This Is a Blog: Kris and Adam Discuss AFI’s Top 100: Modern Times

Tuesday, July 5, 2011

Kris and Adam Discuss AFI’s Top 100: Modern Times

Kris Jenson, with whom I've had the best discussions of my life, is an old friend of mine from Boston. We had been talking about the American Film Institute's Top 100 when he got a job at Dig Boston, writing about just that. Instead of letting the conversation end just because he's a big, fancy writer now, I'm going to write responses to his articles. I can't keep up with his movie watching, so I'm only responding to the ones I've seen.

I've got two other Chaplin movies on the list, where I can just talk about how much I dislike Charlie Chaplin. My favorite Chaplin movie is actually "Chaplin," where Robert Downey, Jr. makes the man a lot more engaging to me than the real thing ever was. I'll save the rant about how Buster Keaton is way better for another movie. For now, it's time to get into why this, the lowest ranked of 3 Chaplin movies on the list, is by far my favorite.

Kris's point about the word "classic" is well-taken. "Modern Times" is about being simply overwhelmed by how quickly society changes. The rapid growth of technology over the past century has made it seem like society grows, shifts, and evolves and at unending pace. It even sort of feels like before the 20th century, society just sort of stayed consistent for a few decades, with a major upheaval every so often. I can't possibly be the only person who feels that way. Tapping into that feeling of uneasiness is what makes this film transcend.

The film itself is deliciously absurd and frantically active. The scene where a machine force feeds Chaplin is so unnerving, it got made into an even more unnerving Porky Pig cartoon. The great shots of Chaplin getting sucked into the machinery carry so much weight to them even though they're pretty much just sight gags.

The scatter-shot, episodic storyline's main throughline follows Chaplin's repeated attempts to get arrested so he can escape the outside world. While this has been tread and re-tread, it fails to capture the power of "Modern Times." Compare it to George Bluth in "Arrested Development." Bluth wants to stay in prison because he finds it refreshingly fun. Appropriate for the early 2000s, Bluth's attitude toward prison reflects an overall feeling that rich people are so untouchable that even a prison sentence isn't much of a punishment. In Chaplin's story, the Depression-era world is so chaotic, prison is orderly by comparison. We haven't, since the '30s, felt that sense that our problems are part of the world's greater problems; therefore, no one can really help. No film captures that feeling better than "Modern Times."

What raises this film above his others is how lightly he touches on such dark and depressing themes. His other movies are just so desperate. Here, he embraces the chaos to the point that the oppressive world is so extreme, it becomes hilarious. It's cathartic to turn what scares you into an object of ridicule. I guess you could say that about his other films, but none of them reach the level of "Modern Times."

That very thing is what makes it a classic. The viewer doesn't have to have lived, or even heard of, the Depression to understand this. On the surface, it speaks to everyone who has ever worked a hard day, anyone who has had to deal with a ridiculous boss, anyone who has ever been falsely accused and doesn't have anyone to support him. What the movie really speaks to at its core is a sense of being completely lost in one's own life. It's a film about being directionless and trying to find peace in that. With enough time and thought we could peel back layer after layer of this movie and each time, we'd find something more and more purely human.

I only wish all Chaplin's films could be this good, and I'm sorry, everyone else, they're not.

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