Monday, November 22, 2010

Welcome Back Blogger - Have some Chaplin

I've been trying to think of an adequate topic in which to resurrect my blog. I tired myself out in the process of writing my 'Favorite Films of the Aught's' series and wanted to get back to just writing about misc movies. With the release of Criterion's 'Modern Times' on blu-ray, I feel like I've a found a suitable topic to do this.

Released in 1936, Charlie Chaplin's Modern Times was a “silent” film in a time where sound films had completely taken over theaters. The film is a powerful socialism fueled comedy with healthy doses of pathos, slapstick, politicizing, and romance. In what Chaplin envisioned to be his final adventure with his “Tramp” character, we find that indelible man working in a factory at the film's onset. In this blog entry, I will discuss the factory scenes only.

In a set that echoes the great dystopian factories of Lang's Metropolis and Clair's A Nous a Liberte (more on this film and the controversy with Modern Times later), we see large grizzled workers pulling knobs and turning levers. Instructions are broadcasted from an angry be suited man in an office via a large video screen. During this part of the film is most of the dialogue is spoken and given the futurist setting, this is apt.

We see the Tramp, one or two feet shorter than the other workers, mindlessly using a couple wrenches to turn two screws on a random piece of machinery on a neverending assembly line. He often gets distracted, misses a few pieces, and then has to scramble to catch up. As always, Chaplin's amazing ability to perform natural slapstick is clever and humorous. The man next to him on the assembly line clearly isn't happy with the tramps performance and takes his job very seriously whereas the Tramp realizes the ridiculousness of the scenario.

Chaplin invented the tramp in the mid 1910's and described him as a free thinker and sophisticated gentlemen, despite his clownish appearance. His cane is his only piece of his normal wardrobe that suggests his “nobility” and in the factory, there is no cane or usual bowler hat. His factory attire is black pants a white shirt, similar to the other workers though his costume is markedly baggier than that of his more burly coworkers. In all of the factory exploits, the point is driven home that Chaplin does not belong in this world and serves as a nuisance to those who do.

In a particularly amusing sequence of factory dystopia, a man arrives with a machine to feed employees while they work. The machine drives up to the worker and via a series of bulky levers and inaccurate movements shoves food into the faces of the workers thus allowing them to remain on the station. Yeah, it doesn't work. In fact, it malfunctions and Chaplin ends up with food all his face and clothing. Again, the “suits” get angry with Chaplin himself rather the ridiculous machine.

Though anyone who sees any pictures from or the cover art to Modern Times DVD cover notices Chaplin in the gears of the machine spinning around. While helping an engineer fix machines he gets caught in the gears and embarks on a daft journey spinning around a seemingly never ending series of gears and circuits. Surely this sort of machine would have crushed a normal man and even the normally unflappable Tramp looks panicked. Through his multiple experiences in the gears compounded with the other various machines, he cracks, grabs his wrenches and begins a whimsical dance around the factory turning any two things that look like screws; nipples, mustaches, it's all fair game. The factory becomes a dance and the workers an elaborate set, making this place a bastion of art.

What I love about the factory of Modern Times is the scathing indictment of the this culture. This is a time in society after the robber barons where workers were beginning to develop rights and unions were transforming the work spectrum. Still, many workers were forced to thrive in these mundane and repetitive jobs. Lunch machines probably weren't so far off from ideal, as many bosses did want their workers to be robots. Even the workers themselves seem to have no repoire with each other suggesting more robotic sentiments.

Throughout the film, there are sly signs of worker unrest, the most notable being when the tramp inadvertently becomes the leader of a workers rights protest. Worker unrest is a timeless theme and there will always be conflict between worker-boss. Especially in this economic climate the idea of scaring a worker into dutifully remaining placid on the job is especially relevant.

Earlier in the post, I mentioned 'A Nous A Liberte,' a 1931 film by french director Rene Clair. Modern Times at points is remarkably similar to this film, especially during Chaplin's gear adventures. During the time, Chaplin swore up and down he had never seen the film though later in life, he back-peddled a bit and reportedly even said that Claire's film was better. I've seen both and while the Clair film is a classic in its own right, Modern Times is far superior and a lot funnier. Chaplin probably did steal ideas from Clair, but he improved on them immensely. I personally find Liberte a bit boring, mostly unfunny, and while that film is factory-centric, Modern Times really becomes a masterpiece in the second half with the integration of an incredibly sweet and inspiring love story. Conveniently, on the DVD, there is a nice little featureless on this.

Modern Times is unquestionably a masterpiece and a fitting retirement for the Tramp. At the close of the film, during his usual walk down the road into the sunset away from society, he finds a mate and presumably, will go and continue to make his way. What I love most about the Tramp is his spirit and his indelible optimism despite living a world not designed for him. Despite his poverty and continual rejection from society, he remains cheerful and hopeful as he literally walks down the road of life.

Modern Times is currently out on DVD via the Criterion Collection on standard and blu-ray. BUY