thursday, December 18, 2014
Chaplin's 1931 silent film, City Lights, has a limpid and classical purity. Although produced two years after the end of the silent era, Chaplin made the film as a "pantomime" -- that is, without any natural sound: he uses a few surrealist sound effects -- a whistle that the tramp has swallowed peeps at inopportune times and politicians' voices are rendered as kind of high-pitched yammering -- but the picture is constructed like a silent film, the narrative conveyed by the action on screen with only a few, laconic intertitles. (The film is so simple and lucid that it probably could be presented without any titles at all.) Chaplin's signature character, the little tramp, awakes cradled in the lap of a grotesque, neo-Fascist sculpture, part of a public monument dedicated by the yammering politicians in the first scene, and he aimlessly wanders around the city, a metropolis that stands for all the cities in the world. The tramp encounters a millionaire and a blind flower girl and, to the extent that the movie has a theme, the picture explores two different kinds of blindness, poised at the both ends of the socio-economic spectrum: the millionaire is a playboy alcoholic -- when he is sober he can't recall (or pretends not to recall) his generosity and suicidal impulses exhibited when he is drunk. Since he is drunk in most of his scenes, he is metaphorically blind to the better, and more emotionally important, part of his life. The flower girl lives with her grandmother in a tiny, meticulously clean apartment that operatically signifies extreme poverty. The two women can't pay their rent, let alone finance an operation offered by a Viennese surgeon that "cures blindness." Chaplin's tramp falls in love with the girl and embarks on efforts to make money to finance her surgery. Ultimately, he steals from the millionaire, or accepts money that the man gives him when he is drunk, and goes to jail. In the final scene, the ragged tramp meets the flower girl again -- she is now the proprietor of her own flower shop and can see. This slender plot is the armature on which Chaplin supports a number of protracted gag sequences, all exquisitely choreographed -- the millionaire tries to kill himself by tying a rope connected to big rock around his waist and, then, diving into the river, the drunk millionaire and Chaplin carouse together, go dancing, and eat spaghetti, the little tramp gets into the ring with a prizefighter to try to finance the girl's surgery. The boxing sequence, in particular, flows so naturally and has such a limpid precision to its staging that the sequence verges on a kind of poetic realism: the faces of the boxers are strangely impassive, benumbed, it seems, and they aren't the savage, caricatured bruisers that you expect; the boxers move with feral grace and the scene is clinically lit to provide the sense that the footage is documentary in character. Indeed, in many sequences, Chaplin's film seems to presage Italian neo-realist pictures such as Bicycle Thieves. Chaplin is hard-sell for me -- I find the little tramp persona more irritating than ingratiating and, in close-up, the character's make-up, particularly his paitned eye-brows, is weirdly grotesque. The little tramp is sexually amorphous and, in this film, flirts with the prizefighter in a strange, disconcerting way -- he also ends up in bed with the puzzled millionaire. The bathos implicit in the plot requires that the film be made as a silent picture. But the clarity of Chaplin's film making and its' extreme objectivity, economy, and precision are persuasive as to his genius. In one scene, we see a cat wagging its tail on a window-sill; there's a flowerpot on the sill and we glimpse this detail as part of the long shot of a slum courtyard. The viewer is tempted to interpret this detail as a mere punctum, a bit of local color, the sort of detail that Griffith might deploy to make the image, which is very stark, a little more picturesque. But a couple shots later, the cat and the precariously perched flowerpot are the crux of a gag. Everything fits together with geometric precision.