Modern Times opens with the image of sheep being herded into what we can imagine is their end of life as that is what sheep are for. We grow them, sheer them, and then eventually end them for dinner. We dissolve to the image of all the men being herded into work. This can be through train stations, bus terminals, traffic jams on the road to eventually punching in their time cards at the office to begin being sheered for all the life they have to eventually profit the herder. The problem with that image is it disassociates you from the individual. Each person in that image amounts to nothing more than a statistic at that point and fails to look at any emotional stability or feeling.
Chaplin though never disassociates the people from his stories. His films, as I’ve seen them so far (this is my third), all play on the notion of the will and importance of people. Whether you’re a tramp who can’t be seen by anyone other than the blind lady in City Lights, or the post war amnesiac Jewish barber from the ghetto right before Hitler takes power in The Great Dictator, or even in Modern Times where we watch as Chaplin plays the bumbling factory worker who brushes off every encounter with police, poles and electricity generating cog wielding machines that I couldn’t tell you how it works, to get up and put a smile on being hopeful for another day.
There are so many movies from this era that I want to discuss their narrative and emotional importance more than dwelling on how well they play a particular gag in a scene, and while I can’t discredit Chaplin’s artistry here, the gags just feel like they are what makes this film bubble up. There are gags that make you laugh the way Chuck Jones’ Looney Tunes did. We watch as Chaplin — now a prisoner in jail — spins around, high on “nose powder”, to not end up in his cell, then foil an escape attempt and become the beloved prisoner of the guards and staff of the “big house”. Watching the perfectly choreographed dance of Chaplin’s physical plays makes you wonder what technology advances really take away rather than add to the world we have. In the last month I’ve been watching the Rocket Jump Show on Hulu, their final episode had them doing a silent era short with some of these very influences showing true. They play out a series of gags that dance themselves from tortureous to plain silly. I can’t explain why watching someone hit their head on a door is funny as much as why seeing it done three times in a row makes it even funnier, all I can tell you is that when I raise my head twenty minutes later gasping for air I want to repeat the experience as many times as my brain allows me to.
I do feel that Chaplin mastered his world a lot more than a lot of filmmakers today master the tools they have on hand now. Take for example the Rocket Jump short I mentioned above; the “exciting” sell is not just the silly silent era comedy of it, but a massive almost three minute long uncut attempt at a cat and mouse “bottle throwing” fight between nazis and a bartender. It’s great, but at times feels stretched, or as if they tried too hard to make it work as one take. Chaplin on the other hand does this sort of thing repeatedly, whether it’s him being the guinea pig who tries the automated feeding machine or him in the back of a police van continually falling back into the lap of this uncooperative woman, or even parading around him and his new romantic entanglement’s home where everything is breaking that he touches. There are minimal cuts in all of those scenes, but cuts can and will happen when needed. Chaplin knows when to let things play and when to stretch his world through edits. Even at times when you feel we’ve already climaxed on occassion Chaplin takes us higher without making us feel overextended.
However, the end of this movie is something that caught me off guard. While thematically it’s nothing new or particularly earth-shattering, I was hit with a lot of emotions. Watching as Chaplin smiles back at us in all of his disastrous experiences brought me calm. It also helped that I sat there listening closely to the music attempting to place the song that I was hearing, only to finally figure out it was the music for the famous standard Smile. On a daily basis I discover things that were there as long as Columbus discovered lands across a sea, but this felt immense. It felt no different from Chaplin pulling a lever and running around after having a mental break down. As if this information that Chaplin himself composed this song for this film had me in awe.
Read more of my writings on classics new to me in the Blindspot Series.