Sunday, March 22, 2009

Repeat Viewing: Modern Times (1936, Charles Chaplin)

TSPDT placing: #48
Directed by: Charles Chaplin
Written by: Charles Chaplin

By 1936, Charles Chaplin was already an anachronism – albeit, an anachronism who was also treasured as an artistic genius. The arrival of The Jazz Singer (1927) did little to curb the director's enthusiasm for silent cinema, and, though he considered at length the commercial implications of converting to synchronised sound, his first film in the "talkie" age was almost completely silent (Chaplin compromised by composing a musical score). Nevertheless, the critical and commercial response to City Lights (1931) was strong, reaffirming Chaplin's status as a cinematic master, and vindicating his decision to linger with an otherwise extinct medium. Thus, Modern Times (1936) was to follow in the same mould, despite a synchronised soundtrack which includes a musical score, sound effects and several lines of spoken dialogue (always spoken through a mechanical "barrier," such as a record-player, radio or loudspeaker). The film is historically significant in that it was Chaplin's first overtly political work, raising concerns inspired both by the economic hardship of the Great Depression, and Chaplin's growing interest in socialism.

The title "Modern Times" is used to deliberate ironic effect. Traditionally, to be modern was to be at the forefront of human progress, a step forwards in Man's noble attempt to assert his dominance over his environment; in short, to further distinguish our species from the lower animals. Yet Chaplin believed that such widespread industrialisation was a step backwards for society. Even from the opening shot, he draws comparisons between the hustling crowds of factory workers travelling to work, and a flock of sheep being herded through a corral. The dehumanisation caused by the workers' monotonous factory work is played for maximum comedic effect, with Chaplin's Tramp eventually driven to a nervous breakdown by Frederick Taylor's apathetic brand of scientific management. In these conditions, direct human interaction is minimal, and almost always channelled through an mechanical mediator. In a scene predating Orwell's "Nineteen-Eighty Four (1949)," Chaplin is reprimanded by a telescreen in the bathroom, the image of his boss looming overhead like the spectre of Big Brother.

Chaplin may also have been remarking upon the rise of the Hollywood studio system, which by then employed a comparable assembly-line approach to film-making. Chaplin, who was given full artistic control through his co-ownership of United Artists, worked in complete opposition to these practices, though it could be argued that his perfectionism and often improvisational style was so inefficient that only an artist as wealthy as he could have gotten away with it. Truth be told, there's nothing particularly distinguished about Chaplin's direction – despite his strong reliance upon actions over words, his silent films were never as visually accomplished as that of Murnau or Lang, for example. However, his greatest talents as a filmmaker were concerned with the plight of people, and, however much sentimentality he liked to dish out, there can be no doubt that, in Chaplin's characters, one found individuals with whom they shared a very real human bond, of empathy and compassion. For all the director's criticism of modern society, he possessed a genuine belief in the value of human spirit.

When Chaplin came under fire for alleged "communist sympathies" in the late 1940s, the content of Modern Times was scrutinised for evidence to support the allegations. Certainly, within the director's distaste for industrialisation one may discern an underlying dissatisfaction with capitalism, but Chaplin was definitely not a communist; after all, a prime motivation in his choosing to continue producing silent films was to retain his commercial popularity in foreign-language markets – that's the capitalist spirit! Nevertheless, Chaplin was eerily prescient when he included a scene in which his Tramp is falsely accused of being a communist, mirroring his own intense political troubles, which concluded in 1952 with the retraction of his US re-entry visa. Though he was initially hesitant about breaking his screen silence, as Chaplin's political convictions grew, so too did his desire to have himself heard. For that, he would, however reluctantly, have to embrace the technology of sound, and, for a mouthpiece, he would choose the most hated man in Europe.

Currently my #1 film of 1936:
1) Modern Times (Charles Chaplin)
2) After the Thin Man (W.S. Van Dyke)
3) Swing Time (George Stevens)
4) Partie de campagne {A Day in the Country} (Jean Renoir)
5) Follow the Fleet (Mark Sandrich)
6) Sabotage (Alfred Hitchcock)
7) Mr. Deeds Goes to Town (Frank Capra)
8) Secret Agent (Alfred Hitchcock)
9) Intermezzo (Gustaf Molander)
10) My Man Godfrey (Gregory La Cava)


Jump_Raven said...

I love the scene where Chaplin accidentally takes some cocaine. Unexpected and hilarious.

Ray said...

"modern times"...the movie that would inspire any movie maker who wants to present the real world sitution ..

THE LEGEND goes around the world during sixteen months. When he comes back to Hollywood, in 1932, he observes the economic and social results of the Great Depression, which made, in two years, seven million unemployed in the US...

The film is a comment on the desperate employment and fiscal conditions many people faced during the Great Depression, conditions created, in Chaplin's view, by the efficiencies of modern industrialization.

Charlie chaplin has been sensitive to this crisis may be because he comes from a poor family.

However, the description of the unemployment and the poverty is not synchronized with the date of the production (1934-1935). The movie comes out in the world, in 1936. And so, at this time, the United States is no more really in depression.

As soon as the film came out, Chaplin was accused of communism, but he is not a communist, he only likes its values: humanity, generosity... United States was against the communism. Moreover, in Germany, this film among others directed by Chaplin was forbidden by the censure..inspite of being accused of communism "modern times" will remain as one best of yesteryear....