There are many old refrains when speaking about relics of the past: “Oh for it’s time it was a terrific movie.” “It was a true innovator and was beloved by many back then.” “If you had been alive then you would have loved it too!”
All of these phrases imbue the present with meaning narrowly from the past. If you tell someone you aren’t particularly impressed with the past then they might say, “Well, it was good for its time!” but this is a non-response. We’re not judging movies or culture solely by the time in which they are made in but also in what ways they do or do not hold up.
After all, if a classic cannot hold to the test of time, doesn’t this say something about the media in question? Even if a movie is celebrated 50 years ago, isn’t it still helpful to say in what ways it hasn’t aged very well? I think it is. I think it’s not enough to keep using the past and the “for its time” line as an excuse for things that haven’t aged terribly well.
It doesn’t strike me as a particularly illuminating thing to keep holding the past up to the standards of the past. Eventually we as humans evolve and (ideally) get better standards from which to judge. Let’s not forget the past standards completely but let’s also not unhelpfully carry them around like a ball and chain.
Charlie Chaplin, as many of you may know, is a heralded satirist, actor and director. He’s best known for films such as the talkie The Dictator but also a film called Modern Times. It’s a comedic-silent film that illustrates the folly of the capitalist economy during the great depression and how that affected the poor, the working and the unemployed.
The good first: In terms of biting satire on how work operates, the movie nails it. From the overly anxious bosses who are quick to get upset, to the uncontrollable assembly lines, to workers having nervous breakdowns, etc. The depiction of work and its hardships on people is surprisingly realistic and (at times) gritty despite the comedic trappings.
The music is wonderful throughout and was actually aided by Chaplin himself. The environment of the film is heightened by every musical flourish, every climb towards any excitement or drama that happens. There are romantic songs, exciting ones and almost anything else you could want in a film. Classy stuff that’s held up well.
Outside the depictions of work, the depiction of police is also exceedingly accurate. They are portrayed as bullies who push people around, ignore due process, shoot and ask questions later and are eager to put down rebellions. But they are also just as quick to play favorites, give favors to those they want to see succeed, etc.
The acting, when it happens, is good. And there’s a song at the end that’s sung to great effect by Chaplin. It’s a bit of a nonsense song but it sounds very convincing that it’s a real one, so real it fooled me until I looked at Wikipedia.
The bad next: Most of the comedy in the film doesn’t work for me. I laughed a few times, but ultimately Chaplin’s style was so popular that by the time I’m seeing this I’ve devoured enough Looney Tunes to know where a certain scene is going or figure out what’s going to happen in advance. Well-timed slapstick is a lost art and while I can appreciate slapstick from time to time, making it the basis of most of your humor nets you less returns as time goes on.
There were scenes that was supposedly comedic (like Chaplin with the minister’s wife) that I thought went on for far too long and whose main “gag” wasn’t anything special. Here’s where people may say, “Well for the time it was really funny because it was relatable! And look at Chaplin being so clumsy around someone so important!”
Honestly, after so many scenes using, “I’m clumsy so please laugh” I lost interest. This trope has been absolutely killed for me in media. I don’t blame Chaplin for it, it’s mostly lazy writing and it’s not that being clumsy can’t be a funny way to portray action. But, again, it’s been overused and I just don’t find it appealing in this film because of that.
There’s nothing particularly offensive about the humor. There were certainly a few times I snickered and I even laughed out loud a few times, but it mostly felt like padding. It felt like Chaplin kept getting himself in these nearly impossible situations in order to make us laugh but they felt so unbelievable to as not be funny or even interesting.
To be clear, I’m not saying Chaplin isn’t a good writer or comedian. He strikes me as a very funny person, but I think the style of his comedy in this movie is something I’m so used to it isn’t funny anymore. Much of humor is based on surprise and this film failed to surprise me for some pretty understandable reasons.
Much of Modern Times is a movie I’ve already seen. Many of the scenes of work are things I personally live. It’s a bit different now but the checkout line and the assembly line aren’t terribly different. Cops are still bullies who play favorites to those they think serve their own interests. Workers are still treated like cogs in the machines, bosses still suck.
There’s also a bit of a romance in this film, but it’s entirely forgettable. I know it’s not the main focus of the film but having things like kissing and any sign of real intimacy (besides affectionate looks and hand-holding) seemingly not allowed in the film hurts any appreciation of Chaplin and Goddard’s (the Gamin) relationship.
All of that being said, it’s a classic movie for a good reason. Chaplin’s writing, singing, plotting and above all else his comedy stylings are iconic and for good reason. The movie ends on a bit of a “Huh?” note but it’s trying to be hopeful and leave things ambiguous for the audience, which I appreciate.
The largest theme from the movie I noticed was surveillance. Whether it’s in the factories, in the prisons, on the streets or anywhere else, authoritarian systems of power need to make us legible for them. So they’ll have their henchman (the cops) as well as advanced technology that can spy on us at a moment’s notice.
These were powerful themes that are still topical today and well executed within the film.
The movie starts off with a fairly obnoxious depiction of workers as sheep but most of the social commentary in the film is a lot more subtle. I heavily enjoyed the parts I liked and waited around patiently at the rest. The main thing here for moviegoers is the criticism of society that Chaplin forces us to come to term with.
And it’s a powerful one that’s stood the test of time.
Ultimately, I enjoyed this film and recommend it to folks who want to see a solid criticism of capitalism and the ways in which it can use machines against us. Under the guise of more “leisure time” we actually just end up being “more productive” but for capitalism and not for ourselves. That was true then and it’s true now.
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