Thursday, June 24, 2010

Still Modern

I took my ten-year old to see Charles Chaplin's uber-classic, Modern Times, at the Aero Theater here in Santa Monica. He'd seen it on TV before but was adamant about going once I suggested it to him, and afterwards we discussed how you remember movies you see in the theater more than the ones you see on TV, on the couch, whatever. It was our first evening movie together and bodes well. After every movie he sees I ask him for a rating (ever since the first time he did so) and he's a pretty tough grader. Modern Times earned his first A+.

In fact, it's #77 on the IMDb list of favorites, ahead of The Kid (#193) and The Gold Rush (#175), just ahead of The Great Dictator (#94) and slightly behind City Lights (#68). The theater was 3/4 full and there was laughter throughout, building at the end during the wonderful restaurant sequence. My son and I talked a lot about the gibberish singing waiter scene afterwards, one of the most joyous extended moments in any Chaplin film.

What struck me, beyond the undying comic relevance, was how grim the movie was, political for its time, decrying both unemployment (released in 1936 to Depression Era America) and mindless factory work. The pre-Orwell Big Brother boss watching on TV, workers harassed by cops on horseback and shot in the streets, scrounging for kindling, bananas, hope. I noticed the grittiness of the poverty setting in The Kid which we saw last Sunday, evidently based on Chaplin's memories of an extremely poor childhood, but Modern Times has more of an edge on it. A mature man's movie.

Fortunately, the grim is leavened heavily with comedy and Paulette Goddard, who has a fair shot at most fetching movie actress of all time.

She was (per the photo) married to Chaplin during the making of the movie but didn't have a proper marriage certificate, which screwed up her chance to play Scarlett O'Hara in Gone with the Wind just a couple of years later. Her clever energy as the spirited "gamin" street girl is positively modern, and she's magnetic in her close-ups -- you don't want them to end. Smart casting having Diane Lane play Goddard against Robert Downey Jr. in Chaplin.

At the very end, when she has her first real moment of deep doubt, it's The Little Tramp's turn to buck her up. It's almost a parody of a Soviet propaganda piece, or a Hollywood slap-on happy ending, but their promenade down the road ahead into a non-urban pastoral future, seemed prophetic both of Chaplin finally leaving silent films and his character behind. the last time for both.

It also seemed eerily prophetic for our time, as did the unemployment theme of the movie. It made me wonder if we're not devolving to the Great Depression ethos, where soup kitchens will once again be frequented by good men in worn-out sportscoats as unemployment remains chronic. And the bucolic future for Chaplin and Goddard, is that not a haunting echo of the very post from last night regarding our over-reliance on microchips ready to fry at the first big solar flare?

Yep, Chaplin was a genius. Funny but thoughtful. Direct, entertaining, with no diminishment of power over an audience, even 74 years later.

We saw a brand new print, as are all the prints in this series. If it comes to your town, I highly recommend checking out at least one, and you can't go wrong seeing even more, on the big screen, with an audience, the way, yes, they were intended to be seen.

Even before TiVo.

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