Why is it worth our time to watch Chaplin’s 80 year old silent movie? REVIEW BY TAMÁS SOÓS.
Let us assume that someone in his or her twenties slaving away at a multinational company goes to the pictures, and as fate would have it, sees Modern Times instead of a superhero movie – both are slapstick in their own way –, only to realize that some things indeed never do change. The constant job search, the exhausting monotony of menial work, or the boss checking up on the workers electronically – the settings are different, but the situations are all too familiar. In a sense Modern Times is very relevant, as Chaplin’s work not only foreshadowed the Big Brother of 1984 with the figure of the boss watching his employees on a screen and ordering them around, the feeding machine also heralded the Youtube clips in which morons get their teeth knocked out by a corn on the cob rotating on an electric drill.
On the other hand, the film of course is more anachronistic than ever. The threshold of kitsch has shifted since those days, so we naturally find the romance too sentimental, the message too preachy. For there is lesson to be learned from Modern Times, the film with which Chaplin took the first step towards social-political satire (the second being the Hitler parody of The Dictator). The comet of comedy was inspired by a conversation he had had with Gandhi to write Modern Times, in which the Tramp – and the streetwalker joining him (Paulette Goddard, Chaplin’s wife at the time) – tries to preserve his humanity in the industrial society.
The thesis of the film has become commonplace: modern society mechanizes human beings. But Chaplin’s acting and the way he transforms this anxiety into humour is classic. In his world man becomes a cog in the machine through the worker’s hand working on its own accord even after the conveyor belt stops, tugging at his boss’s nose or his co-worker’s nipple. Even the idiom, cog in the machine, is acted out when the factory worker gets sucked in by the machine, and he slides over the spokes and cogs like he was in a make-believe castle. These factory scenes are the emblematic clips of Modern Times, for they depict with a perfect visual metaphor the absurdity of man mechanizing everything and thereby distancing himself from his environment.
Chaplin felt that the discomfort of the modern man separated from his environment can be portrayed best with the character of the Tramp, as he had always been at odds with the world. Objects kept on defying him, the chicken jumped out of his hand, the house slipped from under his feet, why would he be able to navigate a factory? In this waddling figure with unwieldy shoes and pants Chaplin grasped the stumbling oaf in all of us, who cannot find his place in the world, but keeps on trying, you never know. And this huggable, clumsy fellow and his unrelenting spirit still needs no explaining: his humour, his philosophy is as alive as it was 80 years ago.
Or even more so, as today it does not matter anymore that Modern Times was shot almost ten years after the transition to talking pictures, all silent moves are regarded as anachronistic anyway. Now the cinematic language of movement and mime seems timeless, not outdated. Therefore we do not feel Chaplin’s stubbornness with which he insisted on the silent movie format, believing that the Tramp would lose his mystery, should his voice be heard. It is heard, of course, at the end of the film, when he finally finds the job that suits him, not as a waiter, but as a successful song and dance man in a restaurant. He forgets his lines, however, sings the song in mock Italian, the meaning of which can only be deciphered by watching the funny mime of the performance.
And we don’t need to dwell on whether Chaplin was a communist, as his film definitely isn’t. It can’t be, as the Tramp living for the moment only lives for himself – besides the girl –, he is a die-hard individualist. He drifts to lead the workers’ strike by chance, following the blueprint of a comedy of errors rather than that of the communist revolution. And there is no need to lament the fact that the middle section of Modern Times is indeed no more than cherry picking the best of his early one- and two-reelers. No-one remembers any more that this is not the first time Chaplin is all thumbs as a waiter (The Rink, 1916), or that he had also whacked criminals on the head before (Easy Street, 1917).
All jokes are new for the viewers of our days, and while they laugh perhaps they remain oblivious to the jerky plot or that the drama is not as moving as the final scene of City Lights. They are more likely to notice that Paulette Goddard is a good match for Chaplin on the screen as well, and to acknowledge the boldness of the former musical dancer in playing the streetwalker with greasy hair and a smudgy face (her husband and director was adamant: it is said that Chaplin gave Goddard a scrub with a bucket of water if she showed up on set wearing make-up.)
This at last is a Chaplin film in which the girl is the Tramp’s equal. She is a free soul as well, unburdened by obligations, work, unaffected by convention or rebelling, and especially social oppression. She longs for a respectable middle-class life and a neat little house, and that she and the funny vagabond make ends meet by working. But instead of the suburbs they end up on a dusty road, waddling arm in arm towards the horizon. It is an iconic image containing the great entertainer’s artistic credo about the happy outsiders forever seeking their path.