#57. City Lights (1931)

The lady who normally cuts my hair wasn’t at work today and so I sat instead with her colleague, Laura, whose grasp of English and decorum are both pretty lacking, unfortunately, and so for the past couple hours I’ve been stressing about her sad-sounding reminder, while sifting my hair, that, “Ay. Ju are eh’gwing bowld.” I’ve noticed this for a while now, that my hair is thinning and that, yeah, I’ll probably be bald before too long. I try not to think about it. It’ll be a change, and I’ll have to adapt when I get there. Probably I’ll just be super self-conscious for a while. Go to the gym obsessively. But ultimately it’s probably not gonna change my life that much. I might get cold more often, and need to wear hats — which people will probably imagine I’m doing out of shame, and so whenever I go into a room I’ll have to be like, “I’m not wearing this hat cuz I’m sad, it’s just cold.” And also I imagine sunburns are a serious issue up there. It’ll suck, I’m sure.

city lights pic 1
It’s really inventive and funny, I know it is, but I just don’t laugh that much for some reason. Think I need to branch out, try some of the Chaplin movies that aren’t on the List.

But yeah the reason I bring up balding is because it’s a natural indignity that I’ll have to either adapt to or not adapt to just as it seems that Charlie Chaplin found himself needing to either embrace or reject the way that technology was affronting his practice, as the silent tramp, with the advent of sound. We see it happening today with e-readers hurting book sales, and digital music obliterating CDs. I read in James Kaplan’s biography of Sinatra that, in the days before records, the music industry made a fortune selling sheet music. The creation of turntables sent them into a panic about sheet music sales and, more pressingly, the livelihood of working-class musicians (cuz remember: if people wanted to hear music they had to either make it themselves or go out and see some performer who made it — a self-made musician could make a living in those days). Then the cassette killed vinyl, the CD killed the cassette, the iPod killed the CD and the smartphone killed the iPod. Technology moves forward, the market adapts to it, and then it moves forward again and leaves that market floundering.

Anyway. Chaplin got started working on City Lights in the late 1920s, when sound technology might have seemed like a flaw-laden novelty (think of how lame 3D was in the 1950s…and then the 1980s…and today), and maybe also seemed like too much of a hassle for somebody who already knew how to make a great film, but Chaplin claims that he was also averse to sound technology on aesthetic grounds. He felt cinema was a visual medium and he dind’t wanna pervert it. By the time City Lights hit theaters, in 1931, sound was a Hollywood staple, audiences expected it, so Chaplin was taking a risk in leaving it out (especially when you consider that he put a million dollars of his own money into the production — apparently the equivalent of $70,000,000 today).

The movie of course did fine, Chaplin’s celebrity was unblemished, people loved it. Neither this movie nor the previous Chaplin piece on the List, The Gold Rush, have really given me a good time, though. Maybe that’s just a matter of taste, because I’m definitely appreciative of his talents even if I don’t swoon for them, but I think I’m gonna digress from the List here and branch off on my own, watch some of Chaplin’s other stuff, because it feels kinda bizarre that he should have been so beloved, so revered, and yet I can’t muster more than a chuckle for any of his work. I feel like maybe the List is coming up short here. Dude made like a hundred movies, there’s gotta be something in his filmography I can really go for.

I’m gonna check it out.

city lights pic 2
The closing scene is really moving, though, and Roger Ebert has an essay in which he recounts a dead-silent theater receiving that ending with tears in their eyes and then, rather than the lights coming up at the end, a spotlight appeared, targeting Chaplin on a balcony, who took a solemn bow, and received a standing ovation.
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