Tuesday, June 15, 2010

City Lights and The General

I began a new class today. This will be my last semester before obtaining an associate’s degree. That means that all the classes I put off are now due. Computer essentials, for example, is a thinly veiled Microsoft recruitment camp, and required before graduation. It’s all about Word, Excel, and Power Point, and comes with a $150 book (which the school will not buy back afterward), and the $150 student version of Microsoft Office 2007. After all these years, Bill Gates finally got me to shell out money for his word processor.
 I also have a Health and Wellness class. Though I was not excited about this one, it does force me to exercise at least 3 times per week. I’m grumbly about it, but I totally need it.
Two more requirements for graduation are Fine Arts and Diversity. No matter how many bands I was in, paintings I made, or exotic girls I flirted with (let alone the one I married), they’re making me take the class anyway. So I went with the most common choice, Film and Culture. It fulfills “Fine Art” by the fact that we sit in extraordinarily uncomfortable theater seats for 5 hours per meeting, and it fulfills “Diversity” because one assumes we’re going to watch “The Godfather”.
All of my crying aside, I’m actually pretty happy with this course, and it’s going to be the ongoing topic of Klipper Till for the time being. After watching one or two films each Monday, I intend to come here and write my impressions. Today we began with the (no drum roll) silent era.
Charlie Chaplin is one of those iconic, national treasures of a bygone American age, about whom I know jack. That adds up to as much as I know about any of the other pop-culture heroes of the early 20th century. I did, however, see Robert Downey Jr. with all of that makeup caked on him, for whatever that’s worth. I also saw an interesting documentary (“The Pervert’s Guide to Cinema”, Sophie Fiennes, 2006) some months ago which took a psychoanalytical look at everything from City Lights to Blue Velvet. Slavoj Zizek, the writer of the doc , says that whether you’re Chaplin or Lynch, we all want to either be or be in our mothers. My take on the Chaplin masterpiece is less Oedipal.
I’ve been reading the Stoics, lately. Perhaps I’m looking through Cynic-tinted glasses, but I see Chaplin’s The Tramp as Diogenes, a 4th Century BCE philosopher of the soup kitchen variety. Diogenes, who was called the Dog by many, including himself, lived in an empty wine barrel by the sea and once said, “When I saw a child drinking from his hand, I threw away my cup.” His message is that all attempts to attain status, privilege, wealth, or recognition are vain and unfulfilling. No matter how much you may be able to achieve, you will always want more. You will never be satisfied with what you have until you limit your ambition to only the strictest bodily needs. Furthermore, those materials you do manage to capture in this life will also leave you anxious in your desire to avoid losing them. The Buddha called it dukkha. Chaplin called it, oh, the American Dream, I suppose.
Though my professor says City Lights is satire, which I’ll buy, if we look at it as a romantic comedy, which Chaplin calls it, then it is an exceptional example of the genre. In the end there is no wedding by which such films are defined. There is no afternoon together for the lovers, let alone any happily ever after. The beauty is that the question of, “What happens next?” doesn’t need to be answered. You can decide for yourself. It ends optimistically, pessimistically, or you can opt not to decide anything at all. The fact is, the end of the story is when the film fades to black. Anything after that is another story.
The characters in City Lights all require some sort of deficiency in order to be good. The selfish, narrow millionaire is only kind when he is drunk. The Blind Girl is innocent and pure, but only because her blindness keeps her from seeing the truth. The Tramp is the selfless, loving, and harmless “hero”, but only as a consequence of his break with society. This gestalt is a powerful metaphor all on its own, but one can assume that Chaplin was also being more specific. He made this film after the birth of the Talkies. He said that he could out-perform any new cinema while holding to the old style. The form of City Lights is, despite its deficiency, even more precise and honest in delivery of its message. Chaplin believed that language in film is dishonest by its very nature. As he wordlessly emotes his part, and tells a long, quiet narrative, he certainly makes a strong argument.
One thing about the film leaves me scratching my head. There is obvious irony in the fact that The Blind Girl sells flowers which she cannot see the beauty of. The Tramp is obsessed both with her and her product. Near the end he has come into enough money to pay for her to undergo an operation which gives her sight. Doing so means that he must abandon her; because she will then see that he is not the powerful, wealthy man she has mistaken him for. The question is, why does he do it?
The obvious answer is that he loves her enough to let her go. Perhaps that is Chaplin’s message. But is there something deeper? Diogenes would say that the money was not a good thing to halve. The Tramp’s virtue may require that he quit himself of the windfall, and healing the girl is a handy, noble way to do so. He’s not completely selfless, either, as he does keep a portion of the cash for himself just before handing it over. What else, then, might be in it for him? He has been trying to hold down a job in order to buy the poor girl groceries. Does letting her go mean he can stop working and return to being a happy vagabond? This is a likely motivation, though one he wouldn’t want to admit to himself, especially because he can’t keep himself from her in the end.
The second film we watched today was “The General” with Buster Keaton. He is a completely different breed of silent film star. He makes the blockbusters of his day, with clear, uncomplicated narrative. The story is of a man whose unhappy beginnings are turned by extraordinary luck and circumstances. He charges into the enemy north of 1862 to rescue his rather unrequited love interest. This film is also a comedy, and of course the hero wins in the end, but he is hapless and ends up in his position partly through his own foolhardiness and also through a kind fate.
Made in 1926, the most interesting thing about this movie is that the Good Guys are confederates. The film is decidedly black and white in more than one respect, as I certainly feared and loathed the devious northern soldiers throughout the film. Did the public have any problem with such a depiction only 60 years after the Civil War? Would such a sympathetic view be allowed today?
Otherwise, I was not a big fan of this piece. It didn’t have nearly as many philosophical implications as City Lights. The first half of the film was predictable and a yawn. The second half, beginning with the rescue of the girl and ending with the battle scene, was much more engaging. The problems with this movie all come down to its lack of art. It was extremely well-crafted, and must have had a relatively large budget. But there is no nuance. It’s a feel-good action movie, like a comedic version of “300”, if the inherent humor of that film doesn’t provide enough laughs for you.


  1. Well, maybe sixty years after the Civil War, though...I loved The General. But I'm a huge fan of physical comedy. Which reminds me, I fell over again yesterday.

  2. Oh right. Thanks, Murr. I subtracted from 1900 and forgot to add 20.

    Yeah, I've never liked physical comedy. I wish I did, to tell you the truth. Would have made a lot more films enjoyable, let alone youtube videos.

  3. I love the fact that I happened upon this post today as earlier my sisters and I were talking about this very brand of comedy and I was trying to sell them on Charlie Chaplin. Dad and I were also trying to make the distinction that his humor is NOT slapstick, like The Three Stooges. Never been a Buster Keaton fan though, maybe you hit on why.

  4. Hmm. I hate the Three Stooges, but I love Buster. And Tim Conway. And Art Carney. And W.C. Fields. All, basically, dancers...

  5. Now that I agree with, at least regarding Keaton. I'm not familiar with the rest, but my favorite part of The General was his incredible physical feats. Well, I liked the trains, too.

  6. I wonder if my distaste for physical comedy comes from a knee-jerk aversion to America's Funniest Home Videos. Or to the modern equivalent, as you well put Dave, youTube videos.


So what do you think?