Welcome to my asylum for ideas and thoughts on movies, politics, culture, and all things Bruce Springsteen.

Sunday, August 22, 2004

Modern Times

Last night, my wife and I finally got around to hitting our stack of Netflix dvds. I'm always a sucker for older films, and for many reasons. Firstly, there exists roughly half a century of celluloid tales that I've always read about but have never seen, classic films (either through technical or popular merit) that have influenced later movies, actors, and directors, who continue to entertain us today. Secondly, from the geek-historian perspective, I love how contemporary culture is portrayed, either as it actually existed, with its cultural artifacts, colloquial expressions, styles, fashions, and standards of beauty. Each era captured in film also tell morality tales, and for some reason I find that many told in the 1930s and 1940s, an absolutely critical time for the history of this country, still ring true today. I can't wait to see Peter Jackson's King Kong with its modern twists, The Grapes of Wrath still strikes a populist chord, and of course, anything with Orwellian overtures can have valuable warnings against Ashcroftian plots of totalitarianism. Last night, the film of choice was Charlie Chaplin's 1936 classic Modern Times, a tale of a tramp who finds modern times difficult for the working man, easy for the upper class, and ironically challenging for people to succeed on their own merits versus happenstance and sheer luck. The film starts off with herds of sheep rushing through animal pens, obviously and obliviously on their way to the slaughter. That scene fades to dozens of working men making their way up train stations, factory gates, and crowded city streets on their way to the daily grind. The machines dwarf the men, underworked but tyrannical bosses always in search of a buck, demand that the speed of the assembly lines are ratched up to increase productivity, and the workers ceaselessly serve as guinea pigs for fly-by-nights trying to push the biggest latest fastest best products into their work loads. While the Tramp always overcomes (very much a populist as well as socialist message by Chaplin), he does so not by working hard, but because he fails to let the grind kill him. As he walks into the sunset with his girl who loves him not for his success but for his virtue, Chaplin shows that only when one faces the next day as an opportunity to keep living will one truly make it.
Now, this film is a comedy. In fact, I laughed out loud for the first time at a film in a very long time. Physical comedy, innuendo, an incredible roller skating scene, and always run-from-the-cops caper madness make this film classic Chaplin. However, the messages of Depression-era America, the struggles of the working class, and the treatment of those who seek change for the populace, are apparent and no doubtedly added to the popular attraction for this film in the late 1930s. Hitler and the terrors of nazism did not exist in the United States yet, World War II was nowhere to be seen by Americans, and as historians have said, it was dawn, and the country was asleep.
Quite a bang for one's buck - morality tale, time capsule, caper comedy, and overall good fun. I'm still trucking through Birth of a Nation and then it will be City Lights. No, Tony, Chris, and Steve, not THAT City Lights, but another Chaplin flick.