The Charles Theatre’s revival of Modern Times shows Chaplin still up-to-date
Published: August 15, 2012
Directed by Charlie Chaplin
At the Charles Theatre Aug. 16 at 9 p.m.
“Modern” is a vexed word. Modern philosophy started in the 1600s with René Descartes, but modernist literature began 300 years later. Like the “now” that it invokes, the modern stubbornly and swiftly recedes into the past.
All of these contradictions are present in Charlie Chaplin’s great Modern Times, now playing in a revival at the Charles Theatre. In theory, it is impossible to revive modern times, for they are the times in which we live. But the black-and-white film, the lack of dialogue (although the film was made well into the “talkie” period and uses music, some of it composed by Chaplin), and most of all, the big, grinding gears of the industrial age seem like something from a world long gone. And yet, among the films that will survive as long as we do, Modern Times is at the top because it captures the one essential thing about the modern and the now: The present is always befuddling.
This befuddlement is what Chaplin captures so well in this story of a factory worker-turned-inmate-turned-hero; his beloved Little Tramp twitches and staggers and jerks and dances his way throughout the first scenes of the film, stumbling into himself, the machines he is supposed to operate, and his superiors, as he does when he is busted for smoking by the prescient Bloombergian face on the video screen. Though these first scenes of the movie may owe a debt to Jaroslav Hasek’s World War I novel Good Soldier Svejk, nearly every other entry in the slacker genre is deeply indebted to the Tramp we see in these scenes.
In 1936, when the film was released, most urban women did not work in factories. Only half the population could directly relate to the industrial foibles that befall the Tramp. But today we are all equally befuddled by our machinery. The iconic scene where Chaplin is sucked up by the factory’s giant gears may seem foreign to us today (we made things then!), but we witness the same grind every time a friend is sucked out of conversation by the most recent text or Facebook update. And like many a factory worker, we aren’t certain of the purpose of our machines.
And though our machines don’t force-feed us at the factory, in a perfectly orchestrated nightmare of mechanical consumption, much of our food is made in factories, and every delicious homemade dinner is interrupted by a photograph on Instagram. As in 1936, we love machines, but we cannot control them.
But the more important point is that we can’t control ourselves around our machines. The beauty of the Little Tramp’s character is that, no matter how often he is arrested, beaten, or injured, he enjoys himself the entire time. This is what his co-workers cannot stand: He maintains his humanity in the face of mechanization. He wreaks havoc on the factory by dancing, prancing, and pulling the wrong levers in utter gaiety, using the confusing mechanized world to his advantage when he can—swinging out on a chain, squirting his pursuers with oil—but the workplace outburst is called a nervous breakdown.
He is told to avoid excitement as he exits a hospital, stepping out into a distinctly Fells Point-looking neighborhood, and ends up in a clash between Communists and the police. This is where the flick gets into its other modern theme: class conflict. As our own Dust Bowl grows in the Midwest and our economy is still in ruins, Modern Times’ depiction of class struggle also resonates. The moment that the Tramp is arrested as the leader of the protest, he becomes the hapless hero of the Occupy-esque crowd, carried along by forces he can neither understand nor control.
But while the Tramp may be the Every Man, the plight of the orphaned young woman is much different. The gamine (brilliantly played by the gorgeous Paulette Goddard), unable to work in the factory, is forced to steal bread, ends up in jail, and later goes on to work in a nightclub.
The romantic entanglement between the gamine and the Little Tramp is the other thing that makes Modern Times a nearly perfect movie: We are as befuddled by our families and our romantic relationships as we are by our professional engagements. When the Little Tramp arrives at a shack the gamine has found, he messes up everything he touches. It is a commentary on their poverty (“It’s not Buckingham Palace,” she says), but anyone who has ever been nervous on a date can sympathize with the Tramp’s plight. When it comes down to it, we don’t know shit. Nevertheless, we can find someone who will accept our foibles and failures, help us buck up and walk out together onto the open road, striking out for the territories like Huck Finn.
Nothing is new forever: Our gadgets, clothes, cars, and hairstyles will always change. But our confusion in the face of time and the world are constant. Chaplin’s physical comedy is the great dramatic rendering of this confusion, and yet it also provides us with an equally human way of dealing with it via the Little Tramp’s good humor and dignity.
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