Decades-old "Modern Times" no less relevant today
Special to The Seattle Times
My favorite movie-going experience in recent years was during the first dark days of the Iraq war when I saw several Charlie Chaplin shorts and a Buster Keaton feature at the Grand Illusion in the U District. The theater lived up to its name that night. With its cramped quarters, low Hershey-bar ceiling, red velvet curtains and plush squeaky chairs, I felt transported, and gratefully succumbed to the giddy joy of those nearly century-old flicks. I left the theater buzzed and rejuvenated.
Well, Chaplin is back, and the Grand Illusion has got him again. This time it's a digitally restored "Modern Times," Chaplin's 1936 comedic take on the horrors of assembly-line modernization and Depression-era unemployment.
The film is still relevant. Anyone who's ever worked a repetitive, soul-destroying job can relate to Chaplin's "factory worker," whose body, even during his lunch break, spasmodically imitates the bolt-tightening gesture he performs on the assembly line.
Better, the comedy is still relevant. Chaplin plays the hapless victim of circumstance who repeatedly winds up in jail. The assembly line drives him cuckoo. He unknowingly leads a flag-waving communist protest. He takes the blame for the thievery of a pretty, barefoot "gamin" (Paulette Goddard), whom he later romances.
Chaplin was in his mid-40s when he made "Modern Times," but there's still grace and chaos in his physical comedy. One of my favorite scenes is when he gets a job in a department store and roller-skates blindfolded inches away from a fourth-floor ledge. Another is a nonsense song-and-dance Chaplin performs near the end of the film. (The film is half-talkie, half-silent.) It was the first time the movie-going world heard his voice.
Sure, the second half has little to do with the theme of modern times, but good physical comedy will always be funny, and Chaplin was a master.
If, during the next week, you need transporting away from our modern times, the Grand Illusion is your theater.
Erik Lundegaard: firstname.lastname@example.org
Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company