Sunday, August 29, 2004

Movie Review: Modern Times

I sometimes feel that the aficionados for a given thing are often its worst enemy in terms of popularizing it. It is impossible, for instance, to mention Star Trek to a typical person without immediately conjuring images of screaming convention geeks and Klingon weddings. I think that classic cinema suffers from this phenomenon.

In too many people's minds, classical cinema (a.k.a. old movies) is viewed as being opaque, boring and confusing because people who are particularly interested in the art of film have a tendency to point their friends at directors like Bergman, Fellini and Kurosawa. I will be the first to admit that their films are high art but, at the same time, I would be very hesitant to suggest that someone who isn't deeply into the subject should run out and rent themselves a copy of The Seventh Seal.

The unfortunate thing about this is that a lot of classic movies are not only accessible to a typical audience but are, in fact, entertaining. You don't have to be a total movie geek to love Dr. Strangelove or Casablanca. Such movies of these have popular appeal and are enjoyable even if you aren't interested in dissecting their political subtext or interested in the director's use of light and shadow to convey a message (or whatnot).

Silent movies have particularly suffered from this sort of automatic rejection by association. The simple truth of the matter is that a lot of silent movies aren't really that interesting to most people in a modern audience even if dedicated enthusiasts can get a lot out of them. There are exceptions, however. One such exception is Charlie Chaplin's 1936 movie Modern Times.

If you look around for reviews of the movie you come across such statements as

Modern Times is a social critique of the new technology that dehumanizes people, and a powerful statement against the technology and rules that inhibit progress.
Forget all that. This is a movie that you can sit down in front up, with a bag of microwave popcorn and some soda, and laugh. I want to be clear that when I say that this film is funny I am not using the term in the same way that English Literature enthusiasts will try to insist that Shakespeare's plays are brimming with hilarity (just so long as you read this carefully annotated explanation of the social context of the early reign of King James). I mean that you will laugh.

In spite of being made nearly seventy years ago, and being in black and white and being (yes) mostly silent, the movie doesn't have any difficulty speaking to modern audiences, nor does it seem particularly quaint. In addition to a lot of pratfalls and some really amazing stunt work, there's a sly bit of nipple humor and even a little bit of judicious drug humor (Charlie accidentally eats some "nose powder").

The plot of the movie is fairly basic. Charlie is working in a factory when he has a nervous breakdown. Although he gets cured, he's lost his job and has to find new work. Along the way he ends up hooking up with a beautiful young woman who's living on the streets. Together, they try to find happiness and the American Dream having various adventures along the way.

It is true that one can look beyond the basic humor of the movie for deeper messages and subtext. I found myself, for instance, noticing the pervasiveness of police in the movie. The police weren't portrayed as either brutal or bumbling (rather, as guys just doing their jobs) but their overall presence was menacing. You may also take note of Chaplin's portrayal of the plight of the unemployed.

The important thing, however, is that you don't need to do any of that. You can, if you like, simply enjoy it as a fun movie. I can promise that when you're watching him struggle with a berserk automatic feeding machine, you won't need to be taking notes on the relationship between the proletariat and the bourgeois. You will be far too busy laughing your ass off.

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