Friday, September 16, 2011

City Lights (1931)

USA, 87 minutes
Director/music: Charles Chaplin
Writers: Charles Chaplin, Harry Clive, Harry Crocker
Photography: Gordon Pollock, Roland Totheroh
Editors: Charles Chaplin, Willard Nico
Cast: Charles Chaplin, Virginia Cherrill, Florence Lee, Harry Myers, Al Ernest Garcia, Hank Mann

I was involved over much of the past six months with a couple of other friends in a Facebook project, just concluded, in which we counted down our 50 favorite movies in a group dedicated to the purpose. A few dozen people were along for the ride and chipped in with their own remarks, criticisms, praise, alternative selections, and talk about the weather and such as we went along. I have plans to port my list and write-ups over to this blog in a kind of meta anatomy of how I approach these kinds of countdowns, which I have been doing more in recent times than I ever thought I would have. More on that down the road.

Meanwhile, I'm just going to go ahead and give away the store here, partly because it's what's next on my ongoing project of writing about the pictures ranked in the essential They Shoot Pictures, Don't They? survey of critical consensus, partly because it surprised me how elusive my #1 proved to be not only to the two I was doing the countdown with, but also to friends of mine who were following along—I had really thought it was more or less common knowledge by this point, or at least somewhat readable from the picks I was making—and partly because the point of my exercise next year is not really going to be driving toward the big reveal of a top 10 and #1, but more looking closely at how I get there.

So let me be plain, standing on the edge of the tallest roof I can find and using a megaphone. City Lights is my #1 favorite movie of all time. As an example of cohesive film auteurism with a personal and unmistakable stamp it has few parallels. Chaplin wrote it, directed it, edited it, stars in it, and he wrote all the music too. And it's great music. The talkies had already arrived and his moment was slipping away, but Chaplin still had a few good ones in him—his best, in fact—along with some strikingly innovative ideas about the place and purpose of sound. This is not a silent picture; it is, as billed, "a comedy romance in pantomime," and sound is a significant part of it even if dialogue isn't, for which he still uses (sparingly) the intertitles cards. It is original in ways that few pictures not done by Chaplin are.

I decided a long time ago that City Lights was my answer to the question movie lovers always end up asking one another sooner or later, that famous exercise in futility, and not only because it's given me so much plain satisfaction over the years. I know Chaplin often seems antiquated and rinky-dink and way, way old school to later generations, including my own—I've even had the painful experience of watching faces glaze over after they have politely let me force this on them. So don't take this necessarily as a recommendation. It's not for everyone (although I will say you owe it to yourself if you've never seen it. I'll go that far. I can't help myself).

The truth is there's no movie I've seen more than this. It's not even close. At some point in the home video era it came to be my own little Christmas Eve ritual, and I return to it again and again, year after year, even knowing how exhausted much of it has become for me—which could not possibly be otherwise with a comedy. Yet even after it stopped being funny it remained comforting and a solace on some bedrock level, as fresh for me as the first time I saw it—as the day it was released, decades before my birth.

And no, it's not really a Christmas movie. It's a typical Chaplin tale of urban down-and-outers attempting to survive even as they bear up under the casual contempt of their loutish betters, and it's filled with artfully imagined, elaborate set pieces of physical comedy that are simply a pleasure to look at unfolding: the absurd unveiling of a civic statue, antics around a suicide attempt by the side of a reservoir, adventures in fine dining and entertainment, an ingenious boxing match.

And then that ending—that last 10 minutes. No movie anywhere has a more beautiful ending. At a stroke it opens up the scope wide for everything that movies can do: the reality of human kindness and pathos, cynicism disarmed, and a simple and persuasive case for optimism and hope. It's all there all at once. When we read the flower girl's lips saying, "Yes, I can see now" (no need for the bigfooting card, but it's there), she's obviously talking about more than her restored eyesight. For me, it's the essence of movie magic—image and sound and narrative and performance colliding in an indelible moment. And I've also watched those glazed faces change remarkably when the sequence arrives, which is gratifying. At that moment, City Lights is the finest Christmas movie that ever existed. It's the best movie that ever existed.

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