Friday, October 21, 2011

MOVIE REVIEW: MODERN TIMES (1936)

MODERN TIMES


Starring 
Charlie Chaplin
Paulette Goddard


Written, Directed, Produced, Original Music Composed by Charlie Chaplin
Cinematography by Ira H. Morgan and Roland Totheroh 
Editing by Charlie Chaplin and Willard Nico
Production Design by Charles D. Hall
Art Direction by J. Russell Spencer


The Chaplin is a Tramp! And this Tramp starts out with a pretty good job in the midst of the Great Depression: tightening bolts on incomprehensible bits of machine parts as they race by on a manic conveyor belt. Chaplin's boss dictates to the workers via an Orwellian telescreen, and his one dictate seems to be "Faster! Faster!" And so the workers on the line pick up the pace. Chaplin has to tighten two bolts at a time, so he's armed with a wrench in each fist. He takes to his work with crazed intensity, even if he does get a bit flaky and start applying the wrenches to the buttons on people's coats and dresses and even the occasional pair of nipples. Chaplin ends up losing his mind because he can't keep pace with the work, and the boss conducts a bizarre experiment on him involving a feeding machine that looks like it was designed by Survival Research Laboratories. Does Chaplin show up with a fully automatic assault rifle and start killing at will? Does he go on strike? No! He dances! He spurts people in the face with an oil can! He takes a ride through the gears of the grand industrial machinery! He makes all kinds of merry! He is happy as can be! And to be this kind of happy in the heart of the industrial beast one must clearly be insane. Later for that cushy factory job.

Chaplin finds himself out of work and on the streets. While strolling along with his inimitable walk he gets caught up between striking workers and strikebreaking pig cops. The cops drag Chaplin off to prison for being a communist agitator, and it looks like his spirits are sure to be crushed. But he ends up consuming large quantities of cocaine by accident and he becomes supercharged with energy. With this burst of energy he battles an armed gang trying to bust out of lock-up, and the Tramp becomes a savior of the prison warden. They even give him a pardon and, what's most important, a letter of reference so he can get a job.

Meanwhile, the lovely Paulette Goddard finds herself barefoot in the streets after her father is gunned down during a labor skirmish. Rather than become a ward of the state, she decides to strike out on her own, and try to skip and prance and charm her way into a job and a new life. She crosses paths with the Tramp when she nearly gets caught stealing a loaf of bread. Chaplin tries to take the rap, and thereby end up in jail again where he was actually having a grand old time, and penitentiary sure beat hell outta the madness of working the factory line . . .

What does it take to survive in a world of brutal, dehumanizing labor, state repression of labor strikes, and all pervasive poverty and starvation? You gotta get tough. You gotta get organized. You gotta have solidarity with your fellow workers. You gotta stand up to the pigs and the oppressors. Or you can just get goofy. Chaplin gets goofy.

But I'm not sure the Tramp ever made a choice, exactly. He's just that kind of guy, you know? All he wants is to cruise through life, not take on too many obligations, eat well, and maybe find a nice girl to spend time with. Make time to roller skate, sing, and dance. If he ends up as a labor agitator, a rebel, a thief, and a gangbuster those are just side effects of his good time, you know what I'm saying? What kind of victory would it be, anyways, to win some bogus concessions from management, and still be tied down to that goddamn factory line? Better to cut loose of such attachments, and cruise through reality as if it all was just one big Saturday afternoon stroll.

Modern Times is a delightful fantasy, a liberating blast of gentle anarchy. Yes, real life is a lot uglier, and much more insane. But the central idea, as I take it, is that a person can find freedom and dignity in the midst of grim circumstances through play, and through this play you can negate the systems of command and control, oppression and obedience, that the bogus, arbitrary, unthinking authorities of the world are obsessively trying to perpetrate upon humanity.

There's a nice little moment where the cops are trying to get Chaplin to heel, and he just keeps on walking, politely refusing their demands. No Molotov cocktails, no lawsuits, just as if to say, "No thank you. You may keep your authoritarian bullshit for yourself. I'll not be needing it." Of course, Chaplin does it without the superfluous words.

What more can I say? Chaplin was a brilliant physical comedian, filmmaker, musician, actor, he did it all. Paulette Goddard is quite beautiful, and cunning. Unlike Chaplin, she has seen death up close, and so she applies her willpower to the art of survival. She is a perfect compliment to Chaplin's unconscious agent of anarchy. There's a reason why people who draw up lists of the greatest movies ever put Modern Times on the list. It helps that it's imminently watchable and hilarious. The set designs are mind-boggling and fun. The comic timing is as hectic and athletic as a Jackie Chan martial arts comedy.

What a team-up that would've been! Chaplin and Chan!

Better that it remains an idle fantasy, and not some CG grotesquerie.


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