When we look up at the stars, we see how they used to be. Starlight takes years to travel to Earth. We kid ourselves it’s static. Like old movies, the illusion of permanence makes us feel less flyaway. As the world rockets to the future, we need things that seem stuck. Black and white cinema is comforting for this reason. It’s already the same colours as the night sky. Its stars have been around forever. It doesn’t pummel your eyes, or shriek of the world. When you watch a movie that was made before you were born, it’s reassuring because you know so many others have seen it. We’re not the audience of the past, but we’re part of that audience. Ben Craig’s short film, Modern Times, is about the séance of cinema.
It takes place in a movie theatre. Not on Earth, but in space. This theatre is in orbit around the moon. It projects movies onto the moon’s surface. The future, as ever, looks sleek and bright and unhampered by cost. People happily pay to watch Charlie Chaplin’s 1936 movie, Modern Times. They look transported as a silent classic lights the dark side of the moon. Never mind the rest of the universe. These people are true movie-lovers: they barely register their surroundings. It’s all about the screen. Darkness only adds its lustre. They know they can’t marvel properly at home. The timeless pleasure of being a spectator is half what you watch, and half where you watch it. The heavens, here, offer a majestic venue.
The music we hear is an aria; Casta Diva. It’s a prayer to the goddess of the moon. Bello a me ritorna / Del raggio tuo sereno. Return to me beautiful / With your serene ray. Like most arias, it’s about longing. Even if you don’t know what it means, the singer’s voice is full of orphaned hope. In the opera, Norma, Casta Diva is sung when the world has turned against the heroine. She asks for peace, and for a kinder, gentler world. When the chorus sing in harmony, it’s as if everyone around her echoed that need for calm. The music obviously fits with the setting in Modern Times, but it expresses a common wish too, as this space audience slips the surly bonds of Earth, and enters the haven of the spheres.
Death is where other people take over. That’s why watching movies is like being dead. You keep all your feelings intact; but love of movies means being an observer by choice. You let the people on-screen live out the most private moments of their lives: their heartbreaks, their joys… So your heartbreak and your joy can be relived. Life doesn’t teach us anything in the midst of living. We have to watch life, to learn. And even though movies are often an exaggerated, sentimental version of life; if you watch them in the dark, in silence, that space is rich. In Modern Times, the audience are watching Chaplin and not watching Chaplin. The sublime part of the experience is in their faces. Life is in their eyes; the part that thinks: “I am like Charlie Chaplin” and the part thinks: “I will remember the feeling of watching this film… this place… forever” – a swooning consciousness.
The best shot in when the lens of the projector flings out light, and we cut to the pupil of a young woman’s eye, at once shrinking from the light, and sharpening its focus. I was reminded, as I watched this, of a few lines from a poem: Words can never contain / as music does / the unsayable grace / that leaps like light / from mind to mind. This shot feels like an epiphany to me. What it is the young woman thinks of, doesn’t matter. Watching movies gives you room to grasp unknowable truths… and to let go of them. You aren’t really dead. The meaning of life isn’t really revealed to you. But you can feel peace, if you’re agile. Like savouring a kiss, the best part is ephemeral. After that, hazy memory must suffice.
French cinemas used to announce a new Chaplin movie with a sign that read: Il est ici. He is here. That was how famous Charlie Chaplin was; how many people thought they knew him. Only recently, the internet was abuzz with the story of a time-traveller apparently spotted attending the 1928 premiere of Chaplin’s movie The Circus. We’re not the audience of the past, but we’re part of that audience. Modern Times was released in 1936, yet it persists… in ways, and forms Charlie Chaplin could not have dreamed of. Modernity is fickle. A movie only feels “modern” as long as its stars haven’t begun to fade. Whole worlds can disappear, off-screen. The solace for the audience is that the movie will endure.
Ben Craig’s “Modern Times” was collaborated on by Richard Mountney, Simon Mountney, Tom Mountney, and Robin Mair.