Saturday, 21 August 2010

Modern Times


I was never much taken with Charlie Chaplin, too cute, I preferred the comparative austerity of Buster Keaton. But a couple of days ago I came across this picture. It is the last shot of Chaplin's Modern Times (1936). At first glance it seems merely generic - hero and heroine walk off into the sunset and their future. Also Chaplin is in his standard tramp gear so one tends to think 'Charlie Chaplin' and move on. Nevertheless, I was transfixed. Declining towards the vanishing point, there are telegraph poles on one side and palm trees on the other. In the distance, pale hills recede. The sun is low, the shadows are long and the two figures are little more than silhouettes. The raking light also shows up the odd roughness of the roadway. It is still generic, but beautifully so. But what really lifts the shot is the way the girl (Paulette Goddard) is dressed - big disc hat, tight suit or dress and heels. This is obviously all wrong. She is not likely to get far. She is too well dressed both for her tramp boyfriend and for the journey. The discontinuity is surreal and anticipates those shots in neo-realist Italian movies of high-heeled divas on dusty road or the group marching aimlessly down an anonymous road in Bunuel's Discreet Charm of the Bourgeoisie. The picture has become generic but not in the way it seems at first glance. I must give Chaplin another look.

8 comments:

  1. Marvellous. I wonder how such movies would end if nobody had ever thought of the device of Walking Into The Sunset? It's such a clever way of conveying a lot of things, when you come to think about it.

    (I confess I struggle with Chaplin.)

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  2. I absolutely adored Chaplin when I was a child, back when they used to show his short films along with Keaton, Harold Lloyd and Laurel and Hardy on the BBC in the school holidays. I still find Laurel and Hardy funny and Keaton impresses me for his audacity but much of Chaplin's sentimentality gives me diabetes these days.

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  3. The end of Modern Times is great, the very definition of bittersweet. Many times I have pondered the moment when Chaplin 'draws' a smile on his face and Goddard's. Great stuff, saw it in Russia on the 120th anniversary of his birth and it sparked off a mini-Chaplin mania for me. City Lights, the Circus, MT & bits of Limelight are all worth anybody's time.

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  4. Don't look back in hindsight. Poor old charlie always get an undeserved drubbing. Nevetheless, it's not very gentlemanly to walk your lady friend into the sun.

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  5. I am not convinced. If I wanted to impress someone with my perceptiveness and sensitivity I might take an image that most people would not give a second glance to and proceed to wax lyrical about "the raking light" (it was shot at sunset as per the standard dramatic cliche), the "odd roughness of the roadway" (it was the nearest dirt track to the studio) and the "surreal" juxtaposition of a well dressed girl with a tramp setting off on a long journey (was she going to change into hobnail boots for the final shot?). I mean, in what way could this image not have turned out more-or-less as it did? Perhaps Chaplin scoured the world looking for "an oddly rough-looking road with telegraph poles on one side and palm trees on the other with some smallish mountains in the distance". Maybe he couldn't find it and, in fact, the above image was a glass shot that Chaplin painted himself. Otherwise, why should this single image persuade me to "give Chaplin another look"?

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  6. This made me wonder why we no longer value Bunuel. The endless tramp down the road in the Discrete Charm feels in memory like a wonderful image of fatuous mobility.

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