Sunday, October 30, 2011

New to the Collection: Modern Times

Every time Saucy adds a new DVD to his increasingly mammoth film collection, he will take the time to provide five indelible scenes that convinced him to spend his hard-earned sheckles on something he could have gotten for free with a DVD burner and a Netflix subscription. Unless he doesn't want to do that, at which point he will just do something else. This installment discusses Modern Times, the 1936 comedy by Charles Chaplin.

So I now own the Criterion Collection's edition of Charlie Chaplin's 1936 semi-silent skewering of big business, Modern Times. The problem is I don't really like it.

This is tough for me to admit. For a film snob, Charlie Chaplin is someone who you feel you SHOULD like. And there are moments in Modern Times that are indeed transcendent. They live in cinema lore for good reason. There's the moment where he tests the system that is supposed to feed the workers lunch while they work. There's the iconic trip through the assembly line machinery. There's the part where The Tramp gets arrested because a flag that falls off a passing truck gets mistaken for a banner leading a Communist Party march. There's Paulette Goddard, looking simply stunning in black-and-white, being lovingly photographed by then-beau Chaplin's lens. And then there's the ending with Chaplin and Goddard walking down the road to a future of undetermined happiness, set to the music of Chaplin himself. It could be the signature image in all of Chaplin's distinguished oeurve.

But here's the thing: For all these great images, it must be said that, for the second time, I fell asleep while trying to watch the film. Now, I don't think that falling asleep during a movie is necessarily a condemnation of the material. Several times, I have fallen asleep while watching 2001: A Space Odyssey. It's the slow rhythm of the movie. The soothing classical music. The sound of H.A.L.'s voice. In fact, there have been times when I wanted to take a nap and I turned on 2001 to help me. It just puts me in a really mellow place. Another example is Courage Under Fire, the Edward Zwick film that stars Denzel Washington, Meg Ryan, and a young Matt Damon. I enjoyed the film with its Rashomon-style structure. Thought Denzel was great and Ryan brave in trying something different. But I fell asleep with about a half-hour left. I attribute this to going to see it at around midnight. Even when I was in my early twenties this was a recipe for a movie theater snooze.

But twice? At this point, I have to come to the conclusion that there is something about Chaplin's masterpiece that just doesn't do it for me. I think there are points where he is simply way too in love with his own cleverness. For instance, the aforementioned scene where The Tramp tests the feeding machine. Watching it, I got the distinct feeling that it could have been two or three minutes shorter. There is also the very tricky idea of a mostly silent film (Chaplin for the most part does not have characters speak, but he does allow for atmospherics, such as machine noises, etc.) in 1936, nearly a decade after The Jazz Singer broke the sound barrier. While I am aware that Chaplin chose not to immediately accept the dialogue revolution because he felt it would be death for his Tramp character, his choice smacks of willful stubbornness. Especially in light of two things: the effectiveness of the scene toward the conclusion when Chaplin's character sings a gibberish Italian tune and the quality of The Great Dictator, Chaplin's 1940 entry into the world of sound cinema. The singing scene shows to me that Chaplin knew that sound, when strategically applied, could enhance his work and The Great Dictator reveals The Maestro's expert use of sound to bolster mood. The scenes in Dictator where Chaplin's Adenoid Hynkel addresses his maniacal masses (this time in gibberish German) are hilarious, scary, and viciously satirical all at the same time. And it quite simply makes me wonder how, if he had applied the available technology to Modern Times, the film could have been improved. At the same time, I am aware that my opinion here is not in the majority AND I am not one of these people who cannot watch a silent picture simply for the fact that there is no talking. I am also aware that it is tough to take my opinion as informed at face value due to the fact that I entered a state of unconsciousness while I was viewing the feature.

Bottom line: While it is now a permanent member of my collection, I cannot say that I am a fan of Charles Chaplin's Modern Times. And when you are buying a film from Criterion Collection, which usually cost a pretty penny indeed, it is probably a good idea to make sure that you approve of the film before making the cash transaction. It is a mistake that I would love to say that I will not make again, but my lifelong addiction to film snobbery leads me to think that I will one day be recording a similar lament to the one in this story.

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