Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Film Club: Limelight

I greatly enjoyed my first film club chat with Allison of Nerdvampire and was ecstatic when she picked a real blind spot in my movie watching with Charlie Chaplin's Limelight, the last of his American productions before Hoover effectively exiled him. I think I liked this conversation even more than the first, and it was a pleasure not only to see a Chaplin film I hadn't previously viewed but to discuss its charms fully with someone else. So without further ado, I present out discussion below.

Plot synopsis: A washed-up vaudevillian, Calvero (Charlie Chaplin), saves a young dancer (Claire Bloom) from committing suicide and resolves to nurse her back to health. But as Thereza recovers, Calvero only slips further into obscurity. Also features Sydney Chaplin as the charming, young, American composer Neville and Buster Keaton in a show-stopping climax with Chaplin. More somber than Chaplin's classic silents, Limelight nevertheless stands as the best transplant of the auteur's trademark sentimentality into the talkies.

Jake: I'm curious as to how many Chaplin films you'd seen before watching this, Allison, as I couldn't stop thinking throughout just how much Limelight felt like a culmination for his career. Its tone is, for all the sentimentality, far more somber than most Chaplin pictures, but it nevertheless struck me as very much of a whole with his filmography.

Allison: I've really only seen Modern Times, but also the biopic Chaplin which goes over his Hollywood career pretty well. It seemed very reflective of his career as a whole.

J: Ah. Modern Times is a film I thought of often during Limelight. That movie was Chaplin's first to incorporate sound while still passing itself off as a silent picture. It also set a precedent for Chaplin's talkies, at least of the ones I've seen. They all in some way comment on, if not outright attack, the technology and its effect on his image. Modern Times is about technology robbing us of humanity. The Great Dictator tried to use the more realistic effect of sound to directly appeal to his audience, arguably losing the magic of his sentimentality in the process. Monsieur Verdoux served as the dark inverse to his usual themes of a man put-upon by social mechanisms by offering his protagonist long-belated revenge upon them.

Limelight contains bits of all three of these films, a bittersweet, borderline self-martyring, elegy to Chaplin's own career even as he finds the nobility of his protagonist. Calvero is a drunken has-been, but he still has those flashes of sweetness that made Chaplin a megastar.

A: Oh definitely. Calvero might be a drunk, but I never feel unsympathetic towards him. He still dispenses great advice and saves Thereza from being thrown out into the street.Plus, it's not like he's this pompous character who think he's still got it: Calvero is aware he's a has-been and knows that it's drinking that got him there, as much as it might have helped his career.

J: That's why I think the setting is so crucial. By placing the film in the year 1914, Chaplin aligns Calvero's decline with his own ascendancy (1914 was the year Chaplin made his first films for Keystone). So even as Chaplin is shoveling dirt onto the grave of his career, he's acknowledging how he himself must have looked to the old vaudeville stars with whom he worked before jumping to Hollywood. Chaplin made them redundant just as new techniques and performers have put him, Keaton and the rest out of work. It's that willingness to self-criticize that makes the film more than just an old man's pity party.

A: That's a good point. Film as a medium was displacing these cheap theatre shows, but it was definitely caused by the big movie personalities like Chaplin. I will say that I think his and Keaton's performance probably works better filmically than it would from a theater, which could be his own acknowledgement that he's done more as a filmmaker than he could have as a vaudeville performer.

J: I'm glad you say this, because I had an odd feeling of disconnect watching the stage show portions of the film. On the one hand, they permit Chaplin (and, at the end, Keaton) to prove just how much physical comedy they have left in them. On the other, seeing them reduced to a few antics after both innovated the artform to make room for their comedic ambition is tragic even without the reverse shots to empty theaters.

I also think this lines up with Chaplin's camera technique, which was never particularly advanced in relation to his masterful set design but feels downright cumbersome and static in the age of sound. This isn't the only one of his talkies to be like that, either. It could simply be unfamiliarity with the new technical demands, but I think it works thematically. Chaplin's sound films, even on a narrative level, purposefully lack the grace of his silents, and to see him dancing around in a music hall only visualizes what he'd already been suggesting with his camera.

A: The camera was very static, although there was some nice use of cranes in the second half with relation to the stage. What I really liked (and what really stuck around from the silent era) was all of the strong lighting. All of the shadows fell just right, the ingenue was always glowing. The mood was well-set just in regards of light technique.

J: Exactly right, and the angelic lighting of Thereza is always matched by the shadowy twilight hanging over Calvero, as if he's already got one foot in the grave. And yet, in some respects he's more alive than ever. Much as he likes to play sound against itself, he also explores the possibilities it raises. Here we get a chance to listen to Chaplin's singing voice, as well as to hear his gift for wordplay; I laughed out loud when one of Calvero's washed-up pals responds to his command to play largo with, "I'd rather stick with beer."

And if films like Modern Times and The Great Dictator defiantly clung to at least some modicum of silence, the absence of sound here is devastating. By linking sound primarily to the audience response, Chaplin now completely identifies the old format with death. The silence he wanted so badly to continue now signals total obsolescence and the end of fame.

A: And the word play is genuinely funny, but a lot of the script gets bogged down with the drama. But that is another evolution with sound cinema: slap stick, while still situational, winds up being about the dialogue as much as the actions.

Pardon the pun, but I think we keep dancing around a certain subject here: Thereza, who is visually pretty. Kind of boring when not on stage.

J: Yeah I agree, and I think the film hits its biggest snags when it stops to listen to her hysterical sobs of anguish and ecstasy. Calvero's interactions with Thereza are sweet but she herself is too thinly sketched to make much of a difference. I wish her occupation had been something that intersected more with vaudeville to set her up as more of a successor instead of the unrelated dancing.

I do find it interesting, though, how Chaplin frames the relationship between the two. I'm reminded of Cary Grant in Charade: Grant, who preferred younger women, nevertheless made sure it was Audrey Hepburn's character who pursued him, not the other way around, to avoid scandal. Likewise, Chaplin, who'd actually been the subject of controversy for his relationships, has Thereza fall for an uncomfortable Calvero. Then again, maybe Calvero is attracted to her but doesn't want to spend the rest of his life with someone so histrionic.

A: I thought the scene where Thereza was auditioning and reunites with Neville underlined Calvero's perspective. There's this prolonged shot where half his face is in shadow after he realizes that the Meet Cute he thought up becomes actualized. He's forced to realize that his current relationship has to change, no matter how comfortable things have gotten for him. And it's right after that when Thereza tells him she's in love with him. It's a little heartbreaking how much of the decisions in their relationship are left up to Calvero. But I'm sure a lot of this plot was created with regards to his relationships.

J: When Calvero first takes Thereza in, he drolly but sincerely remarks upon the benefits of a Platonic friend, and I think Chaplin gets more dramatic mileage out of Calvero's insistence on getting Thereza over him than he would if he really allowed the two to develop and mutual romance. By making the bond between them something Calvero must break to fully cure Thereza, Chaplin gets to be Platonic but feel romantic. It's a deft bit of screenwriting, and one that makes up for a lot of Thereza's character deficiencies by constantly focusing our attention on how we react to the interplay between Calvero and Thereza instead of on each person.

A: Very true! And I think Calvero is more effective as a character on the whole for not becoming romantically involved, although I do see some undertones towards that.

The screenplay works to that effect by drawing their relationship out. It's not episodic, but it is punctuated with performances, starting with Calvero's dreams and then working up towards actual staged events. Even though Thereza doesn't do vaudeville, it does seem like they relate to each other best as performers, which might be how he can handle her histrionics as well as he does. I expect Calvero must be used to it by now.

I've been thinking, if she had been a vaudeville actress, the plot might have been too much like A Star is Born.

J: Ooh, good point. I also think it differs from A Star is Born in the way it handles the old man's demise and the young woman's rise. A Star is Born is more melodramatic, what with Norman being no less destructive than he is beneficial and taking a more gruesome way out to atone for himself. Much as I like that film, its plot seems more a freakish aberration. Limelight casts the fall of the old and forgotten along with the rise of the exciting and new as more of a cyclical act. Chaplin resigns himself to fading away just as he eclipsed his forebears. As bitter as the film can be, it also accepts this fate with some grace, and even the one last show at the end is his way of going out on a high to leave the up-and-comers free to keep rising without him.

A: It's pretty much the main difference between a straight-up Hollywood monster melodrama and something by Chaplin. He really works to develop these characters and their points in the film to best remark upon that theme.

J: And, naturally, I think that theme is best expressed in the finale, which is simultaneously the most optimistic and the most tragic part of the film. Calvero gets his last shot at adulation, but even setting aside the grim conclusion to his final bow, there's something final in the applause he receives. This isn't a rebirth, it's a wake. He just happens to be alive long enough to experience it.

And I admit I actually cried when I realized that his partner at the piano was Keaton. I knew it was him, given that I was aware of his cameo and this was the end of the film, but I didn't recognize him until this one shot of him looking helplessly at Calvero as their musical number goes uproariously off the rails. He looked so old and broken, even more hollowed out by changing times and scandalous relationships than Chaplin. And yet the two of them find these hidden reservoirs of physical prowess as they stumble and trip over their song, and I was reminded of how great they both were again. It's the comic high point of the film, but also one of the most emotionally and thematically complex sequences Chaplin ever shot. Even more so than the film's sad but graceful conclusion, this climax represents the last word on Chaplin's career.

A: Damn, that is a good place to stop. I certainly can't top it. Final thoughts?

J: Limelight isn't the best of Charlie Chaplin's films (for technical skill I think of The Gold Rush, for emotional resonance I side with his achingly poignant City Lights), but it may be the one that best encapsulates his career. It may be more bitter than sweet, but it emerges as sentimental a view of art as anything he did as the most beloved man in the world.

A: Agreed. And while bittersweet, I think it's still hopeful, in its way. It looks back on a great career and lets him die after a round of applause, rather than forgotten in a room. It shows a very interesting relationship between an artist and his art in that way.

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