Friday, September 28, 2012

The Master Review

The Master
Directed by Paul Thomas Anderson
Released in 2012

“I’m finished” are the final words of director Paul Thomas Anderson’s last picture, There Will Be Blood. It is not a spoiler, for those of you who have yet to see it, because the line drops almost as a non-sequitur when preceded by the momentous climax. Those two words grant a sense of closure to a great, ambitious film — one with an epic yet straightforward narrative. Anderson’s newest work, The Master, has no such neat ends. It is a mammoth: towering and gorgeous, yet uncanny in its thin disconnect from reality. It is a vexing character study that churns over themes of freewill, sexuality and the self. Upon viewing its opening shot of crystal blue water foaming in a WWII battleship’s wake, I thought of Tarkovsky’s 1972 sci-fi classic Solaris and its brewing ocean planet. The Master is a puzzle for those who love capital-f Film.

Known shorthand as the “L. Ron Hubbard Movie,” The Master does indeed base its title character, Lancaster Dodd (Philip Seymour Hoffman), off of the Scientology founder and blasts the groupthink of such a cult. The verbal fireworks between Dodd and a dissenter (Christopher Evan Welch) during Dodd’s introspective “processing” (called “auditing” in Scientology) of an elderly woman make those intentions clear — not to mention quite entertaining. But Anderson aims higher than just criticizing some religion or cult. He asks questions that we all dodge: Are we a product of nature or nurture? Do those around us naturally create us? We could be so much more, couldn’t we? “The master” of the title translates to at least three meanings: 1) one with a preeminent grasp on a subject, 2) one who controls another through orders and 3) one who controls another without orders.

Lancaster Dodd is “The Master,” beloved by those who follow his spiritual guidance within his Scientology-like belief system, The Cause, and exalted above all others by Freddie Quell (Joaquin Phoenix), who Dodd calls his “guinea pig and protégé.” Quell drifts across the world after the Pacific Theater of World War II left him erratic, violent and depraved. He furiously gropes a woman carved out of sand on the beach and only sees genitalia when subjected to a Rorschach test. It is no surprise that he boozes to cope with his torment; a little unexpected, however, is his homemade brand of moonshine, mixed with gasoline and paint thinner. Quell accidentally incapacitates — maybe kills — an old man with the concoction and escapes by squatting on a ship bound for New York City. The ship belongs to Dodd, who sees potential — for what is the question — in this malleable, broken soul. He also enjoys Quell’s poison and a two-way relationship between them grows.

The chemistry between Phoenix and Hoffman spells future Oscars (Lead and Supporting, respectively, I think) and, more importantly, keeps the balance of power between the two characters in constant flux. Dodd and his wife, Peggy (Amy Adams), make a mission of healing Quell back to proper mental health through their inquisitive methods. As tempting it is to label Dodd a snake oil merchant and nothing more, the film steps back to study the results of repeating simple questions (“What is your name?”) and sense-based exercises (describing the feeling, the essenceof a wall compared to a window) on Quell. The Cause treatment really has no effect, medically at least, but the final verdict remains inconclusive. The film seems to honor The Cause as much as Quell, an awe that never seems to wane.

For all of Hoffman’s softly lit close-ups and monologues, however, the screen belongs to Joaquin Phoenix. Quell’s flared nostrils, squinted eyes, scarred lip and hands on his hips betray a damaged man always on the offensive — what else did war teach him? As his tantrums subside along with his reliance on Dodd, he takes back the wheel of his own life, though we are not sure if that makes him better off. His powerful kinship with Dodd (possibly sexual, but what does that really matter?) brought a sense of purpose to his life. They both saw their true selves in each other, but what purpose does truth serve for a charlatan like Lancaster Dodd? With Hoffman’s gravitas, you would think truth means everything. It is impressive that the performances are this incredible, considering Anderson’s work bears the signature of a perfectionist. Think back to auteurs like Kubrick, Malick and Hitchcock, who often stifle their acting talent with endless nuances and demands. Here, Anderson constructs an exacting cinematic construction that expresses its meaning through acting as well as direction.

The Master is unlike any film I have ever seen. Some of its power comes from what we do see, in all its rich 70mm cinematography, tailored by Mihai Malaimare Jr. The rest is in what we feel. Anderson often navigates the temporal space of his sets from a distance — The Shining’s long hallways come to mind. This technique, along with the film’s slow-paced editing and character-driven narrative, allows for our eyes to wander and pick up on the details of the mise-en-scene. The score by Radiohead’s Jonny Greenwood (he also composed for There Will Be Blood) does not underline plot points or memorable lines but just slips under your skin along with every other element. Surreal fantasies creep in without warning, and the power of The Cause starts to seem plausible.

I am curious as to how history will judge this film. There is a chance, upon closer analysis, that the academic verdict of The Master will deem it symbolically empty and hopelessly vague. I believe my first viewing offered enough validation of its merits, and what we have here will rise to a Great film. As the credits rolled, I could not escape associations with Ingmar Bergman’s Persona. That film, too, studied two individuals, one mentally ill and the other trying to heal through empathy. It is questionable whether these intimate examinations ever cured these characters, but as any film, literature or art major knows, they are how we convert our confusion into reverence.

Final Verdict:
4.5 Stars Out of 5

This article was originally written for The Cornell Daily Sun and can be viewed at its original location via this link.

Friday, September 21, 2012

Cosmopolis Review

Directed by David Cronenberg
Released in 2012

Eric Packer is a billionaire. He rarely makes eye contact with anyone, not even his newlywed wife. He tends to  to refer to himself in majestic plural — the royal “we.” He inches across congested Manhattan in his bulletproof limousine, browsing currency rates on digital screens. He adorns his house with two elevators: One plays rap music by Brutha Fez, a respected artist and Eric’s friend, while the second moves at one-quarter speed and plays Satie. The latter “makes him whole,” he says. Eric Packer is 28 years old, and today, he wants a haircut.

That is more than you need to know of Packer, played by Twilight’s Robert Pattinson, for he operates more as a symbol than as a real human being. David Cronenberg’s Cosmopolis, based on Don DeLillo’s 2003 novel, clearly marks Packer as an evil agent of capitalism and all its inhuman excesses. But toppling the one-percent through allegory is too easy, not to mention an empty exercise. Instead, DeLillo, Cronenberg and their surrogate, Pattinson, give us the mirror and ask how human we really are, in a time when speed, connection and perfection are our holy trinity.

There is a frustrating irony, then, that over half of the movie takes place in the silent bubble that is Packer’s limo, as it slowly crawls through the city. An unreasonable variety of acts occurs in the car: Packer has sex, gets a prostate exam, watches a gruesome stabbing on live T.V. and, most of all, talks. He talks a lot. Every encounter with another human being — most cycle through his spacious limo — consists of pages of dialogue, most of it very literate and unnaturally refined. These dense conversations are justified because, again, Cronenberg revokes these characters’ full humanity in favor of propping them up to speak to larger truths. It does make the film very literary, rather than cinematic, since dialogue rules over image.

Cosmopolis does not excite with its effects or pacing, but impresses as a slick demonstration of how things can be kept interesting. Few directors can pull off staying in one location for multiple scenes — Hitchcock’s Rope and Lumet’s 12 Angry Men set the bar high in the ’50s, as did Danny Boyle, more recently, in 127 Hours. Cronenberg finds distinct and expressive approaches to every scene, composing striking frames with moody colors and detailed production design, courtesy of cinematographer Peter Suschitzky and designer Arvinder Grewal. As a doctor searches Packer’s, um, packer during the prostate exam, the shot plots Packer along the lower third of the screen, with a cool blue neon light along the ceiling. He is face-to-face with his sweaty adviser, Jane (Emily Hampshire), though the sequence only cuts back and forth to their individual perspectives without joining them in one frame. The two speak of sexual tension when there is, very purposefully, only an air of solitude.

Directing quirks like these complement the lines and plot twists, which confuse more than clarify. Packer’s financial consultant, Vija (Samantha Morton), muses for about 15 minutes in pure DeLillo fashion how “money has lost its narrative quality;” how people have “stopped thinking about eternity” and begun to focus on “measurable man-hours;” how “the future becomes insistent.” The philosophical monologues touch upon some heavy dilemmas and to the patient, the themes unravel themselves. Cronenberg lets his camera do the talking. Packer and Vija drive through a violent protest reminiscent of Occupy Wall Street, though the demonstrators here are dressed as rats. The two, ignoring the external bedlam, talk as protesters vandalize the limousine. Only when Packer witnesses a self-immolating man — through an excellent shot with Packer in the foreground and the martyr framed through the passing car window — does he start to the admire ideology behind this chaos. We are kept within Packer’s head, feeling what he feels, which up to this point is very little at all.

Only extreme measures like suicide penetrate Packer’s skin, so as he begins to make his own choices (besides his decision to get a haircut, he only starts exercising his free will an hour in), the film loses its sterile sheen and adapts to Packer’s reckless behavior. Packer loses his sunglasses and jacket, unbuttons his pressed shirt and starts to stick out in the world; he dares his mysterious stalker, Benno Levin (Paul Giamatti), to give him his best shot. Giamatti’s 15 minutes at the end is the film’s high point; it is the emotional release the prior 90 minutes desperately needed. Of course, Levin’s twitches and giggles classify him as insane. The physically warped and openly emotive Levin is the most human character, an embodiment of the “imperfect” Packer fears. “It’s women’s shoes, it’s all the names they have for shoes!” Levin shouts in a fit. It is a welcome, genuine non-sequitur and about the most concise criticism of today’s culture I can think of.

DeLillo is one of our era’s greatest, and most prescient writers — his 1997 masterwork Underworld foresaw much of the paranoia of a post-9/11 world. The Twin Towers, shrouded in mist and flanked by a distant, swooping hawk, grace the book’s now-disturbing cover. Cronenberg is similarly a legendary and prophetic filmmaker — his 1983 classic Videodrome indicted the media’s control over the mind. It is surprising to learn that Cosmopolis was written before social media, the Arab Spring or our ongoing recession. It examines our push for more: more money, more technology, more perfection. The film does so through a cold lens and muted emotions, the feel of which becomes strangely familiar as the story progresses. Any recommendation for this film requires a bold, loud disclaimer: Most will find the experience slow, pretentious and convoluted. It is all these things, yes. Do you actually think the mind of a 28-year-old billionaire is anything like yours?

Final Verdict:
4 Stars Out of 5

This article was originally written for The Cornell Daily Sun and can be viewed at its original location via this link.

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

The Art of Defamation

Courtesy of Santi Slade

You may feel sad, disappointed or even angry, but certainly not surprised. If this past summer proved to us how stupidly common rampage shootings have become, the past week reminded us yet again of the long-running, fatal clash between Western free speech and fundamental Islam’s problem with it. As of press time, the surge of revolt sweeping the Middle East, Africa and even Australia has broadened to express a deeper distrust in America and its foreign policy. But the media agrees that the catalyst for these attacks is the movie trailer — by one “Sam Bacile” (whose real name is in dispute) — referred to by various titles such as Muhammad Movie, The Real Life of Muhammad and Innocence of Muslims.

This trailer is why we can’t have nice things. When our armed service men and women die for our freedoms, our resulting liberty should not be twisted to make vile and asinine garbage like this. There was nothing wrong in America’s Cairo Embassy condemning the work of this — to use an Internet term — ‘troll.’ Now, we know of the attack in Benghazi, Libya, that took the life of Ambassador Christopher Stevens and three other Americans. The reportedly organized assault used protests against the “film” as a smokescreen. Naturally, certain politicians are blaming others for the tragic incident.

But this is an Arts column, and you aren’t here to read about politics. Let us look at this video (“film” has an artistic connotation). Bacile has a deep-seated hatred of Islam and a desire to defame it, which he fails to do through any semblance of satire or logical argument. Of course, his attempt has achieved its goal, likely by casting the lead actor as the prophet Muhammad and depicting him as a womanizing, pedophilic and homosexual buffoon. Let those three adjectives stir around in your head for a bit.

The 14-minute production throws mud at the wall and does not wait to check if any of it sticks. Egyptian Muslims burn the houses of Egyptian Christians. They kill a beautiful woman, so they are irrevocably evil. Flashback. Muhammad fights over a beef shank with a child. Muhammad lusts over little girls. Muhammad talks to a donkey. Some reference about how the Qur’an is a collection of  “false verses,” mixing the Torah and New Testament. All lines are delivered seriously without any apparent subtext or ulterior motive. Besides amateur sound mixing, continuity errors and one-dimensional green screen so bad it makes The Room look like Avatar, the video’s gravest technical problem — out-of-sync voiceover dubbing — extends to its most dire moral offense: All references to “Muhammad” and “Islam” are not even spoken by the actors. Many of these struggling actors now fear for their lives. Oh, and did I mention the video was apparently directed by a ’70s softcore porn director? The whole thing is so bad that no one looks good in the end.

What we are left with is the modern and very ironic phenomenon known as the “Streisand effect” — decrying something public (i.e. photo, website, film), only to widely publicize it through said protest. If Hollywood signed George Clooney and Brad Pitt to lead a Christopher Nolan-directed anti-Islamic film, then we might have a big problem. Instead, what these violent protests amount to is giving a vulgar bathroom door doodle the new judge seat on American Idol and all of its international variants.

The hateful propaganda made over the last 100 years that we still remember has some — crazy as it may sound — artistic value. D.W. Griffith’s racist ode to Confederate America, The Birth of a Nation, pioneered battlefield cinematography and parallel editing. Leni Riefenstahl’s Triumph of the Will, documenting the 1934 Nuremberg Rally and glorifying Hitler and the Nazi party, implemented innovative aerial shots. Watch them today, and you may find yourself bored to tears. Film historians and theorists, however, admire the far-reaching technical influence of these films to this day. Just six months ago we had Kony 2012 (six months ago!). While not a hateful film — as much I disagree with it — it is certainly an attractive example of propaganda for the digital age.

I hope it is not a sign of the times that this year’s grossest misuse of art is, by all but the loosest definitions, not art at all. Perhaps there is a silver lining here — for all the shouting matches political correctness has stirred, the days of Joseph Goebbels approaching a visionary director like Fritz Lang to make anti-Semitic films are long gone (Lang, himself a Jew, said “no,” by the way). Instead, we just have to deal with this Muhammad Movie excrement.

Salman Rushdie, target of a still-standing fatwa by the Iranian Shah Ruhollah Khomeini in 1988, made it easy for the intellectuals to come to his defense, for his beautiful novel The Satanic Verses was the instigator. Youth and adults with a functional sense of humor similarly rallied around South Park when it stumbled into these crosshairs in 2010. Right now, we must stand for the freedom of speech and prohibition of violence. The pen is mightier than the sword, even when it’s millions of swords against one of those pens you find on the floor of a bathroom stall.

This article was originally written for The Cornell Daily Sun and can be viewed at its original location via this link.

Monday, September 10, 2012

John Oliver Stand-Up Review

Courtesy of Fiona Modrak

John Oliver
At Bailey Hall, Cornell University
On Saturday, September 8, 2012

Only at Cornell will you find a crowd equally receptive to a dorky (but irresistible) rendition of R. Kelly’s “Ignition” and a joke about the Expressionist painter Edvard Munch. John Oliver, the unmistakably British veteran correspondent from The Daily Show With Jon Stewart,knew exactly who his audience was and won over the sold-out crowd at Bailey Hall with his kinetic, literary and utterly shameless brand of comedic delivery Saturday night.

Oliver’s homeless — err, I mean homeless-looking friend, Mike Lawrence, opened the Cornell University Program Board-sponsored show. Lawrence’s disheveled appearance and little-known history made every story worryingly believable. There were few lines he did not cross; his dark spectrum of jokes covered Alzheimer’s, homophobia, domestic violence, AIDS (or “GLAIDS,” the Glee version) and the KKK (“Nothing says master race like minimum wage!”). He drew the expected “ooo’s” for the most offensive material (his Adele miscarriage joke dropped jaws), but he won far more laughs with his shock-and-awe style. His take on a conservative Batman displeased with Obamacare ("I'm going to give Gotham the health care it deserves...") brought down the house. He found an instant fan in me with his gag about groveling for money in the subway in order to buy The Criterion Collection Blu-ray of The Royal Tenenbaums — the specificity of that joke expresses the range of pop culture trivia he chose to probe.

A very rich ovation welcomed Oliver, though he noted once the applause quieted that nothing could top returning from work to get pissed on by his new puppy. Fresh off the presidential campaign trail (he finished covering the DNC less than 24 hours prior), Oliver wove his love and hate — but mostly love — for politics and America into a nearly 90-minute set that touched upon myriad cultural observations. He reflected upon his “out-of-body experience” while witnessing firsthand Clint Eastwood’s stool speech two weeks ago (Lawrence also deigned to pluck this fresh comedic fruit). However, the majority of his material barely connected with his Daily Show experience, which was a wise and risky choice.

Many of Oliver’s jokes were inspired by his outsider’s perspective on American quirks. His three-question survey on the status of our country — “Have they stopped caring about how they look?” “Do they have poor eating habits?” “Have they run out of money?” — drew laughs when he made an analogy comparing the KFC Double Down to “legally-attempted suicide.” He also teased the audience when a loud “Woo!” greeted his sobering declaration that the U.S. is $15 trillion in debt. When he repeated the statistic near the end of his show, a catcall greeted its return; both the crowd and Oliver commended the other jokester in the room.

Ever the seasoned comedian, Oliver practiced the satisfying technique of referring to an element of an earlier joke within a later, seemingly unrelated joke. The alarmingly confident pigeon capable of resolving the Israeli-Palestinian conflict made a well-received return, as did Oliver’s concession that he may have read some Paul Ryan “slash fiction” after being humiliated in its Daily Show variants. Despite some platitudinous observations, it was how Oliver progressed from the initial set-up that sealed the deal. He jabbed at Mitt Romney’s oft-mentioned elitism by running and jumping across the stage, mimicking a Dickensian villain whacking poor children. One of the night’s best jokes: Oliver noted that Romney’s go-to phrase when entering diners — “What’s going on here, then?” — is a genuine question.

But throughout the night, Oliver’s main narrative was one of optimism. His mocking of Americana clearly comes from a warm heart. He recalled his confusion when an American traveler complained about a hurricane delaying his flight, asking, “Why can’t we just fly through it?” “We’d love to but they won’t let us!” replied the airline attendant. Oliver’s confusion melted into admiration. Championing our country as “built on overconfidence,” he broke into an impassioned version of the national anthem, finishing with the line, “And the home of jet skis!” amid tumultuous applause. “Everything’s going to be fine,” he often repeated. With you around, John Oliver, I think you’re right.

This article was originally written for The Cornell Daily Sun and can be viewed at its original location via this link.

Tuesday, September 4, 2012

Nolan in the Deep

Courtesy of Santi Slade
“I don’t think you go to a play to forget, or to a movie to be distracted. I think life generally is a distraction and that going to a movie is a way to get back, not go away.”

That is a quote from actor Tom Noonan, who courageous moviegoers will remember as the mysterious doppelganger in Charlie Kaufman’s Synecdoche, New York. He expresses a sentiment so clear and true that I wonder why I did not assemble those exact words in that exact order by myself. Personal failings notwithstanding, the idea that we watch film to connect within ourselves rather than merely ‘escape’ via fleeting distractions fits with my fondest memories of the medium. So, why have movies been so distracting lately?

Tired platitudes blame directors Michael Bay (Transformers), Roland Emmerich (2012) or actor Nicolas Cage, who has about trademarked a style of acting/shouting in eternal meltdown. While I will personally defend Cage’s talents against his detractors, right now I charge a filmmaker who I also hold in high regard: Christopher Nolan. Our greatest living director; the man who turned superhero movies serious; the legend who dreamed of Inception? Oh, yes.

It would be borderline libel to denounce Nolan as ‘talentless,’ a ‘hack’ or a ‘talentless hack.’ He is a crafty director who challenges the audience’s expectations of linear storytelling and soundstage action scenes — see Memento for the former and Inception’s jaw-dropping revolving hallway sequence for the latter. I am quite a fan of those works, as well as ofInsomnia and the modern classic The Dark Knight. As Larry David would say, he’s “pretty, pretty … prettay good!” But there is a signature touch of his that represents a nagging trend in filmmaking of recent years, and that is his crippling obsession with minutiae, both in plot and style.

Wes Anderson (Moonrise Kingdom) rolls some eyes with his painstakingly crafted, colored and positioned props and sets. Stanley Kubrick (The Shining) drove his producers and actors mad as a notorious perfectionist. Yet the films of these two directors utilize their creator’s obsession as either a background detail or an essential key in unlocking their themes and secrets. For Nolan, he seems to be afraid of letting images speak for themselves. To secure audience comprehension, he adds flourishes that feel extraneous, like an auteur struggling to leave his mark and thus tacking on a Post-It note.

In The Dark Knight Rises, which collects the worst of Nolan’s tendencies, we are introduced to Bruce Wayne after eight years of isolation with a tabloid’s worth of gossip. At a party on the grounds of Wayne Manor, the Gotham City Mayor notes Wayne’s absence, policemen remark how Wayne has not been seen for years, maids chatter about how “disfigured” the unseen Wayne has become and adversary John Daggett jokes that Wayne is some Howard Hughes-esque recluse, “peeing into Mason jars.” This repetitive exposition is an example of ‘tell’ over ‘show,’ where we do not feel a grain of the solitude Wayne suffered but simply hear how bad it must have been from (mostly) unknown talking heads. Nolan loves to parallel cut between several proximate locations in order to string together a bustling setting, but he forfeits any moments of silence or contemplation in his depiction (see film theorist David Bordwell’s recent essay, “Nolan vs. Nolan,” for an in-depth analysis of the director’s overactive editing style).

Plot is clearly Nolan’s focus and his number one goal to communicate. Why, then, do his stories end up so twisted and full of holes? Allow me to clarify: I believe plot holes are one of the weakest arguments you can impose against a movie. Plot holes may not be apparent on a cursory viewing, and thus spotting them gives a viewer the impression that they are closely analyzing the film and engaging in nuanced ‘film criticism,’ as scholars call it. However, this approach can be likened to disassembling a movie’s SparkNotes, divorcing themes, composition and intent from a film and instead studying often-irrelevant inconsistencies in a film’s universe.

Unfortunately, Nolan perpetuates this increasingly mainstream method of pseudo-analysis by tying theme and plot so strongly and, at least in the case of The Dark Knight Rises, so sloppily. To those who have seen that movie, you are aware of that already infamous plot twist at the end (accompanied by a literal twist of a knife, to jog your memory). It razes most of the film’s fiction up to that point, leaving dozens of ruinous and unfathomable assumptions in its wake. The inclusion of the twist was likely out of necessity to spice up the final act. Roger Ebert coined the phrase, “Keyser Soze syndrome,” in observation of the trend following The Usual Suspects’ release when a film drastically alters its reality in the final act. See Fight Club, The Sixth Sense and Nolan’s own Memento for the fad’s winning protégés.

Perhaps Nolan’s greatest weakness is his inability to give into the mystery of his subjects. Inception spends nearly an hour explaining the logic of dreamworlds to the viewer, along with throwing out a handful of inconsistent “dream within dreams” time scale ratios. Think how much more unpredictable and, according to both psychologists and personal experience, realistic a lack of rules would have been. The Dark Knight actually carries a soul — the silent shot of The Joker with his face out of a police car window, basking in chaos shakes your bones. But Two-Face’s circuitous speech at the climax divulges the Hollywood tendency for too much closure. And as for The Dark Knight Rises, Nolan told Rolling Stone magazine in July that it was not “political.” The plot’s prominent populist uprising — with insurgents brandishing Soviet AK-47s — precludes this notion, regardless of his stated clarification.

Saying all this, I still love much in Christopher Nolan’s work and would be lying to say I was not counting the days until his next feature. He is in the unique position to reach a sizable fraction of the world’s population, not only to entertain, but to inspire, comment and provoke. He could even doodle with an experimental film and people would see it. I want to leave his movies pondering big questions, and not just whether or not that damn spinning top fell.

This article was originally written for The Cornell Daily Sun and can be viewed at its original location via this link.

Modern Times

This is the second post in Film Stock, a series of reviews appreciating the greatest films of all time. Charlie Chaplin's 1936 classic Modern Times is the selection this time around, as it was screened at Cornell Cinema last Thursday. The following article was originally written for The Cornell Daily Sun and can be viewed at its original location via this link.

Modern Times
Directed by Charlie Chaplin
Released in 1936

The sun had already set, but a maroon warmth lingered along the horizon long enough to defy the encroaching darkness for a few precious moments. In these minutes leading up to Cornell Cinema’s outdoor screening of Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times last Thursday night, the view from the Terrace of Willard Straight Hall afforded a stunning panorama of downtown Ithaca at dusk, as well as a powerful metaphor, forced though it may be, on the film’s legacy.

When Chaplin released Modern Times in 1936, silent films had run aground about seven years before (see Singin’ in the Rain or The Artist for the romanticized history). His preceding masterpiece, City Lights, resisted the “talkie” push back in 1931. Modern Times is not completely silent (more on that later), but it is set in the silent film mode Chaplin and his iconic character, The Little Tramp, pioneered. Chaplin had the money, fame and gall to return to the ghost town of silent film and not only put on a show but bring millions around the world back with him. Successful as The Tramp’s swan song was, however, the paradigm had shifted and he had to finally conform, as he did with his talkie, The Great Dictator, four years later. Modern Times survives as the last beautiful respite of a form that faded into the distance.

Chaplin told simple stories with sincerity and certainty, two qualities lost in our nebulous modern times. Like many of his other works, Modern Times propels forward on the familiar romantic comedy tracks Chaplin himself long ago put into place. Our hero, Chaplin’s Little Tramp (listed as “a factory worker” in the credits), falls for the homeless “gamine,” played by Paulette Goddard. She is an orphaned, broke yet defiant girl, and shares a resourceful mischief with The Tramp. They meet when she steals a baguette and clumsily tackles The Tramp to the ground in mid-escape. The Tramp has not a penny more to his name than her but, ever the gentleman, takes the blame for her theft. As a policeman arrests him, he grins and tips his hat to the girl, embodying gentility long lost.

There is a greater purpose to this film, however, than imparting an exemplary love story. Current viewers are likely struck with the immediacy to the images and the ideas Chaplin crafted here. Modern Times is unapologetically political, decrying the strain of industry as deleterious to physical and mental health. The conveyor belts and twirling gears where Chaplin stages some of his most memorable slapstick are instruments of indoctrination. The factory boss — fiddling with a puzzle in his oversized office — commands the bare-chested gear operator, “Section Five, speed her up!” over and over. As production accelerates to breakneck speed, the workers are stripped of any semblance of free will or dignity. Today, we criticize technology on philosophical grounds — What does it mean to be human? Does this implant change me? — but its abuse as satirized through this film is clear and corporeal.

Every scene speaks on multiple planes; comedy doubles as commentary, fantasy as criticism and so on. The Tramp’s monotonous assembly line task of screwing in bolts inspires a nervous breakdown where he turns foolishly daring (famously sliding through the factory’s gears), sexually devious (fixated on ‘screwing’ the buttons on women’s blouses) and joyously mad (wrecking the factory in a flurry of dance). His full-body spasms betray a man turning into a machine, one uncaring and ready to crash. After being subjected to the iconic “Billows Feeding Machine,” which malfunctions and flings food at his face in a still-hilarious frenzy, there is a brilliant moment later on when he sits down in a prison dining hall. As he bends under the table to fix his shoe, the chef walks by and ladles a serving of stew into his bowl. When The Tramp gets up, he looks to the ceiling for a shaft and just shrugs off the instant materialization of his food. Mechanized food dispersal is a little too plausible for him.

Modern Times obviously reflects the sentiments of the working class during The Great Depression, though Chaplin settles for an optimism absent at that time. His critique of the American Dream ends in a caustic embrace, with The Tramp’s last lines — “Buck up, never say die. We’ll get along.” — arriving when all seems lost. Chaplin, a wealthy man at the time and supported by Hollywood studios, could have come across as disingenuous in speaking to the huddled masses. Viewing the movie today through my skewed image of that era and comfortable position in today’s, I nonetheless find his picture bittersweet. As The Tramp and the girl claim a dilapidated shack by the highway their own “paradise,” there is the blatant irony in the disconnect between fantasy (he dreams earlier of them in a comfy house with a stocked kitchen) and reality. But the scene is less a joke than a touching instance of believing your own dreams.

Throughout it all, Chaplin gets away without saying a word. That is not to say he is entirely silent; the climax of the film consists of the Tramp’s famous song, sung in gibberish and expressed through pantomime. But with clever use of diegetic sound — the feeding machine’s instructions are told through a record player, the factory boss speaks through television monitors — Chaplin retains the mystery of his Tramp, which he feared would be lost if he had to speak. He appeases the audience’s expectations by subverting them at every turn.

I can speak with certainty that the magic of this film was only fully retained through Cornell Cinema’s special nighttime open-air screening. I watched it for the first time on a lazy day over the summer. The disc was The Criterion Collection Blu-ray (which the Cinema also used), yet the afternoon glare clashed with the LCD television’s projection. What a difference to watch it under the stars, surrounded by some hundred students and professors resting from their own stress and labor. The audience Cornell Cinema attracts is one of love, patience and respect. I think back to our generation’s beloved Amélie, when the eponymous protagonist looks behind her at the faces of bliss populating a movie theater. This type of cinema transcends art, propaganda or entertainment — it shoots, hits and sinks right into the soul.