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On the Road Again

I’m going to do my level best to prevent this from sounding like a classic-rock anthem, I promise you that. That being said, I’ve got a hankering for the highway.

It’s not a “long, lonesome highway, east of Omaha”; it is not the highway on which “I’d swear we were doing 80, when we saw those motel lights”; it is not the highway on which folks head out once commanded to “getcher motor running”; it is most emphatically not the “highway to hell.” And, no, I don’t want to “head out to the highway, [because] I’ve got nothin’ to lose at all.”

It’s not an invitation to speed, recklessness or lawlessness, per se. It’s not a libertine’s highway. It’s not that kind of highway at all.

Then again, it’s nothing quite so grandly optimistic as Woody Guthrie’s ribbon beneath a golden skyway. I don’t think the road was made for you and me, necessarily, or either one of us, for that matter. It’s no communal passage to greater, or warm-and-fuzzy, utopian glory. But there it is, that highway, stretching through a bland, gray landscape over the low hills at the horizon, leading most likely to nothing better than more trouble of the sort I’ve experienced on this side of that rise. Nonetheless, it looks perfect and promising to me.

It’s the highway of the closing scene of Charlie Chaplin’s brilliant, hilarious 1936 movie Modern Times, and it’s one of the most heartening cinematic images I’ve ever seen. Hand in hand with Paulette Goddard as “the Gamin,” the Little Tramp—my new hero—waddles off toward that vague promise, bindle tied to his cane, to weather—well, whatever. (This film is not coincidentally the last in which Chaplin’s Little Tramp character would appear, so this “off into the black-and-white sunset” scene also serves as a sort of knowing meta-farewell.)

Such an ending has become stock symbology for closure. We’re all familiar with it: It’s the filmic version of “Le Fin”; in Westerns, where its use is almost ubiquitous, it’s “and they all lived dustily ever after.” But this one is different: In Modern Times, our hero and heroine have resolved little, save that they will travel together. Their dreams of suburban security have been, at least temporarily, dispelled; the couple seem so out of step with the highly mechanized society around them, the viewer must believe those dreams fanciful to the point of being childishly deluded (the onscreen representation of that domestic bliss is so fantastic as to seem more the product of a fevered ad-man’s dream—delectable fruits willingly winding their vines so as always to be within arm’s reach—than an obtainable goal). The Tramp and the Gamin are the refuse of the system; each of them is unsuited by some quirk of temperament, by some spark of individuality, to conformity. Though they strive together for a place within the system—on its assembly lines at the service of its corporate interests, or in its saloons as clowns for the entertainment of its consuming classes—the very fact of their togetherness doubles the possibility of failure. They are doubly individual, doubly anarchic, doubly unwanted by any but one another. In the implicit judgment of the portrayed culture, their union weds weakness to weirdness. They are, horror of horrors, unuseful.

It is a given, therefore, that ultimately they will flee the metallic hub of society and hie to the outlands, the rougher, “uncivilized” precincts. So, in its dystopian aspect, the movie more closely resembles Blade Runner or Brazil than any Randolph Scott vehicle. But where those movies present the escape as an acknowledgment of desperation or defeat, Modern Times is hopeful and accepting.

In Blade Runner, the robot-hunter Decker flees the city with his Replicant girlfriend to the taunting voice-over of a coworker, another state-sanctioned predator, “It’s too bad she won’t live, but, then again, who does?” If that’s positive, it is so in only an arch and nihilistic way. In Brazil, the vision is bleaker still: The liberation effected by Sam, into a lush valley beyond the walls of his Orwellian city, proves to be imaginary. His escape is from a hostile and inhumane reality into a kind and accommodating insanity—as if happiness itself is an impossibility.

As represented by directors Ridley Scott in 1982 and Terry Gilliam in 1985, conventional notions of post-war happiness—the plastic happiness of a consumer society—were traps within a trap: To play along and accept the shallow, material compensations was to abandon one’s soul; on the other hand, to object, to abstain, to call attention to oneself was a criminal act that could not be tolerated by the Machine.

No left turn, no right turn. Do not pass go, do not collect $200. Hold your place and, for God’s sake, hold your tongue. These were the messages, it seemed. Motion would make you a martyr, at best. If, that is, your passing weren’t completely obscured under piles of 27156789/074328-Ks in the Department of Information Adjustment’s sub-basement.

At the end of the Depression-era Modern Times, however, the Tramp and Gamin are neither beaten nor despairing. Rather, they present a visual testimony of their ability to suffer and endure: she in her Sunday best, the outfit the one purchase remaining from better days, he in his tattered, dusty cutaway and his hobo’s boots—they are presented almost as parentheses around their experiences within the film, from high to low, flush to flat.

The highway is before them, but they don’t set out until the Tramp convinces the Gamin to smile, which comes easily to her. Then, they’re shuffling off, two amiable anarchists who give the slip to every trap, knowing the road itself is the destination—not the bank of lights beckoning, post-show, from the lobby bar of the Omaha Marriott.

—John Rodat


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