Wednesday, October 1, 2008

The First Transition Week 3: City Lights

Only Chaplin has known how to span a third of a century of cinema, and this because his genius was truly exceptional

Above all, certain situations can only be said to exist cinematographically to the extent that that their spatial unity is established, especially comedy situations that are based on the relations between human beings and things… If slapstick comedy succeeded before the days of Griffith and montage, it is because most of its gags derived from a comedy of space, from the relation of man to things and to the surrounding world. In The Circus, Chaplin is truly in the lion’s cage and both are enclosed within the framework of the screen.

Andre Bazin

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Nothing sucks the joy out of comedy quicker than trying to quantify, describe, explain it. It would take a better critic than myself to convince you that Chaplin is great without boring you. And yet, I try. The hubris… The point is not the film’s humor (of which there is plenty, perhaps more than one person can handle), but how that humor is achieved. Call it the mechanics of comedy if you will. Chaplin’s Tramp bumbles around the city, falling in love with a blind girl and finding a rich drunk (labeled “the eccentric millionaire” in the film’s opening credits) and realizing that he can parlay the drunkard’s gifts of cash into a better life for his blind muse. That’s about all there is of the film’s plot, and yet the process of getting from point A to point B, etc is one of such endless invention and grace that the critic is daunted in his task. The film is constantly shifting incidents around in a careful modulation of scale – one can only imagine that such an ability is innate, as if handed down from high above and gifted to only one man (Keaton and Lloyd not withstanding). Gags begin small, even telegraphed (someone standing close to water is predestined to take a spill), but grow gradually in scope, eventually encompassing an element of time as to cement the (im)possibility of what we are seeing. The Tramp mistakes a piece of party streamer for a noodle and proceeds to chow down – a mild gag, placed amidst a dozen others (most more complicated in their choreography) during a nightclub scene, and yet Chaplin fully commits to it. After what seems like several hours of chewing, we realize that Chaplin is actually eating this stuff. There is nothing hidden in an edit, no time ellipses to assure the performer’s comfort or to elide the fact that someone is just spitting the stuff out. It is a comedic process born of a fidelity to the realism of a time based actuality.

Bazin’s notions of realism have been much commented upon, and are undoubtedly some of the more important formulations in film criticism. But no where do they seem (to me) more important than in the comedy genre (and the action genre as well, the two being basically similar in their construction, if ultimately differing in what kind of response they hope to elicit – either way, both genres are interested in a kind of physical exhilaration). When Chaplin climbs over a rail to perch precariously on a ledge while peering into a window, that is him in actuality. The choreography of groups of people becomes that much more impressive when, as in the above mentioned night club scene, dozens of performers are involved in simultaneous gags that blend with and evolve organically into the next – the swapping of chairs, the lighting of cigars, accidentally lighting a woman’s posterior on fire, drunkenly dancing with a stranger – all arranged in a kind of expanding tableau. It seems to me that the classical Hollywood musical could not exist without Chaplin (and certainly not something like Tati’s Playtime).

City Lights is a fascinating companion piece to Hawks’ Scarface, and an outstanding curatorial choice on Rosenbaum’s part. If Scarface offers an ironic fulfillment of the American Dream as nightmare – money, power, possession of objects, all leading inevitably to violent death – then City Lights is its ironic counterpoint. The Tramp, a beggar with nothing but his pride, is a nobody (with regards to capitalistic achievement) yet the film is full of joy and hope, all leading inevitably to an affirmation of life. Not for nothing is the “eccentric millionaire” portrayed as suicidal, deprived of friendship and starved for human connection (Chaplin’s next film, modern times, is equally concerned with human relationships being disrupted by modern commerce/ mechanization, and Monsieur Verdoux is considered by many to be an explicit critique of capitalism). In an era of economic depression, we see in these films an implicit critique of a capitalistic economy that equates human happiness with money, as well as an inherent belief in human goodness. A valuable lesson, and one we would do well to remember in our current state of economic affairs.

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