I love movies. I have loved movies all my life. I grew up on them. When I was eight years old, I managed to convince myself I would make movies when I grew up. Now I am in the process of getting a degree in Film Studies. I write about film more than ever before, partly because I have to for my classes, mostly because I enjoy it, because I have something to write about. Sometimes it helps me understand the film better; sometimes it helps me understand myself better.
I created this blog as a place to showcase my work, and also as an incentive to keep writing reviews, analyses, and essays over breaks, when there’s no one here to grade me.
I have tried many times, and failed, to explain in a coherent manner why it is that I love films. Here is my best—and most coherent—guess.

Thursday, January 29, 2015

City Lights (1931) Analysis

The Tramp, wearing tails, drives around in a Rolls Royce.  He spots a man smoking a cigar and patiently follows in the car until he drops the butt. The character jumps out of the Rolls, fights off an old, ragged bum who had himself bent over to pick up the cigar butt, grabs it, sticks it into his mouth, leaps back into his Rolls and drives away smoking; the assaulted bum looks on in stunned silence. This little comic bit, one of the countless memorable scenes in Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights (1931) is more than just a funny sight gag; it is a glimpse into a way of life and into the underlying metaphor of many of the filmmaker’s works. The sequence underscores much of what the great artist’s career was built on: the contrast of wealth and poverty, surface riches and actual need, appearance and essence. What the Tramp needed was never financial success—he was destined, from the time of Chaplin’s Essanay shorts, to fail at attaining material rewards. What the character wanted was of a more spiritual nature: love and acceptance into “proper” society. Most of the time, he was doomed to fail at attaining that as well.

Read my analysis of Chaplin's The Circus here.

Charlie is an outcast, an onlooker, a loner. His shabby appearance sets him apart and cues people to avoid and stereotype him. A tramp is not… one of us. In City Lights, his only relationships are with people who won’t or can’t see him: a drunken millionaire, who sobers up and doesn’t recognize him, and the blind flower girl. Those who do see the Tramp, like the boys who cruelly taunt him, provide only pain. The material possessions the Tramp does acquire—the car, the tux, the money for the girl’s operation (all gifts from the millionaire)—are soon taken away. His forays into high society end disastrously. 

Accompanying the millionaire to a classy restaurant (after having saved the man’s life), the Tramp wreaks hilarious chaos. When his hat gets taken at the entrance, he looks around in disorientation, fixes his sights on a man wearing a similar hat, promptly takes it away, and shoves the perceived thief for good measure. The dance floor causes him considerable discomfort; like the word he has just entered, it’s too slippery, too sleek, too likely to result in a fall. When he sits down to eat, he stuffs his napkin halfway down his pants. The millionaire, thinking his shirt is sticking out, shoves it down all the way. Sitting down at the table, he grabs another diner’s chair, which plants the seed for the obvious gag to follow. Before the meal, Charlie is offered a cigar, which he gladly accepts. Gesticulating, the millionaire presents his cigar to his guest, who lights it. When the Tramp goes to take another drag, he can’t understand why his own cigar isn’t lit. He strikes another match and insistently works on it, only to discover it is the other end of the millionaire’s cigar. When he tries to smoke it, he burns himself, and indignantly throws the offending butt over his shoulder. It lands on a woman’s seat, and Charlie, trying to fix his mistake, promptly douses her flaming dress with club soda. The main course is spaghetti; streamers line the room—is it even necessary to continue?

At a big party at the millionaire’s mansion, the Tramp continues his series of faux pas. Seeing a pretentious dish—a perfect half-sphere of indeterminate matter surrounded by little edible triangles—laid out on a tray beside him, Charlie gets his knife and fork out and prepares to dig in. Meanwhile, the tray is replaced with a bald man’s head, adorned by a hat. Charlie goes at the guest’s head with the knife. In the middle of a musical recital accompanied by much pompous aplomb, the character swallows a whistle and immediately starts hiccupping, interrupting the act with each spasm. Embarrassed, he goes outside, where he inadvertently hails a cab and gathers a following of dogs.

Charlie could never comply with the strict rules of etiquette and superficial social niceties of this empty world. Regardless of what he wears or where he dines, he will always be a loner, placed outside of and morally above “proper” society. He is too gentle, too kind, too human to confine himself to such an environment. The flower seller, similarly, is alone. Apart from her grandmother, she has no one, and not enough money to pay the rent. Introduced by a bouquet of flowers that slowly dissolves into her lovely face, the girl epitomizes Chaplin’s career-long tendency to idealize and idolize his leading ladies. Flowers, the dominant visual metaphor of the artist’s many films, define the blind woman. The white rose she gives him, which he keeps throughout all of these ordeals, is more important to him than anything the millionaire could offer. In fact, after both men have fallen into the river and the millionaire invites the Tramp back to his house to warm up, the main character returns to grab the flower he dropped on the street; what it symbolizes—a perfect, beautiful, yet terribly fragile link between man and nature—is more important than physical comfort. The flower becomes a surrogate for the real human beauty he wants to possess and cannot; at least he can hold the flower, if not the woman he loves.

In the last, poignant scenes of City Lights, one of the great emotional moments in film history, it is, again, a flower that brings the two protagonists together. Having emerged from prison, more ragged than ever, Charlie picks up a lost, wilted flower from the ground. He is taunted by the boys on the street, kicked and mocked pitilessly. The girl, her eye sight restored by the operation the Tramp paid for, sees him through the window of her new flower shop. She knows he is a bum, but smiles at him anyway and shows him kindness. She gives him a new flower and some money. Touching his hands, she recognizes them. “You can see now?” he asks. “Yes, I can see now.”  She sees who he is and yet still smiles at him. Charlie smiles back, clutching the white rose in one of the most beautiful images ever put on film.

When one image can say so much, when every frame of the film can speak clearly and loudly to millions of viewers, what could a word do? Sound, not words, can be masterfully used by silent artists—and are, as in the opening nonsense speech in City Lights, a string of unintelligible squawks meant to parody both the hypocrisy of such social events and sound film. But words could only break the spell, kill the magic, take away from the Tramp’s universality. Chaplin and other silent filmmakers knew no national boundaries. Their films went everywhere without regard for language, and talkies were like the Tower of Babel, building walls between nations. Speech was not how the Tramp expressed himself. Buster Keaton is generally credited as the most silent of all silent comedians, but Chaplin was a mime to his core. In most silent films, there’s the illusion the characters are speaking event though we can’t hear them. The Tramp never had to speak; body language served as speech. Charlie existed on a different plane from the other characters, stood outside their lives and realities, judged on his appearance, interacting with the world mostly through his actions. Although he’s sometimes seen to mimic speech, he doesn’t have to. Unlike most other silent film characters, the Tramp would have been perfectly at home in a silent world.

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