Wednesday, March 7, 2012

Modern Times (1936)

    You know, I was looking at “Reel Christianity” the other day and the movies I’ve written about in the past few weeks. And you know what I realized? All but one of them have been from the past twenty years. So today, I’ve decided to look at an older movie. And after talking about “The Artist” last week, a recent mostly silent movie that uses sound effectively, I’ve decided to talk about another mostly silent movie that used sound effectively—from seventy-six years ago. Ladies and gentlemen, let me introduce you once again to a man named Charlie Chaplin.

     Chaplin is known as one of the great movie pioneers. Born in 1889 in London (at least, that’s what we thought until a certain FBI file popped up saying he was born in France… whatever), Chaplin began his film career in 1914, originating his signature character of “the Tramp”: a gentleman sporting a mustache and baggy black clothes. The Tramp appeared in pretty much all of Chaplin’s early films, from 1916’s “The Kid” to 1925’s “The Gold Rush” to 1931’s “City Lights”. But the last film to feature Chaplin’s Tramp was “Modern Times” in 1936, the first Chaplin film to use sound at all. Chaplin (unlike George Valentin in “The Artist”) was one of the many movie stars that successfully made the transition from silent movies to talkies, and in “Modern Times”, sound is used as not only a political commentary but as another of Chaplin’s techniques to make humor universal for all audiences. But more on that in a minute.

     “Modern Times” starts with a shot of sheep running aimlessly together through an open field. This makes little sense until we dissolve to a similar shot of factory workers running out of a subway into their workplaces. (You can tell this is going to be a political commentary from the start.) One of those workers is the Tramp, working on an assembly line screwing bolts onto… um… I can’t really tell. But who cares, he’s working so hard and can never stop to rest that his work starts getting to him. (By the way, one of the first ways Chaplin uses sound in this movie is to relate it to new technology. The manager of the factory uses a screen to communicate—and even speak—with his workers. And when a new invention comes in, it speaks too. Brilliant use of sound.)

     Anyway, the Tramp starts going nuts at his work, eventually even getting stuck in the machinery (an image that has become synonymous with the silent movie in general), and he is taken to a hospital. After he is let out, he accidentally finds himself carrying a red flag in the middle of a Communist parade, and he ends up getting arrested. After getting out of jail, he cannot find a job, but he does find an orphaned young woman working at the waterfront (Paulette Goddard, Chaplin’s wife for six years). The girl has stolen a loaf of bread and is running from the police, but the Tramp tells the police he is the thief and gets put in prison again, letting the girl escape. Eventually, he is freed, but gets arrested again after eating too much in a cafeteria without paying. On his way to jail, he meets up with the girl again, and together they escape.

     The Tramp eventually finds a job as a night watchman at a department store. But after he mistakenly lets some burglars have some food, he is robbed and arrested the next morning. But eventually, he is freed again, and he and the girl find a run-down place to stay. The Tramp finds another job in a factory, but after getting his boss stuck and unstuck in machinery, and then after getting involved in a strike, he is arrested yet again. (Yeah, the Tramp gets in trouble a lot. That’s sort of his trademark.) And when he is freed, he finds the girl again, now working as a dancer in a restaurant. The Tramp gets a job there as a waiter, but of course, he runs into a little trouble.

     But at the end of the day, he gets his own song in a floorshow. And when he loses the lyrics he has written down on his shirt cuff, he starts making up words on the fly—and yes, we hear them. (Another brilliant use of sound—whatever the Tramp says is nonsense, so anyone can laugh at him, whatever language he or she speaks.) And when the police eventually come for the girl for her earlier escape, she and the Tramp escape. And the film ends with the two of them setting out on a country road, uncertain of the future:

GIRL: What’s the use of trying?

TRAMP: Buck up—never say die. We’ll get along!

     A huge reason why “Modern Times” is such an important movie is because of its significance in history. The film was released in 1936, seven years after the 1929 stock market crash, in the middle of the Great Depression. Many Americans—and people around the world, for that matter—were living as poor as the Tramp and his companion, if not poorer. And there was so much going on in our world as far as politics go—World War Two was about to begin, the threat of Communism was starting to come about, and Hitler was coming to power. For Chaplin to portray that world in a comedic way, as well as in a darker way, and to end his film with our two protagonists going out into the world with hope in their hearts, must have been a really inspirational image for audiences around the world to see.

     I remember this time about a year ago when there was a lot going on in the world: protests in the Middle East, earthquakes in Japan, and tornadoes in the United States, among other things that I probably didn’t even hear about. And even as our economy is slowly but surely improving, this is still a hard world to live in. Can this seventy-six-year-old movie still give people hope? I believe it can. But I don’t place my hope in the movies—if I did, this blog wouldn’t mean anything. I know that I need to constantly be putting my hope and my trust in the Lord. As the psalmist says, “But now, Lord, what do I look for? My hope is in you.” (39:7)

     Personally, I’m going through some difficulties that I don’t mind sharing with you guys. This summer, I’m going on a mission trip to Peru and Ecuador that I’m still in the process of fundraising for, which gets a little stressful for me and my family. On top of that, I’m in the middle of midterms in a semester with seventeen credits, which can definitely get frustrating. On top of that, I’ve already seen a lot of tough stuff already in 2012--not only have the tornadoes devastated a lot of areas surrounding me, but I've also seen a lot of death hit close to home, from family pets to a former classmate who lived down the street to a nearby school shooting killing three students. 

     It’s already been a year of ups and downs. But if I constantly look to God for help and remind myself that He is always in control, I won’t be able to let my tough times dominate me. And my prayer for you is the same—trust in the Lord with all your heart, and lean not on your own understanding (Proverbs 3:5).

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