Saturday, December 4, 2010

‘City Lights’: Not a Romantic Comedy

I’m not a member of filmdom’s genre police. I think that genre labels can inhibit our approach to a film as much as they can point you in the direction of a movie you want to see. However, when I’m in the mood to see a particular kind of film, and I see a movie advertised as the kind I’d like to see, but then the picture ends up not being the kind advertised, I can feel as ripped off as a Band-Aid. And I’m not just talking about bad examples of a genre, but movies — sometimes even good movies — whose publicity stokes your appetite for one kind of story, but ends up giving you another, and not in a good way.

For example, when I first went to see Wong Kar-Wai’s Ashes of Time (1994), the theatre showing it had advertised the film as a Hong Kong action flick. But the movie turned out to be a chamber drama about the kind of characters who usually appear in Chinese martial-arts movies; they just didn’t do all that much fighting. So, as good as Ashes of Time is (it’s an ambitious art film, but not one of Wong’s better efforts), I wasn’t all that receptive to it because I was put off by the theatre’s bait-and-switch.

One film genre I like is the romantic comedy, or rom-com for short. And by “romantic comedy,” I don’t mean just any boy-meets-girl story with some laughs thrown in. In his excellent — I’m tempted to say “definitive” — how-to book Writing the Romantic Comedy, Billy Mernit defines the genre this way: “A romantic comedy is a comedy whose central plot is embodied in a romantic relationship” (p. 12). To me, this definition implies that the (broadly speaking) “romantic” relationship must be developed, which logically entails giving the two lead characters more-or-less equal screen time so that the audience can see this deepening of their bond. To me, if the plot only develops one of the romantic characters, leaving the other to develop mostly offscreen or not at all, then the film’s emphasis is not on the development of a co-equal romance. And this would mean, to use Mernit’s phraseology, that the romantic relationship is not the film’s central plot.

And in order to work, the genre must meet “seven basic romantic-comedy beats,” which Mernit describes, involving how the lead characters “meet cute” — encounter each other in a memorable way — lose each other, and ultimately resolve their relationship. Mernit’s name for the last is the characters’ “joyful defeat” — giving themselves over to love’s effect on them — which can result in a happily-ever-after ending or a bittersweet ending of the couple parting.

While it had gestated in various forms over the previous years, the romantic comedy was defined in 1934 by Frank Capra’s It Happened One Night. And the genre has lit up movie screens ever since, with such outstanding examples as Howard Hawks’s Bringing Up Baby (1938), William Wyler’s Roman Holiday (1953), Billy Wilder’s The Apartment (1960), Woody Allen’s Annie Hall (1977), and the Tom Stoppard-scripted Shakespeare in Love (1998). But sometimes effective examples of the genre don’t advertise themselves as romantic comedies. A case in point is Cameron Crowe’s Jerry Maguire (1996), which, at first glance, seems to be about only one main character, the sports agent of the title, but the story is in fact structured as a romantic comedy, where Jerry’s relationship with the female lead, Dorothy, becomes the main plot, and the sports story is only secondary to it. I also consider the genre to have some elasticity. To me, the amount of laugh-out-loud comedy is negotiable. Technically, Joseph L. Mankiewicz’s The Ghost and Mrs. Muir (1947) is a fantastical romantic melodrama, but despite the lack of any real belly laughs, I think of the film as a romantic comedy because its tone is so lighthearted and its supernatural set-up is so fanciful. But what all of these films have in common is, in Mernit’s phrase, “a couple at the core.”

Sometimes, a comedy will feature a romantic couple, but their relationship, and how it develops, is not the film’s main concern. And I wince whenever I hear such a film described as a romantic comedy. Perhaps the movie most often mislabeled a rom-com is My Big Fat Greek Wedding (2002), which includes a romantic couple, Toula and Ian, but their relationship isn’t the movie’s mainstay; Toula’s relationship with her eccentric family is. You could replace the story element of Toula’s wedding with some other major event, and as long as you kept the characters in her family, you could still have the same basic plot. I also hear Under the Tuscan Sun (2003) frequently described as a romantic comedy, but the only romantic story element in that film, Frances’ love for Marcello, is a mere subplot. The central plot is Frances’ growing sense of self after she buys a house in Italy; only after she “finds herself” at the very end of the movie is she truly ready for romance. My Big Fat Greek Wedding and Under the Tuscan Sun are good movies, but if I went to see them for the first time expecting romantic comedies, I’d be very disappointed. The same goes for City Lights.

And so I finally get around to mentioning the movie I want to talk about. Why bring up Charlie Chaplin’s City Lights (1931) at all? Because back in 2006, the American Film Institute ranked the Top Ten Romantic Comedies, and guess which one came in first. That’s right. But while Chaplin’s silent comedy is a modest masterpiece, and there is indeed a love plot involving Chaplin’s Little Tramp and a nameless blind “flower girl” (Virginia Cherill), that story is not the film’s central concern. And that’s just one reason why I don’t consider City Lights a romantic comedy.

No less of an authority than Mernit himself disagrees with me. In Writing the Romantic Comedy, Mernit included a list of “100 Notable” rom-coms for his readers to check out, and City Lights isn’t on the roll call. On his blog devoted to the genre, Mernit says that he left silent comedies off his list thinking that prospective rom-com scribes would only be interested in example films with dialogue. When the AFI voted the Chaplin film #1, Mernit says that he was “blindsided” and “guilt-stricken” that the top spot went to a movie that his book doesn’t mention. Mernit then goes on to make amends by writing a glowing review of the 1931 silent on his blog. As he describes the film:

A near-penniless Tramp falls in love with a beautiful blind flower-seller who mistakes him for a millionaire. This immediately raises all the necessary stakes and complications one would ask for in a romance, posing the central story question, Will the poor pretender be able to help restore her sight? — with a compelling subtextual dilemma attached: What will become of him if he succeeds?

In Writing the Romantic Comedy, Mernit says: “[T]he central question posed by a romantic comedy is: ‘Will these two individuals become a couple?’” (p. 13). Using this standard, I think that Mernit got it right the first time, when he didn’t include City Lights on his list.

In his blog review, Mernit jots down that “the movie hangs a number of episodes and digressions on one bold and sturdy construct; Lights is essentially a collection of ‘things Charlie Chaplin does best’ slung over one archetypal armature.” In other words, City Lights is a series of comedic set pieces built around the story element of the Tramp’s love for the young blind woman. But except for the bit about her unraveling the Tramp’s vest because she mistakes it for loose yarn, the set pieces themselves don’t involve her. In fact, for a female lead, the character of the blind flower-seller has relatively few scenes, especially compared to the Tramp, who is in almost all of them. And because of this unequal screen time, City Lights doesn’t spend many moments exploring their love relationship.

In short, the relationship isn’t developed. On their second meeting, the Tramp gives the blind girl a lift home — in a car borrowed from an inebriated millionaire — drops her off at her door with a gallant kiss on the hand, and the two are in love. The relationship itself idles as the Tramp runs around town getting into one predicament after another. He comes back to the girl a few times, but there is no further evolution of the plot directly involving their romance. Their separation just before the climactic scene (she goes to Europe to have her sight restored, and he goes to jail) isn’t treated by the film as a development in their relationship but as a synapse in the story. And because the blind girl takes up so little screen time, she never emerges as the male lead’s romantic and story-shaping equal (as Dorothy does in Jerry Maguire). In City Lights, the Tramp decides to provide for the blind girl all on his own, without any real input on his decision from her, and the “lose” comes not from a bump in the relationship, but from an external story development: the Tramp locked away in prison. Rather than a tale of well-matched peers whose feelings for each other deepen as the gags fly, City Lights gives us episode after episode of the Tramp’s contretemps, with the flower-seller punctuating them merely as the recurring object of his affections.

Yes, the story does have a “cute-meet” between the Tramp and the girl, one of the best in cinema. As Mernit describes it:

In the cute-meet on the street, where the Tramp is first experiencing the Girl’s blindness and beauty, he sits for a moment to sniff at the flower she’s sold him and to moon over her, unseen — only to have her dump a pot of water on him because she can’t see him. Any time the story threatens to become sappy, Charlie manages to un-sap it with a laugh.

But cute-meets aren’t exclusive to the rom-com. You could describe Charles Foster Kane’s muddy introduction to Susan Alexander in Citizen Kane (1941) or Mr. Chow’s confusing first face-to-face with Mrs. Chan in In the Mood for Love (2000) as cute-meets. Granted, this story element is a prerequisite in romantic comedies and only an option for other genres, but a cute-meet does not a rom-com make.

Just as you could take the wedding out of My Big Fat Greek Wedding, replace it with something else, and have the same basic story line, you could also give the Tramp in City Lights a different motivation for his misadventures without damaging the bulk of the plot. True, you would be hard-pressed to come up with a subplot equally emotional, and you would probably end up with a different closing shot than the famous image of the Tramp holding a flower to his face — with a smile that says he’s simultaneously happy for the girl’s restored vision but mourning their lost relationship. However, since Charlie’s set pieces take up the biggest chunks of the story, most of it would stay in place.

Some have said that this haunting final shot is proof that the love between the Tramp and the young woman is City Light’s central concern. I say that this close-up image of the Tramp, the only character in the shot whose face we see, is evidence that the film was more about him individually than about his relationship with the blind girl (or for that matter, with the drunk millionaire). City Light’s fundamental story question isn’t “Will the Tramp and the flower-seller become a couple?” Instead, the fundamental question is “Will Charlie survive his misadventures?” The love story gives these side-splitting shenanigans structure and cohesion, but the romance itself isn’t integral to them.

City Lights is romantic, and it’s a comedy, a great comedy. But it’s not a romantic comedy.

Fanvid tribute to City Lights

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