JULY 11, 2015
If there is any name which can be said to symbolize cinema — it is Charlie Chaplin […] I am sure Chaplin’s name will survive even if cinema ceases to exist as a medium of artistic expression.
— Satyajit Ray
He is beyond praise because he is the greatest of all. What else can one say? […] One says Chaplin as one says Da Vinci — or rather Charlie, like Leonardo.
— Jean-Luc Godard
CHARLIE CHAPLIN is widely regarded as cinema’s greatest filmmaker. If a writer were to begin a film discussion with a haughty categorical statement — as was customary for a certain brand of film writing that has its origins in the lovely polemics of 1950s Cahiers du cinema, but today is often the mark of either a thinly veiled contemptuous indifference to cinema’s history, or is simply advertisement masquerading as review — this would be the safest. It has been said or suggested by many, like in the Ray epigraph above, that Chaplin transcends the cinema. As novelist and critic Gilbert Adair said, Chaplin doesn’t just belong to film history but to history, he is greater than the cinema. For some, between Chaplin and the cinema they would choose Chaplin. As Jean Renoir, another candidate for the title, said: “The master of masters, the filmmaker of filmmakers, for me is still Charlie Chaplin.” He described the invitation to meet Chaplin as “like inviting a devout Christian to meet God in person.” Though there are likely some detractors, to call Chaplin the greatest is to be on relatively safe ground.
About whether his 1931 masterpiece City Lights is his greatest film there is less consensus. André Bazin gave Modern Times equal status with City Lights as the best of Chaplin’s full-length films. This writer’s personal favorite is Monsieur Verdoux, one of his great sound films that dispenses with the Tramp character. But if we were allowed only one candidate, it would have to be one of his Tramp films, since the Tramp character was, as James Agee put it, “the most humane and most nearly complete among the religious figures our time has evolved.” And the most perfect representation of that character would surely be in City Lights.
And thus it is entirely reasonable to say that when the Santa Barbara Symphony performed a live, full orchestral accompaniment to Chaplin’s City Lights on January 17 of this year, those lucky enough to attend were very likely experiencing the greatest work of cinema’s greatest artist.
But were we? City Lights is a sound film, with a recorded soundtrack filled with meticulously composed sound gags, the music composed by Chaplin himself. The fact that there are intertitles and that there is no spoken dialogue does not make it a silent film. The film has a recorded soundtrack like any other sound film, and despite the headline on the program guide handed out that evening — “The Santa Barbara Symphony gives voice to City Lights, Chaplin’s […] silent film” — it is neither silent, nor in need of voice.
So what form of remediation is this? Manipulation of the filmic object runs a spectrum of the implicitly accepted and barely noticed (subtitles on a foreign-language film) all the way to offensive acts of vandalism (colorizing a black-and-white film). On this philistine end of the spectrum, one of the more horrific alterative acts includes pan and scan, a method of adjusting wide-screen images so that they can appear on 4:3 aspect ratio television screens, which was used more commonly for VHS home viewing. The technique involves not only cropping the image, but “scanning” across the image simulating camera movements that never occurred. When I first became aware of this in my more uncompromising younger cinephilia days I believed it should be made illegal. While I no longer have the urge to call law enforcement these days, I’m still just as offended by it — it performs the equivalent of putting arms on the Venus de Milo while guilefully suggesting that it has done no such thing.
The more interesting questions of remediation lie in the middle of this spectrum, where it’s not entirely clear what kind of manipulation we’re dealing with, where the Bazinian ground beneath our feet begins to tremble. The question, one of the most pressing in contemporary film studies, is when has the filmic object been manipulated to a point at which it has lost its claim to authenticity and entered into the ersatz. The rise and now near-total victory of digital over celluloid lies right in the middle of this issue. The Bazinian notion that the aesthetic power of the filmic image lies in the spectator’s knowledge in its indexical relationship to reality (as he famously wrote, this is, in fact, the ontology of the photographic image) has become even more relevant in today’s digital filmic world. Some have gone as far to suggest that the shift from celluloid to digital has shattered the notion of an indexical relationship between screen and reality, and has resulted in profound ontological and phenomenological changes. (And certainly the traditional filmic experience — sitting in a public theater for an uninterrupted run of a film — is no longer the norm.)
But putting aside the question of digital projection, what was the nature of the artistic experience that night in Santa Barbara, California? Was the filmic object and its experience authentic or ersatz? Is suppressing part or all of the soundtrack for the sake of live accompaniment a subtle alterative act akin to subtitling, or an act of vandalism as offensive as pan and scan? Or is it not an exhibition of the film at all, but an adaptation? That is to say, we weren’t watching Chaplin’s movie that night, but listening to the conductor’s concert, with the film as a visual backdrop — it was no longer a movie but a concert.
And who, then, was the author? One brand of critical theory suggests notions of authorship are passé and irrelevant; all that really matters is the spectator’s or listener’s experience and how he or she appropriates it. Foucault, imaging society’s future, wrote:
All discourses, whatever their status, form, value, and whatever the treatment to which they will be subjected, would then develop in the anonymity of a murmur. We would no longer hear the questions that have been rehashed for so long: “Who really spoke? Is it really he and not someone else? With what authenticity or originality? And what part of his deepest self did he express in his discourse?” Instead, there would be other questions like these: “What are the modes of existence of this discourse? Where has it been used, how can it circulate, and who can appropriate it for himself?” […] And behind all these questions, we would hear hardly anything but the stirring of an indifference: “What difference does it make who is speaking?”
I don’t think any of us, deep down, really experiences art in this way. Though it is painfully difficult to crystalize into exact language the nature of our experience, those moments of rapture, those profound aesthetic experiences — as Nabokov said, it is “the secret of durable pigments” — I don’t think we hear the “anonymity of a murmur,” or “the stirring of an indifference.” One of the intrinsic properties of great art (however naïve a notion this might seem to some theorists) is the presence of a loud, clear, seductive, and yes even beautiful voice. Art that doesn’t just express but communicates, that gives us the singular, ethereal experience of a bridge across the abyss of existential loneliness. I still ask, and I think we will always ask, “who is speaking?” because someone seems to be so clearly speaking to me.
Notions of authorship have, of course, a long and hard-fought history in the cinema. The idea that a movie, a good movie at least, has an author, and that the author is (usually) the director, is a result of battles waged and won long ago. But the fact that the general acceptance of film authorship came about around the same time that cinema itself became more widely regarded as a serious art form, on par with its closest cousin literature, is no coincidence. Authorship is sacred and integral to art, and I think cinephiles are more tuned in to this because it wasn’t given, it had to be earned.
The question of who authored the Santa Barbara event is particularly compelling since Chaplin, historically speaking, cornered the market on authorship of his films — Chaplin directed, wrote, produced, starred in, edited, and composed the music for the majority of his feature-length films, and City Lights is no exception. As a friend of mine once said, “he damn near did everything except watch the movie for you.” So my wife and I, along with several hundred other people, sat down in the Granada Theatre that January evening in front of the Santa Barbara Symphony to attend an anomaly.
City Lights follows the ill-fortuned adventures of the Tramp as he attempts to raise enough money for his love interest, an impoverished blind girl selling flowers on the street, not only to save her and her grandmother from eviction but also for an operation that would restore her vision. The Tramp, as usual, suffers all sorts of indignities, including the vicissitudes of a drunken millionaire who lavishes the Tramp with friendship when drunk but fails to acknowledge his existence when sober, the blows of a brutish boxer who refuses the Tramp’s invitation to take it easy and split the prize money, and ultimately the wrongful accusations of stealing the millionaire’s money leading to his imprisonment.
City Lights was made over a two-year period when sound quickly conquered the cinema, much to Chaplin’s contempt. (He famously said, “Motion pictures need sound as much as Beethoven symphonies need lyrics.”) In fact, it seemed quite brazen of him to release a “silent film” with a sound track at a time when audiences were now expecting the characters to speak. Chaplin, in the very first scene, in his first movie since the sound revolution, gives his response.
City officials are unveiling a statue in a public square addressing a large, gathered crowd with much pompous smugness. When they open their mouths, all that comes out are the Charlie Brown–like sounds of a kazoo. The juxtaposition of the childish noises of the kazoo with their pompous self-regard is sidesplittingly hilarious, and at the same time, Chaplin is telling us that dialogue is unnecessary as a formal device. They unveil the statue to find, much to their indignation and our mirth, the Tramp sleeping on it. The scene unfolds with quintessential Tramp physical comedy as he attempts to come down from the statue, slipping and falling, only bringing more humiliation to the city’s dignitaries. At one point he leans his nose against the thumb of the statue’s open hand, thumbing a nose not only to the city officials but to dialogue itself.
That evening in Santa Barbara, however, the sounds of the kazoo were muffled and backgrounded. The rushing rhythms of the violins, though beautiful, dominated, and the kazoos sounded like an afterthought. Chaplin’s commentary on dialogue, although not entirely lost, had been diminished. The needs of the movie seemed to be subjugated to the needs of the live music.
As the movie/concert went on, however, the Tramp and his world took over and the music and the other sound gags, including the ones in the famous scenes when the Tramp is out on the town with the millionaire having dinner or in the party scene in which he swallows a whistle, were just as I remembered them, still filling the theater with mirthful laughter.
In the scene when the Tramp and the flower girl first meet, Chaplin used José Padilla’s tender and gentle song La Violetera. In Santa Barbara, though the orchestra played a beautiful melody, we were not distracted from the images. Still, our eyes remained affixed to the screen during that first encounter (a scene he shot over 300 times), and the orchestra, although ever-present and large and intimidating on the stage with all their signifiers of high culture — violin bows, sheet music stands, conductor’s baton — melted into the background, becoming like any other infrastructural device necessary to watch a movie, like the projector over our heads or the pulled curtains next to the screen.
I think this is what many people mean when they suggest that Chaplin was greater than cinema: during the most powerful moments in his films, the screen seems to become nothing more than a vehicle for the Tramp; form seems to just melt away, becoming totally irrelevant. Such use of the screen can be reductive rather than transcendent — I love the early dialogue-rich movies of Éric Rohmer, often dismissed as “filmed theatre,” but then the screen seems reduced, as if the formal devices cinema has to offer have been eschewed for some other purpose. I remember reading once — although now I can’t seem to find the source — that Chaplin was asked, “Mr. Chaplin, why don’t you have any interesting shots in your movies?” This is, of course, nonsense, but Chaplin responded indirectly, saying: “Because I’m interesting!” Or as Kubrick said, perhaps a bit more diplomatically, of Chaplin and his Tramp,
If something is really happening on the screen, it isn’t crucial how it’s shot. Chaplin had such a simple cinematic style […] but you were always hypnotized by what was going on, unaware of the essentially non-cinematic style […] he made great films. His films will probably last longer than anyone else’s.
Of the famous last scene, Slavoj Žižek has written, “In the whole history of cinema, City Lights is perhaps the purest case of a film which, so to speak, stakes everything on its final scene — the entire film serves ultimately only to prepare for the final, concluding moment.” The Tramp, released from jail, is even more destitute than when then movie began. He wanders the streets to find the flower girl, now cured of her blindness with the money the Tramp was able to obtain, running a flower shop with her grandmother. He joyfully peers through the store window at the flower girl and her happy life, while the flower girl, still unaware that the Tramp was her benefactor, laughs at him. The cruelest of intertitles briefly appears on the screen, “I’ve made a conquest!” This intolerable act of cruelty, from the only part of the Tramp’s world that had offered him kindness, crosses a line beyond which laughter cannot go. And something about it makes us realize that all the indignities that the world threw upon the Tramp, the ones we laughed at so enthusiastically, none of them — all the social injustices endured because of poverty, because of the iniquities of capitalism — were funny to begin with.
I always gasp at this intertitle, and there was an audible collective gasp of several hundred spectators that night in Santa Barbara. And I think this points to the most relevant issue in discussions of contemporary filmic authenticity: the collective, public experience of theater. The space in which a movie is experienced is an essential attribute of the filmic experience. In cinema, the space of artistic experience is an actual one, unlike in literature in which the space is only metaphysical — the reader’s consciousness. All the modern platforms of private viewing — DVDs, laptops, smartphones, the varyingly ersatz experiences of actual theatrical viewing — have reminded us that when Bazin answered his famous question — what is cinema? — he did so with answers of photographic ontology, but at that time there was only one widely available way to experience a film, and to his ontological answers we must now add answers of theatrical phenomenology. The cinema has long been described as a hybrid art of literature, photography, and theater; and the modern modes of private viewing have unwittingly revealed that cinema is theater in both senses of that word — a performative art and the space in which that art is experienced.
I am reminded of the final, affecting shot in The Purple Rose of Cairo, where the camera lingers on a close-up of Mia Farrow sitting in the theater as her own personal misery and tragedy is redeemed by the images on the screen. It is a shot imbued with that ineffable state of being familiar to all cinephiles, and which draws us endlessly back to the theater in search of. If the same shot was one of Mia Farrow watching a movie in front of her television, or her laptop, or her smartphone held up to her face, would it have the same power?
To experience the images personally, but still collectively, amongst a group of strangers who have agreed to meet at a certain place and a certain time in order to experience the same work of art — this is an integral part of the authentic filmic experience. When the audience that evening responded to the final scene — a scene that James Agee called “the highest moment in movies” — with a collective gasp, there was the undeniable sensation of filmic authenticity, that is to say, the singular sensation of an audience watching a great movie … a sensation that is only felt, I’ve come to realize, in the public theater — collectively experienced filmic authorship.
And although this may seem an antiquated notion in a world in which full-length movies are viewed in all sorts of private ways — a different film at every seat on the airplane — our time seems to be defined by, and we seem to be divided by, this very issue: the intensity of personal experience, the natural inclination toward solipsism, the fact that all happens in the world because “I” experience it, all these do not break the insoluble bonds of collectivity, a collectivity that is becoming every day more clearly global. When I/we sit in the theater, gasping at the intertitle personally and hearing it collectively, we’re reminded that even the most intimate and personal of human experiences — artistic rapture — is also experienced collectively, amongst strangers whose only bond is the theater itself, the public space. So, I’m certain of the event’s authenticity and its authorship because, to answer Foucault’s question, it was Charlie Chaplin who was speaking that night, even if the kazoos were not loud enough, and, more importantly, he was not just speaking to me, but speaking to us.