The Criterion Collection has put out a new edition of Charlie Chaplin's City Lights, and on the disc they've included the rare footage above of Chaplin directing that most famous of his pictures. We see him giving instructions to young Virginia Cherrill, who appeared in the film as a blind flower girl for whom Chaplin's Tramp falls head over heels. Chaplin's character approved of Cherrill much more heartily than Chaplin himself did. The director considered the actress an "amateur" and remembered her often "doing something which wasn’t right. Lines. A line. A contour hurts me if it’s not right." That remark, originally made in an interview conducted in 1968, 37 years after City Lights, comes quoted in David Robinson’s new book, Chaplin: His Life and His Art. The New Yorker's Richard Brody also uses it in his post on City Lights and Chaplin's direction of Cherrill, of whom he, for one sequence, demanded as many as 342 takes.
Does that send Chaplin straight to the canon of perfectionist filmmakers? You may say yes, but Brody, whose powers of cinematic observation at times make me want to scrap everything and dedicate my life to film criticism, has a more interesting response. “It’s tempting to ascribe Chaplin’s obsessional direction," he argues, "but I think that the episode reveals an even more powerful strain of Chaplin’s art, a sort of imperfectionism. Chaplin didn’t have a mental template that he wanted Cherrill to match; he approaches the scene not quite knowing what he wanted." Chaplin, so it seems, simply worked this way, seeking perfection, but an unusual "perfection of results, not of conformity to a preconceived schema. He sought what provoked, in him, the perfect emotion, the perfect aesthetic response—but he wouldn’t know it until he saw it. He started to shoot in the confidence that the thing—whatever it was—would happen." And now you can watch 65 of the fruits of Chaplin's quest for this imperfectionistic perfection for free on our very own collection of Chaplin films on the web.
via The New Yorker
Colin Marshall hosts and produces Notebook on Cities and Culture and writes essays on cities, Asia, film, literature, and aesthetics. He’s at work on a book about Los Angeles, A Los Angeles Primer. Follow him on Twitter at @colinmarshall or on his brand new Facebook page.