Tuesday, November 08, 2011

Chaplin: Modern Times

And so the Chaplin retrospective runs its last shows at the Paramount. Would it be unduly selfish of me to hope for another return to the Boston area, even though they've already played at the Museum of Fine Arts and Somerville Theatre? There's still a few I haven't had a chance to see on the big screen yet and a couple more places that would seem happy to book them.

I jest a bit, but seeing these films really has been a fun and somewhat educational experience. The last time I inhaled a lot of Chaplin was years ago - I think the Brattle had a series featuring Chaplin, Buster Keaton, and Jacques Tati - and I don't know if I ever really appreciated Chaplin like I did Buster Keaton and Harold Lloyd. Charlie Chaplin is much more openly emotional than the other geniuses of silent comedy, and while there are times when this can lead him to get overwrought, it also sometimes camouflages what a great filmmaker he was. With Keaton and Lloyd, their precise staging is right out in front for the audience to be astounded by, while Chaplin is using stunts and tricky camerawork to serve the story.

In some ways, this perhaps makes him the most mature filmmaker of the three, although the flip side is that the perhaps less humanistic Lloyd and Keaton are often more solid with their plotting. Take the end of Modern Times, when the truant officers appear out of nowhere to come after Goddard's Gamin, or how the sisters she worried about so toward the beginning basically become a non-factor. Chaplin, making art, doesn't really worry about this; he's achieved the emotional response he wanted, while Lloyd, building a machine, may have been more likely to make sure it made that much sense. Chaplin does something similar in The Circus, where the tightrope walker is useful, and the last scenes are great, but the foundation isn't as strong as it might be.

Ultimately, I think Buster Keaton is probably my favorite of the three, but the trio are all so close that the ranking can easily change based on what I saw last. It's a shame that the silent comedy is so close to dead aside from the occasional curiosity (though I am really looking forward to the upcoming curiosity of The Artist very much indeed!).

Modern Times

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 29 October 2011 in the Paramount Theatre Bright Screening Room (Chaplin)

While Harold Lloyd enthusiastically embraced the new technology of talking pictures only to find that it didn't reciprocate, and Buster Keaton similarly fell out of favor, Charlie Chaplin was still making mostly-silent films when Modern Times was releasedin 1936. Considering that both Keaton and Lloyd would have to be rediscovered in order to get their due while Chaplin's Tramp became and remained an icon, it seems to have worked for him. When this movie came out, though, he must have seemed as wary of progress as his main character. Fortunately, he still knows his way around a gag, and can balance slapstick and sentiment as well as ever.

Here, Chaplin plays a factory worker who winds up having a nervous breakdown as the president of Electro Steel orders the pace of the assembly lines accelerated beyond the limits of human endurance. When he comes out, coincidence places him at the front of a workers' protest, leading to him being jailed as a communist, although his helping the guards during an attempted escape gets him early release. Meanwhile, an orphaned gamin (Paulette Goddard) runs when separated from her sisters. The pair meet up and face the challenges of a world that is stacked against them together, although the man's earnest efforts often wind up with him in jail again.

Though originally conceived as a full talkie, Modern Times is at its heart a silent comedy, and it's as episodic as many of them; a sloppy projectionist could mix up the order of the Chaplin character's various disastrous work experiences between the night watchman gig and being a singing waiter without the story being adversely affected. Still, almost every one of those segments is a miniature classic, featuring some of cinema's funniest set pieces pulled off with flair. Chaplin was a master in having things quickly spin out of control and then get even more chaotic; the café scene at the end is a perfect blend of Chaplin as instigator, victim, and improvisor.

Full review at EFC.

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