The best tragedies are really comedies. City Lights is just one of those masterpieces. It is a statement on love, on cinema, and on life in general. I will not provide a summary. If you want, you can find it on the internet. Here are some analysis.
This is our predicament. All too often, when we love someone, we don’t accept them as what they effectively is, but so long as they fit the coordinates of our fantasy. We miss identify them—which is why when we discover that we’re wrong, love can quickly turn into violence. There is nothing more dangerous, more belittling, for the loved person, to be loved, as it were, for not what he/she is, but for what the other imagines them to be. In this case, love is always mortifying.Žižek
This is my first time watching silent film. What is beautiful about silence is that every single word that appears on the screen becomes significant. It speaks with force rather than quantity. Nothing is lost in the silence, but much more is said than one can ever say with words. Without the word as mediation, the characters are exposed in front of us in their nudity. Each movement, each gesture, each act, voices. It is much more demanding than films of noise, both for the actor and viewer. As Heidegger said in What is Called Thinking, we have to listen to the call of thinking, and in order to listen, we have to learn to be silent, to be patient, and carefully hear the calling of Being. City Lights had done this.
Žižek’s quote summarizes nicely City Lights. The tramp is recognized and mis-recognized; the tramp appears in places he shouldn’t be and be in places he shouldn’t appear; the tramp disguises himself in front of the all-too-strong gaze of the other, but is drawn, nevertheless, to look at her once again.
There is no peaceful recognition that allows each to embrace each other in authenticity. We clumsily disguise ourselves in front of other people, terrified to expose all of our flaws and imperfections, and we accept the veil of the other as a necessity, going around treating them as we treat them in a fantasy. (It complicates things, of course, with the blindness of the girl. The blindness is the general blindness of fantasy towards the other, but the blindness also makes her more authentic, as least with a disguise less specifically targeted as me, because she cannot know that I am watching her—and this may be part of the appeal of stalking, to see the other without the veil of self-consciousness (but still, unfortunately, with the new mask of my fantasy). When this phantasmic situation is broken, we break into a panic (as the tramp does)—as we should, because the moment of recognition may well be the moment of destruction—we can see this already in the party scene, where the tramp swallows the whistle, disturbing the concert with the distinct high-pitched screech, and then is kicked out (even though the party is there for him!). Instead of accepting others as they are, we are normally terrified by their abyss. We keep them at a distance—perhaps accepting them temporarily as someone like me when we are drunk (like the millionaire), only to push them away more harshly when we regain our sanity. Such acceptance can only be achieved in true love; this is an acceptance of “Yes, I know you are flawed, but nevertheless I will love you, and think the best of you—even if this means disagreeing with you.”
And this is what City Lights does not show, for it ends at the exact moment of recognition, the moment of the greatest tension. But perhaps structurally Chaplin cannot film what comes afterwards, since City Lights is also a meta-statement about himself as a director, exposing himself to the audience in the naked, silent, screen of the theatre. There can be semblances of recognition within his film, but the relationship is always one-directional. He is not the tramp on his stage, nor can he be loved for who he really is (a rather grumpy and recluse man). Nor can he get in touch with the viewer, but only that fantasy in his imagination as he is filming the movie. Therefore the movie has to end. It is, even, abruptly cut off because its medium is not sufficient for what comes next—what comes next can only be there in Life, when the other is really there in front of us, veiled by their self-consciousness and our fantasy, afraid but desiring to be recognized and affirmed.