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Anatomy of a Scene - City Lights


We're going to break down another scene this week, and it's one of my favorites in cinema history. It comes from the ending of City Lights by Charlie Chaplin, which I think is the greatest romantic comedy ever made. 

It's a touching film from 1931 and I would make it mandatory viewing for anyone who wants to learn to tell a story.

The scene we're going to be breaking down comes from the very end of the film, so if you haven't seen it, I don't want to spoil it for you. Go watch the film. You can rent it for $3.99 in HD on Amazon or for free on Hulu with a free trial or plus subscription. You should just buy the Blu-ray, though. You're going to want to revisit it.

For those of you familiar with the movie, or for those of you who are going to ignore my pleas to watch it and go ahead with this post anyway, I'm going to set this clip up a bit before you watch it.

City Lights tells the story of Chaplin's Tramp and how he falls in love with a blind flower girl. Her family is in financial ruin and on the verge of losing their home. The Tramp, having befriended a drunk rich man who manages to forget him whenever he's sober, manages to get enough money to keep them in their apartment. Thanks to a bit of mistaken identity, she thinks he's rich himself, not knowing the trouble he has to go through in order to get the money, whether that's begging, borrowing, or literally shoveling horse shit off the ground. He goes to any length to help her and doubles his efforts when he discovers an expensive procedure that will give his love her sight back. He goes to the drunken rich man for the money and gets it, but through a series of unfortunate circumstances, he is believed to be a thief of the money by both the rich man and the police. In the chase to arrest him, the Tramp manages to get the flower girl the money for her procedure before he's arrested and thrown in jail. 

This scene begins just after he's been released, twice as destitute as he was before...


Everything about this particular scene is perfect. 

It begins in this clip with her thinking she's heard the slam of a limousine's door, which was how she knew her "wealthy" tramp was near. She hears him everywhere, desperate to make a connection again with the man who changed her life. Before, she was merely a beggar on the street selling flowers. With her eyesight, she was able to open her own shop and provide for her grandmother and make something of herself. 

She explains this and we see the forlorn look on her face. We feel it. We want them to be together, but we don't even quite know what's happened to the tramp since he was thrown in prison.

When we see him finally, we know that he's working slower. Depressed. And he's put in the same situation we'd seen him earlier in the film: tormented by the newsies. The first time it was funny, this time, it's sad. He's broken and lost everything. He's so focused on his tormenters, he almost doesn't realize he's made it in front of a flower shop.

The scene is played out beautifully so that when he turns back around to keep moving, we're left to think we're going to see them meet. This is a build of tension. How can you make the audience want something and then tease it from them, so they're more and more excited for it? Chaplin builds this sequence, choreographing it like a professional. 

It's a narrow miss and she goes back in before he might have noticed her.

But, since he's so focused on his downward gaze, he notices a discarded flower just like the ones he used to buy from her. It's a symbol for him as well, something beautiful at its core, but mistreated and discarded in the street. 

The newsies continue their torment and we're heartbroken by this. It is an injustice. 

And who is laughing at him, almost derisively, not realizing he is who he is? The love of his life. She laughs at his absurd poverty and he's been choreographed to have his back to her. As an audience member, we know that he has to see her in order for their connection to be made, but his back is still frustratingly to her. 

Will they meet again? Or will he keep walking into poverty and oblivion?

And then he turns.

And the world stops.

This is what the entire sequence has been building toward. It came in the juxtaposition of characters and the build up of their circumstances. At the beginning of the scene, we were given both of them and they circled each other closer and closer, we as the audience want desperately for this to happen and when it finally does, we've been teased it for so long that it is electric. 

He's happy.

But look at him... He's a pauper. Why would she pay anything but disdain and ironic warmth for him?

It doesn't matter. Through the shop window, all he can see is that she is there, successful and happy. His sacrifice was not in vain. He guarded valiantly the secret of his poverty, and when she goes to make her own move of charity, he simply wants to leave. Better to let her remember him as a rich man who loved her than this embarrassing specimen. 

But she insists. 

And he cannot resist the flower, but he seems reticent to take her money. Her sense of touch was how she knew him and if she touches him it's all over. She'll know.

But it's too late. She grabs his hand and wraps it around the coin. 

And then she realizes there's something... something familiar about the hand...

How stunning and heartbreaking is this realization?

She realizes her mistake, but he ignores it. "You can see now?" he asks, trying to save her the embarrassment, though it doesn't quite work. She's taken aback and brings his hand to her chest, cherishing it.

The scene fades and we just know that they must have lived happily ever after. 

The major lesson this scene has is that your ending has so much more power if you can build all of the symbols and themes from the very beginning of your movie and play them out at the ending so that your audience is rewarded for paying attention. This is, to my mind, is a perfect bow tied from the threads of everything in a story that came before it. It's sentimental and sweet. I have yet to watch this movie where the ending doesn't make me tear up. (In fact, I teared up again rewatching just this snippet in preparing for this piece.)

This scene is a constant reminder to me that everything needs to play toward the ending. Everything needs to reinforce the theme and the complexity of the story. No other sequence of events could have brought us to a scene with this much meaning. And Chaplin pulled it off like a master. 

So think about how you can create situations and symbols that you can introduce throughout your piece that will add meaning to the punch of the ending. Read books and stories that do the same thing. Take the atheism through Graham Greene's The End of the Affair, or the way comic stories and family play through Chabon's The Amazing Adventures of Kavalier and Clay. Hell, Junot Diaz's The Brief, Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao managed to use Alan Moore's The Watchmen as a symbol and added meaning to it. Or look for it in movies: the shattered compact in The Apartment, the dueling themes of agency vs. oversight and the consumptive nature of vengeance in Captain America: Civil War. Every character in the latter movie, from Zemo and Black Panther to Spider-Man and Captain American, illustrate different aspects of both of those themes, giving equal weight to all the arguments. 

Think about all the meaning the use of "As Time Goes By" adds to Casablanca. Or Rosebud in Citizen Kane

These are threads the writers chose, weaved through their stories, and offered us a meaningful, impactful ending that will reward our attention.

How can you do this better?

Personally, I think it's important to grope for these things in the initial draft of a book or screenplay, but if you don't nail it, it comes to the second draft to hone and revise these objects, symbols, and themes. 

You can also take Paddy Chayefsky's method. Once he'd determined what the theme of a story was, he would write it on a slip of paper and tape it to his typewriter. "That way nothing that doesn't support the theme will pass through the typewriter."

There's no wrong answer, but paying attention to it is definitely going to help you weave a better story.

As for my writing this week, my latest Cinema Behind Star Wars column takes a look at The Bodyguard

I also wrote about why May 4th is a Star Wars holiday for Howstuffworks.com.

I'm still plugging away on my novel. I'm two chapters from the end and am still finding that action sequences take much more mental energy to write. It's difficult, but it's happening. I'm still hoping to finish this week or next so I can get to work revising my fantasy novel.

I've also started vlogging. On Friday's (around noonish MST) I've been doing live streams from my Facebook page to answer your questions about writing. I'll tweet about it beforehand when I have a more solid time, so keep an eye out for it! And don't hesitate to tweet or email me questions beforehand, I don't have to answer them on the spot.


As a reminder: The Aeronaut and Escape Vector are still out and still need your purchases and reviews. If nothing else, they can use you telling people about them. If you want signed copies, visit the shop here on this page.

As far as my work outside of all this: There's a lot of great stuff on Big Shiny Robot! and Full of Sith for you. 

And please, please, please don't forget to check out any of my books, drop reviews of them on Amazon or Goodreads, and follow me on twitter and Facebook!

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