Dinner and a Movie: Modern Times and the Cheesecake Factory

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​Sometimes, observes Nora Watson, an editor interviewed in Studs Terkel's Working, people's jobs are too small for their spirits. You want to dance your way down the assembly line, but if you do that you throw the whole system out of whack.

"You want it to be a million things that it's not and you want to give it a million parts of yourself that nobody else wants there," she says. "So you end up wrecking the curve or else settling down and conforming."

This Dinner and a Movie could be an instructive lesson on each way of dealing. First the movie, Modern Times, where Charlie Chaplin's Little Tramp can't resist the urge to dance through his job tightening bolts on the assembly line of a steel plant. Naturally, disaster ensues.

If you've never seen Modern Times, do yourself a favor and find it. (It's available on Netflix, though not streamable.) Chaplin wrote, directed and starred in it, and he also composed the musical score. He sings and dances and roller-skates. He convulsed the audience at the Tivoli last Tuesday just by raising an eyebrow.

Most people would probably say the definitive movie about work for our modern times is Office Space. But Modern Times, though more than 60 years older, is far more applicable. The main complaint of Office Space was that work is boring and degrading, full of stupid bosses who force workers to wear "flair." The problem is that, like the Little Tramp, we're living in a time when so many people are out of work that we can't just indulge our fantasies of blowing up a row of cubicles. We're grateful we have work (even if it is boring and degrading). Because what else is there? Unemployment?

Unlike the characters in Office Space, the Tramp tries to hold on to his job. He really does. But things keep happening. He gets beaten up by a feeding machine meant to increase worker efficiency. He suffers a nervous breakdown. The factory goes out of business. The workers go on strike. Friendly thieves claiming they just want a bite to eat show up on his first shift as a night watchman. It's no wonder the Tramp would rather spend his life in a warm, comfortable jail cell having companionable chats with the warden.

That all changes when he falls in love with the Gamin [sic], played by Paulette Goddard, "a girl of the waterfront who refuses to go hungry." (We first see her gleefully stealing bananas, grinning around a knife blade clenched between her teeth.) The Tramp and the Gamin mock bourgeois respectability -- the little house with the picket fence -- but they yearn for it all the same.

And in the end they don't get it. The oppressive System gets no great comeuppance, either. Instead it's just the Tramp telling the sobbing Gamin, "Buck up -- never say die. We'll get along!" She dries her tears and they walk off into the dawn. And as non-triumphant endings go, it's pretty damn satisfying. And way funnier than Office Space.


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