Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Best Picture Of 1930-31: City Lights (prod. Charles Chaplin), Part Three

[To read "Best Picture Of 1930-31: City Lights (prod. Charles Chaplin), Part One," click here. To read Part Two, click here.]

The Film's Legacy—And The Filmmaker's
In reviewing City Lights for his Great Movies series, Chicago Sun-Times critic Roger Ebert wrote "If only one of Charles Chaplin's films could be preserved, City Lights (1931) would come the closest to representing all the different notes of his genius. It contains the slapstick, the pathos, the pantomime, the effortless physical coordination, the melodrama, the bawdiness, the grace, and, of course, the Little Tramp—the character said, at one time, to be the most famous image on earth."

I would go farther than that. City Lights is not only Chaplin's most representative work, it's also his best, which is saying something considering he also gave us The Kid, The Gold Rush, Modern Times, The Great Dictator, and many other wonderful movies. City Lights was, for me, the best movie of 1931, and arguably the best silent movie ever made, one of two I would recommend to you if you've never seen a silent movie (along with Buster Keaton's The General). It's also on my short list of history's great comedies, great romances, and well, great movies, period.

I'm not alone in my assessment. Orson Welles called it his favorite film. Stanley Kubrick and Andrei Tarkovsky included it in their personal top five. James Agee in 1949 called Chaplin's performance the "greatest single piece of acting ever committed to celluloid."

In choosing it as the best picture of 1930-31, Danny Peary (whose book Alternate Oscars inspired this blog in the first place) called City Lights "a masterpiece" and "Chaplin's greatest film." Leonard Maltin, James Berardinelli, Tim Dirks, and many others, rank it as one of the hundred best films of all time. The American Film Institute includes it on no less than seven different lists honoring different film genres and performances—including the number one spot among romantic comedies. It has been selected for preservation in the National Film Registry. And on and on.

Charles Chaplin was without a doubt the most independent filmmaker in history, directing, producing, financing, writing, scoring, editing and starring in his own movies. After he formed United Artists to distribute his films, he was answerable to no one. If he could have played all the parts in his movies, I imagine he would have—certainly he didn't hesitate to tell his co-stars how to play their parts, choreographing their every move, gesture and expression.

When you look at the dictionary definition of an auteur—"a filmmaker whose individual style and complete control over all elements of production give a film its personal and unique stamp"—Chaplin's picture would serve as a prime, if unreproducible, illustration.

But in assessing Chaplin's strengths and weaknesses, though, where does one role leave off and another begin? As a director, in the sense that we now think of a director—as the master of a three-ring circus, as an innovative storyteller, as an acting coach, as glorified cinematographer— Chaplin was actually fairly maddening. He cast an amateur actress as his lead on a whim; his camera work was if anything more stripped down than it was ten years before; and he took three years to make City Lights, shooting hundreds of takes, drafting the story as he went along, nearly going bankrupt in the process.

Nobody films that way today, of course; you couldn't afford to. Yet perhaps Chaplin's perfectionism was the essential ingredient that made the finished product look so effortless. Maybe that's why we don't often wind up with films as sublime as City Lights.

That said, I think Chaplin's strengths are primarily three-fold. First, as I've discussed here and here, I think he was one of the greatest actors in movie history, and his performance in City Lights is no exception. Two, he was also one of the greatest film editors ever, a much underappreciated art that as much as anything a director or actor does determines the pace and structure of the story. Certainly sifting through the mountains of film he had exposed to find just the right take of a given scene must have been a monumental task.

And three, and maybe most importantly, Chaplin understood his audience, how to please it, how to challenge it, and above all, how to move it to feel what he wanted it to feel. For some, a director who pleases his audience, who creates a work that is "merely" entertaining, is not a director to be taken seriously, as if producing a movie that can entertain all kinds of audiences over the course of decades is hack work. Alfred Hitchcock, thanks in part to the persistent advocacy of directors and historians such as Francois Truffaut, finally managed to shed that ridiculous label; Steven Spielberg, despite two Oscars, largely has not.

No one quite has the temerity to suggest Chaplin was "merely" anything. Instead, he's "sentimental," the worst sin a filmmaker can commit in a cynical age. It means the same thing, though. We now prefer the more modern Keaton, who worked so hard to make you think he didn't care.

But questions like "Chaplin or Keaton" are, for a movie fan, self-defeating in the long run. The question, of course, is not Chaplin or Keaton, it's Chaplin and Keaton and who else?

And while movies, even timeless classics, go in and out of fashion, circumstances inevitably arise to bring them back to the public's attention and remind us why we loved these films in the first place. Maybe now, during this seemingly endless recession and as breakthroughs in communications (such as this blog, ironically) leave us ever more isolated, it's time to rediscover and reassess City Lights in particular and Chaplin in general, and remember what it was like to care so passionately about society's lowest figure while also laughing so loudly at his trials and travails.

[To read "Best Picture Of 1930-31: City Lights (prod. Charles Chaplin), Part Four," click here.]

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