Conrad and I have a routine of watching a movie at home every Friday and Saturday. We have a modestly-large Roku screen and a membership in Criterion, so the options are opulent. Sometimes I pick a film, but usually I’m lazy and leave it to him. We’ve developed the habit of often watching a string of works by the same director, or the work of a favorite actor. This weekend we did one of each, and fell in a pit.
I remembered loving “Boyhood,” a Richard Linklater film, and we recently saw his “Before” trilogy—three films done at ten-year intervals with the same partnered characters. I was intrigued at his suggestion that we see two of his earlier films, “Suburbia” and “Slacker.” “Suburbia” gave me a bellyache last week and this week “Slacker” topped that.
That was Friday night. Thursday we’d gotten a Bogart letch and watched an extra movie: “The Harder They Fall.” I found it brilliant and profoundly disturbing. It didn’t help that I knew it was Bogart’s last film, and that he was already dying of cancer. Then “Slacker” put me into a coma. When Saturday came, Conrad suggested that we go ahead and watch a third movie, and proposed Chaplin’s “City Lights.” We’d seen it four or five times before, because you do that with Chaplin, or at least we do. It was exactly what we needed.
Do you know this film? It’s a 1931 silent, bust-a-gut funny and unabashedly romantic. Charlie’s Tramp character encounters a beautiful young blind flower-seller, and circumstances make her think he’s a wealthy toff. He manages to visit her often, never betraying who and what he is, and eventually he gets her the money that rescues her from eviction, pays for a medical miracle that restores her sight, and gives her a nest egg to establish a successful flower shop. He doesn’t know the results of his gift, because he got the money from an actual toff who had adopted him as a best friend, but only when drunk. Sober, he doesn’t know him. The money is reported as theft, and the Tramp goes to jail.
It’s the ending that makes this movie a blessing. When the Tramp has done his time, he goes back to the girl’s street-selling location and doesn’t find her. Her new shop is nearby, and he spots her through the front window and is struck motionless by seeing her again. She sees him from inside, is charmed by having made a “conquest” in the form of this completely dilapidated wretch, and comes out to offer him a flower—the gesture she made long ago when they first met.
What would have been merely a predictably sentimental happy ending is transformed in the final minute. First, the long, still, silent time given to her recognition that this is her “toff” savior—punctuated by her one word, “You?” Then the closeup on his face, as he realizes that she knows. What he does in that silence, if it could be bottled and given like a vaccine, could restore our wounded sanity. Truly. Incandescent joy is rare and healing.