Tuesday, February 07, 2012

Tramps Like Us: The Enduring Resonance of 'Modern Times'

Later this month the 84th annual Academy Awards will be presented. The two films getting the most nominations--with 11 and 10 respectively--are my two favorites from 2011; Hugo, Martin Scorsese's homage to the early silent films of movie pioneer Georges Méliès, and The Artist, an actual (mostly) silent movie imaginatively created by Michel Hazanavicius.

The other night, I watched a cinematic classic that is considered the last mainstream silent movie ever made--with the exception of Mel Brooks' Silent Movie in 1976--prior to The Artist. This was Modern Times, an 87-minute feature-length film written, directed and produced by Charlie Chaplin and released in February 1936.

Notable for numerous reasons, the movie serves as the last screen appearance of Chaplin's "Little Tramp" character, described on a DVD featurette of fairly recent vintage as "the most universally recognized fictional human figure in history."

Although as referenced in The Artist, "talkies" had become the norm by 1930--per Wikipedia, which notes that due to a preponderance of silent cinemas,  dual versions were produced of most films until the mid-'30s--and Chaplin had originally conceived Modern Times as his first talkie, after some experimentation he concluded that the Tramp would lose his appeal if he ever were to speak on screen.

Thus, though there is some brief talking by another character early in the film and a variety of sound effects throughout, Modern Times is essentially a silent movie, albeit by "Artistic" choice, not necessity.

Candidly, I am referencing my own ignorance in saying this, but Chaplin is too commonly considered merely an iconic caricature, rather than the brilliant, socially incisive filmmaker he was. Besides some short films I couldn't name or distinguish, Modern Times is my first true exploration of Chaplin, so in calling it a masterpiece, I am not informatively ranking it above or below The Gold Rush, City Lights or The Great Dictator, all of which I will make a point of watching.

But I found it wonderful in ways I wasn't expecting. Although it was technologically backward even in its own time, Modern Times remains strikingly timeless.

If you're a reader of this blog with any degree of frequency, you've likely noticed that one of my great vexations is the relative lack of socially-conscious artistry making its way to the masses. We are still in the midst of a worldwide economic crisis caused by corporate criminality, largely condoned by the federal government. But while there have been plentiful flashes--if not yet a ubiquity--of public anger, on both sides of the political spectrum, there has been a relative dearth of commentative, contemplative and/or anger-fueled art making its way to the masses.

Certainly, there are numerous exemplary exceptions. If you pay attention to people like Tom Morello, Michael Moore and Matt Taibbi, you know that there are musicians, filmmakers and journalists trying to facilitate a fairer society. Jon Stewart, in his own way, has been doing a great service to America, and I'm very much looking forward to Bruce Springsteen's new album, said to be centered around a theme of economic justice.

I also understand that with the fragmentation brought upon by the internet age and myriad cable television channels, it is much harder for any artistic vehicle to truly reach the mainstream.

But there used to be movies like Network and Taxi Driver and The Deer Hunter that addressed topical societal matters, garnered critical acclaim and also did big business a the box office. TV shows such as M*A*S*H and All in the Family weren't just among the funniest and most watched, they actually dared to comment on issues such as war and bigotry and injustice. Far from being marginalized, musicians like Bob Dylan, Bob Marley, John Lennon, Johnny Cash and The Clash weren't shy about mixing their philosophy with their artistry, yet still managed to sell records.

And why, nearly 40 years after Watergate, are Woodward & Bernstein still the prime examples one can cite of journalists who rewrote history?

I apologize to those easily offended, but to be a truly great artist doesn't simply demand extraordinary talent, it takes balls, in order to do something daring and to say something that some people may not like.

With Modern Times, Chaplin--said to have read numerous books on economic theory, from which he supposedly devised a credible economic solution--made a movie that's more socially pertinent to today's times than most movies made today.

And think about it; he made a silent movie long after silent movies were out of fashion, and he made a movie decrying the effects of industrialization in the midst of the depression. While millions were out of work, he pointed out just how dehumanizing certain work could be.

But much of the genius of Modern Times is that it isn't overly strident; it doesn't come off as a directed assault. Rather, it showcases the importance of perseverance and love in battling adversity. As the opening titles state, the movie is "A story of industry, of individual enterprise - humanity crusading in the pursuit of happiness."

And as one would expect from Chaplin, it's often strikingly funny, which undoubtedly contributed to its initial success and enduring reputation as one of the best movies ever made (as evidenced by its inclusion, along with City Lights and The Gold Rush, on the AFI 100).

For there's a fine line--oft ignored amidst the rampant polarization that we've embraced--between making an emotional appeal that stirs contemplation and launching a provocational attack that amplifies hostility. Sometimes, a bit of "we're all in this together" humor--even when offered by one with monumental wealth and fame--can be the key.

You can likely find a copy of Modern Times on DVD at most libraries, but per our modern times, it is also posted to YouTube in 9 parts. I've posted the first two parts below.

The movie opens with Charlie's nameless Little Tramp monotonously working on an assembly line. Soon, his bosses are pitched a great time-saving device that will feed their employees right on the line, eliminating the need for a lunch hour. Split between the end of Part I and beginning of Part II below is an absolutely brilliant scene in which Charlie is elected to test out the feeding machine's viability.

From there, the Tramp inadvertently leads a Communist march, winds up in jail, foils a prison break, unknowingly ingests cocaine and falls in love with a beautiful young woman (Paulette Goddard, who was also Chaplin's lover in real life).

I highly suggest you watch the whole film--for which Chaplin also composed the score, including the wondrous "Smile," (at that point without lyrics)--and won't describe much more of it. Yet I don't think I'll be giving away much to cite that at the end, with both characters again down on their luck, Goddard asks the Tramp, "What's the use of trying?"

To which, Charlie replies, "Buck up -- never say die. We'll get along."

Wisdom for modern times, indeed.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Agreed!! The overwhelmingly obsequious presence of raisinettes for balls is oppressive as well as demoralizing, debilitating and depressing.