Saturday, June 03, 2006

Modern Times (1936)

Dir. Charlie Chaplin
Writ. Charlie Chaplin
w/ Charlie Chaplin, Paulette Goddard, Henry Bergman, Tiny Sandford

Breaking five years' silence after City Lights in 1931, the Tramp returns to work at a steel mill, shipyard, department store, machinist's, and restaurant, the American dream tugging at him. He spends his time trying to stay fed, even if it means going to jail. A run-in with a vivacious, but malnourished street urchin leads to him redoubling efforts in the hope that they can build a home together, but to little avail. Circumstances always emerge that preclude realization, ensuring that he constantly circulates through a maze of entry-level jobs, never achieving anything lasting.

Released thirteen years before 1984 hit bookshelves and ergonomics became an applied science, Modern Times relays startling accuracy and insight into man's struggle with technology. Unable to rest at the steel mill, the Tramp works himself into a nervous breakdown; and, when he lands a craftsman's position at a shipyard, accidentally sinks a half-built ship. Later on, while roller skating as a department store night watchman, a job he got when the old watchman broke his leg, he gets held up by a group of hungry men, one of whom he'd worked with at the steel mill.
Chaplin's apropos commentary on the constraints of industrialization on personal freedom, often sharp, factor in the selling of modernity itself. New technological advances surface like waves and society rushes to catch up with them in vain, stumbling. Social responsibility plays an ever smaller role as money and time dominate its very inventors. Referred to as Chaplin's "crystal ball," his clairvoyance credits his brilliance not only as a comedian, but also as a filmmaker with a wider view of the world and a more salient wit than most.
Yet, despite his full awareness of and attention to the the age of the machine -- or because of -- Chaplin elicits some of the heartiest laughter with this material. His movements balletic and his heroine feistier than usual, his common ails play out with spunk and earthiness. Teetering on the threshold of the ribald, his visual antics possess warmth, depicting the poor blue-collar worker as the salt of the earth. His imparted wisdom, of no mean quality, suggests that when times get so rough that success can only be attained at someone's detriment and is so short-lived anyway, it's more recommendable and just as feasible to live happily ever after as a Tramp.

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