Friday, January 24, 2014

Modern Times (1936)

USA, 87 minutes
Director/writer/music: Charles Chaplin
Photography: Ira H. Morgan, Roland Totheroh
Editors: Charles Chaplin, Willard Nico
Cast: Charles Chaplin, Paulette Goddard, Henry Bergman, Tiny Sandford, Chester Conklin

I will lay it out straight here, because I may as well and no sense wasting time. Modern Times is such a longstanding favorite for me, with so many personal attachment points, that honestly I have little judgment or perspective on it. I just love it, every bit of it. For me, no Chaplin picture looks better. It is quintessentially "modern" in a way analogous to how we are all now "post-modern"; its heroic conceptions of architecture, design, and labor management (about which it is rightly dubious) feel like an entirely different time now. Yet Chaplin's iron backbone sunny-side views, unafraid to touch the treacle, balance the stark and formal geometries with warmth and humanity. Among other things it is a feel-good movie after all.

It is "modern" in many different ways. The music, by Chaplin again, is often shrill, staccato, and angular. The picture opens on an extreme close-up of a clock face with a sweeping second hand. It is an old-fashioned clock face, with Roman numerals, but the close-up is so tight it effectively transforms time itself into an abstraction. Modern Times is also acutely aware of the strikes, unemployment, class conflicts, and labor unrest ripping into the fabric of the culture and economy at the time of its release, deep into the Depression. Explicit cocaine use is not only acknowledged but played as a joke, and a good one. Chaplin's mincing about, and his use of characters such as a prison inmate working on a needlepoint project, imply layers of hidden farcical sexuality. And when the vagabond couple is left alone in a department store overnight the first thing they do is go to the toys section and start playing. Or is that "post-modern" to treat the human condition and/or enterprise as one conducted essentially by immature children?

Full disclosures: I saw this the first time under unusual circumstances, 17 years old and at the tail end of some days spent taking "white cross" amphetamines and not sleeping—I was crashing actually, as I had taken the last of them the night before, and really tasting that painful withdrawal experience for one of the first times, made only worse of course by no sleep for days. An unimaginably miserable feeling if you don't know it. My Dad thought I looked "a little down in the dumps," as he said, and Modern Times would cheer me up. That was in 1972, when the movie was making the rounds on some kind of revival promotion.

I don't think he or I or anyone could have picked a better movie for me to see in that moment. I was amazed by everything I was seeing. I was most impressed, that first time (perhaps reflecting a teenage point of view), by all the ways it breaks rules. It was made in 1936 so it should have been a "talkie"—even I knew that—but it wasn't, except it wasn't exactly a silent movie either, because people were talking and there were sound effects everywhere and the music was often cued to the images. But mostly it was goofing and amazing stunts. I had never seen anything like it. I was charmed and amazed (as I have never been since) by the scenes where people are literally trapped in the gears of the machine, and I was charmed and amazed again (as I have always been since) by the scene where Chaplin's unnamed "little tramp" character roller-skates blindfolded. I just soaked in the music and bold images. Interestingly, I don't recall having a response to the cocaine scene. But I have never forgotten the experience of seeing Modern Times for the first time. It turned a very bad day into a very good one, to say the least, and probably set me up for a lifetime of appreciating Chaplin.

The next time I saw it, some 10 years later, I was married and it became a favorite of ours. We identified with the little tramp and his girlfriend (Paulette Goddard), aka "a Gamin," making their way in a harsh world. What they wanted seemed so understandable, and so did its being out of reach—a home to share breakfast in. They were willing to work for it! The indomitability of their spirit really inspired me. "Buck up. Never say die. We'll get along!"—those words, silly as they are (and of course i-r-o-n-i-c because eventually she and I broke up), actually came to mean a lot to me.

So how are you going to argue with things like that? You can't. The brainstem wants what the brainstem wants—what the brainstem already has. As it happens, however, I did lose track of Modern Times for some 10 or 15 years. I settled on City Lights as not just my favorite Chaplin but my single favorite movie of all time and I wrapped that around me like a blanket for a long time. At one point I had occasion to revisit The Gold Rush, seeing it for the first time in the apparently now standard rejigger that Chaplin gave it in the '40s, and did not like what I saw. I thought Modern Times might be a bad movie after all, or mediocre. But no, relieved when I finally got back to it to find it's still a very great movie, worth seeing by all at least once for sure.

More views on Modern Times in a video essay by Joel Bocko at the Wonders in the Dark blog (including a portion of voiceover narration from myself) can be found here.


  1. I'm a Paulette Goddard fan for life because of this movie.

  2. Nice piece, with its mix of personal connection and astute analysis. Check out the '25 version of The Gold Rush, by the way, much better than the redo. Modern Times is a film I've always admired, but I don't think I had much personal affection for it (beyond Goddard anyway) unt that video essay you participated in over a year ago. That made me appreciate it in a new, more direct way, as interaction usually will (Godard was more right than we knew when he said the best way to criticize a film was to make another film - this is true not just for the reader/viewer but the critic him or herself).

    That "modern" aspect of the movie is one thing that fascinates me most. On the one hand, it's behind the times, on the other very much of them - something Otis Ferguson & Graham Greene alternately emphasized in their reviews.

  3. Hey Joel,
    Nkce to hear from you and thanks for reminding me about your video review of Modern Times for Wonders .... I updated this post with a pointer to that. I'm sure you recognize the screencap -- another one of your greats. Definitely agree with you about the '25 version of The Gold Rush, which I had a hard time tracking down a few years ago. Good to see it's included on the Criterion that came in '12.