Tuesday, February 3, 2009

City Lights

Dir. Charles Chaplin

There is something remarkably sexy about Charlie Chaplin. His appearance: small, goofy, and slightly androgynous, all qualities that run counter to conventional sex appeal, and peculiar mannerisms cause him to stand apart from the sleek and toned ideals of beauty. The thing is that Chaplin is just so damn talented. Its like how even a weird looking boy who plays guitar and sings can be appealing to the prettiest of girls. Only with Chaplin, rather than playing guitar, its being a jack of all trades. Chaplin writes, produces, directs, stars in, and composes the music for many of his most memorable films including City Lights. He's like a comedic Orson Welles, before he got fat. Its not just that Chaplin is funny. Plenty of people before and after him have been funny. Its how he harmonizes dramatic and comedic elements in his films; a mix of slapstick and profound romanticism. Its how the tramp's naive good intentions never seem to coalesce with the world he inhabits, yet he always manages to do alright in the end. More than alright in fact. He emerges victorious, always with that distinctly memorable grin on his face.

Chaplin's films are not just comedies. Often times they house within their frames an astonishingly timeless social critique. Modern Times poignantly showed a man pitted against a rigorously mechanical society that is unforgiving to the point of cruelty. In The Gold Rush he unveiled the shocking degree to which people allow themselves to be immoral in the pursuit of riches. City Lights is a hilarious farce that pokes fun at the lives of the rich while simultaneously exposing their mistreatment of the poor. As in most of his films, Chaplin juxtaposes his frail, clumsy and unappealing body with giants and beauties. He is pummeled in a wrestling ring, slapped around by men in tails, and patiently loved by a blind beauty. All the while he is getting himself mixed up in trouble with an “eccentric”, drunken millionaire who's polarized lifestyle of being a friendly drunk and a cold, sober aristocrat invites a myriad of occasions for the tramp to confuse the two. City Lights moves along at a frenzied pace, thanks only in part to the naturally fast paced cinematography of old films. The highly choreographed segments of many of the film's scenes are stunning, and its amazing to think how much of these stunts and acrobatics Chaplin and company did in the time before digital studio effects. Chaplin's dedication to laughable but nonetheless impressive choreography is one of many qualities that keeps City Lights delightfully entertaining every step of the way.

Chaplin's stage persona, the little tramp, is one of the most recognizable and memorable characters the silver screen has ever produced. Case in point: last month, as a means to pass the last few days at school, my dad (a middle school music teacher) showed his classes segments of Modern Times. He was shocked. The kids not only paid attention to the film (a rare occasion for any group of middle schoolers) but found themselves bursting out into laughter during many of the film's wilder moments. Conversely, an older friend told me of a disastrous experience trying to show Citizen Kane to the Freshman English class she teaches. Charlie Chaplin and Orson Welles are certainly of comparable genius, but not of medium. Plenty of people want to have their emotions and thoughts prodded and provoked, but everyone wants to laugh.

Every so often an artist comes around who taps into something universal. If their body of work is focused enough they often come to represent something much larger than themselves. Chaplin is the original romantic comedian and that's why he's sexy. Few men in the last 100 years have been able to parade themselves about so foolishly and for so many people, and still be as appealing as Charlie Chaplin. It should be noted that in no way is Chaplin an idiot-savant. He knew how funny and how charming he was; his confidence is what made his films so successful. To this day no actor (with the possible exception of John Wayne) is more widely recognized for his unique appearance, remarkable stage presence and the quality of his films than that mustachioed tramp: Charlie Chaplin.

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