Wednesday, November 13, 2013
This is For Your Eyes
In his essay “The Immortal Tramp” that accompanies the new Blu-ray and DVD release of City Lights by Criterion, Gary Giddins describes the unusual and ambitious nature of Charlie Chaplin’s classic 1931 film:
Chaplin’s new art was a form of storytelling combining burlesque comedy and dreadful pathos, each tuned to a pitch so high that the audience is jolted from one physical response to another: laughter and tears, the two faces of Comedy and not Tragedy but rather the melodramatic concession of Pathos, looking straight at each other. Familiar territory today, but it smacked of radical egotism then. No one had brought it off before, and Chaplin – the orphaned music hall clown who became, through movies, the most popular comedian the world had ever known – defied his partners’ warning that his ambition would cost him his audience.
And now look at us. Comedy as a means to achieving pathos, or at least as something that is inextricably bound up in it, almost defines the form over the last half century. There are certainly exceptions, and in fact currently there is a strong tide of absurdity in comedy that may be the result of a conscious choice by some comics to pull ridiculousness, the good kind, the Monty Python kind, away from those who abuse the relationship between comedy and pathos, of which there are a great many. But without Chaplin, and without City Lights, would Albert Brooks have ever thought to include in his masterpiece Modern Romance the short scene of the old man in the phone booth desperately trying, and failing, to save or rekindle a romance that ended badly? It’s a sad moment that illuminates what’s driving Brooks’s character more sharply and succinctly than any of the (truly great) comedy. Woody Allen, meanwhile, for about the first third of his career seemed intent on illustrating the history of American film comedy up to that point, beginning with complete absurdity in films like Take the Money and Run and Love and Death before moving on to (my deep love for comedic absurdity forbids me from saying something like “graduating to”) the more emotional films like Annie Hall and Manhattan that caused everyone to decide that he must be a major filmmaker. Allen has always cited Bob Hope as a primary influence on his comedy, and the shape and cadence of his jokes bear this out, but Allen has nevertheless worked hard to put the most Hope-like of his films behind him. Never the greatest fan of his own work, Allen would undoubtedly be appalled by the suggestion that his early films were even a patch on Hope’s best, but Allen is fundamentally a comedic filmmaker and much of his aesthetic owes more to Chaplin and City Lights than to The Road to Utopia (or Bergman, for that matter, though, like Hope, Bergman is still there).
So how did Chaplin do it? The key to the success of City Lights, even more important than Chaplin’s exquisite craftsmanship, is his performance. Watching the film again last night, Chaplin struck me as perhaps the supreme silent film actor, the man who understood how to exploit the limitations, or “limitations,” of the form better than anybody else, which obviously has something to do with why he was still making silent films in 1931. When bad comedians want to spoof silent movies, they tend to triple-down on the burlesque Giddins describes and force contemporary actors to mug in a way you’d rarely actually see, and which, in any case, you’d never see from Chaplin, a frequent target of bad spoofs. Chaplin is immune to this, though, because he knew exactly how to calibrate his performances, and in City Lights you see an actor who knows how to play to the rafters just enough to either sell the joke, or, in his tender scenes with Virginia Cherrell as the sweet blind girl who believes Chaplin’s penniless tramp to be her wealthy savior, to overcome the restrictions of silent films – which Chaplin evidently didn’t consider restrictions even after technological progress had removed them – through expression that is not, in my view, heightened much beyond what you might see in a good sound production of the same story. By which I mean, the idea behind silent film acting, as with live theater acting, is to go big so that, in the theater, the back seats can pick up what you’re doing, and in silent films the audience can understand what words would normally, but can’t or in the case of City Lights, won’t, convey (and incidentally, City Lights doesn’t have a lot of intertitles; it has enough, I suppose, and you probably shouldn’t listen to me since I’m no expert on this cinematic era, and in this regard it’s certainly no Warning Shadows, but still). But as an actor Chaplin seems to operate on the theory that if you just act the emotion as directly as possible, audiences can’t help but understand. Look at the tramp’s first encounter with the blind girl, and the way Chaplin plays the moment he picks up on her disability – there’s nothing showy about the moment, there’s no close-up; it’s all performance and, crucially, context. Chaplin was very good at, and very smart about, letting his story do a good bit of the acting for him.
I wonder, too, if City Lights would be as funny as it is without the pathos, and watching it again after many years I laughed a whole lot. Again, this is a question of context, and maybe it’s a matter of the kinds of laughs Chaplin is getting rather than whether or not he’d be getting them at all. The film’s biggest laugh for me comes at the very beginning, as the tramp struggles to stand at attention for the National Anthem while off-balance due to his pants being skewered by a statue (long story), all of this being before there’s any context at all. And I’m going to get off track here, but this is – and maybe not only this, but this kind of thing -- is the apex of physical comedy, for lots of reasons but mainly, I think, because Chaplin knows when to call it quits. If you read about comedy, or listen to comedians talk about it, especially today when one can go and pay money and ostensibly be taught how to be funny, you’ll hear a lot about escalation being a vital element to the form, and so now as a result (of that and probably a host of other things it would be too complicated to go into here) when a comedian deigns to do slapstick they typically get their laughs by never pulling back and pushing forward until every possible laugh has trailed off. Chaplin, though, knows when to stop, and knows it’s funnier to simply let it be. The scene I just described, or the slapstick within the scene, probably doesn’t even last a minute, and what’s funny is the performance, the seriousness of the tramp, rather than seeing how far he’ll go. Later, the tramp, drunk, walks across a dance floor and slips, to put it simply. It’s a terrific and hilarious pratfall that Chaplin does precisely one time, and while it’s exaggerated, this being a pratfall and everything, Chaplin also uses speed-ramping to make it go by quicker. Which, okay, that’s not why he used speed-ramping, but one of the results is, he gets his laugh and moves on – he doesn’t belabor anything. The only comedic sequence that goes on for a considerable length of time is the boxing match, but that’s a piece of elaborate choreography that wouldn’t work as well if he moved through it too fast. I could probably argue that it’s still too long, but I don’t want to because I don’t especially care. And see, too, the early bit with the street elevator. That scene not only doesn’t escalate – it’s funny precisely because it never escalates. It overturns not only this supposed rule of comedy, but it overturns while simultaneously using Hitchcock’s definition of suspense, that being the audience knowing something the character doesn’t. Chaplin does exactly this, but unlike Hitchcock never pays it off. And he makes this, somehow, funny.
So anyway, context, and pathos. There’s something about the gentleness that is at the heart of City Lights that makes everything funnier, not just the slapstick but the tramp’s occasional, and useless, attempts at being stern with others. This is no doubt at least in part a retroactive effect brought about by the film’s famous last shot of the tramp’s anxious but gleefully hopeful face, all the film’s emotion gathered up and concentrated into that one image. I was about to say that the upshot of all this is that it makes it possible to not think we’ve been laughing at the tramp, but of course that’s nonsense – we certainly haven’t been laughing with him, and anyway, that’s what comedy is: laughing at people. And of course the blind girl, her sight having been restored by the time the final scene rolls around, is shown laughing at the tramp before she realizes who he is. So she’s like us – it’s not that she’s “no better” than us, she’s just like us, and Chaplin isn’t asking “Why were you laughing at this man?” or judging us for doing so. He’s simply saying, and this is the pathos of his comedy, “Laugh all you want, because it’s funny. It’s just that it’s not only funny.”