Over the summer, when fresh 35mm prints of some of Charlie Chaplin’s best films started touring the country and rumors that perhaps Criterion might get into the Tramp business, I excitedly shared the news with a friend, knowing that he was both a fan and someone who taught the films. I expected mutual enthusiasm, but when I broke the news he shrugged, pointed at his gleaming Image box set and said it couldn’t get much better. Doubts clouded my expectations, but I should have known better. Today we have a Criterion Collection version of Modern Times, and it is wonderful.
Underappreciated at the time of its release, nearly a decade after the advent of sound films, Modern Times is the farewell to the Tramp, and Chaplin’s farewell to sound. Yet it plays with the notion of sound, using the Tramp’s wordlessness, mastery of pantomime, and the world’s own painful transition into modern life as a perfect foil for this last gasp of silence. “Never mind the words,” the Gamin yells out at Chaplin in the final song sequence, giving the Tramp one last opportunity to show that a story could be told, and brilliantly, without speech.
As much as the film is about these transitions, it is of course about the Tramp as an individual lost within them. Always stuck inside the machinations of society and forever breaking its rules, nowhere is this struggle more apparent and poignant than in Modern Times. And so we see Chaplin as factory worker, as accidental striker, and as prisoner. We see him dream of a better life and wind up in a shack. We see his whimsy played out on a pair of roller skates and his frustrations drag him into the giant spinning wheels of the factory. He is a cog in the wheels, sometimes playing along, sometimes getting caught in the gears.
Of course there are the set pieces, the wonderful displays of Chaplin’s ability to dance for us in front of and from behind the camera. My personal favorite is the roller skating scene, when the Tramp’s new job as a night watchman gives him the opportunity to roam the department store at night. This sweet, all too brief ballet takes place right in the middle of a cross section of a dream. Surrounded by the comforts that everyone wants and lacks, Charlie just wants to take this moment of whimsy to float.
Included in the dvd are a great many extras. Commentaries and essays, documentaries and behind the scenes images all add to the experience. We can learn how Chaplin’s nearly two year long journey around the world after the release of Limelight affected his life and his art, infusing politics into his films such as had never been seen. We can catch of glimpse of the secretive director through Jeffrey Vance’s excellent deconstruction of what has been left to us, the still photographs of the production. And we can learn the secrets. Though is was a little sad to see how Chaplin hover over that scary second floor balcony in the department store, it was still great to see.
The greatest films can be seen, interpreted, put back on the shelf, seen again, and reinterpreted once more. Modern Times is such a film; it remains relevant, showing us all these years later that the factory still carries us along as part of a whole, an experience that can be maddening. It exudes an energy that can be provided only by a master, each and every set piece a chance for Chaplin’s skills to move us with his own playful movement.