Home > [99 Problems] Series > [99 Problems] Modern Times, La Grande Jatte, Folsom Prison

[99 Problems] Modern Times, La Grande Jatte, Folsom Prison

Originally published 30 May 2010. Intriguing dichotomy here. My impression of Chaplin has moved from mindless affirmation to ambivalence. My impression of Cash (and American folk traditions, in general) from mindless affirmation to enthusiasm.

Ferris Bueller’s Day Off. Remember the part where Cameron stops in the Art Institute of Chicago and there is this great series of shots involving Seurat’s La Grande Jatte? He is absorbed in the thing and the camera gradually zooms in to the points until absolutely nothing is discernible. I’m pretty sure that there isn’t a more apt demonstration of feeling miniscule and powerless. Unfortunately, I am going to have to slack off a bit on this entry. I chose to spend the afternoon playing ultimate frisbee with some ultimate people instead of sitting inside studying. The sun was hard and my grass allergies demanded a Benadryl. There was also a nice but untimely power outage.

Charlie Chaplin was called “the only genius to come out of the movie industry” by our good man Bernard Shaw. Of course, this was long before Kubrik or Hitchcock or any of the others. Still, I had never seen a Chaplin film before and it was a shocking experience. I laughed out loud more during Modern Times than I do in most current comedies. Chaplin has unparalleled control over his art and comedic timing. His scenes unfold with scientific method and a commitment to entertainment.

For Modern Times, Chaplin was billed as the star, the director, the producer, and the… composer? Yes. How is that for artistic control? As good as The Lord of the Rings was, can you imagine if the same guy wrote the music, played Frodo, and produced? It is a vision and talent that is hardly available today. (Outside of independent filmmakers, I don’t even know of a current case of this.) First of all, his acting is top rate. Here he plays the timeless role of the Tramp. Bowler hat and mustache that Hitler clearly ganked. Chaplin’s sense of comedy is outrageous. He attacks every slapstick sequence with scientific exactness. He will commonly introduce a behavior, likely derived from a pitfall of enterprise or industry, and continue to repeat it ad nauseum in the most awkward circumstances. It doesn’t hurt that the filming, operating on 18 shots per second then sped up to 24 shots per second for screening, goes 33% faster than reality, adding a characteristic hustle to the show. This ties in with Chaplin’s vision of a politically themed film commenting on the rapid pace of society induced by industrialization and the Great Depression’s child, Unemployment.

It is hard not to mention the noise taking place in Modern Times. Notably, Chaplin composed the score, which is pretty okay. But he totally wins with the love theme that would one day become “Smile” by Nat King Cole and then used in the amazing “Mattress” episode of Glee. The final scene is totally tearjerker. The film was made when everyone was turning to “talkies” and shows Chaplin’s distaste for the genre by refusing to use much synchronized audio. When used, though, the sound effects are spot on and there is even a scene where the Tramp sings a song in gibberish. The use of sound effects and noise in the piece serves the political goal – a demonstration of hurry and hustle in a time where family is of highest value. You can see the whole film on YouTube. Only 80-some minutes and really really really worth it.

Another noisy work is Seurat’s famed La Grande Jatte. In the park there are children, animals, at least 25 people, and the Seine. It is the capture of a moment-normale. Somehow, we all can identify with the activity and organic composition of the painting. As loud as its subjects might seem to be, however, there is something so profoundly calm about the work. This calmness is derived from Seurat’s science and control.

The artist subscribed to a scientific thought that juxtaposed colors mix in the human eye, and that the color so mixed is purer than any pigments mixed on the palette. This led him to develop pointillism, the thing you probably heard about in elementary school. Tons of single-color dots crowd the painting creating a pixelated vision. Seurat worked on this thing for 2 years. His determination and science led to an astounding control over his work. As already mentioned, the movement and noise in the piece is undeniable, yet the calmness is overpowering. Is it because of the reclining man in the bottom left? The monkey on a leash? The classy individuals? I believe it is born out of the singular artistic vision that was Seurat’s and his devotion to the aesthetic – not unlike Chaplin. His science works. The eye bathes in the colors, slowly accepting piece by piece until coming to terms with the whole.

Another work in a way pointillist is Johnny Cash’s monumental At Folsom Prison. The songs are quick and they are often single strokes of color. They all have a scientific method to them as well, built to serve both the popular model and the lyrics. Listen especially to “25 Minutes to Go” for an example of the thrifty but careful use of form. As the time winds further down the band rises step by step, adding to the paranoia and nerve. It is not in common form, but it is highly understandable and exciting. Like the other two works, Cash remains the proponent of his artistic vision. He demonstrates control over the audience (live in a prison, no less) and his music. The most rapturous example of this is his intimate solo performance of “Long Black Veil“. (Not the Folsom recording.) The prison stays mostly quiet and you can’t help anything but to listen to the poetic story. If there is something truly beautiful about Country music it is the honesty and earnestness.

Columbia records aptly allowed for generous space devoted to stage banter and live interaction. Since it is a live record and in a unique venue, this makes sense. But the noise that results is both disturbing and exciting. “Cocaine Blues” mentions murder and drugs several times, bringing the audience to cheer with fervor. I wonder if this is a catharsis for them or if it is a demonstration of our failure to recognize the criminal instinct in these men. Either one, Cash shows a polite elegance on the recording and has touching compassion for prisoners. The final song, written by a man in the prison, is redemptive and well-written – a highlight of the album.

When Cash brings out June Carter to sing with him, their relationship bares similarities to Chaplin and the stunning Goddard in Modern Times. The men pulling back in a supportive but more goofy resignation while the ladies step forward with charisma and charm.

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