#95. Modern Times (1936)

My friend Steve is a book critic and he says of Margaret Mitchell’s Gone with the Wind that, though it’s not a very well-written book, it’s gorgeous and captivating, seems larger than life, and he says that whatever magic exists in books exists, inexplicably, in that one. There’s a magic in movies, too, which is hard to pinpoint and explain but it exists, for sure, here, in Modern Times, the sort of enchantment and affirmation of life’s goodness or beauty that we find in movies like E.T. and Wizard of Oz and Casablanca.

And there’s even more to appreciate when viewed within the context of its production. Modern Times is a silent movie starring one of the biggest celebrities in the world – and it was made several years after talkies had become the Hollywood norm. It was the final appearance of Charlie Chaplin’s tramp character – the bumbling, well-intentioned guy who habitually falls into sweet, romantic, sexless affairs with vulnerable beauties who rarely share the feeling. Even for somebody of Chaplin’s unprecedented international fame, Modern Times was a risk. He was putting tons of resources into a production that basically says to the audience, “I know this might not be what you’re looking for, but I know it’s what you want.”

modern times gif.gif Chaplin imbues Modern Times with more commentary than any of his earlier movies. The cops all abuse their power, the breadlines run the length of streets, protests call for revolution, and every thief is just looking for food. The factories wanna work their employees to death until they can be replaced entirely by machines. Images suggest that, in the factory, man and machine are fused, to the benefit of industry and detriment of man.

In light of where Chaplin was as an artist, however, the commentary that most catches my eye in Modern Times has to do with artistic integrity, the allegiance to his personal vision, that gave him the courage to make a silent picture with a character he’d been playing for twenty years.

David Foster Wallace once suggested that writers who complain about “the reader’s defection” from fiction, favoring TV or video games or some other entertainment, shouldn’t look at that migration as cause for morning but should see it, instead, as a challenge. A call to action. If you, as a writer, believe that fiction is still worthwhile, then rise to the occasion and prove it. Show your audience what the novel can do that a video game or twelve-hour miniseries cannot. It means more work, sure, but that ought to weed out the weaker writers of a previous generation and strengthen the next.

It must have taken balls for Chaplin, a guy who’d perfected his craft in an abbreviated version of cinema (the silent era), to come to an audience that was by no long-accustomed to sound and say, “I’m gonna take us back, gonna make a big-budget silent movie. It’s gonna be a comedy that deals with the Great Depression. And the tramp’s gonna fall in love with a starving orphan.” [Editor’s note from the future: Reading a biography of Chaplin in preparation for a screening I’m hosting and it’s become clear that his being romantically involved with a very young woman isn’t, uh, out of character.]

But it works.

At the time I’m writing this, thousandmovieproject.com has been up for about a month, and I’ve already spent an impulsive three-figure sum on Facebook advertising. Ten bucks here, twenty there. It’s adding up. I know that it’d be way more upstanding, a greater portrait of integrity, to say that I’m carrying on with the Project only because I’m so passionate about it, that I don’t care what anybody thinks and I’m doing it solely for myself. But I do care about reception, and being heard, and I get pretty anxious about needing to watch these movies fast fast fast, and churn out the essays, and also to do lots of extracurricular reading and get into adventures so that I can have interesting shit to say – I feel like I’m being choked by it sometimes when I dwell on the idea that my major responsibility here isn’t so much to learn as it is to be interesting, to be able to give the reader a good time. A joke or two, an insight, a well-placed reference.

I’m putting a lot of time and effort into this and, yeah, doubt does occasionally surface. Not so much about whether the Project is enriching. I’m pretty firm on that the rewards of finishing it will be huge, whether I’m noticed or appreciated or not. But I guess ego plays a bigger role in all of it than I wanna admit because there’s a petulant voice in my head telling me that it’ll all have been for naught if the whole world isn’t patting me on the back for it.

chaplin behind the scenes
Chaplin behind the scenes of an early production as “the tramp” or “the little man.”

And I guess the reason this all comes to mind is because I imagine Chaplin going through something similar with the production of Modern Times (and maybe City Lights too), confronting the parts of his artistry where ego and craft intersect. Leonard Cohen used to joke about his very limited musical range by saying that he didn’t have the chops, plural, to be a great musician. “It’s a chop,” he’d say, “I have one chop.” Maybe Chaplin was thinking something similar about pantomime in the age of sound. “I’ve got this one chop and I’m gonna play it the best I can.”

He was devoted to film and he believed in himself and, regardless of what the audience may have been clamoring for or what his peers were telling him he ought to be doing differently, he went up to the plate and did what he did best. And it paid off.

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