If you're thinking that you hadn't heard a film called Modern Times was in theaters, that's because it wasn't. Well, it was, but probably not in your lifetime. This is a 1936 film written, directed, produced by, and starring silent film star Charlie Chaplin. It's considered one of his best, and it's not hard to see why. If you've only heard of this film, you've probably gotten the idea that it's about Chaplin's iconic character, the tramp, causing havoc in a factory. This happens and is easily the funniest part of the film, but it's only the first act. Afterwards, the movie tones down the frantic physical comedy, melding it with social commentary and a sweet -- if often melodramatic -- love story. Somewhat surprisingly, the film's deeper themes remain relevant even today.
The first shot of the film is a group of sheep being led through a narrow chute, which dissolves to a crowd of commuters spilling out of a subway station on their way to work. Not the most subtle message, but effective regardless. The tramp, our hero, works at a factory where he and his fellow workers get no respect from the CEO; their bathroom breaks are monitored with a 1984-style telescreen and they're forced to work faster than humanly possible on the assembly line. It reaches the point that management considers abolishing the lunch hour in favor of an automatic feeding machine. (Of course, the tramp becomes a guinea pig for this device, and is subjected to numerous abuses when it starts malfunctioning.) Failing to make it in a world that literally makes him a cog in a machine, the tramp winds up in jail after a series of misadventures -- which he likes because, while regimented prison life is just as dehumanizing, at least the jail is honest about it.
Meanwhile, we're introduced to an impoverished gamine (what we would now call a "waif"), who supports her father and younger sisters through petty theft. We first meet her stealing bananas off a ship at the docks, dressed in a tattered dress and no shoes. (And holding a knife between her teeth. My kind of woman.) After the gamine's father dies in the crossfire of a labor riot, her sisters are taken away by social services. The gamine runs away, preferring homelessness to the same fate. Fleeing the police after stealing a loaf of bread, she literally runs into the tramp, who has been having trouble making it after his release from prison. The tramp takes the rap for her, hoping to get sent back to his nice, comfortable jail cell. Although his deception is soon exposed, he earns the gamine's admiration for trying. When he eventually does get himself arrested, circumstances reunite him with the gamine in the paddy wagon, where he somewhat reluctantly joins her in an escape. Having fallen for each other, they set out to build a life together, the tramp vowing: "I'll get us a home, even if I have to work for it!" And if that doesn't sound like a sympathetic line, keep in mind what the tramp's last major job was like.
In these days of Occupation movements, this story is as relevant as ever. You struggle to find a job, and when you do the treatment you get makes you wonder why you bothered in the first place. You pursue a vision of a comfortable middle-class lifestyle, and it always slips out of your grasp. Sometimes, giving up and settling for a jail cell on the public's dime, or your parents' basement where you're reduced to the level of a child, seems the only real option. You can't be part of the rat race and still maintain your humanity, but you can't stay alive without a steady means of support either. And even if you find some sort of happy medium, a cold and impersonal world is always ready to snatch it away from you.
I don't mean to create the impression that Modern Times is a dark film. A quote on the DVD case calls it "One of the happiest and most lighthearted of the Chaplin pictures," which is an accurate assessment of the film's tone. But underlying a stream of gags involving things like roller skates, police chases, and out-of-control machinery is a brutal and cynical deconstruction of the promises of the industrial age, a message that is more than a little relevant to the Great Recession and the shattered promises of the information age. The fact that hope and optimism shines through it all is testament to the indomitable spirit of humanity, and Chaplin the auteur's personal belief that it will ultimately triumph, even if he's not certain how.
Also, the ending almost made me cry.
Brief addenda: Feminists may be irked by the fact that the tramp's dream of a better life features the gamine in the kitchen cooking for him, and she finds the idea appealing. While I agree there's some values dissonance here, the scene still works since the gamine has, by all accounts, never had enough food to cook before. Or, if you want to put a pro-feminist spin on it, compare her reaction to how the tramp prefers a life in jail to the broken promises of working life. And note that the happy ending they find (before the last-minute plot twist wrecks it) involves becoming a two-income couple instead.