Roger Ebert said that movies are empathy machines. It is difficult and some would say impossible to see through a character’s eyes and not begin to develop empathy with them. Movies can bypass the language barrier that writing necessarily can’t, and no body of work proves that better than Charlie Chaplin’s. As writer, director, actor, and composer, Chaplin retained complete control of his films, especially towards the end of his silent period when he made four all-time classics in a row: The Gold Rush, The Circus, City Lights, and Modern Times, which became our first film in the newly formed Movie Club series.
Rather than extolling the virtues of Chaplin’s remarkable skills, I want to talk a bit about how well Chaplin fits into the other things Modernists (Cather, Faulkner, Hughes) were doing at that time. In responding to the destruction of everything they were told to be true (sound familiar?), artists started experimenting to express how broken they felt the world was. Here, Chaplin feels like he hasn’t quite reached the boundaries of the silent comedy and, as such, makes a hybrid, a silent film with some talking and even, late in the film, Chaplin’s own voice singing a made up song to try to keep his job. Chaplin’s politics do feel like an integral part of the film because nearly everything expresses just how difficult it is to be a person in his “modern times.” Every triumph turns into a tragedy except for the interpersonal connections he makes along the way not only with “the gamin” (played with great energy by Paulette Goddard) but also his co-factory-worker who saves the tramp from his friends and gives him a drink. This idea that only through helping each other will we win the day leaves his later connection with the Communist party as no big surprise. Heck, he waves a flag for them in one of the film’s funnier scenes. The thing about Chaplin, at least in this film, is that he never lets the ideas get away from the laughs. He makes everything into a joke, and that’s great. A tub-full of sugar (or “nose powder”) makes the medicine almost invisible.
The group of us watching the film also talked a bit about how useful the film would be in the classroom as a way to discuss ideas of worker’s rights, the role communism played in labor discussions, and film technique. It would make an excellent pairing with a more serious take on the subject in On the Waterfront. Both films make the case that workers know how dire their situations really are and the proper methods of fixing them, lawful or otherwise. The scene where Chaplin becomes the leader of a communist demonstration in the streets by accident can also show what kind of police action was taken against protesters in the 30s and how the response to peaceful demonstration has been unfortunately unchanged throughout the years. Finally, there are little film lessons to be learned in every scene, from the use of one-and-two shots to show the growing relationship between the tramp and the woman he befriends as well as a powerful example of the breaking of the fourth wall when the tramp stares at the viewer towards the end of the film in an effort to make them think about what the rest of the movie has shown.
If all of this sounds like a lot of fun, it is! And you can join in by coming every other Friday at 6pm in Drown 019. Join the Facebook group to have a say in what we watch and be notified of official details. And check back here early in the week following the film showing for more reviews and teaching thoughts.