A Light Sublime

12 Nov 2013: Limelight (DVD, 1951, Charlie Chaplin)

Much more melancholy and morose than earlier silent-era Chaplin, even when he deals with the soul-destroying industrial horrors of Modern Times, this film counterintuitively feels more inspirational because of it by truly acknowledging the serendipity but also the bittersweetness of success. One of the best things this film shows, which I can’t remember seeing anywhere else, is how quickly and completely two people in a relationship can reverse emotional roles and poles as appropriate to different situations, “hypocritically” taking up the mantle that the other has championed for support in despair but temporarily forgets when enmeshed in his own problems. One can sense that Chaplin really feels the end is near for him, not only in that he is handing off fame and love to a younger set of people and that he dies at the finale, but most immediately in his willingness to show his character’s painful stage performances – making it obvious to the viewer repeatedly near the film’s beginning, and then making that viewer sit through one of the previously failed acts again towards the end as the audience laughs because they have been directed to, which hurts even more (like a fake smile) the second time around. Apart from the film’s thematic resonance – or rather united with it – is a still-keen visual sense that thankfully refrains from chopping up the many performances (even when they’re hard to watch) and glides with dollies and pans across streets and through bedrooms to link objects and subjects. For every scene of apparent hopelessness (hope can be done without, anyway, as Chaplin’s comedian claims, if one lives for the moment) there’s a counterpart with an unusually forceful and convincing affirmation of following love and dreams: the film is just not so dopey that it pretends everything will be smiles and rainbows as a consequence.

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