The one-night-only Spoleto screening of Charlie Chaplin’s silent masterpiece City Lights, accompanied by the Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra, was the perfect way to see one of cinema’s most perfect films.

I’d never seen City Lights before, and I can’t imagine a better first experience than sitting in the cool dark of the Sottile Theatre with a world-class orchestra. The audience at the 5 p.m. screening — mostly older folks — roared with laughter at Chaplin’s slapstick and groaned when our hero took a knockout punch in a boxing match.


The elaborate, communal experience seemed all the more poignant as I considered how my first experience with City Lights would probably look if not for Spoleto: Late at night, trying to rock my infant daughter to sleep, pulling up a bootleg YouTube copy on a 13-inch laptop with dismally tinny speakers. My first viewing of Buñuel and Dalí’s Un Chien Andalou was on a laptop, and I’ll always regret not taking in its weirdness in a more theatrical setting.

Thanks to Spoleto, I got to see City Lights while feeling in my chest the full power of the orchestra, conducted by William Eddins of the Edmonton Symphony Orchestra. I was warmed by the harp and tender violins as the Tramp met the blind Flower Girl, thrilled by the pizzicato strings as the Tramp cajoled the Millionaire out of committing suicide. I had been warned that the closing scene would make my eyes well up, but I couldn’t stop myself as the orchestra wrung the tears out of me.

Our Spoleto overview critic Elizabeth Pandolfi opined last night that the screening should have been, if not free, at least more affordable for the groundlings. I have conflicting feelings about this.

On the one hand, yes, this was a populist movie in a populist medium, featuring one of the most beloved populist protagonists in the history of film. But pop culture in one era can become high art in another. No one bats an eye, for example, at $75 tickets for Romeo and Juliet, but in Shakespeare’s time there were peasants on the ground floor of the Globe Theatre, pelting the actors with rotten fruit if their performance wasn’t up to snuff.

The labor of artists isn’t, and shouldn’t, be free. So I won’t go as far as to ask for a free screening — unless some benefactor wants to sponsor a free outdoor screening next year, in which case I’m all for it.

But I do hope the festival makes a habit of employing musicians in the scoring of silent films. In my neighborhood, longtime members of the Park Circle Film Society still rave about the Nosferatu screening with dual-keyboard accompaniment that the Society put on for Halloween 2010, (tickets, by the way, were $5). The entire era of silent film begs for revival, and the Spoleto Festival USA Orchestra has the chops to bring it roaring back to life.

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