Best Things of the Week, 5/19/15

Best Things of the Week


by Byron Spooner


May 18, 2015


Best Thing I Saw All Week: Modern Times, written, starring and directed by Charlie Chaplin (1936): I saw this about fifty years ago sitting on the couch with my old man watching a disintegrating black-and-white TV. He was always a hardcore Laurel and Hardy man mostly because he preferred verbal humor to physical but also, I suspect, because of Chaplin’s politics. My wife and I found this just flipping around with the remote and ended up not moving away from the dinner table for two hours while our soup dishes turned cold in front of us; the black-and-white mesmerizingly sharp, the energy of both Chaplin and Paulette Goddard boundless.  Things get a bit mawkish at times, as was the style of the day—check out the dully cloying romances that were deemed so essential to the  Marx Brothers’ comedies if you don’t believe me—but the satire of industrialization as dehumanization is still right on the mark. Released in the middle of the Depression, in the era of FDR and the New Deal, fifteen years before the rise of Joe McCarthy, Chaplin’s views were not as far outside the mainstream as they now appear though they did manage to attract the malevolent attentions of J. Edgar Hoover. Today seeing the Little Tramp locked up for being a subversive might look quaint, but we’re jailing people in even greater numbers than in the thirties, and what’s thre NSA looking for if not ‘subversives’ of a slightly different stripe. Sunday’s New York Times Book Review featured a review by Barbara Ehrenreich about trhe inevitability of robots replacing workers. Immediately the famous scene where Chaplin is devoured by the gears of a cartoonishly massive machine—which represents Capitalism at its most heartless (though in a remarkably Soviet-looking mill)— leapt to mind; a scene that could easily stand-in for any number of our depersonalized Silicon Valley shirtwaist factories. But only in a comedy could the hero emerge from that gear box unscathed and, politics notwithstanding, we laughed all the way through. Look for Dick Van Dyke’s ottoman bit and Lucy and Ethel’s bonbon factory routine along the way, neither of which are accidents, guaranteed.

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