Modern Robot Stirs the Ghost of Chaplin

Apr 3rd, 2012 | By | Category: Entertainment


Modern Times Movie Poster“Cured of a nervous breakdown, he now finds himself on the street and without a job,” menaces the blocky intertitle from eighty years ago as the synthesizer moodily sings below the screen.

Following the sweep of the Oscars by the silent film “The Artist,” a bubbling of independent groups have offered reimagined presentations of silent films. Last month UNCG worked with the local arts community to create a spectacular event involving “The Passion of Joan of Arc” with intense live musical accompaniment.

Modern Robot is more modern than robotic, and though this strange band has been performing against the backdrop of old and unusual films for three years, clearly their choice to play with Charlie Chaplain’s iconic hit “Modern Times” was not random. Chaplain was an international star whose fame, wit and talent are difficult to compare with current actors; perhaps an attractive and charming Woody Allen is the best match.

The two-person band, comprised of synthesizist Ben Singer and drummer Kyle Poehling have created their own niche of mixing their distinct instruments with the visual cues of obscure videos hidden in the public domain. Last Saturday Modern Robot played to a packed Green Bean in downtown Greensboro, creating an odd effect, one that is both pleasing but may leave something lacking if you come with the wrong expectations.

“Modern Times” for those who missed it in film appreciation class, is the darkly humorous tale of an orphaned girl who meets a down-on-his-luck factory worker and the two platonically fall in love, trying to carve out a space for the human heart against the backdrop of the unrelenting machine age. Though most entry-level jobs now involve serving food to those with money, instead of manufacturing things of value, most of the 1936 comedy seems ripped from the headlines of today.

Agitators occupy the streets, demanding justice and equality while the police who make little more than an average worker round them up to be carried into prison. “Nose-powder” is illegal and still smuggled into prison. Hungry teens are still denied bread. A person without shoes cannot expect to land much of a job and becoming a singing waiter is not the worst gig you can find.

This is a touching story, but Modern Robot only played loosely with the actual content of the film. Synchronizing with the mechanized rhythm of the factory is accomplished easily enough. After not too long into the film, however, the band seemed to somewhat detach from the film itself, riffing against each other and excluding Mr. Chaplain. Each second of the experience was filled with notes, both from the synth and from the drums. Neither instrument quieted for more than one beat and so neither got a solo of any duration.

The constantness of the music did help one fall into a sort of trance, with the otherworldly black and white images mixing to the steady improvised beat. Yet there was no gentleness given to the film, and even Chaplain’s famous first speaking role when he sings a wonderful ballad in an off-Italian nonsense language was played over.

This is where the audience members have to decide whether they came to be largely viewers or whether they came to hear the music and are using the film for little more than the distraction of a lava lamp. The even but heavy music of Modern Robot “lost some of the whimsy of the movie for me,” stated Greensboro citizen and vocal fan of lemurs, Laura Frankie Press.

Like bleach flowing down stairs, my predictions seem often to both come true and to leave quite a stain behind. The pairing of silent film and live music responds to something in the zeitgeist of our moment, with something borrowed and something new. There will be more of this hybrid art event; the only question is how good it can get.

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