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Gordon S. Miller Written by Gordon S. Miller
Dec. 5, 2010 | 11:00 PM
DVD of the Week

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MODERN TIMES (1936) - The Criterion Collection

Written by Musgo del Jefe

With the latest release from The Criterion Collection, your intrepid reviewer is even more convinced that the folks at Criterion are one of about four companies that are choosing movies just for me.  Recent releases like The Last Picture Show, The King Of Marvin Gardens and The Night Of The Hunter have proven to me that there are employees of this company spying on my movie preferences as they choose their upcoming releases.  As a fan of film, I have few loyalties to studios anymore (yes, even Disney), but it’s easy to develop that trust in companies that release old and new films with such care and love that we as viewers put into the films we love.  The release that crossed my desk the last couple weeks is illustrates just that sort of devotion.

The film is about an everyday worker in a factory in Township, America.  The way the company treats him like a piece of the machinery leads to a mental collapse.  With limited health care options, he is soon released from the hospital and finds himself unemployed.  Economic conditions being what they are, there are many demonstrations.  Our hero is wrongly convicted and thrown in jail.  There he encounters all kinds of riff-raff and accidentally becomes involved in an incident with cocaine.  High on the cocaine, he accidentally breaks up an escape attempt by other convicts.  This good deed leads to an early release.

On the outside, conditions and the economy have not improved.  Our hero has such a problem getting a job that he even tries to get arrested again since the conditions in jail are better than those outside of it.  In the depths of his desperation, he meets an innocent, beautiful young girl also down on her luck.  She’s stealing food just to satisfy her hunger.  Our hero, also hungry, is able to get arrested by eating at a cafeteria and refusing to pay.  He meets up with the young lady as they are both being taken to jail together.  The vehicle crashes and the two are able to escape (reluctantly for our hero who wishes to go to jail).  They spend their time together dreaming of a life without hunger.  They cannot escape reality and after sneaking his girl into a department store after closing and giving food to hungry burglars, he is once again arrested.

Once again, out of jail after a few days, he meets up with our heroine.  She has found them a house - without having to pay money down they are able to occupy a small home on the outskirts of town that needs quite a bit of work.  They are beginning to start a life for themselves.  And he is excited to find the factory hiring again.  After only working a short time, he finds himself part of a worker’s strike.  Once again through accidental means, he is arrested.  A couple weeks later, he is released and finds that our heroine has found a job as a dancer and singer at a cafe.  He is brought on as a waiter and singer at the same place.  Things are looking up as he is able to use his talents to become a great waiter.  And even his singing, while unconventional, is loved by all.  But life will never be easy for these two.  The police find her and while trying to arrest her for previous crimes, the two escape.  We end with the two of them walking away from the town as he sun rises - still giving us hope.

Sound like a brilliant new indie film?  Maybe you missed it at your local independent cinema?  What a great morality tale for our tough economic times - this films sounds like it cuts through the politics and tells the stories of real people and how they are affected by the corporate greed.  This is the kind of film that just doesn’t get made enough these days . . .

And it didn’t.  This movie may be called Modern Times but this Charlie Chaplin movie was released in 1936.  The two-DVD release from The Criterion Collection is a timeless classic that may have found the perfect time for a rerelease.  The story that plays out over 87 minutes in B&W feels so familiar.  The characters are relatable still even almost 75 years later.

It’s hard for me to find a way to wrap up a film like this in a nice neat bow for the reader.  For one, it’s such a masterpiece that it’s been discussed and written about since before my grandparents were born.  Every aspect of the film has been broken down and reassembled and put under a microscope.  The commentary by Chaplin biographer David Robinson and the essay in the booklet by Saul Austerlitz both just hint at tomes of information these gentlemen have on the subject.  For two, the film is from an era that modern viewers can’t relate to.  Our film experiences are not those of the people who sat in the cinema watching this film in the Thirties.  There’s a great tiny documentary on the second disc called “For the First Time” made in Cuba about people seeing the movie for the first time.  It’s that experience that is hard to catch for those of us who have had movies as part of our daily lives for decades - not as a mere escapist fare in a theater.

Modern Times is an ironic title because it’s a movie that’s decidedly out of time.  When it was made in 1936, sound films were approaching their 10th birthday.  When Chaplin made City Lights in 1931, they called him crazy for making a silent film.  By 1936, it was ridiculous to hang on to the old methods.  This wasn’t even equivalent to the change to color films a couple decades after - this transition was swift and there were a whole generation of people who hadn’t ever been to a silent film.  That’s why it’s amazing that this is in the argument for being one of the best silent films of all-time.  For those who haven’t seen many films from the era - the silent film did not rely on title cards to act as subtitles for the film.  This movie’s subtle use of few cards is amazing.  And yet the viewer never feels lost in the story.  The cards fill in information or often have the question or answer - but rarely are both needed.  Chaplin knew the medium and didn’t see that sound would improve it.  This has been called “The Last Silent Film” but that might be because it represents the zenith of the style.

The character of The Tramp had been around since 1914.  Chaplin had not strayed from this character through the decades.  The master of pantomime - Chaplin perfected the character in one reel shorts - often 7-20 minutes in length.  The innocent character is more than just a boy in man’s clothing.  He sees through life to the most basic of emotions.  He is transformed and motivated by love.  Not romantic love, per se, but the conceptual love.  The second disc includes on of these shorts, “The Rink” (1916) that illustrates some of his physical comedy prowess - it’s a precursor for his roller skating in the department store here.  The combination of the character and physical style of comedy lent itself well to these shorts.  Chaplin was reluctant to embrace the feature-length film too.  But by the time he did City Lights in 1931, he found a way to connect a series of shorts the only increased the depth of his character.

Modern Times feels like a bunch of 7-10 minute shorts cut together at times.  The natural flow of the movie lends itself to set pieces, physical comedy, plot development, and then on to the next scene.  There’s a rhythm to this pattern that is rewarding and not repetitive.  Except in the case of the second scene in the factory.  His return to the factory later in the film seems a slight rehash of the famous opening scene and not nearly as inventive.  It doesn’t move the plot much except to take us away from the “gamine” (Paulette Goddard) for a minute. 

The film is often portrayed as a film that mocks our relationship to technology.  The opening scenes where Chaplin is caught in the machines of the assembly line are the most often replayed.  But the message is so much larger.  The film really revolves around the hope of the two innocent souls.  The Tramp and the Gamine are both essentially hopeful, innocent characters.  They both envision better lives for themselves.  But they are constantly faced with the reality of life - the hunger and lack of money.  As the scenes revolve around food - hunger is the greatest enemy of hope.  Once fed and clothed, their futures are bright.  They lead an idyllic life in their run-down shack (not as a “married” couple - Chaplin sleeps in the dog house) - life only conspires against them outside of their dwelling.  The last scene gives us eternal hope that the sun will still rise for all of us.

As the couple walks off screen - so did The Tramp.  It would be another four years until he made his first talking picture, The Great Dictator.  We hear The Tramp in the final reel - singing in a combination of gibberish and foreign phrases - the equivalent of white noise.  But the message was loud and clear - it’s a film that doesn’t have to have the character tell you about it at the end.  That was not the case with The Great Dictator which ends with such a speech.

The latest release also contains two new visual essays on th film, trailers, a short “All At Sea” by Alistair Cooke (home movies featuring Chaplin) and “Chaplin Today: Modern Times” - a program by French filmmakers.  And even more.  The DVD is a brilliant tribute to this fine film.  I hope to see Criterion tackle the other big moments of Chaplin’s career.  Chaplin was a rebel - dedicated to this art of storytelling and entertainment - not to the latest technological advancement.  This film is just as important for our own modern times.

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