TSPDT 23 - 44: Modern Times (1936) - Can't Stop the Movies
Can't Stop the Movies

TSPDT 23 – 44: Modern Times (1936)

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I'm going through the list of all the films I have not seen on They Shoot Pictures Don't They.  It is arguably the most comprehensive and varied "best ever" list assembled.  If I have seen a film on the list previously, I will write short thoughts followed by a full review of the unseen film alternating between the top and bottom of the list.  Today's film is from the top of the pile, Charlie Chaplin's 1936 comedy Modern Times.

23. Raging Bull (Like) - Scorsese's created some of the most pathetic examples of masculinity in fiction.  Jake LaMotta may be the worst of these.  Talent and success aren't enough, everyone in and observing his life needs to be convinced of his strength while nurturing his paranoia.  Spectacularly composed images, like Jake clinging to his dying television, meet with DeNiro at his most self-effacing and boxing at its wettest. Any one of those factors is enough to give Raging Bull a watch, that they're combined into one makes this Scorsese's second-best.

24. City Lights (Indifference) - She can't see him, he works to restore sight to her. The fantasy of each collapses into reality in a beautifully ambiguous ending.  Everything else?  Well, it's the stuff of nary a many psychoanalytic reading, but it's not of much interest otherwise.

25. The 400 Blows (Like) - The most understanding portrait of the confusion and frustrations in male adolescence.  Truffaut doesn't provide a warm blanket, focusing instead on the little misunderstandings and accidents that are central to the struggle to be understood.  That last shot, with Antoine Doinel frozen at the sight of the ocean, encompasses the sudden and massive realization that things aren't going to really get better - the scope will just expand.

26. Psycho (Like) - Still disorienting and unnerving.  Hitchcock's playful sense of macabre feels less macabre and more directly sinister with the sudden shocks of violence and Anthony Perkins' exponentially shady performance. The psychology, which may have seen ahead of its time, is suspect - as is Hitchcock's queer coding of Norman Bates.  But it remains a gripping watch that spawned three sequels - two of which are good films.

27. Andrei Rublev (Like) - Discussed at this link.

28. Some Like It Hot (Like) - Discussed at this link.

29. The Mirror (Like) - Discussed at this link.

30. Touch of Evil (Indifference) - Outside Scorsese and, now, Cuaron - Touch of Evil has one hell of an iconic tracking shot to start.  Then it just plays on with multiple reminders that Heston was never much of an actor.  Welles is fun, but that's about it.

31. La Dolce Vita (Indifference) - This, along with Last Year at Marienbad, taught me I don't have to love classic films.  Heck, I don't even need to like them and it's okay to be bored by them.  I felt nothing but boredom watching La Dolce Vita. It was the first of many films about the ennui of the rich and, "Boy doesn't life just pass by" that floats right on by me.

32. Casablanca (Like) - Every bit as good as its reputation with the added surprise at how damn funny it is.  Based on the quoted bits you'd think that there's an air of resignation or melancholy surrounding Casablanca.  That's true, but there's also an optimism that's infectious.  These are mostly good people, trying to do the right thing, in a story that does not sandwich them to their duties.  It's an excellent watch.

33. Lawrence of Arabia (Like) - I have never seen this film "properly" in that I've never gotten a chance to see it in a 70mm print or even in a theater.  But I remember the bold romanticism of it, a willingness to be patient and take in the texture of Lawrence's adventure.  I'm long overdue for a rewatch.34. Ordet (Like) - Speaking of patience, Carl Theodor Dreyer's Ordet less commands you to pay attention and more asks you to sit in reverie with it.  Most of the conflicts are internal and Dreyer patiently glides between one set of theological dilemmas to the next.  Dreyer's not as bold as he was with The Passion of Joan of Arc, Vampyr, or Day of Wrath - but with each conversation we come one step closer to an ending that is either unbelievable or, my perspective, miraculously plausible.

35. Au Hasard Balthazar (Like) - Spiritual ode to how all of god's creatures deserve respect, or a cruelly plotted representation of all that's terrible with humanity?  I lean more toward the former than the latter, though I haven't had the heart to revisit Au Hasard Balthazar because I want to leave that last image of Balthazar finally getting to rest quietly among creatures that accept him.

36. Sunset Blvd. (Like) - Discussed at this link.

37. L'Aventura (Dislike) - Long, dull, steady shots of boring rich folks infected with that peculiar form of ennui that only the high class has.  La Dolce Vita at least has charm to it at times. L'Aventura can barely muster up enough energy for apathy.

38. The General (Like) - A bit of history about me, my grandpa used to call me Buster because I looked like Buster Keaton when I frowned.  I didn't find that out until after I bought two Keaton films in one of those bargain bin Wal-Mart crates.  Even with its questionable print quality, the dogged determination of Keaton melds with his still spectacular physical comedy and sequences that are so dangerous it likely won't be replicated.  That's alright by me, because even though the hero gets his way in the end he's still bogged down by duty. Melancholy, sweet, and funny.  That's Keaton for ya.

39. Blade Runner (Like) - Real talk - I don't really enjoy Blade Runner very much, but when it's on - like the interrogation scene or "tears in rain" - it's menacing and beautiful in equal measure.  This is a case where I like Blade Runner for its parts more than the whole.

40. Contempt (Indifference) - My mind tries to pull up Contempt from my memory banks and the only thing I remember is a lot of red, that I wished I was watching a Truffaut film instead, and that any one of the girls from Beyond the Valley of the Dolls could have done more with the career Brigitte Bardot had.

41. Rear Window (Like) - Paranoia, fantasy, painkillers, and boredom.  There's a lot to admire in Rear Window on craft, but as a writer who's spent some terrible nights post-op running a fever and feeling insane from medication I feel a particular pain watching Rear Window.  It's phenomenally dense in the background storytelling and could be used as a primer on how the whole screen is a playground to move figures around.  Stewart was a great performer, but his obsessive edge here brings me serious doubt whether anything that happens once the heat wave hits is real or his justification for voyeurism.

42. La Grande Illusion (Like) - Renoir's humanism shined between the meaningless struggle of the first world war and the rise of fascism leading to the second.  The tortured, proud, and conflicted von Rauffenstein is one of my favorite characters in all cinema.  He's come to represent a path we might have taken after the first world war, one that recognized the brutality of all our actions and worked together to find a new place in society.  Instead the divisions remain, the illusion of nobility barely preserved, and history went on to more devastation.

43. The Night of the Hunter (Like) - Shapes a child learns to recognize contain malevolent forces birthed from Americana, capitalism, and a nightmarish perversion of Christianity.  A woman so pure in her desire to protect the innocent even the dark can't hide her frame.  Children with the barest understanding of adult problems forced to imagine the worst for their mother.  The Night of the Hunter is one of America's only miraculous feats in cinema and a damn shame Laughton only got to make this one film.

44. Modern Times -The most famous sequence in Modern Times is hilarious, though not my favorite, and is disappointingly optimistic in retrospect.  When an inventor arrives to showcase a feeding machine for employees, factory worker (Charlie Chaplin) straps in for a stretch of humiliation and forced feeding.  The first assumption that doesn't pan out with today's corporate heads is that they'd want their employees fed and the second that they'd personally take interest in machines designed to increase productivity through nutrition.

Difference between then and now is similar to the difference between RoboCop (1987) and RoboCop (2014).  In RoboCop '87 the big joke is the idea that there are good corporations, while in RoboCop '14 that we can live without corporate overlords.  Much like Chaplin's plea for humanity in The Great Dictator, the then-dehumanizing idea of strapping employees in for food is more optimistic than our current reality.  We've come a long way and managed to make things worse.I'm not a fan of Chaplin, and this is only the second film of his I've enjoyed, partly because his style of physical comedy is so precise that I can marvel at the setups while not laughing at the punchline.  The beauty of Modern Times is how Chaplin leans into his rigid setups to create a world that is slowly adopting its own set of firm guidelines.  Factories, protests, department store jobs, even attempted robberies are so meticulously planned that Chaplin's rigid comedy is chaotic in comparison.

That's not to say Chaplin still doesn't flow through one scene to the next.  It's just refreshing to see Chaplin's approach get caught in modernity, with one other excellent sight gag showing the factory worker gliding around a department store on roller skates before getting trapped on an escalator. There's a great balance of humanity's messy nature that only seems controlled in context with the burglars shooting at him as the escalator keeps trying to haul him upward.

Chaplin always finds a way to show the humanity within the machinery of capitalism which - again - is more optimistic than would play out but I deeply appreciate.  One heartwarming and absurd sequence finds the factory worker performing the same function as the force-feeding machine from the start of Modern Times. after he accidentally gets a coworker caught in a machine.  The factory worker's constant apologies, where no sound is needed to communicate his embarrassment at funneling oil juice down his coworker's throat, hit a deadpan peak when his poor coworker has a "What fresh hell is this" expression while conveyed into and out of the frame.

Modern Times could also be strong evidence for the idea that funny is funny no matter what language it's in.  The factory worker gets an entertainment gig late in the film thanks to his budding romantic relationship with The Gamin (Paulette Goddard).  Chaplin resisted adding sound and dialogue to his films, and makes a convincing case when his routine borders burlesque and his dialogue a multi-lingual mess of nonsense.  I love it when artists find a way to cheekily integrate expectations of their work as a means of criticizing those expectations (Zack Snyder's practically built his whole career around this).  The humor is in Chaplin's physical performance, the multilingual gibberish is just a delicious extra.All of this was a pleasant surprise, but what really kicks Modern TImes up is Goddard's energetic performance.  If the factory worked is an unintentional force of destruction, the Gamin is a direct revolutionary - pelting authorities with food and doing everything she can to bring some light where there wasn't any before.  There's an energy to Goddard's work that I don't commonly associate with films of the '20s and '30s, and every time she's onscreen I know something is about to go hilariously wrong.

I don't love Modern Times, but it's reassuring that there are Chaplin films outside The Great Dictator that can still resonate with me.  A bit of positive light on worker's strikes and the Communist Party doesn't hurt, but Chaplin's efforts at finding humanity within the machine are what tipped me over by the end.  Still no Keaton, but at least I'm understanding the appeal.

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Modern Times (1936)

Screenplay written and directed by Charlie Chaplin.
Starring Charlie Chaplin and Paulette Goddard.

Posted by Andrew

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