City Lights

Posted by jdg | Monday, January 28, 2008

There are weeks of preparation, bedtime stories that start like this: "Once there was a little tramp, who fell asleep on a statue covered by a curtain."

"What's a tramp?"

"A guy who doesn't have a house or anywhere of his own to sleep."

"When I get older I will build him a house, and probably a bed too."

If she doesn't want to know why the girl in the story is blind, she wants to know why she sells flowers. When I say because the flower girl is poor, I have to explain what it means to be poor. "The tramp is very poor, too," I say. "But he gives everything he has to the girl so she can get an operation that will help her see."

"I will give them all my money," she says, speaking, I assume, of her piggy bank that contains a fortune of at least $1.68. Such selflessness from a creature who screams at the mere possibility of a classmate wanting to use the crayon she's currently holding. For days we practice speaking in tiny whispers. We talk about sitting in the dark and not being scared.

At the ticket counter we are told, "No children under five." It's just as well. There's hardly anyone under fifty at the theater. As I brace myself for the crush of her disappointment, a friend of a friend who works for the theater recognizes us and gets her boss to make an exception. The usher lets us into the old movie palace, built in 1927 (four years before the movie we are about to watch itself was released), and as I point to the gilded cherubs hovering above the seats, I notice the faces of our fellow film goers. Never have I felt such collective ill will directed towards me. We are suddenly those parents, the idiots who bring a toddler to an inappropriate movie. I'm sure they would have hated us less if we'd brought her to Cloverfield or Saw XIV. My wife decides she wants to sit on the other side of the theater, so we have to walk in front of this blue-haired mob flinging silent malice at us. I wish I'd had a microphone:

"Fear not, fellow appreciators of silent film! We are not here merely because we don't have a babysitter and the 7:00 showing of Alvin and the Chipmunks was sold out at the AMC megaplex; no, no, we are cruel yuppie parents who do not allow our child watch any television or movies other than DVDs of slapstick comedy shorts from the jazz age. She actually enjoys Charlie Chaplin films because she doesn't know any better! See how precocious we have bullied her into being? She couldn't identify Squarebob Spongepants in a lineup of trousered poriferans!"

I hunker down in my seat. Juniper snuggles in the crook of my right arm, oblivious to the maelstrom of furtive whispering and the fact that she is at its nucleus. The curtains slide clumsily aside, the theater darkens, and the the screen descends to say City Lights. I look at her face lit by the opening credits: she is awed into respectful silence by this, her first real taste of the cinema. I whisper the intertitles in her ear. During the pratfalls and gags, her toddler laughs cry out alongside adult laughter. Chaplin would approve. When the adults laugh at something she doesn't quite understand, she whispers in a voice I can hardly hear, "What's so funny?" and I try to explain. She never complains or raises her voice above the tiniest whisper.

By the end she is tired; she puts her head down on my shoulder and I feel her yawn there as the little tramp is set free from prison, his humble suit in tatters. No one with a human soul can watch the scene that follows without being touched by it. James Agee called it "enough to shrivel the heart to see, and it is the greatest piece of acting and the highest moment in movies." This is still true in 2008. The kid nearly sleeps through it, and as the credits roll I hold her close, overcome by emotion as I always am at the end of this movie. The three of us get up to leave the theater, vindicated, at least until she has a meltdown in the lobby because she doesn't want to leave. "But everyone is leaving. See?"

The baby stirs deep in Wood's belly, and she winces. "Contraction?" I ask, and she shakes her head No. Still, all this feels like the end of a great experiment. The kid who never gets to watch television has managed to sit through a feature film few adults would be willing to watch in this day and age. And after three years of exhaustive adherence to our strict yupster ideology, it was about to start all over again. In three years time, no doubt, this one will be wearing SquareBob pajamas and playing with Bratz Princezz dolls while we tread water just trying to keep the two of them from killing each other. You can keep on trying to be a cool parent, I suppose, but your coolness just becomes another form of tyranny. And tyranny is so not cool. You think, when they're born, that you're not going to give up on who you were, that you're just going to bring this new being into the fold. Holding something so tiny gives you that imbalanced sense of power, and for a time, I suppose, it's true: they wouldn't silkscreen Black Flag onesies by the thousands if it weren't. But in time even the closest-held sense of one's coolness will drift away in lacy jags, disappear entirely amid pathetic denial. I picture myself, middle-aged in bad glasses that I think aren't bad glasses, and I'll tell my teenage daughter that the first movie she ever went to was Charlie Chaplin's City Lights, and that she loved it, that she sat in my arms when I was young and desperate for her to love it. So not cool, I know. But so much a part of who I was then. Someday she will watch it again, I hope, and realize it is a really funny film about selflessness, about giving yourself over completely to someone else, someone who needs you completely. It is about giving up everything you have in your pocket, your freedom, your dignity, even. Because you love without asking for anything in return.

And then you stand there before them in joyous shame; in frightened, prideful awe.